Friday, October 30, 2009

Building a feedback culture - what can you do?

If there's one thing that helps an organisation grow and learn, its the practice of feedback. As a matter of fact, some of the more successful projects I've seen are the ones where its a part of the team's culture to share feedback. There's a lot to be said about growing a culture of feedback in an organisation, but the minimum we can do is to start from ourselves. We can be good recipients of feedback. My colleague Pat Kua has recently been writing an excellent set of posts about good practices when recieving feedback. In fact his last 5 posts outline the steps I love to follow when recieving feedback. They constitute such a great feedback loop, that I feel compelled to put it into a picture (see above).

Here are Pat's tips about receiving feedback:
Ask for it
Observe First, Judge Later
Agree on Action
Thank them for their Feedback
Apply it Immediately

Please do read each of the above posts and I'm sure you'll find them hugely worth the read. Thanks Pat for putting together such an excellent guide!
While I'm not half as eloquent as Pat when talking or writing about feedback, here's an article I'd written some time back, about the act of giving feedback. You may just find that useful.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

6 talks that every presenter or trainer can learn from

One of the things I believed as a novice presenter was that I lacked creativity. In fact, that was far from the truth. What I really needed was some inspiration. I've learnt a lot by watching some really excellent speakers. I still consider myself to be just about an advanced beginner as a speaker, though being able to watch great speakers each day helps me hone my skills. Here are the top 6 talks that I believe every budding presenter can draw inspiration from.

The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch

A successful talk needs STAR moments (Something They'll Always Remember). The late Dr Pausch demonstrates the power of stories to make a point. He introduces the head-fake theory of how, while practicing something straight-forward you can learn something much deeper. A great piece of learning for trainers and presenters, the best talk I've seen in many, many years.

Ken Robinson

If not for the amazing sense of humour, or the ability to just stand in front of a crowd with no 'presentation crutches', you should watch this talk for its content. Sir Robinson dissects how education systems are killing creativity and how creativity is really just as important as literacy!

David Pogue

David Pogue says that when it comes to technology, "Simplicity Sells". I think its true of training and presentations as well! Watch this talk to see how this New York Times columnist uses the power of real-life examples and quick-wittedness to make his point and keep you enraptured. As you will notice, having your signature style makes quite a difference.

Lawrence Lessig

If there's one person who is the absolute guru of how to effectively use multimedia in your presentation, its Larry Lessig. This talk on copyright laws and how they're killing creativity is an excellent demonstration of multimedia usage in presentations.

Jill Bolte Taylor

Unexpectedness is a key to great speeches. If people can anticipate everything you're going to say, you're no different from what they've already heard. If you're not different, you're boring! What does Dr Taylor do, to create the difference? I can't reveal that bit.

Hans Rosling

There's something to be said about being in the moment and showing a passion for what you're teaching or speaking about. You may stand in front of your projector, turn your back to your audience, you may even read from a script at times -- showing an infectious energy and an excitement for your topic can cover up all of those mistakes. You've got to watch this Swede to believe me.

I hope you found this above list of talks interesting. In fact these have been around for so long that I don't even know if they're novelty anymore! I'd love to hear from you though. Please feel free to comment on this post and point out other talks that you've found interesting.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Career Growth in "Flat" Organisations

Many months back, I wrote an article about hierarchy. I believe that 'flatness' is an organisational state and 'hierarchy' isn't really such a bad word after all. Most organizations need just bare minimum hierarchy and should implement a 'flat' culture tat fosters collaboration, creativity and freedom. In fact, for organisations preaching Agile, flatness should ideally be an aspirational state. In my opinion, flatness means the following things:
  • Small teams/ units of upto 15 people each;
  • Leaders that are obligated to spend at least 30 minutes (one-on-one) with each of their team mates;
  • Leaders that are invested in growing their people - having a fair idea of each team mate's career plan is advisable;
  • Shared leadership for large teams -- if you aren't able to spend time 1-o-1 with all your team mates, then find a group of people that can provide leadership and divide the responsibility amongst them. Ensure that you spend time 1-o-1 with these "first-tier" leaders so that you can coach them through their experiences.
  • Open channels of communication - people should have the opportunity to approach and talk to just about anyone in the organization, to make their work easier;
  • A culture of two-way delegation;
    • where team members can ask their leaders can do something;
    • where the leader is happy to spend double the time in coaching someone on a task when they could have done it themselves -- this is growing and empowering people.

Challenges with Flatness

An interesting challenge with flatness however is creating career development framework that people can use as a map to grow themselves. The complication in retaining flatness comes when you develop a career development programme that is based on concepts of promotion and career bands. In the consulting industry this is pretty common as well, given that firms need to bill clients on basis of the people that actually deliver the service. For example, a popular consulting firm on their careers page define their five grades as:
  • Consultant;
  • Senior Consultant;
  • Managing Consultant;
  • Principal and
  • Vice President.
I must say I completely understand the need for these tiers in the organisation. In theory this should work just fine and one career path for the entire company seems like a great idea. In practice however, here are the challenges:
  • A model such as this doesn't explictly count for ways to grow that are exclusive of promotions. Growth in its purest form includes picking up new skills, building expertise in a functional area and/or trying out various roles. A model as simplistic as this reduces growth to a movement between labels.
  • A career banding model spurs employees to think comparatively. Questions you'll often hear are, "Why am a Y, when she is an X?" Usually there's never a convincing answer to this question, but HR fends it off in a manner they find appropriate.
  • Not surprisingly, grades and career bands are the source of major heartburn in many companies and since compensation tends to get linked to such things, there's little surprise with the number of people that are dissatisfied with such a thing.
  • Lastly a model such as this, though simplistic takes an effort to maintain and maintain fairly. As a result HR is overburdened with administrative processes over more processes and a huge amount of their time goes into ensuring that non-value-adding paper work gets filled out. As a consequence, the practice of annual performance appraisals over continuous feedback. Development centers over continuous learning. Performance Improvement Plans over mentorship and months of compliance audits over actually spending time with people and helping them really grow.
Most importantly, structures like these inadvertently create hierarchy; e.g. a Managing consultant being above a Consultant. It creates blockers in the real career development, because each time someone changes roles, they're forced to think of whether they'll have to start from scratch at the lowest grade in that role! The key however is, that a job role comprises of two major parts:
  • Behavioural Competencies;
  • Technical Competencies.
While the former comes with experience and maturity, self driven individuals can learn the latter if they have the willingness. So I believe that career development in an organisation should be based on Behavioural competencies and an understanding of an individual's ability to learn. Smart people with the right behavioural competencies should be able to learn the technicality of a job in a reasonable duration of time.

Goodbye Career Bands. Hello growth!

When I started working about a decade back, some wise professional explained Career Development to be of two types (which need not be exclusive of each other):
  • Vertical Growth, wherein you gain expertise in a certain functional area.
  • Horizontal Growth, wherein you get the opportunity to try out various roles.
I categorise most roles in an organisation as follows:
  • Execution Roles: Individual contributors with an execution focus. Don't undermine the importance of this roles. Top scientists, fighter pilots, brilliant developers, journalists and newsreaders, lawyers, doctors -- they all fall into this category.
  • Team Leadership Roles: These individuals have the skill to facilitate small groups of people on a specific mission. They have a strong people focus and have the ability to coach them and grow them over a period of time.
  • Management Roles:Managers have a strong results focus and have the ability to deal with and mitigate risks and to assure delivery. These individuals are skilled at growing revenue and/ or reducing costs and can keep an engine running for time immemorial!
  • Strategist Roles:These roles are geared to look at the strategic growth of a company, account or portfolio. They are forward looking, they can see the forest beyond the trees and have a keen eye to recognise the need for change. These individuals are great at ideating, but not necessarily at executing.
Now if you were to look at these different kinds of roles and use them to indicate the breadth of experience for an individual, you can to a certain extent determine that person's versatility. There's the second element of that person's expertise in each kind of role, which you can measure using the Dreyfus Model of skills acquisition. After all, expertise=learning=skills acquisition. If you combine both scales, then you get a career development framework that looks like the one above. The more I think of a model like this, the more I like it. My reasons are:
  • This model focusses on growth as a function of learning as against a function of the label you carry.
  • This model allows you to think of the various career paths an individual can take through her time in an organisation, without the fear of having to start from scratch.
  • This model values a top notch strategist just as much as an expert executor.
  • Since it assumes growth as a function of learning, this model encourages flatness.
  • Last, but not the least -- this model is an easy way to rate an individual's real value in an organisation and as a consequence, their compensation as well.
In the recent past, I've been thinking more and more about the need to do away with career banding and grade structures and implementing learning structures such as this. I do understand that this may be simplistic to start with and understanding each person in your organisation to this detail is tough for an HR team. This said, if we were to focus on Human Resources, then the job is really clear -- it is about understanding the people in your company! It is a tough job no doubt; its a very important and relevant job all the same.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chetan Bhagat scores with "2 States"

When I like a book, it takes me no time to finish reading it. This evening I read 2 States by Chetan Bhagat, India's best selling English novelist. I must confess that I'm not much of a fiction reader, but when I do read such stuff I like writers that say it like it is. Which is why I've enjoyed RK Narayan, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond in the past and despite all the criticism from the wise, I love Bhagat's writing style. Bhagat is believable, and with his simple language and credible characters, he touches Indian sensibilities. Bhagat hints that 2 States is the story of his own marriage, but cautions that this is a work of fiction. To be frank, this could be the story of just about any Indian marriage -- nothing short of some great romances of Indian cinema, replete with drama, heartbreak and eventual "happily ever afters".

I bat for Bhagat's writing and have no doubts that 2 States will be just as popular as his previous novels; Five Point Someone, One night @ the Call Center and The 3 Mistakes of My Life. If you are a romantic with a soft spot for dramatic Indian love stories, this book should do it for you. I confess to being one of them; I couldn't help it having grown up on my dose of Indian musicals. For the stuck up critics, I can only ask them to wake up to India's new intelligentsia, represented by people like Chetan Bhagat who stay grounded in India's reality. I love Bhagat's writing, both in his columns and his books and I marvel at how he touches issues as deep as society, communalism, politics, education and economics in his otherwise lighthearted literary works. Yet again, I recommend this book as a must read!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leadership Development - First break all the rules

As a Learning professional, you may be asked to work on a Leadership Development program at some point in your career. Developing strong and capable leaders is imperative to sustaining a growing organisation, so obviously this is a really high value exercise. Typically leaders learn as they expand their experiences over time:
  1. 70% of their capability from work experience;
  2. 20% of their capability from role models and mentors;
  3. 10% from training and readings;
While your program can take care of (2) and (3), its real value comes when you can leverage the 70% learning from work experience. There are a few things I believe learning organisations can do differently to build a more effective Leadership Development program. I believe the idea is to break some of the traditional rules. Here are a few rules I would break, if I had the opportunity.

Rule to break - Pick your Top performers

Guy Kawasaki, in the Art of Recruiting talks about the value of having A players in the organisation and the fact that A players attract A and A+ players. Organizations often have A players, regular players and then the C players. Often the C players drag the organisation for way too long before they leave the system. Most appraisal systems fail to recognise C players in time to exit them. The A players are the ones that get the opportunity to participate in a Leadership Development program. While in the interest of fairness, this choice seems logical -- I believe in targeting the biggest share of the pie. How about a Leadership Development program that targets the regular players in your organisation? Indeed, its tough to scale a program that covers 70% of your people; but the idea is to make leadership a culture. When your regular players practise and demonstrate leadership skills, it ups the ante for your A players and forces them to raise their game. In effect by starting from the bottom up, you can not only create a high performing organisation -- you also push your A players to be A+ players!

Rule to break - Look inside, then look outside

A common tendency in organisations is to get very bogged down with history, rules, regulations, culture or climate. If none of these things existed because you were just starting up, then how would you approach the problem? How would another company you admire, solve the problem? There's a case to apply this approach to thinking through your leadership development program. Instead of reinventing the wheel, explore how other organisations solve the Leadership Development program. Instead of thinking of how unique your organisation is,(every company is and isn't very unique!) think of how you could model a similar program in your company. If you really believe a particular model makes a lot of sense, then it perhaps does. Overcoming organisational limitations is just one extra step in your program plan. One of the models I've been quite amazed by, is the Leaders and Teachers program by Becton, Dickinson and Company. You may end up finding many more -- starting with a model is much better than reinventing the wheel.

Rule to break - Try to fill your future positions

Leadership is a set of skills, not a position. Its but natural to look at your future positions and tune your Leadership Development program to fill those positions. I understand this business need. This however, is succession planning and not Leadership Development. Leadership is a set of skills that an organisation needs to grow amongst its people. Its almost a culture. Your program should seek to develop these skills as against just filling positions. Think about growing expert communicators, adept coaches, proficient communicators and efficient managers. Everyone doesn't need to display all the skills, a strong awareness should be good enough. Open the program to everyone, regardless of whether they're ready to fill future positions or not. Only then can Leadership be a part of your culture.

Rule to break - Only people in current managerial positions have the opportunity to lead

As I mentioned earlier, Leadership is a set of skills - not limited to a position. Organisations tend to believe that people already managing departments, portfolios or people are the people to grow as future leaders. I believe that there's a leadership role for everyone. Robert Dilts in his landmark book, From Coach to Awakener says that coaches address a variety of factors, including but not limited to:
  • Environmental Factors: The considerations of where and when success occurs.
  • Behavioural Factors: The specific actions to reach success.
  • Capabilities: The mental maps, plans or strategies that lead to success.
  • Beliefs and Values: The reasons for taking a particular path versus another and the deeper motivations which drive people to act in a certain way.
  • Identity Factors: The factors that determine who the person percieves herself to be. These factors relate to their sense of purpose and mission.
To each of these logical levels you can associate a specific kind of leadership; Caretaking and Guidance, Coaching, Teaching, Mentorship, Sponsorship. As you can see each person in your organisation can take up a leadership role suited to them. Indeed, some people may only be able to do Caretaking for environmental factors and others may limit themselves to coaching only. That said, these are leadership roles for your entire company. Yet again, if leadership is to be a part of your culture then think of how your program is inclusive of most of your workforce as against being limited to only a select few.

Leadership is one of my favourite blogging topics and I'm extremely passionate about growing the right kind of leadership. How did you find today's blogpost? Feel free to write to me and comment liberally on this post. If you liked this post, you may like some of my other posts about the same topic.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Tips for handling QnA in the classroom

Questions are a great tool to facilitate discussion in a classroom. In today's blog post, I want to touch upon the various things one should take care of, when dealing with QnA in a group setting.

A husband, five wives and a "witch"

You won't believe this, but I struggle to remember the different words an open ended question can begin with and I use the mnemonic of "a husband, five wives and a witch" to remind myself of the various questions. As you can see in the diagram above, open ended questions can either begin with a How (Husband), What, When, Where, Why, Who (all the wives) or Which (the 'witch'). You can ask your open ended questions for various reasons.
  • ‘About’ ­ ‘How do you feel about ...?’
  • Reflective ­ 'Which aspects do you feel uncomfortable with ...?’
  • Hypothetical ­ ‘What do you think would happen if ...?’

Generative Discussion vs Specific Discussion

At ThoughtWorks we tend to use a lot of generative questioning when we're trying to create hearty discussion. There's nothing wrong with specific questions except generative questions generate discussion! Here are a few situations where you may prefer generative questioning.

Are there any questions?What questions do you have?People have questions. What are they?
Is this an accurate summary?How do you feel about this summary?The summary is up here, but lets talk about your feelings around it, without pronouncing judgement about it yet.
Can anyone give me the answer?Who wants to tell me what the answer is?Everyone knows the answer. Who wants volunteer and tell me?
Do you understand?Who can rephrase what they understood?Everyone understands to some extent. Lets express what you understood so we're all on the same page.

Other styles of questioning

There are various other ways of framing questions and accepting input and its up to you to choose the right method of questioning for your purpose:
  • Framing Context ­ ‘How do you compare this new model with ...?’
  • Silence ­ .......................?
  • Statements ­ ‘Rosemary, you look as if you wanted to say something.’
  • Closed Questions - "Does a rooster lay eggs?"
  • Leading Questions­ ‘Would it would be better to ...?’
Whatever mode of questioning you use, be careful not to ask a string of consecutive questions. Pause for at least 5 seconds after asking your question, so that your audience can understand it and then throw back an answer. Remember, just because you understand the topic, it doesn't mean that your audience will answer you in a split second!

Reflect - Deflect

Very often, participant questions are not really questions!. They may just be a demand for the spotlight. If it is a closed, real questions ­ answer it succinctly. If you suspect it is not, then try the Reflect-Deflect technique.
  • REFLECT back to the questioner what you thought was the question. "If I understand you correctly, you're saying..." 
    This gives you time to understand the question better. Depending on how the questioner rephrases the question, answer it,
  • DEFLECT it as follows:
    • Group : ‘How do the rest of the group feel?’;‘Who else has faced a similar problem?’
    • Ridirect : (to one participant) ‘Martin, you have some experience with this - what's do you thing’
    • Reverse : (back to questioner) ‘I can see you've done some thinking in this area. What’s your  view?’
By taking away the pressure of answering every question yourself, you'd have already made the classroom more engaging and yourself more relaxed!

Mind your lighthouse

The last thing I'd like to talk about, is 'your lighthouse' in the classroom. Just like a lighthouse at sea, you need to balance your eye-contact with everyone in the classroom. This is easy enough to by sweeping your eyes across your entire audience when you're delivering a lecture. Its not that easy though when you're answering or asking a question. Its tempting to focus all your attention to that one person asking you the question or answering your question and that can often put off the rest of your classroom. I always like to stick to 25-75 rule in my classroom. I pay make 25% eye contact with the individual student, so she knows that she's in the spotlight. At the same time, I adjust my lighthouse so that I can balance the remaining 75% of my attention to the rest of the classroom. This could mean that I pay a second's attention to the questioner, take 3 seconds to make eye contact with the people around her on each side and come back to make a second's eye contact with her. I find this extremely useful and it helps me also keep the rest of the class interested in what's going on.
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