Moving Up, the Peter Principle, and Job Mastery

Sterling Whitehead just wrote a great blog post on not being too eager to move up in your career. He encourages us to enjoy where you are and be in the present in our current positions. This is an interesting topic.

In my opinion, there are three factors that immediately come to mind on this issue.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he proposes that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to obtain mastery of any activity. At 40 hours a week, that takes you to about 5 years to mastery your job. This gives a good reason to take your time learning where you are. Of course, to move up, you don’t have to master every position along the way. Being proficient will usually be good enough.

The Peter Principle states that everyone rises to their level of incompetence in an organization. Another way of saying that is that everyone keeps getting promoted until they stop being awesome at their job. As such, they are one position above where they could most benefit the organization. That’s definitely a compelling reason to not be eager to move up.

But here’s the other side of the coin. The impending demographic tsunami of retirement-eligible senior employees will create a vacuum to be filled with younger workers that most likely will not be prepared for the opportunity. All too often, these experienced veterans do not pass on their knowledge and expertise due to personal, cultural, or organizational reasons. It would seem that at least a select few junior workers should be pushing to gain skills and knowledge to adequately fill these positions (which could become available at any time). To help them, organizations should put more effort into retaining this knowledge and facilitating its transfer. That way the pressure isn’t all on the up-and-coming employees to hop into leadership roles and produce results without being prepared.

The other option is to restructure the organization so that less hierarchy is needed to support it. Being more horizontally oriented could prevent, or minimize the number of people setting up to higher positions without being ready for them.

[This post was originally featured in the monthly Rogue Polymath Newsletter.]

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Curiosity

Are you curious about what is written on the next line?

If you’re reading this, then your curiosity must have driven you to find out. I know it only took a very slight eye movement, but you still could have chosen to stop reading and go do something else.  And if you finish reading this entire post, then it will have been your curiosity that drove you to the end.

If there’s a force that can drive your actions without you really being aware of it, shouldn’t we try to understand how it works and try to harness it to drive change?

Curiosity is that force.  Curiosity drives action.  It’s working on you right now.

And action is what creates change and improvement.

What creature is the most active and experiences the most learning and change?

The Toddler.

They are always going, doing, wanting to learn or experience something new, continually making messes and getting into things because of curiosity. And it works, maybe to their parent’s exhaustion, but they learn and change (eventually) from their own actions.

The creature next to the toddler in learning is the Scientist.  This is someone who is always experimenting to find out ‘what will happen if…’ And they learn.  Again, curiosity is the driving force.

Whether we are scientists or not, we were all toddlers once and therefore have the ability to cultivate that curious mindset again in whatever area we want to change.  We just need to have a strong enough desire to know what would happen if we took a certain action.  And then let that desire drive us to act in spite of our fears or mental obstacles that seem to hold us back.

Don’t you want to know what it will be like when you have accomplished your goals?

Feel the curiosity, and go make things happen.

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If you want to succeed at driving change…

If you want to succeed at driving change, practice drawing pictures.  Specifically, practice drawing pictures of either what the future looks like or what the journey to the future looks like.”- April Mills (2011)

So, you might ask, “how do I draw a picture of the future?” And Laurie actually did ask that very question. And it is a good question to ask, especially if you are not used to drawing pictures of the future. Future what? Well, that is the point. In fact, we probably want to use some or all of Kipling’s honest men, the stout fellows – What, Why, When, How, Where and Who.

Ask yourself, and those engaged with you, “what do we want?” You can often describe the “what” in a sentence or two. Make sure the description makes sense to you. Then share it with others.  That will help trigger other questions. You don’t necessarily need to know the answers yet. In fact, you may not know the answers for quite some time. In some cases, hold off on the “How” for a while. Using “How” too quickly might keep you from figuring out the “What”.

My question was “What do organizations need to be able to address complex problems?” Note that I do not ask “How” yet, for that keeps me from thinking of the details of the “What”. I also note that I do not say “solve” complex problems, since complex problems by their very nature are very, very hard to solve. I just want to make things discernibly better than they are today.  So that is my first box:

Partly, that is because a problem is complex if there are many different stakeholders and their solutions are mutually incompatible. If I make Frank happy, Jane will be upset. That will not do!

I start to try to discuss this question and there are lots of ideas from people that I bring it to. That is good, but getting them to agree is pretty hard – whoops, there is an element – we need to be able to converse about the complex problem without getting locked into our mental models. I think I just found a second box.

You might say ”But I have lots of conversations”. And you probably do. Step back and think about this a bit. A conversation can be one on one, it can be a meeting, it can be someone addressing a large group. How do those conversations go for you? Do you get lots of agreement? And do the actions that are agreed upon happen when and as they are promised? If you start to think about it and come to recognize that a lot of conversations are not fruitful, you have merely joined most of the world. Only a small fraction of the world has fruitful conversations. If they are fruitless, aggravating and frustrating, learn how to have a better conversation.

My third box comes once we can converse productively, and we need to decide what tool or tools to use to work on the problem. It does little good to use a hammer to cut a plank of wood. So, that means we need to be able to divide our problems in classes, and then choose the correct tools to match the class of problem. We will be a lot better off when we have this conversation, as it helps to get to the correct class and thus the correct tools. Selecting the correct tools is the fourth box.

If we have trouble with the conversation, we can fall into any number of traps, including a black hole as we disagree over the tools and never get started, or we chose the tool the loudest person likes and knows, and spend lots of time but still don’t  make progress on the problem. You are now in the “How” question phase. You also are in the “Who” question phase. You need people to make this happen. Let us assume you had a good conversation, and thus could decide on the correct tool, How to use the tools and who to get on the team, what comes next?

I propose that next is the ability to execute the plan, the project, whatever you want to call the effort that you will undertake to improve the situation, using the tools you selected. This means you need people, with the skills to execute, and the hardware and the software for them to get done whatever you decided to get done. Implementing is the fifth box.

Once you get moving, you need to be able tell if you are making a difference, moving in the right direction. Hopefully, you figured out the way to decide that already, but if not, join the rest of us who try to figure it out on the fly. But, you do need a way to know if things are getting better. It can be pretty easy to fool yourself, so it helps to have hard numbers, a measurement or yardstick that is not relativistic. What does relativistic mean? Lots of people adjust their measurement device – “oh, we only got a 3% improvement when we were aiming for 30%, so we redefined our measurement and we are now EXCELLENT.” Where did the scale go? Don’t look too closely, but it got relativized.

Now you are at a really hard spot. You resisted relativistic effects, so your measurements are good, and the effort is not going anywhere. Nothing is getting better. What should you do? I propose that you need to be able to alter course, starting with asking some questions: Did the world change? Do we have the right people? Are we allowing them enough time to work on this project? Has our sponsor delivered the support we need? Those are just a few of the questions one might ask to assess “Why” your effort has stalled.

Or you might have executed well, and things are going good. You still need to assess. Were your initial goals too low? Can you go further than you designed? Have conditions changed and you might be headed for a stall? Lose a sponsor? The point is – good or bad, you need to periodically assess how the effort is proceeding. And then you need to be able to alter course based on that assessment. Often, your leadership and your team are committed, no matter how you are doing. It can be tough to alter course, but you have the measurements to back up your analysis. That is the next box.

At one of those assessments, you may actually get to call the project complete. Life is better, or it isn’t, but the end is nigh. A crucial steps needs to occur. The assessment needs to include the analysis of the following question – was this luck or skill? And it is crucial to decide this. All those people who touched this project will get the credit or the blame. And that is the way it should be, but think of all the one-hit wonders you have seen. Was that result luck or skill? You really need to decide which are skill and which are luck, otherwise you are playing roulette on every project. And if you promote people based on luck and they get a bigger project, your risk is now raised and you may not even know it. Until it is too late…

So that was eight boxes, and they might look like they come from a bigger napkin – they do. The bigger picture has some red lines on it. They represent feedback from some of the boxes to earlier boxes. And they are arranged in a loop. This is meant to convey that this is a continuous process, not a use once and forget.

If we go back to April’s quote, she advocated drawing either a picture of what the future looks like or a map to get to the future. This picture is actually both. It shows a future where your organization has the capabilities to work on complex problems, it tells you what those capabilities and even though we did not discuss the feedback, it shows how the feedback occurs to improve the overall process and inform specific capabilities. The map also shows you how to get to the future – you decide you want or need this capability, and then you start building each of those that you do not have today. You might build linearly, but since it is a loop, you don’t have to be trapped by linear logic. You can develop all along the loop using the same feedback capability to determine where you are in getting to having the capability to work on complex problems. (Click on the drawing below for a larger view)

The big picture for drawing a map of the seven capabilities that allow an organization to address complex problems.

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Drains and Radiators

I’m not huge fan of Oprah, and would never consider her an authority on plumbing components. Still, I was recently inspired something she said. She expressed regret
over not realizing earlier in life to separate the drains from the radiators.

Drains are people who only take from you. They do this by always being negative, critical, and judgmental. You don’t measure up to them, and never will. They’re unhappy with their own problems and insecurities, but rather than deal with them – they’d rather take it out on you.

Radiators are different. They radiate warmth. They give back to those around them. Their energy is infectious and they are more than happy to share it with everyone.
They’re comforting to those close to them.

Driving change is hard enough without the added challenge of motivation-sucking drains. Life is too short to be controlled by drains, focus on the radiators in your life.
Here are some tips:

  • Make sure you share your wins with those people who will give you encouragement back in return
  • Don’t get sidetracked into arguments with a “drain.” You won’t ever win. You will almost always come away with lower energy and enthusiasm without much to show for it.
  • Take care to be a radiator to others around you. Catch yourself if you find that you are acting like a drain. One could be the one individual that makes the difference between someone else pushing change forward or giving up in discouragement.

Good luck driving change!

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Drive Out Fear

Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company” – W. Edward Deming statistician and quality expert

Deming firmly believed that fear was a huge obstacle to creating positive change inside of organizations. So much so that the above quote represents #8 in his 14 principles of a System of Profound Knowledge. He also said, “Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures.” People won’t tell you the truth if they are afraid.

Fear can be a tactic of someone trying to drive people to change and while Machiavelli thought it was better to be feared than to be loved, it won’t improve your organization’s performance in the 21st century.

Recently I’ve found a similar believe in an article from AMEX Openforum. In this interview with Tom Rieger of Gallup, he talks about where
fear comes from and how leaders can provide work environments to minimize it. Enjoy reading it.

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Involving Employees in a Change Initiative

“The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” — John Wooden

A colleague recounted an experience implementing a company-wide quality initiative in a multi-national manufacturing firm. The initiative required employees to make significant changes not only in how they did their jobs, but also in their attitudes toward their responsibilities and the outcome of their work. My colleague was outlining to a senior executive the importance of affecting employees’ mindsets, and his plan for doing so. The executive cut him off, saying, “I’ll write them a memo to change their attitudes. Now, where is the project plan?”

We can hope that few managers would admit to such a simplistic belief in the power of a memo, despite how easy that would make change management. If there were a magic wand or a magic memo that could transform people’s attitudes, then the success rate of implementing new ways of working would be greater than the 15-50% reported by researchers.* Getting people to use a new technology or process—not as an overlay to their “real” work, but as an improvement to it—is no trivial task.

When the failure rate for organizational change is more than 50%, apathy is the sensible, rational attitude for an employee who has just learned about a new initiative. If he or she ignores the change, there is a greater than 50/50 chance that it will go away. Strong change management has to correct this reality by recognizing that the best advocates for the merits of a new technology or process are employees with expertise in the area affected, who have experience with the change and appreciation for it. There is no substitute for their know-how and enthusiasm. Find those early adopters, and involve them in implementing the change. Give them opportunities to share their experience and reward their successes.

But even the best advocates cannot  take the place of leadership. No degree of enthusiasm can outweigh the apathy of an employee who lacks the tools to make the change initiative work or has only a vague notion of the business case for it. Employee apathy is increased by leaders who give lip service to the change, but whose attention and budget are elsewhere. Change is successful when everyone has a vision of the end state, the plan to get there includes the needed infrastructure, and results are rewarded along the way. Aligning the management team, the infrastructure, and the reward system with the vision is an ongoing process that is not for the faint-hearted. Perhaps there is some utopia where this sort of active leadership could be done with a simple memo, but I probably don’t need to tell you what happened with my colleague’s quality initiative.

[The ideas presented here are from my book Creating Contagious Commitment (ISBN 978-0-9741028-1-8, www.CreatingContagiousCommitment.com). *See Creating Contagious Commitment for more on success rates of change.]

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Welcome Andrea!

On Wednesday I’m off for my first vacation in a very, very long time.

For all my Input strength readers (and all the rest), I couldn’t leave you without any delicious new content to devour, so I’ve made arrangements.

I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Andrea Shapiro, author of Creating Contagious Commitment, as the first Engine For Change guest blogger.  Look for Andrea’s first post on Thursday morning.

And though I’ll be gone all weekend, I’ve mastered the delayed publishing feature enough to ensure you still get your Quote of the Week late on Sunday.

Have a great week and keep driving change!

All my best – April

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