Have you ever Skip to the Details:
How To Orderfound yourself sitting in a meeting,
listening for the third time to drivel you just couldn't believe people would actually say out
loud, and wondering how much longer this would go on until they finally agreed
to what anyone with half a brain knew they'd have to do anyway? And then groaned to yourself
when you realized that your next meeting would be more of the same?
Or have you ever had the kind of "forehead-slapping moment" when you
suddenly realized why the group didn't go for your last suggestion, and then wondered how you
could possibly have been so naïve as to have proposed it in the first place?
The Collected Issues of Point Lookout is filled with the insights you need to make sense of it
all. It helps you avoid the traps and pitfalls that await you at work, and it guides you into
new choices that can make life at work more enjoyable and rewarding.
The Collected Issues of Point Lookout is a collection of articles from the
2001 through 2012 issues of Point Lookout, my weekly email
newsletter of tips, insights and perspectives
that help people in dynamic problem-solving organizations find better ways to work with each
other. It gives concrete, nuts-and-bolts methods for dealing with real-life situations. It's a
massive collection — 1263 pages (338,000
words) in all.
That's about 27 times the size of
Who Moved My Cheese?.
The Collected Issues of Point Lookout makes a wonderful and unique gift for a friend, a
colleague, or a spouse who faces any of the ordinary — and many of the not-so-ordinary —
challenges of working today.
What readers say
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started working. If so, it would have saved me a lot of heartburn and helped me to propel my
career into higher orbit. It increases your sensitivity, your capacity to see and understand
the politics and work life. Buy it, read it, and re-read it. Thanks Rick for bringing out
— G.S. Rao
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and is much more intellectually stimulating than, say, reading a Dilbert cartoon.
- You fill a need that went unmet — a sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
- I have found your articles extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day.
You have a great writing style and the lessons that you have shared with us are invaluable.
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When someone asks you for information that they can use to attack a third party politically, beware. It's a dangerous role not to be undertaken lightly, and certainly not without insurance.
Some people use rhetorical tricks that push our buttons, which makes choosing wisely difficult. Implied accusations make us defensive, which is almost always a bad place to be. What other choices do we have?
When your boss asks you to look the other way, or to actively take part in unethical activity, you probably feel uncomfortable — with good reason. Can you find a way to live with yourself?
The term resistance, as used in the context of organizational change, describes our reluctance to abandon the status quo. But it's a loaded term, because it devalues that reluctance. When we approach change with this model of reluctance in mind, we sabotage our own efforts.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the items on your To-Do list, and if you start on one only to realize that you have to tackle three more you didn't know about before you can finish that one, you could be experiencing the Zebra Effect.
When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
When we plan projects, we estimate the duration and cost of something we've never done before. Since projects are inherently risky, our chances of estimating correctly are small. Quantum Management tells us how to think about cost and schedule in new ways.
When you celebrate — even minor successes — you change your outlook, you energize yourself, and you create new ways to achieve more successes. Too often we let others define what we will celebrate. Actually, we're in complete command of what we celebrate. When we take charge of our celebrations, we make life a lot more fun.
You just made a great suggestion at a meeting, and ended up with responsibility for implementing it. Not at all what you had in mind, but it's a trap you've fallen into before. How can you share your ideas without risk of getting even more work to do?
We often think about "playing the game" — either with relish or repugnance. You'll do better if you see workplace politics as it is. It is not a game.
In group problem solving, diversity of opinion and healthy, reasoned debate ensure that our conclusions take into account all the difficulties we can anticipate. Lock-step thinking — and limited debate — expose us to the risk of unanticipated risk.
Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
"If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope" tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears.
Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?
For some teams conflict seems to focus around one particular team member. The conflict might manifest itself as either organizational or interpersonal issues, or both, but whatever the problem seems to be, the problem is never the problem.
When somebody complains to you about someone else's performance, you're entering into another dimension — a dimension of three minds. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Triangulation Zone.
When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
Like a traditional family album, a project family album has pictures of people, places and events. It builds connections, helps tie the team together, and it can be as much fun to look through as it is to create.
However perceptive we become about what can anger us, we still do get angry once in a while. Here are four steps to help you deal with your own anger.
Collaborations can be very productive. There are some traps though, especially when the collaborators are of different rank, with the partner of lower rank reporting to a peer of the other. Here are some tips for preventing conflict in diagonal collaborations.
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
Filling out time cards may seem maddeningly trivial, but the data they collect can be critically important to project managers. Why is it so important? And what does an effective, yet minimally intrusive time reporting system look like?
At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.
Since companies sometimes tackle projects that they have no hope of completing successfully, your project might be completely wrong for your company. How can you tell whether your project is a fit for your company?
To solve problems, we change existing policies or processes, or we create new ones. We try to make things better and sometimes we actually succeed. More often, we create new problems — typically, for someone else.
Do you tend to commit to too many tasks? Are you one who spends too much energy meeting the needs of others — so much that your own needs go unmet? Here's how a hula-hoop can help.
Perhaps you've achieved every goal you've ever set yourself, but if you're like most of us, some important goals have remained elusive. Maybe you had bad luck, or you weren't in the right place at the right time. But it's just possible that you got in your own way. Getting out of your own way can help make things happen.
Although we sometimes make decisions with incomplete information, we do the best we can, given what we know. Sometimes, we make wrong decisions not because we have incomplete information, but because we make mistakes in how we reason about the information we do have.
When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts. One approach that works well is the simulation.
You're at lunch with one of your buddies, who's obviously upset. You ask why. "You have to promise not to tell a soul," is the response. You promise. And there the trouble begins.
You probably commute to work. On a good day, you spend anywhere from ten minutes to an hour or two — each way — commuting. What kind of experience are you having? Taking control of this part of your life can make a real difference.
When we undertake change, we're usually surprised at the effort and cost required. Much of this effort and cost is necessary because of the nature of the processes we're changing. What can we do differently to make change easier in the future?
When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines to finding your way to a good outcome.
High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations, and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams — and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
Team interactions are unimaginably complex. To avoid misunderstandings, offenses, omissions, and mistaken suppositions, teams need open communications. But no one has a full picture of everything that's happening. The Temperature Reading is a tool for surfacing hidden and invisible information, puzzles, appreciations, frustrations, and feelings.
Email is a wonderful medium for some communications, and extremely dangerous for others. What are its limitations? How can we use email safely?
Among models of Change, the Satir Change Model has been especially useful for me. It describes how people and systems respond to change, and handles well situations like the one that affected us all on September Eleventh.
Lifelong learners use a variety of approaches, usually relying heavily on reading. Reading works well for some ideas and techniques, especially for those with limited emotional content. For adding other skills and perceptions, consider a personal coach.
Dramatic changes in policy or procedure are often challenging, especially when they have some boneheaded components. But by accepting them, by anticipating what you can, and by applying Pareto's principle, you can usually find a safe path that suits you.
When we think, "Paul doesn't trust me," we could be fooling ourselves into believing that we can read his mind. Unless he has directly expressed his distrust, we're just guessing, and we can reach whatever conclusion we wish, unconstrained by reality. In project management, as anywhere else, that's a recipe for trouble.
As Glen rounded the corner behind the old oak, entering the last mile of his morning run, he suddenly realized that he was thinking about picking up the dry cleaning tomorrow and changing his medical appointment. Physically, he was jogging in a park, but mentally, he was running in a squirrel cage. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
The foundation of any meeting is its agenda. A crisply focused agenda can make the difference between a long, painful affair and finishing early. If you're the meeting organizer, develop and manage the agenda for maximum effectiveness.
In the project context, we need to know that whatever we're hearing from colleagues is the truth as they see it. Yet, sometimes we shade the truth, or omit important details. Here's a list of some of the advantages of telling the truth.
As a leader or manager, you need access to complete and accurate information about the people, relationships, processes and products of the organizations they manage. Leaders or managers who punish the bearers of bad news erect barriers to their own future access to the truth.
Your boss's comments about your work can make your day — or break it. When you experience a comment as negative or hurtful, you might become angry, defensive, withdrawn, or even shut down. When that happens, you're not at your best. What can you do if your boss seems intent on making every day a misery?
Elise slowly walked back to her office, beaten. Her supervisor, Alton, had just given Elise her performance review — her third consecutive "meets expectations." No point now to her strategy of giving 120% to turn it all around. She is living a part of the Pygmalion Effect, and she's about to experience the Pygmalion Side Effects.
When I upgraded my email program recently, I encountered some problems with a new feature that monitors messages for offensive words. This got me thinking about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
If your boss is a micromanager, your life can be a seemingly endless misery of humiliation and frustration. Changing your boss is one possible solution, but it's unlikely to succeed. What you can do is change the way you experience the micromanagement.
It sometimes seems that those who succeed in workplace politics must know how to descend to the blackest depths, and still sleep at night. Must we abandon our integrity to participate in workplace politics?
When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
Since the items on your To-Do list can be a source of stress, you'll feel better if you can find a way to avoid acquiring them. Having a Not-To-Do list reminds you that some things are really not your problem.
Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
At any time, without warning, you can find yourself in a meeting that boils over. Sometimes tempers rise, then voices rise, and then people yell and scream. What can a team do when meetings threaten to boil over — and when they do?
Some people in your organization have done really outstanding work. You want to recognize that work, but the budget is so small that anything you could do would be insulting. What can you do? Express your Appreciation and Trust.
In a Project Nursery, professionals from across the entire organization collaborate to conceive of new projects. When all organizational elements help decide which projects to investigate, the menu they develop best suits organizational needs and capabilities.
If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
Taking on the full load is what we do when we feel fully responsible for either the success or the failure of some organizational activity. Instead of asking for help, we take extreme measures to execute responsibilities that might not even be ours.
Have you had a major success lately? Have you become a celebrity in your organization? Are people showering you with accolades? When it happens, we feel great, and the elation does finally come to an end. What then?
Since we spend so much of our waking lives in our offices, it's surprising how few of us take control of our immediate surroundings. If you do — if you make your space uniquely yours — you'll feel better about the time you spend at work.
As a leader you carry a heavy burden. You're accountable for everything from employee development to meeting organizational objectives, and many of these responsibilities conflict. Life is tough enough, but most of us pile on top of this a load of over-generalized rules of work life — a load too heavy for anyone to bear.
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
Change is all around, and you're probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you change. Here are some tips to help you improve your personal change skills.
We've all made mistakes, and we'll continue to do so for as long as we live. Making mistakes is part of being human. Still, we're often troubled by our mistakes, even when we remember that many mistakes turn out to be great gifts. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes?
Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
When an important item remains on our To-Do list for a long time, it's possible that we've found ways to avoid facing it. Some of the ways we do this are so clever that we may be unaware of them. Here's a collection of techniques we use to avoid engaging difficult problems.
Although cubicles do provide facility cost savings compared with walled offices, they do so at the price of product development delays and increased product development costs. Decisions of facilities planners can have dramatic project schedule impact.
Have you ever heard nasty rumors about yourself? When rumors are damaging, they can hurt our careers, our self-esteem, and even our health. Sadly, our response to rumors often compounds the serious damage they do.
Not long ago, Mastodons roamed North America in large numbers. Cousins to the elephant, they thrived in the cool, sub-glacial climate. But the climate warmed, and human hunters arrived. The Mastodon couldn't adapt, and now it's extinct. Change is now coming to your profession. Can you adapt?
Diversity of perspectives is one of the great strengths of teams. Ideas contend and through contending they improve each other. In this process, criticism of ideas sometimes gets personal. How can we critique ideas safely, without hurting each other, while keeping focused on the work?
Humor is fun — that's why they call it "funny." If you add humor to your own work environment, you'll reduce your level of stress, increase your creativity, and drive your enemies nuts.
Most companies have employee cafeterias, with the usual not-much-better-than-high-school food service. By upgrading — and subsidizing — food service, these companies can reduce turnover and improve productivity dramatically.
When the phone rings, do you drop whatever you're doing to answer it? Do you interrupt face-to-face conversations with live people to respond to the jerk of your cellular leash? Listen to seemingly endless queues of voicemail messages? Here are some reminders of the choices we sometimes forget we have.
Sometimes, the clichés the losing team's players feed to sports reporters can have hidden meaning. So it is with Project Status Reports, especially for projects in trouble.
Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
When projects founder, we're often shocked — we thought everything was moving along smoothly. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that we had — or could have had — enough information to determine that trouble was ahead. Somehow it was obscured by fog. How can we get better at seeing through the fog?
Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy, you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.
When we make a difficult decision, we sometimes know we've made the wrong choice, even before the consequences become obvious. At other times, we can be absolutely certain that we've done right, even in the face of inadequate information. When we have these feelings, we're in touch with our inner wisdom. It's a powerful resource.
A doorknob disclosure is an uncomfortable, painful, or embarrassing revelation offered at the end of a meeting or conversation, usually by someone who's about to exit. When we learn about bad news in this way, we can feel frustrated and trapped. How can we respond effectively?
Some people believe that senior management is actually trying to hurt their company by downsizing. If they are, they're doing a pretty bad job of it. Here's a handy checklist for evaluating the performance of your company's downsizers.
Many of us are experts in risk analysis and risk management. Even the non-specialists among us have developed considerable skill in anticipating troubles and preparing plans for dealing with them. When these habits of thought leak into our personal lives, we pay a high price.
Today we use data as a management tool. We store, recall, and process data about our operations to help us manage resources and processes. But this kind of management data is often scattered, out-of-date, or just plain incorrect, and taking a snapshot doesn't work. There is a better way.
When problems arise faster than we can solve them, we need a strategy for dealing with them. Often, we use strategies that give too much emphasis to short-term effects. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
The demand for higher standards of ethical behavior for corporate officers is probably just the beginning. As a society, we're re-learning the value of honesty, and many more of us will have to come to a new understanding of ethics. Some professions have formal codes of ethics, but most don't. What ethical principles guide you?
How many books do you own? How many of those have you read? If you're like most of us, you own many books you've been meaning to read, but just haven't found a way to do it. Here are some tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
The past few years have been hard. Some of us have lost hope. What do you do when you're down so low the only place to go is up?
When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.
Grief is usually a private matter, but for some, September Eleventh is different because our grief can be centered in the workplace. On September Eleventh, give yourself permission to do what you need for yourself, and give others permission to do what they need for themselves.
Renewal is a time to step out of your usual routine and re-energize. It provides perspective. Renewal is a climb to the mountaintop to see if we're heading in the right direction.
Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it. If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
The Hawthorne Effect appears when we measure employee attitudes or behavior — when people know they're being measured, they modify their behavior. How can we measure attitudes with a minimum of distortion from the Hawthorne Effect?
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
When you face obstacles, sometimes the path around or through them is difficult. Committing yourself to the path lets you focus all your energy on the path you've chosen.
How much of the time and energy you spend in meetings goes to finding the best way? or a better way? It's of questionable value unless you first agree on what you mean by "better" or "best."
Manipulated or coerced commitment looks pretty good on paper, but it might not lead to dedicated action. When the truth is finally revealed, trouble can be unavoidable.
Geographically and culturally dispersed project teams are increasingly common, as we become more travel-averse and more bedazzled by communication technology. But people really do work better together face-to-face. Here are some tips for managing dispersed teams.
Business speech and business writing are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with pretentious, overused images and puff phrases of unknown meaning. Here are some phrases that are so common that we barely notice them.
When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
Sometimes we misinterpret the messages we receive — what we see or hear. It's frustrating, and tempers can flare on both sides. But if we keep in mind two ideas, we can reduce the effects of message mismatches.
When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
You lead a company, a department, or a team. When two of your reports get caught up in a feud, what do you do? Let them fight it out? Order them to stop? Fire them both? Here are some tips for making a peace.
Layoffs during the holiday period of November 15 through January 15 are far more common than you might think. Losing your job, or fearing that you might, is always difficult, but at that time of year it's especially helpful to keep in mind that the experience does have a bright side.
When we have to say "no" to customers or to people in power, we're often tempted to placate with a "yes." There's a better way: learn how to say "no" in a way that moves the group toward joint problem solving.
A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage the organization — sometimes irreparably.
When an organization is experiencing problems with conflict, "pushback," or "blowback," managers often hire trainers to present programs on helpful topics. But self-diagnosis can be risky. Often, there are more direct and focused options that can help more and cost less.
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
In tense discussions, the language we use often contributes to the tension. If we can transform the statements we make about each other into statements about ourselves, we can eliminate an important source of tension and stress.
We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized games. Here's a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we can do about them.
In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos, we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can limit our ability to change.
Sometimes companies or projects get into trouble, and "fires" erupt one after another. When this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
As a way of managing risk, we sometimes steer our organizations towards commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, methodologies, designs, and processes. But to gain a competitive edge, we need creative differentiation.
Rumors about organizational intentions or expectations can depress productivity. Even when they're factually false, rumors can be so powerful that they sometimes produce the results they predict. How can we manage organizational rumors?
"Would you like some feedback on that?" Uh-oh, you think, absolutely not. But if you're like many of us, your response is something like, "Sure, I'd be very interested in your thoughts." Why is giving and receiving feedback so difficult?
When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
When we receive messages of disapproval, we sometimes feel bad. And when we do, it can help to remember that we have the freedom to decide whether or not to accept the messages we receive.
When projects near completion, we sometimes have difficulty letting go. We want what we've made to be perfect, sometimes beyond the real needs of customers. Comfort with imperfection can help us meet budget and schedule targets.
When projects run over budget, managers face a temptation to use creative accounting to address the problem. The budget swap is one technique for making ends meet. It distorts organizational data, and it's just plain unethical.
In tough negotiations, when attempts to resolve differences have failed, we sometimes conclude that "they've made up their minds," but other explanations abound. Keeping an open mind about why other people seem to have closed theirs can help us find a resolution.
Age discrimination runs deep, well beyond the hiring decision. When we value each other on the basis of age, we can deprive ourselves and our companies of the treasures we all have to offer.
Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where to focus our attention first?
Every specialization has a set of beliefs, often called "conventional wisdom." When these beliefs are so obvious that they're unquestioned and even unnoticed, there's an opportunity to leap ahead of the pack — by questioning the conventional wisdom.
Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
Many of us travel as a part of our jobs, and some of us spend a fair amount of that time traveling solo. Here are some tips for enlivening that time alone while you're traveling for work.
When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?
When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
Most of us get too much email. Some is spam, but even if we figured out how to eliminate spam, most would still agree that we get too much email. What's happening? And what can we do about it?
Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?
Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
Probably the most widely used tactic of persuasion, "What's In It For Me," or WIIFM, can be toxic to an organization. There's a much healthier approach that provides a competitive advantage to organizations that use it.
When a cell phone goes off in a movie theater, some of us get irritated or even angry. Why has the cell phone become so prominent in public? And why do we have such strong reactions to its use?
You may have heard the phrase "plenty of blame to go around," or maybe you've even used it yourself. Although using it sometimes does bring an end to immediate finger pointing, using it also validates blame as a general approach. Here's how to end the blaming by looking ahead.
When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them" becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
When you give a demo to a small audience, there's a danger of overwhelming them in a behavior I call swarming. Here are some tips for terrific demos to small audiences.
When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
Managers and supervisors who take credit for the work of subordinates or others who feel powerless are using a tactic I call Credit Appropriation. It's the mark of the unsophisticated political operator.
The false opportunity appears to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
Wishing — for ourselves, for others, or for all — helps us focus on what we really want. When we know what we really want, we're ready to make the little moves that make it happen. Here's a little user's guide for your wishing wand.
The Three-Legged Race is a tactic that some managers use to avoid giving one person new authority. Some of the more cynical among us use it to sabotage projects or even careers. How can you survive a three-legged race?
When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct. What is going on?
What happens when you learn that your new boss is younger than you are? Or when the first two applicants you interview for a position reporting to you are ten years older than you are? Do you have a noticeable reaction to org chart age inversions?
If you've ever known a particular dog at all well, you've probably been amazed at how easy it is to guess a dog's mood, even though dogs can't speak. Perhaps what's more amazing is that it's so difficult to guess a person's mood, even though humans can speak.
Many of us own books on time management. Here are five tips on time management for those of us who don't have time to read the time management books we've already bought.
Getting to the truth can be a difficult task for managers. People sometimes withhold, spin, or slant reports, especially when the implications are uncomfortable or threatening. A culture that supports truth telling can be an organization's most valuable asset.
When the boss or supervisor of the chair of a regular meeting "sits in," disruption almost inevitably results, and it's usually invisible to the visitor. Here are some of the risks of sitting in on the meetings of your subordinates.
Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
Nearly everyone I know complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. If you're looking around for some New Year's resolutions to make, here are some ideas.
Often, we focus our awareness where we aren't or when we aren't. Whether we're in a heated meeting, or blowing out the candles of a birthday cake, being fully present can make our experiences more positive and memorable. Why are we so often someplace else? When we are, how can we come back? Or better, how can we stay fully present when we want to?
If you're a manager who micromanages, you're probably trying as best you can to help your organization meet its responsibilities. Still, you might feel that people are unhappy — that whatever you're doing isn't working. There is another way.
How we cope with problems is a choice. When we choose our coping style, we help determine our ability to address the problems we face. Of eight styles we can identify, only one is universally constructive, and we rarely use it.
Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves. Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we do about it?
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
In project work, we often make decisions with incomplete information. Sometimes we narrow the options to a few, examine their strengths and risks, and make a choice. In our deliberations, some advocates use a technique called the Straw Man fallacy. It threatens the soundness of the decision, and its use is very common.
Sometimes we cancel a project because of budgetary constraints. We reallocate its resources and scatter its people, and we tell ourselves that the project is on hold. But resuming is often riskier, more difficult and more expensive than we hoped. Here are some reasons why.
When we depend on praise, positive support, or consumption to feel good, we're giving other people or things power over us. Finding within ourselves whatever we need to feel good about ourselves is one path to autonomy and freedom.
Most of us feel recognized, respected, and acknowledged when others use our names. And many of us have difficulty remembering the names of others, especially those we don't know well. How can we get better at connecting names and faces?
Outsourcing is now so widespread that it has achieved status as a full-fledged management fad. But many outsourcing decisions lack the justification that a full financial model provides. Here are some of the factors that such a model should include.
Workplace bullies are probably the organization's most expensive employees. They reduce the effectiveness not only of their targets, but also of bystanders and of the organization as a whole. What can you do if you become a target?
Workplace touching can be friendly, or it can be dangerous and intimidating. When touching is used to intimidate, it often works, because intimidators know how to select their targets. If you're targeted, what can you do?
Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should you be careful of the "What If?"
What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
When we schedule a complex project, we balance logical order, resource constraints, and even politics. Here are some techniques for using scheduling to manage risk and reduce costs.
When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
Do you consider yourself a body linguist? Can you tell what people are thinking just by looking at gestures and postures? Think again. Body language is much more complex and ambiguous than many would have us believe.
If you have the time and resources to read this, you probably have a pretty good situation, or you have what it takes to be looking for one. In many ways, you're one of the fortunate few. Are you making the most of the wonderful things you have? Are you giving it your all?
When you attend a meeting, how do you choose your seat? Whether you chair or not, where you sit helps to determine your effectiveness and your stature during the meeting. Here are some tips for choosing your seat strategically.
Team-building is one of the most common forms of team "training." If only it were the most effective, we'd be in a lot better shape than we are. How can we get more out of the effort we spend building teams?
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading decision-makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way for success now and in the future?
Whether you're a CEO or a project champion, you occasionally have to persuade decision-makers who have some kind of power over you. What do they look for? What are the key elements of an effective pitch? What does it take to Persuade Power?
When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
One widespread feature of organizational life is the announcement of across-the-board cuts. Although they're announced, they're rarely "across-the-board." What's behind this pattern? How can we change it to a more effective, truthful pattern?
Changing anything in an organization reveals how it's connected to its people, to its processes, to its facilities, and to the overall context. Usually, these connections reach out much further into the organization than we imagine.
Here's a little catalog of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
However ethical you might be, you can't control the ethics of others. Can you tell when someone knowingly tries to mislead you? Here's a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
Many of us spend seemingly endless hours in meetings that seem dull, ineffective, or even counterproductive. Here are some insights to keep in mind that might help make meetings more worthwhile — and maybe even fun.
Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
Historically, military logistics practice has provided a steady stream of innovations to many fields, including project management. But project managers can learn even more if we investigate battlefield tactics.
Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
Do you work for a boss who doesn't appreciate you? Do you feel ignored or excessively criticized? If you do, life can be a misery, if you make it so. Or you can work around it. It's up to you to choose.
Cutouts are people or procedures that enables political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts, operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts? And what can you do about them?
Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
Do you have some little secret tricks you use that make you and your team more effective? Do you wish you could know what secret tricks others have? Here's a way to share your secrets without risk.
Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive a feud between people above you in the org chart?
When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again — if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both cheaper and faster.
One often-neglected project risk is the risk of inaccurately reported status. That shouldn't be surprising, because we often fail to report the status of the project's risks, as well. What can we do to better manage status risk and risk status?
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?
Feeling distrusted and undervalued, we often attribute the problem to the behavior of others — to the micromanager who might be mistreating us. We tend not to examine our own contributions to the difficulty. Are you micromanaging yourself?
Humor can lift our spirits and defuse tense situations. If you're already skilled in humor, and you want advice from an expert, I can't help you. But if you're humor-impaired and you just want to know the basics, I probably can't help you either. Or maybe I can...
Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally — to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
When we take time to express to others our appreciation for what they do for us, a magical thing happens.
A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to letdown when our hopes or expectations aren't met. How can we handle beginnings more powerfully?
In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.
Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
Participating in or managing a virtual team presents special communications challenges. Here are some guidelines for communicating with members of virtual teams.
The quality of an organization's culture is the key to high performance. An organization with a blaming culture can't perform at a high level, because its people can't take reasonable risks. How can you tell whether you work in a blaming culture?
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
For many of us, taking a vacation can be a burden. We ask ourselves, "How can I get away now?" And sometimes we have the answer: "I can't." How can we feel relaxed about taking time off?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
When teams share information among themselves, they have their best opportunity to reach peak performance. And when some information is withheld within an elite group, the team faces unique risks.
Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
In meetings and other workplace discussions, questioning is a common form of conversational contribution. Questions can be expensive, disruptive, and counterproductive. For most exchanges, there is a better way.
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path. We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse. Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on might just help keep you untwisted.
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate you to find another way.
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
How we deal with adversity can make the difference between happiness and something else. And how we deal with adversity depends on how we see it.
Condescension is one reason why healthy conflict becomes destructive. It's a conversational technique that many use without thinking, and others use with aggressive intention. Either way, it can hurt everyone involved.
Condescending remarks hurt. When we feel that pain, we often feel the urge to retaliate, even when retaliation might not be appropriate. Our responses are more effective when we understand where condescending remarks come from.
Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open a universe of new choices.
When things go badly, many of us experience stress, and we might indulge various appetites in harmful ways. Some of us say things like "My boss is driving me nuts," or "She made me so angry." These explanations are rarely legitimate.
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if we get the bad news first.
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
Threatening as a way of influencing others might work in the short term. But a pattern of using threats to gain compliance has long-term effects that can undermine your own efforts, corrode your relationships, and create an atmosphere of fear.
Empire builders create bases of power within the larger organization. Typically, they use these domains to advance personal or provincial agendas. What are the characteristics of empires? How can we navigate through or around them?
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we "know" just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
When we seek those accountable for a particular failure, we risk blaming them instead, because many of us confuse accountability with blame. What's the difference between them? How can we keep blame at bay?
Even though empathy skills are somewhat undervalued in the workplace context, we do use them, for good and for ill. What is empathy? How is it relevant at work?
How we see things influences how we see things, almost like a filter or sunglasses. What are your filters?
Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's a set of approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
Normally, you terminate or reassign team members who actually inhibit progress. Here are some helpful insights and tactics to use when termination or reassignment is impossible.
Look around your office. Look around your home. Very likely, some of your belongings are useless and provide neither enjoyment nor cause for contemplation. Where does this stuff come from? Why can't we get rid of it?
At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing more effectively?
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
When we deliver news at work — status, events, personnel changes, whatever — we sometimes frame it in a story line format. We start at the beginning and we gradually work up to the point. That might be the right way to deliver good news, but for everything else, especially bad news, deliver the headline first, and then offer the details.
It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
There's nothing like an injury or illness to teach you some life lessons. Here are some things I learned recently when I temporarily lost some of my independence.
It goes by various names — self-talk, inner dialog, or internal conversation. Because it is so often disorganized and illogical, I like to call it inner babble. But whatever you call it, it's often misleading, distracting, and unhelpful. How can you recognize inner babble?
Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
Some employees deliver performance episodically, while some deliver steady, but barely adequate performance. Either way, they keep their managers drained and anxious, on the "knife edge" of terminating them. How can you detect knife-edge performers, and what can you do about them?
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
Successful, persuasive presentations involve a whole lot more than PowerPoint skills. What does it take to present persuasively, with power?
Taking political risks is part of the job, especially if you want the challenges and rewards that come with increased responsibility. That's fair. But some people manage political risks by offloading them onto subordinates. Be certain that the risk burden you carry is really your own — and that you carry all of it yourself.
When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
Up and down the org chart, you can find bits of business wisdom about motivating people. We generally believe these theories without question. How many of them are true? How many are myths? What are some of these myths and why do they persist?
Keeping a journal about your work can change how you work. You can record why you did what you did, and why you didn't do what you didn't. You can record what you saw and what you only thought you saw. And when you read the older entries, you can see patterns you might never have noticed any other way.
Until about 75 years ago, barn raising was a common custom in the rural United States. People came together from all parts of the community to help construct one family's barn. Although the custom has largely disappeared in rural communities, we can still benefit from the barn raising approach in problem-solving organizations.
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us are, but are you doing all you can to make it happen? Start with a focus on you.
Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us do, judging by the number of Web pages that talk about promotions, getting promoted, or asking for promotions. What you do to get a promotion depends on what you're aiming for.
Great leaders know what to say, what not to say, and when to say or not say it, sometimes with stunning effect. Consistently effective leadership requires superior empathy skills. Here are some things to do to improve your empathy skills.
We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
If you want a promotion in line — a promotion to the next supervisory level in your organization — what should you do now to make it come about? What risks are there?
After the boss commits even a few enormous blunders, some of us conclude that he or she is just incompetent. We begin to worry whether our careers are safe, whether the company is safe, or whether to start looking for another job. Beyond worrying, what else can we do?
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
When leaders want to change organizational directions, processes, or structures, some questions arise: How much change is too much change? Here's a look at one constraint: the risk to management credibility.
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
Throughout the workday, we interact with each other on many levels. Some exchanges are so common and ritualized that we're no longer aware of them. If we revise these rituals slightly, we can add some zing to our lives.
Some of the questions we ask each other aren't intended to elicit information from the respondent. Rather, they're poorly disguised attacks intended to harm the respondent politically, and advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part one a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Your team is fortunate if you have even one teammate who regularly asks the questions that immediately halt discussions and save months of wasted effort. But even if you don't have someone like that, everyone can learn how to generate brilliant questions more often. Here's how.
Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict. It can be an expensive practice.
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
When the job market eases for job seekers, we often see increases in job shifting, as people who've been biding their time make the jump. Typically, they're the people we most want to keep. How can we reduce this source of turnover?
Achieving your goals requires both passion and action. Knowing when to emphasize passion and when to emphasize action are the keys to managing yourself, or others, toward achievement.
Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary, devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope with them?
By now, we've all heard of micromanagers, and some have experienced micromanagement firsthand. Some of us have even micromanaged others. But there's a breed of micromanagers whose behavior is so outlandish that they need a category of their own.
You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
In the modern organization, it's common to have meetings in which some people have never met — and some never will. For these meetings, which are often telemeetings, an agenda isn't enough. You need a program.
When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how to deal with them.
Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness, and that can render the entire effort worthless — or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations, and how can we do them well?
Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a little too much.
Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
Your boss has popped into your office for another morning gab session. Normally, it's irritating, but today you have a tight deadline, so you're royally ticked. What can you do?
In the past twenty years in the United States, we've changed from a relatively hug-free workplace culture to one that, in some quarters, seems to be experiencing a hugging tsunami. Knowing how to deal with hugging is now a valuable skill.
Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
To manage well, we need to know where we are, where we would like to be, and what we need to do to get there. Measurement can help us achieve our goals, by telling us where we are and how much progress we're making. But some things aren't measurable, and some measurement methods yield misleading results. How can we use measurement effectively?
Scope creep is the tendency of some projects to expand their goals. Usually, we think of scope creep as an unintended consequence of a series of well-intentioned choices. But sometimes, it's much more than that.
When groups decide divisive issues, harmful effects can linger for weeks, months, or forever. Although those who prevail might be ready to "move on," others might feel so alienated that they experience even daily routine as fresh insult and disparagement. How a group handles divisive issues can determine its success.
In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more effective.
You probably know many techniques for procrastinating, and use them regularly, but vociferously deny doing so. That's what makes this such a delicate subject that I've been delaying writing this article. Well, those days are over.
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
Completism is the desire to create or acquire a complete set of something. In our personal lives, it drives collectors to pay high prices for rare items that "complete the set." In business it drives us to squander our resources in surprising ways.
We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service, here are some of the best worst practices.
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
Some organizational cultures are healthy; some aren't. How can you tell whether your organizational culture is healthy? Here are some indicators.
Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
When we bias organizational decisions to manage our personal risks, we're sometimes acting ethically — and sometimes not. What can we do to limit personal risk management?
The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.
Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations, often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires an approach tailored to the medium.
If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't. Here are some effective suggestions.
Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.
Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. What tactics do obstructors use?
Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts. Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading and unreliable reports.
Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond effectively?
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could change our lives.
The path to the pinnacle of many professions leads through an initiate or intern stage in which the new professional plays a role designed to facilitate learning, especially from those more experienced. For some, this role is frustrating and difficult. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Those with organizational power can sometimes forget that their power is limited to the organization. Achieving high levels of organizational and personal performance requires a clear sense of those limits.
Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
We all have cherished memories — lovely moments we can replay whenever we want to feel happy. How would you like to have a lot more of them?
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for changing your frame of mind to help reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
In troubled economic times, layoffs loom almost everywhere. Here are some tips for reconfiguring your relationships with others at work and at home to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for positioning yourself in the organization to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
When layoffs are necessary, the problems they are meant to address are sometimes exacerbated by mismanagement of the layoff itself. Here is a discussion of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
Rhetorical fallacies are errors of reasoning that introduce flaws in the logic of arguments. Used either intentionally or by accident, they often lead us to mistaken conclusions. The Fallacy of Composition is one of the more subtle fallacies, which makes it especially dangerous.
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
Everybody has pet peeves about work. Here's a collection drawn from my own life, the lives of others, and my vivid imagination.
Your company has just done another round of layoffs, and you survived yet again. This time was the most difficult, because your best pal was laid off, and you're even more fearful for your own job security. How can you cope with survival?
Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
Outsourcing internal processes modifies the usual risk configuration of those processes, but it also creates a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. What are some of those risks and what can we do about them?
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
Group decision-making usually entails discussion. When contributions to that discussion include vivid examples, illustrations, or stories, the group can be at risk of making a mistaken decision.
In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. Here we examine two myths about forming teams.
For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding, toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
If you're out of work and discouraged — or getting there — you're in great company. Better than ever before. Getting back to work starts with getting to work on finding work. Here's a collection of strategies for the job of finding work.
Finding work in tough times goes a lot more easily if you have at least a minimum of equipment and space to do the job. Here are some thoughts about getting that infrastructure and managing it.
We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
Finding work in tough times entails presenting yourself to many people. You'll be conversing, interviewing, writing, presenting, and when you're finally successful, negotiating.
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times, it's especially important to distinguish between true opportunities and high-risk adventures. Here are some of the attributes of desirable political opportunities.
Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
In some teams, members feel so overloaded that they try to avoid any additional tasks. Here are some of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean, what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize, because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked, and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right time to act.
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink even lower.
Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
Political Praise is any public statement, praising (most often) an individual, and including a characterization of the individual or the individual's deeds, and which spins or distorts in such a way that it advances the praiser's own political agenda, possibly at the expense of the one praised.
Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges do they face, and what can we do about them?
The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking, and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
You have a job. Even though you liked it once, those days are long past, and a return is improbable. If you could, you'd hop to another job immediately, but economic conditions in your field make that unlikely. How can you deal with this misery?
Ever since I wrote "How to Undermine Your Subordinates," I've received scads of requests for "How to Undermine Your Boss." Must be a lot of unhappy subordinates out there. Well, this one's for you.
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more dangerous ones.
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?
When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
Most of us have some experience of being overloaded and overworked. Many of us have forgotten what it is not to be overloaded. Here's a contemplation of the state of overload.
Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
Fads in business come and go, like fads anywhere. In business, though, their effects can be so expensive that they threaten the enterprise. Still, the ideas and methods that become fads can have intrinsic value. Where does that value come from? Where does it go?
Adopting business fads is an expensive organizational pattern, with costs that extend beyond what can be measured by the chart of accounts most organizations use. Here are some examples of the hidden costs of business fads.
The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
Pet projects are common in organizations, including organizations with healthy and mature planning processes. They usually consume resources at levels beyond what the organization intends, which raises the question of their genesis: Where do pet projects come from?
Pet projects thrive in many organizations — even those that are supposedly "lean and mean." Some nurturers of pet projects abuse their authority to secure resources for their pets. How does this happen?
When pet projects thrive in an organization, they sometimes depend on the clever tactics of those who nurture them to secure resources despite conflict with organizational priorities. How does this happen?
When a team is divided, and agreement seems out of reach, attempts to resolve the conflict usually focus on the differences between the contrasting positions. Focusing instead on their similarities can be a productive technique for reaching agreement.
Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.
Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
In group decision-making, lock-in occurs when the group persists in adhering to its chosen course even though superior alternatives exist. Lock-in can be disastrous for problem-solving organizations. What are some common indicators of lock-in?
OODA is a model of decision-making that's especially useful in rapidly evolving environments, such as combat, marketing, politics, and emergency management. Here's a brief overview.
Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
Most targets of bullies just want the bullying to stop, but most bullies don't stop unless they fear for their own welfare if they continue the bullying. To end the bullying, targets must turn the tables.
Often, team members belong to several different teams. The leaders of teams whose members have divided responsibilities must sometimes contend with each other for the efforts and energies of the people they share. Here are some suggestions for sharing people effectively.
A trusting environment is critical to high performance. That's why it's important to recognize behaviors that erode trust in others. Here's a little catalog of methods people use — intentionally or not — to create distrust.
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict simply do not work for bullying. The tools we use to address bullying are specialized, because of the contrast between bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
Much of what we call work is as futile and irrelevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors that extend task duration.
Much of what we call work is about as effective and relevant as rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic. We continue our exploration of futile and irrelevant work, this time emphasizing behaviors related to strategy.
A little stress once in a while keeps us sharp, but chronic intense stress shortens lives. Stress can build gradually, out of our awareness. Here are some indicators of chronic intense stress.
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
A clear understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part I of a little catalog of authority classes.
Understanding Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority found in organizations. Here's Part II of a little catalog of authority, emphasizing informal authority.
We all want to believe that we can rely on the good judgment of decision makers when they make decisions that affect organizational performance. But they're human, and they are therefore subject to a cognitive bias known as self-serving bias. Here's a look at what can happen.
When groups work together to solve problems, they employ three processes repeatedly: they generate ideas, they judge those ideas, and they experiment with those ideas. We first examine idea generation.
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
In group decision-making, tension sometimes develops between those who favor commitment to the opportunity at hand, and those who repeatedly ask, "If we do that, how will we do it?" Why does this happen?
The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.
Just as real concrete objects have attributes, so do abstract concepts, or constructs. But attempting to measure the attributes of constructs as if they were the attributes of real objects is an example of the reification error. In performance management, committing this error leads to unexpected and unwanted results.
You're good at your job, but there's just too much of it, and it keeps on coming. Your boss doesn't seem to realize how much work you do. How does this happen?
If you feel overworked, you probably are. Here are some tactics for those who want to bring an end to it, or at least, lighten the load.
Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options, researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach yields disappointing results. Why?
Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
We continue our exploration of confirmation bias, paying special attention to the consequences it causes in the workplace. In this part, we explore its effects on our thinking.
Sometimes changing organizations goes smoothly. More often, it doesn't. Whatever methodology we use — and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard, what's happening? What makes change hard?
When your boss misspeaks — innocently, as opposed to deviously — what should you do? Corrections are not always welcome, but failing to offer corrections can be equally dangerous. How can you tell what to do?
When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, they sometimes choose not to consult experts or to reject their advice. How do groups come to make these choices?
Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
Ever learn of a complaint about you for the first time at your performance review? If so, you were blindsided. Reviews can be painful. Here are some guidelines for making them a little fairer.
We have choices about how we conduct social transactions — greetings, partings, opening doors, and so on. Some transactions require that we collaborate with others. In social transactions, how do we decide whose preferences rule?
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
When group decisions go awry, we sometimes feel that the failure could have been foreseen. Often, the cause of the failure was foreseen, but because the seer was a dissenter within the group, the issue was set aside. Improving how groups deal with dissent can enhance decision quality.
When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy. In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
When groups try to reach decisions, and the issue in question has a name that suggests a unitary concept, such as "policy," they sometimes collectively assume that they're required to find a one-size-fits-all solution. This assumption leads to poor decisions when one-size-fits-all isn't actually required.
Among the factors that determine the influence of contributions in meetings are the content of the contribution and how it fits into the conversation. Most of the time, we focus too much on content and not enough on fit.
The urge to identify as meaningful the patterns we see in winning streaks in sports, or streaks of successes in business, can lead us to accept bogus explanations prematurely. It's a common human tendency that can put people and organizations in desperate situations.
The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias that causes our evaluation of people, concepts, or objects to be influenced by our perceptions of one attribute of those people, concepts, or objects. It can lead us to make significant errors of judgment.
Some see workplace politics and integrity as inherently opposed. One can participate in politics, or one can have integrity — not both. This belief is a dangerous delusion.
When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden, or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
Some decisions are easy. Some are difficult. Some decisions that we think will be easy turn out to be very, very difficult. What makes decisions difficult?
Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
What we fail to notice about any situation — and what we do notice that isn't really there — can be the difference between the outcomes we fear, the outcomes we seek, and the outcomes that exceed our dreams. How can we improve our ability to notice?
Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason why we get it wrong.
Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's more of our collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
Bullying in meetings is difficult to address, because intervention in the moment is inherently public. When bullying happens in meetings, what can you do?
Most meetings have Chairs or "leads." Although the expression that the Chair "owns" the meeting is usually innocent shorthand, some Chairs actually believe that they own the meeting. This view is almost entirely destructive. What are the consequences of this attitude, and what can we do about it?
We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
Why would you want to know how to avoid getting what you want? Well, suppose you had perfected ways of avoiding getting what you want, but you weren't aware that you were doing it. This one's for you.
Someone asks you a question. Within seconds of starting to reply, you're hit with another question, or a rejection of your reply. Abusively. The pattern repeats. And repeats again. And again. You're being attacked. What can you do?
Most of the time, when we're bored at work, we know we are. But sometimes, we're bored and we just don't realize it. Here are some indicators of boredom that might escape some people's notice.
Finding a better solution by making small adjustments to your current solution is usually a good idea. The key word is "usually."
Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
Intentional learning is learning we undertake by choice, usually with specific goals. When we're open to learning not only from those goals, but also from whatever we happen upon, what we learn can have far greater impact.
Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways. Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere. How does this happen?
In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.
Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets things done.
Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
When people solve problems together, differences in preferred approaches can surface. Some prefer to emphasize the goal or objective, whole others focus on the obstacles. This difference is at once an asset and annoyance.
Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance. But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.