3 very strange things that happened in my career

There is an expression in Arabic, “live a lot and you’ll see a lot.” (Ish ktir-betshuf ktir)

I am approaching my 67th birthday and that is a long time on the road; perhaps now is the time to share a few of the very strange things that have taken place during my career.

Year 2016

I was invited to meet with an investor who was very disappointed by the results of the startup in which he had invested. He was about to cut funding in half, but before he did so, “I wanted to ask you if you know how to double the productivity of the staff who will remain after they downsize by 60%”.

Year 2012

A CEO told me that I was to report only to him. “However, make sure that HR is in the loop so that she does not walk out on me”. Therefore, I set up a monthly meeting to update HR. The HR manager called me 2 seconds after I set up the monthly meeting  to bellow at me that “I want a daily report on your progress. Not monthly, not weekly, but daily.” People who read my satiric blog are well aware of the “daily” term.

Year 2001

I was sent to Seoul to interview 12 people because of the low level of communication between the Seoul group, the Toronto HQ and R&D in Tel Aviv. The local manager (Canadian) warned me that “their English ain’t to good Allon, so instead of 60 minutes per person, I gave you an hour of a half. And I’ll arrange them in order of their English language skills”. After the first interview, I told the manager that I did not understand one word. And he told me, “she’s the best English language speaker we have”. He was right. And you know what, it’s hard to get an Advil for a migraine in a Seoul pharmacy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Coping with very severe organization problems-Primum non nocere

The commercialization and productization of OD (as performed by magicians or wonder-consultants)  has masked some of the real issues that an OD practitioner faces. The OD “vendors” are reticent to discuss the hardest issues they face, like a surgeon who does not want to discuss how many died under his or her knife.

This is not a blog written to promote my profession, so I allow myself to deal with the “dirt under the finger nails”.  So……

Strategies for dealing with very difficult organizational problems which are almost insoluble are the subject of this post.

First I shall illustrate two such problems.

  • A senior team has been in place for 12 years with more or less the same leaders. They are located in 3 continents. There is a low level of transparency, very poor teamwork, and having worked together for so long, there is a lot of mutual contempt. The company that they run is very profitable.
  • There is constant bad blood between Customer Service and Development teams. Due to market conditions, a company has released a very immature product to the market, against the recommendation of the Development Team. The clients are furious. Customer Service does not know how to handle customer complaints, so they demand that the Development Team deal with the customers. The developers refuse to see customer demanding that management must “give us time to write the bloody code, not deal with customers who are justifiably angry.”

Now let’s look at a few strategies.

First there is a matter of mindset. 

  • The superman “I can fix it all” mindset which many snake oil consultants use leads to nowhere, except great revenue for the consultant.
  • The mindset of impotence and despair, whilst rationally justified perhaps, obviously makes no sense. The appropriate mindset is being pragmatic, avoid wow-wowing to maintain credibility and risk mitigation.

Now let’s address the question of how much intervention is needed. My suggestion is that for very difficult organizational problems, the best intervention is of low intensity spread over a long time, as opposed to intense happenings, like a quarterly offsite.

The role of the consultant in such a mess is primum non nocere (“foremost do no harm”. ) Great damage can be inflicted by applying snake oil to severe problems. For example, a teamwork session for the senior team mentioned above is counter-indicated.

I also  suggest a focus on containment of pain with compassion and humour, if possible  addressing issues whilst managing appropriate expectations and keeping things from getting much worse.

 

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Forcefeeding Engagement

Dr Andy is giving a course in organizational diagnosis to a group of students in Asia, His students are in classrooms in Beijing, Bangkok and Taipei. Andy gives the course via Skype from his home office in Montreal.

Andy is having a hard time with this course; he feels his students are not engaged. “They never ask anything unless asked. There is too little ‘learning traction. I seem to be talking to myself”’.

Let’s look at what is happening under the surface.

Jie from Bangkok believes that were she to ask about the many issues that go through her mind, she would stick out like a braggart. Her English is perfect since her mother is British and this is very embarrassing for Jie.

Rei from Beijing often has ideas different from those of Dr Andy. However Rei always censors himself because he loves the course and wants to show his respect by not sharing controversial thoughts.

When Norman from Taiwan does not understand something, he fears that were he to ask Dr Andy,  he would be hinting  that Andy does not know how to teach. Norman does not want to hurt Andy’s “face.”

“Engagement” with authority figures (asking questions, taking ownership to be active, sharing opinions) is seen in many parts as insulting, rude and arrogant. While digital reality  and globalism have dented this slightly, cultural codes have not been rewritten.

It is not only difficult to “engage” certain populations, it is downright wrong and disrespectful to try and do so.

In other societies, levels of engagement levels need to be tempered because there may be  too much counter productive engagement. In Israel for example, there is a tendency to speak out all the time, have firm opinions and not show respect to people in positions of authority. Israelis tend to argue for the sake of arguing, which has deep roots in tradition. It is not uncommon for experts to face an Israeli audience and totally lose control of a discussion because of “too much engagement”.

 

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Beyond the bull—t.

There are so many organization and management fads out there that you can virtually drown in a sea of verbiage, or even get a case of mild indigestion from overdosing on slogans.

The goal of this post is to provide 5 organizational principles which apply to most types of organizations and cut through all the fashion-based repackaging of the basics.

  1. You cannot define away complexity. If your organization is complex, as most organizations are, the complexity will not disappear by only defining roles, responsibilities and processes. Definitions help, but only up to point.
  2. Distance breeds mistrust. One can use Whatsapp, Snap chat, Skype or the most sophisticated of tools. But distance breeds anxiety, lack of trust and deep control based issues.
  3. Staffing is strategic. Bad hires cause phenomenal pain which cannot be mitigated by coaching, management development or change management plans.
  4. Business processes do not replace common sense.
  5. Over reliance on IT systems dumbs. The dumbness does not appear immediately, but develops over time. If one does not deal with this dumbing, you end up with great IT systems and a bunch of stupid behaviours, like no accountability, and 120 emails on every issue.
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They saw the sea, and I felt free

atthesea

At the sea

I must have been to the Tel Baruch Beach in Tel Aviv thousands of times. But today, I had the time of my life. I started volunteering for Min el Bahar.

Min el Bahar (From the Sea) is a program which provides Palestinians from the occupied territories a fun day at the beach. Accompanied by two wonderful nuns, a bus transports them from one of the despicable roadblocks in the occupied West Bank to Tel Aviv where a group of volunteers (me included) greets them and, together we have a wonderful day at and in the Mediterranean.

Today on my first day, I served as a volunteer life guard, and my tasks included coaxing them to take their very first footsteps into the sea. It was so good to see and feel the sea via their eyes.They had never been to sea before; they were born in the wrong place and on the wrong side of history.

3 girls pointed to a few  high slippery rocks which were off limits. They asked me if we could sneak away and take some pictures from the rocks. I agreed and we stole off. The nuns and lifeguards all called us  back, but we took some pictures anyway and ran back, laughing. All 3 girls thanked me effusively  for the rest of the day, often smiling at me. When they got on the bus, I got a few winks!

I saw one girl who was trying very hard to swim and kept swallowing the ocean! I gave her a short lesson (knees straight, hands cupped, breath properly) and she then swam at least 500 meters on her own.  A real “batal” (champion in Arabic)!

Over the past decade, I have read almost all of of Hans Fallada’s books, one of which, “Alone in Berlin (Everyone Dies Alone) ” describes the heroism of people trapped in the tyranny of a fanatic political regime. Fallada has inspired me to think about what can be done under a regime of oppression.

Unlike Fallada’s characters, I  am not a hero. But today, I did not feel like an oppressor. I felt I was doing what I can, at grass root level, to create contact at a human level. I will never forget today.

They saw the sea, and I felt free.

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Hans Fallada    ששונות זעירים

 

 

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Brexit, Siloism and Tolerance

“Siloism” is the maximization of one set of goals to the detriment of a wider common good, the assumption being that teamwork and synergy (not siloism) achieves common good via optimization and integration of all subsets of goals.

Leaders, consultants and trainers fight combat organizational siloism with slogans, training programs and many other weapons de jour.

Yet siloism remains rampant, since the average Joe in the trenches believes that organizations are war zones, and if he does not watch out for his own ass, no one else will do so. And often this is true, since in bad times, management maximizes its own survival goals and shafts the Joes-of-the-world via massive downsizing and outsourcing.

Brexit is an example of political siloism. Not enough Brits saw the value of what they saw as  subjugating their countries’ goals to larger “common good”. In other words, the benefits of larger common good did not filter down to enough people.

It is very hard to market a lot of what the EU has to offer in the short run, ie the next 100 years, beyond the life time of many voters. When you lose your job to a robot or an offshore location and view at your doorstep the massive amounts of illegal immigration from the melt-down in the Middle East,  it is no surprise that the common European good did not sell well. 

In my work with hundreds of organizations fighting siloism, I have learnt to respect the voice of the silo builder, who has a rationale for his behaviour. I do not agree with the motives for siloism, but I understand these motives. The same must be said of the Brexit. Were I British, I would have voted Remain. I believe in  a pan EU. But I am a member of the elite which benefits from things like this.

Leaders would be wise to respect not only the vote, but accept the motivations behind the vote. The first stage to combating solo-ism is empathy with the silo builder.

I live in a country in which many people are both religious and very right wing. I am secular (totally atheistic) and very, very left wing. Yet many of my clients and a few of my close friends have a very different belief system than mine. People who know me are aware that I am by  no means a patient person. Yet the dialogue with people who have very different opinions has both enriched and mellowed me. I make every effort to understand the consistency and world view of ideas different from mine.

 

 

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3 critical issues impacting dispersed development teams

Case Study

The next release of “Universal Voice to Text” for all messaging applications with translation into 120 languages is being co-developed in 7 locations by teams in a massive dispersed development effort.

Shared components are developed in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The localization and translation applications are developed in Paris and Hong Kong. Noise control is handled out of Raleigh USA; there are PFDSD teams (prepare for deployment/service/ documentation)  in  Moscow and Seoul.

There are thousands of teams like this, many of whom have a common set of inherent tensions. The goal of this post is to highlight the 3 most frequent tensions characterizing geographically dispersed development  teams which co develop products. I will use the above case study as a shared platform to illustrate.

Issues to be discussed are

  1. Hidden agendas
  2. Trust
  3. Blaming and  unwillingness to share risks.

Hidden agendas are politically driven survival & control motives which impact the interface between the various components of the dispersed team.

The major hidden agendas consist of maintaining jobs, proper positioning to impact major decisions, and maintaining long term involvement in the product to ensure that the team is not easily disposed of.

In the case above, Paris and Hong Kong are adamant that their applications do not become part of share components, which will ensure the viability of their teams.

Trust is a very rare commodity in dispersed development  teams, due to cultural differences, hidden agendas, lack of personal relationships, the anomie inherent in virtual organizing and poor mutual responsiveness due to time differences.

In the case above, there are acute trust issues between the Silicon Valley team  and the Seoul team due to a 4 day turn around time on issues. Deep mutual suspicions have been developed in the last six months and the trust issues are out of hand.

Another illustration of trust comes to mind.  Mr. Lau in Hubei, China and Mr. McDougal (from Cincinnati USA ) are about to sign a contract. The contract is for 200 million dollars over the next year. Mr. Lau has one more request. “I have a son who I would like to work in your company. Keep an eye on him and perhaps he can go to US to learn English. Mr. McDougal thinks: I cannot trust this guy. He is totally corrupt. Mr. Lau thinks: I cannot trust this guy. I give him 200 million dollars business and he does not value our relationship.

Blaming

Dispersed development teams work in the context of very aggressive commitments with huge risks factored into customer commitments and inevitable technological challenges.

In the case of above, the Universal Voice to Text including translation has been promised to a client by November, 2016. And guess what, it ain’t gonna be ready by then. So the teams are blaming one another for late deliveries as an excuse for the schedule slips which are happening weekly. Just last night, the Raleigh team complained that some background noises come across as syllables and words, shifting the blame to the shared component group in Tel Aviv.

It is very rare that dispersed teams will share risks, preferring instead to blame one another for obvious reasons, aka hidden agendas driving long term survival.

More on the global consulting mindset here.

 

 

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Self management is a manipulation and cop out

Self management certainly has its place and time in the right context. The value of self management over command and control is  not disputable. This having been said, self management is often promulgated as an ugly manipulation. One fable will suffice.

The fable

Paul heads a team of 50 top notch developers based in Tel Aviv for US based company selling software for public electrical and water utilities worldwide. Paul’s team is overwhelmed due to the massive amount change requests flooding his team.

Clients are supposed to funnel their change requests via Change Request Management, which is part of the Product Management group based in New Zealand.

However, the Product Management/Change management group lacks technical knowledge, and so clients often turn directly to Paul or to the developers themselves for changes.

Alternatively, changes are requested via Sales, who have no problem forwarding these requests to Paul, ccing the CEO.

Paul has asked that Change Management acquire more technical skills in order to serve as a better filter. This however is too expensive to execute since it would mean hiring engineers to replace the present set of administrators, who serve as change managers.

Paul then asked for more staff, in order to build a technical change management team in Tel Aviv, through which priorities can be set. His request was put off till 2017 budget talks in November.

When the level of client bitching got out of control, the CEO summoned Paul to a meeting with EVP HR, a certain Gloria Ramsbottom. A decision was made that the developers “become better aligned with the principles of self-management”. A training vendor “specializing” in self-management was hired and a webinar on the virtues of self-management was commissioned.

The moral

Self-management can be used by management as a cop out to abscond from their responsibility  of setting priorities and applying more resources. Self-management, when applied in this manner, is a manipulation of the more evil ilk, exploiting the very people who need to be assisted.

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About Harry

harry

When Harry died, I was six years old. How can I ever be expected to forget a grandfather who taught me the love of words?

In his bedroom (he slept alone and was totally estranged from my grandmother) Harry had a huge Webster’s’ dictionary in a glass case. I would come into his room, sit on his lap and he would read the dictionary to me for hours on end in his British accent.

Harry was deaf, so when I repeated the words he read to me, he did not hear what I was saying.

My Dad claimed that Harry was not deaf, merely that he had “checked out” of listening to everyone talk. Harry claimed to have lost his hearing in the British army, yet there is no record of Harry ever having been in the army. As a matter of fact, there is no record of Harry’s birth, and he was born in England, where good records are kept. Some rumors are that he and his two brothers were plucked out of an orphanage and given the name Foreman, or Frohman, or Fireman.

Harry owned a gym on the fourth floor of the Medical Arts Building in Montreal on the corner of Sherbrooke, where  Cote des Neiges becomes Rue Guy. I used to go there Saturday mornings and watch him train boxers. Strangely, I remember the phone number of the gym-Fitzroy 4022.

Uncle Al, Harry’s brother

Harry’s  brother and my Uncle,  Al Foreman, was a boxing champion both in England and Canada. I remember my Dad telling me. “you don’t wanna fuck around with Uncle Al, or even Papa Harry, to be on the safe side”.

Outside of Papa Harry’s apartment on Decarie corner of Queen Mary there was a Lowney’s (chocolate) billboard, in red. The letters would light up one by one- L O W N E Y S- and then one word- Lowneys.

Papa Harry “never had a pot to piss in”, said my Dad. Yet the less money he had, the more clothes he bought. And he used to parade up and down Sherbrook street with many, many many of his girlfriends. There was one special girlfriend I never met, but I do know that it was a major love affair that lasted many years.

Papa Harry spent many years in Egypt, and told me many stories of the desert, especially about a nomad named Sookie. Harry was to teach me a bit of Arabic. He also read me a story about a gun battle between Sir Sholton Knot and Sir Knoltan Shot. Papa Harry explained to me that the shot Snot shot shot Knot, so “Knot was shot and Shot was not, notwithstanding”

He died when I was five or six. (Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.) A heart attack got him “in one fell swoop”.

“He was a most peculiar man”.  And I do believe he was not deaf.

1200px-Medical_Arts_Building

From wikipedia Édifice Medical Arts

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Am I missing something?

Following the social media as best as I can as an agile 66 year old, it would appear that organizations are undergoing a radical revolution.

  • Hierarchies are being replaced by holocracies and adhocratic configurations.
  • Leadership strives to engage.
  • HR has shrieked “Eureka” having embraced data analytics as the ultimate elixir.
  • Talent needs to be titillated and won over, or else there will be severe intense and painful retention problems.

What am I missing?

I am still very active as a consultant although I put aside one day a week to study history. And I have just not seen all the above happening in the field. Here is what I do see-

So what am I missing?

 

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