I learn so much from failure it’s hard to ignore the good that comes from it.
This week I parted company with a client long before their goals were reached.
Sadly, I knew from the start they would be a challenge and made the mistake of ignoring the warning signs. Never again. Honest!
This entry is as much for coaches and consultants as it is for teams, staff, management and leadership.
There are several tell-tale indicators of success and/or failure. In our own ways and in their own contexts, experienced coaches and consultants know what these indicators are. Well-rounded, experienced, and seasoned practitioners within companies know them too. In fact, most people know them instinctively, somehow. I can therefore safely say that whether it’s through experience or instinct, we all know many of the same indicators. In fact, we can probably sum-up every indicator in one word: Attitude.
So, yes, Jeff Keller’s famous self-help book, "Attitude is Everything", applies as well. In organizations, "attitude" is frequently interchangeable or encompassed by company "culture". And yes, attitude is a derivative of culture. But sometimes culture is harder to pinpoint than attitudes. Attitude shows up in your interactions with the company from the very start of your prospecting dance.
Here are some attitudes you may encounter and whether or not they spell greater odds of success or failure:
- Hassling about price/cost/time but expecting the same scope and performance outcomes.
- Focusing on deadlines and schedules instead of real results.
- Not owning the work and expecting off-site outsiders to invent working approaches.
- Shallow goals that aren’t S.M.A.R.T.
- Mistaking a task for an outcome or goal.
- Ignoring, denying, and filtering information that indicates problems.
- Poor communication (which often starts with poor listening skills).
- No allocation of explicit time and/or resources to make improvements.
- Failing to recognize the importance of the right people in the right roles for the right reasons.
- Delivering materials for review with no lead-time for turn-around.
- Persisting in propagating bureaucratic policies despite the obvious lack of value-add.
- Executives who are mostly (if not exclusively) involved in decisions involving budgets but not in making changes.
- Repeatedly using external influences as excuses to not make important changes.
- Assuming a victimization attitude instead of owning up to their circumstances.
- Failure to learn and apply new ideas — even after being presented with the benefits of those ideas.
- Management by motivation 1.0 or 2.0
- Focus on results not the cost of getting them.
- Clear, S.M.A.R.T. goals.
- Executive involvement and ownership of leading the changes.
- Respect and appreciation for everyone’s contribution and effort.
- Active concern for overtime, unplanned work, and defects.
- Accounting and planning for everything that takes time by everyone involved.
- Taking full ownership for all the work (irrespective of the “divisions of labor” as seen by the customers).
- Clear-eyed view of effort and not planning around "best case only" scenarios.
- Ability to appreciate the need for non-technical, non-managerial skills in the roles of leading change.
- Seeing beyond the surface: A desire to learn and understand the meaning behind the work, not just following the specific language of the work.
- Dealing with people as people and not numbers.
My best clients have always had direct, clear and unambiguous evidence of two things:
- S.M.A.R.T. Goals, and
- Executive involvement in making the changes happen — not just lip service and budget authorization. This usually took the form of the top leader (or 1-step away) taking personal involvement in not just setting direction, but in working through the best way to make things happen with the people who will be most affected. (What does NOT count is a “top” leader with a purely administrative role and no executive accountability or responsibility.)
In experiencing the failure with this client, I admit to learning about at least one critical oversight on my part (there were others but this one takes top spot). As we were interviewing each other, I failed to interrogate the leaders of the company for specific improvement goals. The only "goals" they came to me with was to make their processes "leaner" and to attain a CMMI Maturity Level 3 rating with leaner processes. Which turned out to really mean little more than to replace their heavy-handed compliance-oriented approach with a set of processes more projects could comply with more easily. Again, note that they were still about "compliance".
Despite claims to the contrary, I didn’t fully realize until well into the engagement that compliance was still their primary attitude — at least among the people who were charged with overseeing the process assets for the entire organization.
During the engagement, I repeatedly worked to identify meaningful improvement goals that being "lean" could help them attain. I then created a strategy that would bring them closer to these goals and presented it to the majority of the executives.
Despite wide agreement on the goals and the strategy, when it came to rolling out the necessary changes, it was met the same-old resistance to change and fears that I knew spelled doom.
Nonetheless, I had high hopes for this organization so I decided I would bring them around by modeling the behavior I was trying to help them see. A few people caught on but, alas, not the people who held sway in the organization. Our mutual falling-out began early when it became apparent that desire among the leadership to achieve a maturity rating without upsetting the apple cart was overshadowing the desire to actually reach the performance goals being a leaner organization would achieve.
Notwithstanding, there were other tell-tale signs from the list above that this organization didn’t have the attitude to make the changes necessary. I won’t belabor you with the complete saga. Instead, I’ll return to my point about this entry.
You as coaches, consultants, and staff can’t want to better than your leadership is prepared to be. The signs are all around you. Pay attention to the signs early. You will save yourself a lot of time, heartache and frustration. If you believe you don’t have enough experience to justify your powers of observation, then trust your instincts. Is the organization defensive about their entrenched position on their circumstance? Do they make excuses instead of setting goals? Are the goals devoid of any real results?
You don’t even have to go that far. How are you treated as a person, as a professional, is about all you really need to know about whether or not there’s a hope that things can get better. If you’re not appreciated, if your organization is willfully blind to the things that cause you grief, if you see signs that tell you the organization lacks "class", you don’t need 20 years of experience telling you you’re right to know you’re right. This organization is doomed to mediocrity. Is that the kind of organization you want to be associated with?
I don’t, and, I won’t ever be again.