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Posts from the ‘Perception’ Category

Is it better to work for a small organization or a large one?

Image by LegozillaThere obviously isn’t a clear and straight forward answer to this question. The answer depends on the perspective of the person you ask and what they value. After working 10 years in corporate America, I came back almost 3 years ago to work for a smaller organization (less than 100 employees). Two of my colleagues (Yves and Ida) also recently made the switch. We got together to exchange our thoughts on why we believe working for a smaller organization is better for us.

Martin: You have spent a large part of your career working for large organizations, what struck you when you joined Pyxis?

Yves: One first obvious observation goes along something I experienced before in a young publicly traded technology startup (less than 100 employees). For a given amount of effort you invest towards an initiative, whether on a individual scale, with a group or at the enterprise-wide level, your ROI (Return on Investment) is quite higher in a small organization than in a large one. The outcome on the initiative may end up being very successful in both environments, but in the small organization context:

  • The decision-making process will be faster and will involve less people;
  • The frequency at which you will be able to challenge and refine a set of actions on your initiative will be higher. Furthermore, your chances for celebrating at the end increases accordingly;
  • The whole initiative will execute at a faster pace and will complete sooner most of the time. Hence, a key variable inducing a positive impact is the reduced number of hand-offs between departments or people.

Ida: The first blatant differences I noticed were the lack of anonymity (you don’t feel like a number) and the lack of rules and regulations. The lack of anonymity puts you out there right away and is an enabler to allowing you to contribute and make a difference right off the bat. The fact that there aren’t many rules and regulations can also help in allowing you to make that difference faster, with no red tape to slow you down in your tracks.

Martin: Changing organization is an important decision that is usually done without having all the information. In hindsight, what information would have allowed you to make a better decision?

Yves: Organizational culture; without a doubt! Although I usually spend as much time being interviewed as making my very own due diligence on the organization, culture remains the number one factor for which you never get enough insights.

In an interview process, I do take extra care at being very transparent and straightforward on my value proposition. I do expect the same in return from the organization; and it is usually the case. However, the organizational part of the equation is far more complex than one individual being interviewed; putting everything he or she has on the table.

In hindsight, I do realize that most of my career changes would not have been different with more organizational culture intelligence at hand, so, same decision at the end. But gathering more info on that side of the story allows you to prepare yourself much better for the ‘culture tango’ coming at you.

Ida: From my perspective, I don’t feel that any additional information would have helped me make a better decision. The decision was a good one because of my mind set. I was ready for a change. I knew that a change in company or industry wouldn’t cut it, it had to be a bigger change of sorts, and ironically the BIG change translated into moving to a SMALL, privately owned company.

Martin: Many people who join smaller organizations feel more appreciated and a stronger sense of contribution toward the organizational goals. What are your thoughts on these?

Yves: Most of your actions in an smaller organization are very visible; for the better or for the worst… This allows you to have a positive impact towards your colleagues and the enterprise itself, without seeing all your efforts being diluted inside complex chains of commands, large hierarchies and impractical politics.

So, the visibility factor brings more appreciation and a stronger sense of contribution most of the time. It is actually a key attribute of smaller organizations, from my own point of view. This stimulates people at performing towards excellence, knowing their chances of being recognized for their hard work are quite high.

Ida: In a smaller organization, the impact is immediate. A decision can be made and an action is put in place. The lack of heavy hierarchies means that each individual is much more empowered to get things done and not necessarily have to wait for various levels of approvals as in large organizations. This empowerment is motivating, energizing and stimulating.

Likewise in a smaller organization, the breadth and depth of one’s responsibilitiesis usually much wider than in larger companies. This in itself provides additional satisfaction since people are not «boxed in» to a role that is strictly defined, allowing them the latitude to spread their wings.

Martin: What do you miss about working in a larger organization?

Yves: Sometimes, smaller organizations are facing challenges less prevalent in larger ones. For instance, financial stability may be a focus discussed over a monthly, or even over a weekly basis in a small company. Whereas in a larger organization, these matters will be discussed less often and more upon large-scale changes like restructuring plans and/or financial results being bellow expectations.

Furthermore, larger companies are having less of a hard time raising capital for their growing needs; in comparison with smaller organizations which are struggling a good deal in order to maintain an attractive balance sheet for banks and venture caps.

I still remember those funny days about 12 years ago; when it was so easy for startups to raise literally millions of venture cap out of PowerPoints or based on theoretical MBA classroom business cases. Hopefully these days are gone and we all now raise money based on common sense and sound financial practices. This however, illustrates how difficult it can be for a smaller organization to secure its financial future in 2011.

Ida: My answer to what I miss about a large organization is a two part answer, and each part contradicts the other, let me explain. Similar to Yves reply, financial stability is the most noticeable aspect that I miss. The luxury of knowing that there are enough funds to pay all expenses when they come in, invest in projects, expansions, acquisitions, etc. and be around in the long run, fosters an environment of growth, possibilities and positive reflections, in theory.

I say, in theory, because the existing reality in most large corporations, even though highly profitable, is the continual squeeze to do more with less. Hence the pressure is such that you are never profitable enough. It becomes an endless race. Factor into this internal pressure, pressures from the market and shareholders, legislation, the economy, and so on, and it becomes the endless race with umpteen hurdles. This is the part that I don’t miss, but it is very much tied to that financial stability I spoke of above.

Martin: Thank you Yves and Ida for sharing your thoughts on this topic. This was an interesting exercise. We may do this again in the near future.

I’m afraid that things won’t go well

Image by Capture Queen ™
The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea. – Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you ever face resistance when attempting to implement a new idea or a new concept? I often notice interesting behaviors when helping teams and individuals transition to Agile. In fact, I notice strange reactions whenever there is a change management initiative underway.

In such circumstances, the first question that comes to mind is “Why is this individual afraid?“.

In my opinion, people are typically afraid for 2 reasons: they have had a bad experience in a similar situation in the past or they anticipate that the change will cause unwanted results. Either way, my approach is the same.

Being afraid is normal and is not limited to humans (for sake of this post, let’s limit ourselves to humans). As babies we learn through experience and the recommendations of our parents – the stronger the initial experience is, the longer it remains encrusted in our brain.

Let’s admit that many change initiatives have led to very negative impact for people. Remember enterprise re-engineering? What about outsourcing? Do you think people who lost their job as a result might be afraid of other organization-wide initiatives??

As change agents, it is our role to dig into the reasons behind the fears. I’m not talking about psychology, I’m simply talking about root cause analysis of the situation in an attempt to properly address the concerns. To do so, coaches must ask powerful questions and keep silence to make room for valuable information to be shared.

Once we understand the motivation or the source of the fears, we then need to be truthful and honestly tell if the situation will (or won’t) lead to the feared consequences. In the cases where it may actually lead to the expected consequences, we should engage the individuals into finding potential solutions or way to mitigate the unwanted conclusions.

Secret Revealed! Guaranteed Success for your Agile Transition

Picture by charchenSo you have initiated an Agile transition and have faced some resistance to change! Or maybe, you assessed your current level of Agile Maturity and are hoping to achieve the next level. Better yet, you and your team are planning to launch an Agile transition that is not driven by the wrong reasons.

That’s great!

If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read: Getting Started – Reference Material for Managers Who Wish to Understand Agile and Scrum and What consultants don’t tell you before you begin an agile transition.

Let’s cut the chase and get to the point. Are you ready? Here it is. The secret to a successful Agile Transition -> Make people look good!

Yes. That’s it. Surprised?

I’m not talking about psychological manipulation. I’m talking about finding what drives the people you are working with and the managers around them and then capitalize on their drivers in order to get them to get on board with the transition – and better yet become evangelist for your transition. Here are some examples:

  • Suzy is hoping to get promoted to Vice-president within her organization. She heads a business line from which you need support and a dedicated Product Owner. Why don’t you explain to Suzy how innovative her group would appear to others if she agreed to embark on the Agile initiative?
  • Peter is struggling to increase the performance of his group. So far, he hasn’t shown much interest in the transition but you found out that he has been under high pressure from his manager to increase the performance of his team. Why wouldn’t you show Peter how using an Agile approach could help get his manager off his back?
  • Monica is a project manager who has lost several key people in previous months. She is usually by-the-book (i.e. PMBoK) but during a recent lunch, she admitted that she would be willing to try something different if only it would help her retain the contributors she needs to make her project successful. Why don’t you take this opportunity to get the project manager on board with Agile by offering to help her?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not asking you to lie, to cheat or to fake the objectives and expected outcome. I’m telling you to get others on board and working WITH you by telling them the whole story and helping them understand that there is something in it for THEM too.

Agile relies heavily on communications and interactions. Why don’t you start with all the people directly and indirectly impacted by the transition? Sure, it will require more time in the short term to influence people into supporting you but in the long run, you will be glad you did it.

Go ahead. Try to figure out what drives people around you or what issues they are facing. Find a solution that can help them and you’ll end-up with a win-win scenario and a successful transition.

Survey results are in… People would wonder about their management style

The results are in!

In the survey I recently posted, to the question How would you react to bad news? most people would “wonder if their management style had anything to do with the current situation”.

How would you react to bad news?

Rest assured, this survey didn’t pretend to be scientific and the statistical method could easily be challenged. Nonetheless, it is nice to see that people would display what I would think to be the right behavior.

I can’t quite understand why 21% of the people would curl up in a foetal position :-p

Does your organization support prostitution?

Does your organization’s compensation model and your personal attitude support prostitution?
[Note: The definition of prostitution is provided at the end of the blog post. In the context of this post, I am referring to the second and less often used definition.]

The Scenario

Do you deliver value or paperwork?

As the head of a large Information Technology department, you walk by Michael’s desk one afternoon and to your surprise, you notice that your system administrator is frantically switching from Google to Chat to a discussion Forum. You recall similar observations a few weeks ago so you quickly wonder if, at $80K per year, you are getting your money’s worth for a system administrotor who always seems to browse the internet. To make matters worst, you don’t even remember when was the last time your company ran into serious systems issues. Do you need Michael on your team? Maybe he is a good candidate for the headcount reduction you have been imposed by Finance.

A few days later, on your way out of the office around 7:15 pm you hear key strokes and notice that Kim is still working. You remember approving Kim’s over time report last month and start to realize that the increase in ERP support calls might be starting to impact Kim’s work-life balance. Remembering your conclusion about Michael, you wonder if you shouldn’t close the system administrator position and add resources to Kim’s team. At $55K per year, you would still be able to cut your budget spending. Pleased with your conclusion, you briskly walk to your car hoping for a nice family dinner.

A New Concept

Here’s a new concept. For people working in most traditional organizations, this will sound like a really weird concept but what if employees decided their own working hours? I’m not talking about the flex time concept where people decide what time they wish to start and end their work day but actually decided how many hours and which hours they worked?

Typically, the traditional work week varies by company and by country. A standard work week in Canada is somewhere between 35 and 40 hours per week. Some would argue they work many more hours per week but that’s not where I want to take this discussion.

Imagine for a moment you stopped controlling the hours worked and focused instead on the results. Granted, this is a much more complex endeavor but in my opinion much more suited to year 2010.

The Old Paradigm

At the beginning of the industrial age, many employees were paid “by the piece”. For every bolt fastened, shirt sowed, or widget delivered they received a small amount of money. Eventually, companies realized that it would be more predictable and easier to manage if people were paid by the hour. Needless to say, the model has somewhat evolved and employees are currently paid by the hour, by the day, by the week, or by the year but the model pretty much remains the same.

The New Paradigm

The new model I’m proposing is to offer a fixed salary (or a risk salary), without any expectations of number of hours worked. Instead of expecting people to work 40 hours per week, people would be expected to deliver value or results. As I mentioned, it is certainly more difficult to set up the type of results expected but on the other hand, isn’t this the basis of commerce – I pay you $x for this good or service without any consideration about how many hours were required to produce it. The production piece is the responsability of the seller, not the buyer.

Back To The Scenario

Pleased with the previous day’s conclusion, you call into your office Michael and Kim’s direct supervisor to share your thoughts. Michael’s boss explains that since hiring him 2 years ago, systems outage have dropped 92% as Michael is consistently looking for ways to improve systems availability. He heavily praised Michael for creative and pragmatic solutions and despite the fact the Michael rarely has to do overtime, he would recommend him for a promotion.

Slightly shocked, you turn to Kim’s boss and ask for comments on her employee. With a grin on her face, Kim’s manager tries to hold back her answer as it certainly wouldn’t make you look good. She explains that Kim clearly lacks analytical abilities which is why she has to spend more time than all her colleagues solving similar issues. In addition, Kim is a poor team player. She likes to think of herself as a super-hero and she prefers trying to handle problems without the help of her team mates which often leads to repeated issues as the root problems are rarely solved properly the first time around. Despite many attempts at helping Kim with her shortcomings, she doesn’t feel the need to improve since she is often praised by the head of the department for putting in long hours…

(Silence in the room)

Embarrassed and apologetic toward both managers, you realize your attitude toward the number of work hours per week may have had the opposite effect that you were originally looking for. You genuinely thank your employees for their valuable feedback and wonder if you shouldn’t aim to leave early today…

pros·ti·tu·tion (prst-tshn, -ty-) – NOUN:

  1. The act or practice of engaging in sex acts for hire.
  2. The act or an instance of offering or devoting one’s talent to an unworthy use or cause.

Results of my 360 degrees feedback. What my colleagues had to say.

I finally completed the 360 degrees feedback exercise I initiated a few weeks ago. At the time, I created a document to collect my colleague’s feedback and explained why I was using this method for my performance assessment this year.

Before I get into the results, I must say that I was very pleased with the new tool as it forced people to make some choices in where they would allocate their points for the strengths and weaknesses. One of my evaluator had a comment that summed up the process nicely. He said “Your tool is very similar to you. It is simple yet it has a playful complexity behind it. It forces the evaluator to really give some thoughts to his answers”.

The graphic below presents the average score for each question, in descending order. Out of the 20 people I invited to take part of my evaluation, 17 people participated and filled out the questionnaire while 1 participant preferred to provide an evaluation without filling it out.

Graphical representation of the results of my 360 degrees feedback

Graphical representation of the results of my 360 degrees feedback

Evaluators could score each question on a scale from -4 to +4. The explanation of each score is presented at the end of this post.

Although the results are very interesting, the process allowed me to receive a lot of feedback and have open conversations with people I work with. In my opinion, this is by far the most positive aspect of this process. I look forward to repeating the process once again next year.

  • -4: This competency is below the 1st percentile compared to the population.
  • -3: This competency is below the 10th percentile compared to the population.
  • -2: This competency is below the 25th percentile compared to the population.
  • -1: This competency is below the 50th percentile compared to the population.
  • 0: This competency is average.
  • +1: This competency is above the 50th percentile compared to the population.
  • +2: This competency is above the 75th percentile compared to the population.
  • +3: This competency is above the 90th percentile compared to the population.
  • +4: This competency is above the 99th percentile compared to the population.

Using silence as a communication tool


Using silence as a communication tool

Using silence as a communication tool

Have you ever heard the expression “You have two ears and only one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak”? What about “Silence is gold”? It doesn’t matter if you have never heard these expressions, you will still be able to take advantage of this under-utilized ability.

Chances are, you have participated in meetings or conversations where people talked, and talked, and talked for no apparent reason only to show-off in front of colleagues or their boss. When you sit back and listen, you often notice that despite the noise, the conversation isn’t moving forward. In these instances, people are concerned with demonstrating something (their knowledge, their communication ability, their decision-making power, etc.) rather than really communicating. Most of the time people talk too much. Way too much.

Over the years I have found that using silence is very useful. Contrary to what a former boss told me, being reserved in a meeting and participating when necessary is much better than talking all the time in order to get noticed. If the only way for you  to get noticed in your organization is by talking a lot during meetings, you are in trouble. I would think that conversations are probably as shallow as the level of competence of the management team – but I digress.

Many people assume that communicating is simply talking nonstop. They are not aware of how they are being received and perceived by others. Using silence on the other hand is very useful. As a communication tool, silence provides a few interesting benefits:

  • it allows you to actually listen to other people’s perspective;
  • it lets your colleagues complete their thoughts without rushing;
  • it provides space for people to express their opinions or feelings;
  • it makes people feel their perspective is valued;
  • it allows you to organize your thoughts and emphasize one point or another;
  • it builds anticipation in your audience and allows them to follow your message;
  • it leaves room in the conversation to allow people to share something they might want to tell you but weren’t quite ready to do so;
  • during negotiation, it adds a little pressure on the other person to possibly offer a better deal;
  • and as a bonus, it improves people perception of you – you no longer appear self-centered and in need of visibility.

When your ego and your need for power drive your conversation, you are certainly missing out on critical pieces of information. Humility and serenity will increase your communication ability. If you are able to develop the ability to remain silent for a certain amount of time in a conversation, you will quickly discover the benefits.

Hierarchies aren’t evil… but people can be!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Hierarchies aren't evil... People are!

Do you ever say to yourself “I wish there was no hierarchy in our company“?

Wouldn’t it be a perfect world if there were no hierarchy in organizations? Everyone working in harmony, collaborating to achieve their goals with no annoying boss telling anyone what to do. In this hierarchy-free world there would be no supreme ruler over the teams, only happy people delivering their work with birds chirping in the background…

OK, I realize I’m pushing it a little but people who systematically oppose to specific organizational structures often have an idealistic perspective of the world. Fortunately, the world isn’t black or white, there are many nuances.

I have had discussions about hierarchy-free organizations with many people over the last few months. Repeatedly, people bring up the same reasons why they don’t like hierarchies. From their perspective, hierarchies are bad because:

  • they don’t let employees perform their work as they wish;
  • they allow authority over people;
  • they break communication channels;
  • they create a distinction between the boss and the employees;
  • they don’t treat people equitably;
  • they offer more benefits to people at the top;
  • etc.

What if hierarchies weren’t the problem? What if the cause of these issues was somewhere else? What if the organizational structure wasn’t the real problem? Not that I am a huge fan of hierarchies, but I do not believe the organizational structure is the real problem – people are!

Let me explain my perspective.

I feel that blaming hierarchies as the reason people hate their job and feel under-appreciated is short-sighted. Organizational structures have much less to do with how people feel than the management style and attitude of the leaders.

Let me repeat that statement. I believe that the attitude and behavior of the leader has greater impact on the team members’ performance and happiness in the workplace than the organizational structure under which they operate.

You are not convinced? You might want to try this exercise.

Can you think back of a time when you felt empowered to do your job and were happy to be at work? Can you recall a time when you would invest long hours working on a project and your energy level was going though the roof? If you answered yes to these questions, ask yourself this other question “was it because of the hierarchy-free structure or the leader’s attitude”?

If you have had the opportunity to work for a great leader – someone who gives you freedom to do your work, holds you accountable for the results, is always supportive and available for mentoring, and gives you credit for your work – you will immediately realize that the leader’s behavior and attitude were the underlying causes of your satisfaction. A bad leader in a hierarchy-free organization will make everyone’s life miserable while a good manager – even in a position of authority – will get amazing commitment from his people.

It might be that the people against hierarchies are ones that never had the opportunity to work for a great leader and so, assume that the organizational structure is the issue. I wish them to find a great leader to work with because in the end, the leader’s attitude has much more to do with a happy and productive work environment than the actual structure of the organization.

Using a 360-degree feedback form to assess your leadership

Most organizations use a top-down approach to assess their employee’s performance. The assumption is that the individual’s manager is the best person to perform an un-biased, quality performance review. As I already pointed out, only archaic organizations still rely on this type of performance assessment (see #6). Not only are traditional performance review not representative but they focus on the skills and competencies the manager wants his employee to develop.

On the other hand, if you prefer a more comprehensive review, you may be interested in 360-degree feedback. This type of feedback mechanism covers various sources – boss, colleagues, employees, customers, suppliers, etc and as such provides better coverage for the evaluation of an employee’s strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, the employee may even decide which specific skills to assess.

360-degree feedback form

After working on the competencies required by my bosses for most of my career, I have decided to build my own 360-degree feedback form to assess my leadership abilities. You may download and use the Excel version of this form – a pdf version is also available. *

The form presents Weaknesses – skills to improve (in column C) and Strengths – skills to maintain (in column I). The evaluator must rate each statement or competency, using a scale from 0 to -4 (for the weaknesses) and from 0 to 4 (for the strengths). The evaluation scale is presented below.

Although there are 50 competencies, the evaluator is given a maximum of 25 points to allocate forcing them to choose which competencies to recognize as strengths or weaknesses.

Evaluation scale

  • 0: This competency is average.
  • +1: This competency is above the 50th percentile compared to the population.
  • +2: This competency is above the 75th percentile compared to the population.
  • +3: This competency is above the 10th percentile compared to the population.
  • +4: This competency is above the 1st percentile compared to the population.

Creative Commons License

360-degree feedback form by Martin Proulx is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.

* Under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License, you are entitled to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon my work, even commercially, as long as you credit me for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with the works licensed under Attribution.


Do you wonder why your boss doesn’t show up at your meeting?

This is not an un-usual situation. You call a meeting that you deem important. You invite the right people to have a constructive conversation in the hopes of coming to a decision that will be accepted by most. You planned everything ahead of time in order to maximize your participants’ “Return On Time Invested” (ROTI).

Before the meeting and without further information, your boss tells you that he won’t be attending your meeting. You try to get over the inital disappointment and frustration in order to answer the nagging question that pops in your mind “Why doesn’t my boss show up at my meeting?“.

Assuming for a minute that this is not due to an un-expected situation and that you were told before the start of the meeting – being told during the meeting would add insult to injury by showing a lack of respect.

I can only think of 2 reasons to explain that behavior:

  • The decision for which you are meeting has already been taken or will be taken behind closed-door.
  • The decision is not important for your boss.

Either way, this demonstrates that your boss doesn’t care about the decision stemming from the meeting. Although that is frustrating and wastes people time and energy, it is not dramatic in itself. This becomes a problem because of the lack of communication around your boss’ decision not to attend the meeting.

You may not be pleased if your boss tells you that the decision has already been taken but at least, you wouldn’t feel like an idiot when you realize this fact after you put your time and energy in the meeting.

Now, let’s give this situation a different spin and imagine receiving the following information from your boss before your meeting:

  • My absence to your meeting does not indicate that I do not believe in the value of your meeting;
  • I trust the group and their collective intelligence to make an informed decision;
  • I am confident that the participants will challenge each other and will have good discussions;
  • I want to prevent the debate from revolving around my opinion, which could bias the conversation;
  • I prefer to support individuals with my expertise rather than take decisions for them.

Would you still wonder what your boss’ intentions were? Wouldn’t you feel good? Trusted? Motivated??

If you manage people, don’t let them wonder about your intention. Tell them the reason behind your actions.