Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Build Relationships Between Others, Not Just Yourself and Others

People you don't know/aren't invested in are way easier to screw over than acquaintances. Friends are even harder to screw over than acquaintances.

There are people who can and will do both, but most people aren't sociopaths so they tend to care about what people--especially people with whom they've developed a relationship--think.

As a manager, you build a lot of relationships and you nurture them each and every day. You say hello to people and smile at them; you compliment someone on their new blouse or excellent email. You talk to your team about their specific concerns and in helping to problem solve, you also help them learn to problem solve. All these things build your relationships with people (and, of course, a galaxy of other emotional transactions and activities); as a manager, you have to be good at this soft skills stuff. Its a huge part of your job whether you're a PhD in Mathematics running a project or the head of a garbage collecting company. You need to know the stuff you're working with, yes, but you need to know the people and what motivates and demotivates them more.

People will work harder for you--as I've noted in earlier posts--if they like you. If they perceive that you are fair and will give what you get, they will give what they have. It's trust, but it's also good manners; we all have to be in the same place every day, five times a week, for eight hours a day. It's more efficient to get along, be friendly, and enjoy each other's company than it is to fight, and as a manager you cultivate that just as you would cultivate status reports or code check-ins.

A lot of managers get stuck, however, when its no longer just about building a relationship with them. I can shake someone's hand, I can smile at someone, I can bribe with chocolate or compliment attire or grooming. I know that I can do these things and get good results. However, if you can work with your team to build similar positive relationships between each other, you get a more efficient, effective, and fun to work environment.

But how do you get a collection of people--sometimes people you've inherited and didn't select yourself--to have positive interactions? In earlier posts, I recommended studying group norms and mnodifying them towards the social interactions you want. That's one way. Another is to personally chat with those folks, build that relationship with them yourself, and then use it to suggest they do the same with others.

For example, I am working at a client company as a consultant. I meet with folks for 1:1's once a week. I ask them what they're up to, if they're having issues, etc. We have a weekly meeting to discuss such items amongst ourselves, as well. Then I dispense suggestions on how to be friendly to the folks that could help them, or, as a team, we reinforce the behaviors that any one individual is looking for so that its easier to go along with the crowd and emulate that behavior than stick out and not do so.

So, for example, one person may talk about issues he's having and as the manager, I think it might be because the person with whom he's working is intimidated by him. I then suggest things he can do that are not invasive or aggressive to reduce that intimidation, to make him seem more human and approachable, and to encourage a stronger bond and friendship where before there was an issue.

Alternately, I can learn that my consulting team isn't getting all the information they need and the information is shared between two teams. As a group we can talk about the best ways to solicit what is needed, and how to be approachable and effective in getting that information, while working as a team; for example, Group A of the team may raise questions that require their team to go to Group B of the team, who just happen to have the answers that Group A and Group B have agreed upon in advance.

It's not just about building good relationships with you as the manager, or just about your team building good relationships with each other (although this post is a lot about that); it's about using good relationship building skills (ie: soft skills) to make the overall job easier between teams and on your own team, so people actually enjoy coming into work, and feel like they can trust and rely upon their co-workers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reviews Suck No Matter Which Side the Desk Your On. Get Used To It

Today's topic is pretty self-explanatory. I'm not going to go in-depth on how to get/give a review, but I am going to talk about what's going on during a review.

First, its important to walk into a review with a poker face in place, whether you're reviewing or being reviewed. As noted in the title, reviews suck.

Oh, yeah, there are the "glowing" reviews that lead up to someone getting a bonus, but those are a rare. Most companies require an area where the person being reviewed needs improvement. Its not a bad idea--walking out feeling like you don't need to change anything might make some people less inclined to try harder. No one is, by definition, perfect, so there should always be room for improvement.

I rather hate that about reviews. It's good to help employees be better employees, but every once in a while you run into someone and the only feedback you really want to give them is to keep doing what they're doing. But you still have to figure out where they're weak, point it out to them, and then demand some improvement on someone who is pretty much already a rockstar. Maybe it's because I'm not a fully mature manager that I hate that part, but, well, reviews suck.

That said, going into a review, you're pretty sure there's going to be a period where you're told you're not up to snuff, no matter how many awesome things you did. If you're like me, no amount of "atta boys!" will make up for one "And you probably could have done this better." Yes, I have hangups. Not everyone does. However, if you are dreading the "needs improvement" portion of the program (as the receiver) I recommend the following:

1) Prep a happy place. Maybe it's petting a cat, cuddling with a loved one, standing on the beach in Maui. Have the happy place at hand, and try to think about that while absorbing the stuff you need improvement on. Generally, you want to behave professionally when you're in the office, doubly so when you're receiving a review. Happy places help you even out your face to avoid "angry face," "sad face" and "fear face" all of which can be construed as something the manager may feel he/she needs to act on. Also, if you're prone to outbursts when strong emotions come on you, the happy place can help prevent them.

2) Bring paper and pencil. Yeah, the manager will tell you that you'll get the whole write up later, but the best way to make sure you internalize something is to write it down in your own words. It also--despite what the manager may say--makes you look like your paying attention and they kind of like that when people are talking to them.

3) When asked about their feedback, thank them. If you are feeling strong emotions, try not to respond right then; let them know you need to think about it and will respond later. When you're feeling strong emotions is typically the least likely time you should open your mouth in front of your manager. Always thank them for the feedback, though, and always follow up--if you said you would--with feedback, later. Maybe feedback your friend or co-worker has reviewed to make sure you don't get fired, and sent in written form.

When you're going into a review, regardless of how "good" the review is, when you're giving the review, I recommend the following:

1) Prep your happy place. People receiving reviews will often argue about whether or not they deserve the praise and they will certainly have something to say--unless they've been reading my blog--about the "needs improvement" portion of the program. You need to maintain a benign, pleasant and professional manner, and a happy place allows for that. Visit it frequently during the review.

2) Do not set things up adversarially. An employee on one side of the desk and the reviewer on the other, with the computer monitor partway between is way too much like to people in separate bunkers firing shots at each other. Move your chair to their side of the desk. Turn the monitor around so they can see the review and you can point at it. Literally and physically, be on their side. Some bosses think this means that they are giving up their power in the relationship by making things seem equal. To that, I say, suck it up; a desk doesn't make you a manager anymore than a bicycle makes a fish a feminist.

3) Take notes. Not on the computer--that seems very formal, and is a bit scary for folks in a review who might think you're just adding to the review itself. Also, if you're taking my advice and they can see the monitor, it's hard to make notes to yourself. Take a pad and a writing implement, and nod while they talk and freaking take notes; some may end up in the review, but some might be notes to yourself suggesting that you do a round robin approach in the next meeting so everyone can speak, which may help this particular individual improve on teamwork by feeling comfortable enough to add something to the team.

4) Repeat back what you hear. Most employees want to be heard. They'd love to receive gold bricks for their bonus and nine months of vacation, but hearing you repeat back what they've told you in your own words is pretty good, too. You don't have to agree with them, but you do have to show you heard and understood them. It takes down a barrier to them understanding YOU.

Note: people receiving reviews might want to do this, too, but given the emotional state they may be in, they should try to do this cautiously so it doesn't interfere with the "don't respond emotionally" concept above.

Basically, as someone being reviewed, you are effectively vulnerable to the reviewer. If you aren't, you are probably an idiot or already miserable at work enough to look elsewhere--the purpose of the review is to improve your performance so you can make more money, get a better job and/or to be happier in the job now. Reviewers rarely note the vulnerability of the review--after all, they may have five more of these to do--but a good reviewer will grasp that vulnerable people are in a state to learn from you, and not to be bullied or trampled over.

In the end, the emotional states involved with reviewing SUCK. It's a dance of "Your baby is ugly but here's how he can look better" and "Thank you for telling me my baby is ugly" where the baby in question is the person sitting in the room with you. While they suck, they serve an important purpose. Done properly, the baby gets prettier and gets a nice raise later on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Assessing Resource Needs: Long Term Planning and Status Reporting

Guess what? You boss needs to build an X in 9 months. You have to figure out how many people are needed to build X, even though no requirements document is even remotely near completion.

How do you estimate number of humans needed, what they can do, and some very basic time lines with nothing to go on?

Are you sitting down? The answer: you're going to guess.

Whenever someone asks for estimates, if they're a good person, typically they tell you that you will not be held to those estimates, and its for planning purposes only, etc. This is not the case here. Your boss is looking to find out how to resource your team to accomplish a specific goal within a specific time frame with no more (and probably less) knowledge than you have about who and how to do it.

Some people, at this point, squirm. "I can't give an accurate assessment until I know what I'm building." This is logical, truthful, and beside the point. Unless this is an amazingly rare event at your company, this has been how they've done business for a long time (and how a lot of companies, even companies that use Agile or eXtreme Programming or other fast-track methodologies) have to do things. All projects are frameworks. A company or division or group builds a framework based on the initial idea (a scope document if you're very lucky) and the number of humans it would take to make that idea work, based on conversations between the program manager, product manager, stakeholders, and human manager (whoever is in charge of the developers, testers, dry-wall installers, nurses, cantina dancers, etc.).

These initial estimates fill out the appropriate teams and the amount of work those teams are estimated to be able to accomplish fill in the initial milestones.

To make this work, therefore, you have to do a few things:

1) Use your ability to investigate and talk to people to find out as much as possible about the project; if you have some team members, bring them in on their expectations, questions, and estimates.
2) Use your own experience on such projects to project pitfalls and problems as well as solutions and workarounds and how much time that all takes.
3) Build a basic idea of the stages of the project. Step A: Build X, Step B: Build Y, Step C, in parallel with step B: Build Z, Step D: Profit. Figure out how long each step should take to hit the specified timeline. Run this past a member of your team, if you can, just to check your work.
4) Assume the best case scenario. One person on each step exceeding milestones and possibly singing "Whistle While You work." Or maybe additional people for each step to finish early. NEVER SHOW THE BEST CASE SCENARIO TO ANYONE. Period. Pretend it doesn't exist if people ask.
5) Assume a worst case scenario. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong - you get Q when you finish with Step A, for example. You have to replace 1-2 key information experts during the course of the project. Perhaps a natural disaster occurs.
6) Create an "average" scenario. In this scenario, you assume things go wrong, but go wrong as normally they've gone wrong on any previous project. No scenarios involve the building on fire, but could account for a cooling fan breaking on a server.
7) Do some MATH. I hate math, so I hate to advise this, but you need to do it. On average, I tend to triple the time of the best case scenario to get the time for the worst case, then average that against the time and resources for the "average" scenario. The important part is you have about 20% more resources and time picked out for the "average" scenario when you go back to talk to your boss.
8) Do a little more math; I have rarely walked into my boss's office and said, "I need 4 of these guys and 3 of these guys and 2 of these guys" and gotten exactly what I asked for. Now, your mileage may vary boss to boss (or his boss to the boss above him), but I like to ask for about 35% more than I've estimated, so I can be happy with getting 20% more than I think it will take.
9) Prepare to put your estimates in a spreadsheet and make it look official. I recommend diagrams and charts, as well.
10) Talk to your boss about your estimate; use plenty of qualifiers like "This is off the top of my head based on the fact the project hasn't been fully scoped."
11) Before agreeing to any manpower/time decisions, get agreement on the most important part of the Iron Triangle - if meeting the deadline is most important, get agreement to cut scope as well as increase resources (increasing resources alone has rarely ever gotten a project out on deadline because of the costs of bringing resources up to speed); if the importance is the features, then get permission to extend the deadline (as well as add more people). Once you get a verbal agreement, send an email to your boss with the verbal agreement in it, and then SAVE THAT EMAIL.
12) Give your boss your estimates. Send a copy through email, as well, and store with the agreement in #11.

As the project ramps up, a weekly status report will be your savior (and not just another annoying task). No matter the project management method in use, your boss (and maybe his or her boss) will want to know what happened during the week. Further, these reports are a list of what you knew, when, and what you did about those things; so no furious boss in six weeks wondering why Step B isn't complete when he's be4en getting a weekly report about how you're blocked by a decision from him before Step B can be completed.

Weekly status should include:

1) A Red, Yellow, or Green designation on the project progress, where red is "things are going badly and we're going to be late/miss features/blow up the moon", where yellow is "things are not going the way we need and we're in danger of being in the red zone," and green is "everything is hunky dory."
2) Every member of your team an a one sentence (short) of what they did that week. Include people who went on vacations, holiday time, etc.
3) Any major wins
4) Any set backs + solutions for resolving them; include any upcoming vacations, for example, that might reduce the resources of the team for a period of time.
5) Any blocking issues (even issues that block you that your boss cannot help with must go in the report so you have a written log of why you didn't do something at a specific time...for example, you could not because you were waiting on something from facilities).

The report should be half a page or less, and should be done in bullet points with explanations about the report within the report. While you are sending it to your boss, and your boss knows all about your project (you may even talk to you daily about it) your boss may forward your report. It therefore needs to do it's job--tell your boss where your project is and its status--but it may also serve double duty as information to executives, who appreciate their data in small, consumable chunks that is visibly color-coded.

With a team in place, requirements in better shape, UPDATE YOUR ESTIMATES. As soon as you know of new information, pass it along. Talk to your boss. Uphold your agreement about the important sides of the Iron Triangle.

Then wade in there and do the project.

There is no perfect solution to being asked for an answer when you don't have all the facts. The above is a guideline of techniques to help you through it. At the end of the day, trust your team, and your gut, and work from there. Both team and gut instincts will either be right, or get better as the project progresses.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Don't Sue Me Stuff: Miscellaneous

When you become a manager, it isn't terribly often that someone sits down and carefully explains all the liability and responsibility you've accepted in so doing. A lot of the time they assume you just know (especially if you've managed people before).

This series of articles isn't about everything that could possibly happen, and it's not legal advice in ANY way. It's just sort of a heads up about what you may have gotten yourself into.

Today's Topic: Miscellaneous

Someone at the company has made a team member very unhappy--like, crying in the bathroom unhappy or charging out of the building and leaving for the rest of the day unhappy. How do you handle that? Someone in your is office is taking a bite out of other people's lunch food...what do you do about that?

I know, right? That's stuff you probably haven't had to think about in terms of being a manager. I know I always assumed that when there was an issue between two employees there was a calm and rational way of handling/managing it. Of course, if they could be rational and calm, there probably wouldn't have been an issue in the first place. Then there's someone eating a bite of food and then putting that food back! Gross. But you do have to deal with it. Finally, workplace tradgedy--someone dies, gets committed, has a stroke on premises or, worse, comes to work with a weapon. You have to do something--doing nothing makes you look bad and potentially could increase your liability if there were physical and safety repercussions because of the incident. But you don't want to do something that makes you seem culpable or as if you are accepting responsibility; meantime, you are human, and you need to react like a human, for yourself and for your team.

My miscellaneous examples don't cover every situation. I wish that I could, but that would be a really, really, really long book. Human beings do weird stuff, and sometimes bad stuff. As the manager you don't need to open every dark closet in your brain anticipating, but you need a basic plan to work from to deal with any miscellaneous issues to avoid lawsuits and still serve your team.

So, my basic toolkit:

1) Gather information from multiple sources, not just the people immediately involved and not just what you saw with your own eyes. Your perception can and will be skewed with the application of emotion. While emotion does play into these, you need to be as logical and sensitive as you can be. The easiest way to do that is to get as many perspectives as you can.

2) Let people know you are working on the issue in question--that you'll take care of the two fighting employees, or the food biter, or that you will schedule/arrange something for the workplace tradgedy. It's okay if you don't know what you're going to do, just let them know you're working on it and a time they can check back with you when you think you'll have more information. This helps people to feel better and more confident because SOMEONE is working it. This also helps back down the other members of your team who may want to help, but may not have the authority or information resources you have to do the best possible job (and could make things worse).

3) Construct what happened. I like to do bullet points, but some people like to draw pictures. Whatever makes you happy and productive, but get a timeline of events around the issue in question, using the information from multiple sources. You can start to help with a problem if you cannot properly define the problem.

4) Think of potential solutions BEFORE engaging in any of them. Plug them into your "what happened" model. Bounce them off your boss or mentor. Talk to HR. Seriously. This is the "limiting liability" of your response.

5) Of the solutions, pick the best based on your review of them and implement.

6) Also, document. Document like you've never documented before. To HR. To the individuals involved. To the team that is affected by what's happening. Document and communicate, and if you have questions about what to document or to whom to communicate what, talk to HR and/or your immediate boss.

7) After you've talked about/implemented a solution/next set of steps, set up follow ups to see how the "solution" is going; if not well, you can adjust your strategy. If well, you can adjust your strategy, also, to make things go even better (if possible).

So let's apply my toolkit to the examples I site above:

Someone Made Someone Else Cry
Disclosure: this happened on my first Management job. The matter was not one over which you could normally be sued--he questioned her competence in general, not because she was a woman or Persian or of an alternate religion. He did it, most likely, because upper management was trying to replace me with her, and she had no quality assurance or management experience. She was just a friend of their family. I managed to prevent him from being fired, but wow. I've done fun things. This was not one of them.

1) Investigate. Where there any bystanders? What did they hear and see? Next, talk to the crier and assure them that everything is all right, you're getting to the bottom of things, and they just need to be honest - what did he/she hear? Finally, talk to the person or persons who instigated; keep an open mind. Some people can never guess what the affects of their words will have on others. Do not talk about what you've heard from others unless someone appears to be mis-remembering, misrepresenting or out and out lying. Typically when you do correct with facts you've gathered, do so without naming names. You don't want folks involved getting further agitated at each other or other people.

2) Communicate to all parties you are working on the issue; communicate also to your immediate supervisor and HR that you are working on the issue.

3) Construct what you think happened--draw on paper, use bullet points, whatever. Do this in private. Know that you can NEVER know exactly what happened; my grandmother used to say "There's what he said, she said, and then what really happened." If you're gathering data from the "said" folks, you're only going to be able to guess at what really happened. Regardless of what you think happened, know you CANNOT PROVE it (unless you have video tape, because even eye witness accounts become unreliable if this becomes litigious).

4) Review your options: talking to the participants about the specifics, talking to the entire group about what in general are not-allowed topics of conversation, talking to the initiator and setting up meetings to alter behavior as needed, talking to the crier who may have been triggered by additional stress outside of work and therefore you might need to provide additional stress relief and coping mechanisms (more than punishment). Meet with HR and your boss to review the options, but come with your preferred option to recommend.

5) Implement the solution. This involving humans, it's probably not going to be a one time thing; you may tell the group to stay off politics and religion in general, but you'll have to repeat the message over time. You may have to work with the initiator to understand the results of his or her actions, over time. You may need to help the crier in question get help from HR as needed to alleviate issues...over time. These things are never fast and easily over.

6) After you've had your convos and implemented your solutions, tell the whole tale to your boss and HR via email documentation. Send a summary to the parties with whom you talked about their follow up action items (and your own). Send a message--as needed--to the group as a whole letting them know things have been put to bed (though you don't need to explain the entire situation to them, as that might violate privacy for various individuals, and, additionally, cause them to try to get involved after the fact...many helpful people can often make things worse).

7) As part of your action items, build in follow-ups then schedule them on your calendar and ATTEND them. The natural desire when something like this comes up is to treat it like a dead skunk on your back porch...sweep it off into the garbage and hope you never see it again after garbage day. But people don't work like that; they require reminders and support to change behavior and become more comfortable. As the manager, its your job to help them to get the behavior you want and to be happy at work (well, as happy as anyone can be at work).

The Biter
Disclosure: at one place of my employment a person would take a bite of other people's food and put it back. Typically they only went after food that was already a leftover...food that someone had already been eating on. Gross AND creepy. I was not the manager, so my suggestions come from what I thought about every time I put my lunch sack in the shared fridge.

1) Investigate. This is going to be gross--talk to the folks who have had a bite of their food taken. Find out when their food was in the fridge. Talk to folks who use the break room to find out if they've seen anything suspicious. Does your company have security cameras? The probably don't have them in the break room,but you never know when a camera might have a view in on the area.

2) Communicate to all parties--as they did in the case at my work--that the issue is being investigated. They put up signs in the break room. In this way they didn't worry people who weren't using the fridges but the folks who did use them were both warned and aware that management was acting.

3) Construct what you think is happening. When is the most likely time the perpetrator is stealing a bite? Are there specific foods he goes after? As noted above, he preferred foods that had already been eaten on; this was useful information to communicate to the rest of the staff for purposes of the solution.

4) Review your options. If this is long running (like it was at my work) you might want to talk to HR and security about your options for catching this person. For example, a web cam in the kitchen pointed at the fridge, on or off, is a likely a good deterrent, but you don't want people who don't like being photographed to freak out or feel their rights are being violated. Communicating to the staff when the food is likely to be molested and under what conditions can cause them to package their leftovers more opaquely, or in ways that makes it harder to get into and out of easily for someone running in to "grab a bite." Another option--which I eventually ended up using myself--was to suggest bringing in insulated lunch bags and just keeping food at your desk instead of using the fridges. Not always an option, but it was for some folks.

One option I contemplated (again, not as a manager) was to bring in leftovers laced with Syrup of Ipecac. My friends--bless them--warned me off the potential legal issues with making strangers at your office sick. Yes, you'd know who it was, but it could be construed as assault. I was not curious enough to go to jail to find out who the biter was.

5) Implement the solution(s). As I wasn't the manager in this case, the only solutions implemented were to warn people, suggest opaque containers, and recommend people not bring in leftovers.

6) Write up everything you did for HR and your manager, and send out appropriate recommendations/updates to people using the fridges.

7) Follow-up; check back to see if the biter is still in operation, if "attacks" on helpless food have decreased, or if any of your original solutions (or new ones you may have thought up) could not be implemented.

In this particular case, the biter was never caught. Incidents of having your partially eaten food further eaten by a stranger went down, but never went completely away. As noted above, I just started keeping lunch at my desk in an insulated container.

So, there you go...a million other scenarios could play themselves out. You need to

A) Rember weird stuff happens and
B) Be prepared to roll with it
C) Come up with your own framework (or use mine) for handling these issues
D) Keep everyone informed and get counsel from appropriate sources (like HR and your boss) and
E) Resist the urge to do something based on emotion (such as firing an employee on the spot or poisoning food in the fridge).