How Perfect is Perfect Enough?

A business professor assigned a group of MBA students to visit a local custom door factory and observe some of the craftsmen there.

The students arrived at the factory and were assigned to observe an elderly and obviously very seasoned door carver.  They arrived in his work area, equipped with sharp pencils and clip boards.

The door carver paid scant attention to them.  He had already made quite a bit of progress on the door he was working on, and it was already a thing of great beauty. He would carve for a while, stand back and take it all in, and then go to a different part of the door and carve some more.

As he carved, the door became ever more ornate and beautiful.  The MBA students were amazed at his level of concentration and his obvious dedication to his work.

After a number of cycles of silently carving, standing back, assessing, choosing a new spot, and carving some more, one student asked, “How do you know when you’re finished?”

The woodcarver looked up, and said, “When they come to take it away.”

He was depending on someone else to decide  when the product was ready for market. He was deriving his joy from working at the margin and making the door ever more perfect.

“How perfect is perfect enough?”  It seems to me that answering that question  is a critical role that product managers and project managers must play in any complex project. The practitioners, the scientists, the engineers, and the door carvers want to keep carving. Successful projects require someone to make a business judgment.  What criteria define “perfect”?  When must it be done?  How much will people pay for it?  From those questions and judgments, the team creates the definition of when the door is done.

Here are some questions to consider when framing a complex project:

What value are we providing? Is it a door that will keep us warm in the winter, or a door that is a thing of beauty and makes us proud of our home?

Who are we serving?  The market for sturdy and energy efficient doors is significantly different than the market for beautiful doors.

When does the customer need it?  Is it October and getting cold?  Or is it spring and we’re fixing up a home for our daughter and her family to move into?

How perfect is perfect enough?  Am I letting perfectionism push the project completion past the point of diminishing returns and delaying the primary benefit?

Epilogue: 

Most complex enterprises require the right mix of the dreamers and artisans who take joy in the craft of the work and the pragmatists who want to serve a well-defined market with the right product,with just right set of features, at just the right time, and at just the right price.

Sometimes, those talents live inside the same skin.  Most of the time, they do not.

Manage Conflict! (or it will manage you)

Met-the-enemyConflict is a fact of life for most people. In a 2008 study, CPP found that 85% of workers in the US experience conflict to some degree and 29% report that they experience it “always” or “frequently”. (CPP 2008)

Constructive conflict is well accepted as a key indicator of high performing teams. In a comparative study of five globally accepted team effectiveness models, Korn Ferry, a leading authority on leadership and talent, found that four of the five frameworks featured conflict management as a key issue for effective teamwork. (Michael Lombardo 2001)

CPP found that when employees are trained how to manage conflict, over 95% of those people say that it helped them in some way. A quarter (27%) say it made them more comfortable and confident in managing disputes and 58% of those who had received training said they now look for win–win outcomes from conflict.

41% of employees think older people handle conflict most effectively. Seven out of ten employees (70%) see managing conflict as a “very” or “critically” important leadership skill, while 54% of employees think managers could handle disputes better by addressing underlying tensions before things go wrong.

But, when it goes bad, it goes bad in a hurry.

In the same research, 27% of employees reported that unmanaged conflict led to personal attacks, and 25% of them saw it result in sickness or absence.  Almost ten percent saw it lead to a project failure.

Hmmm…..

What can consulting leaders do to model and teach this critical skill within their teams?

Here are five steps you can take now to help your teams benefit from constructive conflict and avoid the negative results of poorly managed conflict

1.  First, assess where you and your teams stand. Consider these questions and discuss them with your teams:

  • How passionate and unguarded are team members able to be in discussing issues?
  • On a scale from “exciting” to “boring”, how do team members experience their meetings?
  • Do team members prioritize the toughest issues for attention, or avoid them?
  • How comfortable are team members in challenging one another about conclusions, plans, and approaches?

2.  Communicate! Make it clear in what you say and how you act, that conflict is normal and necessary, but unmanaged conflict is costly in many ways.

3.  Teach your team to communicate. Establish rules of engagement that help teams manage conflicts in a productive way. Focus on asking great questions, and getting everyone involved in formulating the answers. Encourage the shy ones to speak up and tell the aggressive ones to pipe down. Help your team develop emotional intelligence and relationship skills. Pay particular attention to empathy and assertiveness.

4.  Focus on issues and not people. When conflicts turn personal, turn them around to return to the issues that count. Teach your teams the analysis skills that enable the root cause analysis skills to identify the most important issues.

5.  Ferret out the “elephants in the room”. Chris Argyris calls an elephant an “undiscussable”.  Undiscussable topics become that way in order to “avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threat.”  In other words, a taboo. When elephants are running free in the room, the credibility of the organization and that of any leaders within sight are at significant risk.

Help your people stop avoiding conflict and become world-class at it.  In doing so, you and your clients will get their best, and they will develop a skill that will differentiate them (and you) for the rest of their careers.

End Notes:

Argyris, C. (1988). Managing with People in Mind, Harvard Business Review Press.

CPP, I. (2008). CPP Global Human Capital Report: Workplace Conflict And How Businesses Can Harness It To Thrive.

Michael Lombardo, R. E., Cara Capretta, Victoria Swisher (2001). FYI for Teams. Minneapolis, MN, Lominger International.

 

Take a Walk on the Dark Side

dark-side_500It was 1998. The prospect was a three-letter giant (TLG) in the telecom segment. The opportunity was a very large desktop upgrade project, where the prospect was proposing to replace their existing desktop services infrastructure. The value of the project was multiple millions of dollars in servers, PC’s, software and professional services.

Hewlett-Packard was the incumbent provider of servers for TLG. Unfortunately, their relationship with TLG’s desktop infrastructure team had been slipping for years. The current VP of desktop operations had been developing an increasingly close relationship with Compaq. The HP team saw this opportunity as a chance to turn the tables on Compaq and win a major piece of business.

The HP global account manager called a Hail-Mary play, and lobbied hard with the HP consulting organization to fund an extensive pilot of the proposed server implementation. He hoped to win back favor with the prospect and level the field on the relationship front.

Six months and several hundred thousand dollars of HP-funded consulting later, the prospect had awarded the total hardware, software, and implementation project to Compaq. Compaq, of course, was quite happy to accept the zero-cost validation of their architecture, funded by HP.

The HP team were scratching their heads:

“Where had our strategy gone wrong?”

“How could we have avoided investing all that time and effort into this flawed plan?

The answers were painful, but simple.

1) We assumed that a technology investment would result in a relationship improvement.

2) We hadn’t properly understood the risks in our approach.

As consultants trying to advance a decision, we often let our objectivity slip when we are enchanted by the upside, the best case, the wonderful outcome, without doing proper due diligence about what could go wrong.

When we are considering a major decision, it often helps to let our imaginations run wild, in a negative way. Said another way, we need to let the teams brainstorm every possible way this initiative could fail, prioritize the risks, and then put plans in place to neutralize or mitigate the biggest of them.

Every team has some mix of optimists, pessimists, and realists.   Often times, the optimists have the most assertive personalities, and tend to dominate the decision meetings. The realists and pessimists in the group are reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of seeming negative, and allow themselves to be shouted down by the optimists.

Teams can benefit from a process, which enables the more conservative teammates to safely share their doubts and concerns, and encourages the overall team to deal with those concerns in a comprehensive way. Enter, the Black Hat Decision Review process.

The black hat decision review process is an important way to make sure that all facts, opinions, insights, and projected impacts are thoroughly considered and vetted.

Giving the pessimists and realists a forum to share their views in an overt and safe way helps teams avoid costly mistakes for the small price of some additional time and process in their deliberation of the decision. (See the previous article, “How to run a black hat decision review”)

Beyond the obvious advantage of making a well-considered decision, using this approach signals to the entire team that everyone’s opinion is valuable and will be taken into account.

Beyond the advantage of clear thinking, this technique improves the level of trust and commitment that each member holds toward the team as a whole, and their individual teammates.

Bottom line: The more investment, effort, and potential return there is in a particular decision, the more important it is to invest fully in the understanding and mitigation of risk.

When you are considering your next major decision, take the time, involve your entire team, and get all the perspectives on the table.

Take a walk on the dark side. Try out the black hat review, and see if it doesn’t yield clearer decisions, better-managed risk, and enhanced buy-in from your team. (And oh, by the way, improved probability of winning more often!)

How to Conduct a Black Hat Decision Review

black-hat-500A Black Hat Decision Review is a great way to get all the perspectives, pro and con, on the table and to enable your team to make the best possible decision, with your most important risks considered and mitigated.  (By the way, “your team” can include you and your customer.  That’s the best way to become an “advisor”.)

This process is based on the notion of parallel thinking, popularized by Edward DeBono, in his book, Six Thinking Hats. A brief description of DeBono’s ideas follows below.

Here are the steps in a Black Hat Decision Review:

  1. The proponent for a decision presents the case for moving forward. Chances are they will present a logical and optimistic case, include the new thinking involved, and highlight the emotional side of a positive outcome.
  2. All but one member of the reviewing team then meet separately and brainstorm every possible risk they see that would inhibit success. They meet for about 10-15 minutes, and focus on defining the risks, represented by DeBono’s black hat.
  3. The proponent and one additional team member meet separately and also consider all the possible risks.
  4. The whole team comes back together. The proponent and partner present all of the risks they saw. The remaining team members present their decision killers, one at a time, taking turns, one issue at a time.
  5. The team rank orders the risks from greatest risk to lowest risk.
  6. The teams split up again, this time considering the actions they recommend to mitigate the most significant risks they discovered in the first phase of the exercise.
  7. After 10-15 minutes, the teams reconvene. The proponent and partner present their action plans first. The remaining team members present their actions next.
  8. With all risks visible, and lots of input on ways to mitigate the risks, the entire team decides whether or not to move forward with the proposal, and what detailed actions they must take to optimize the probability of success.

Here’s why it works:

DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats model discusses six “thinking hats”: White (facts and figures), Yellow (optimism), Red (emotion), Black (risks of failure), Green (innovation) and Blue (planning) hats.

Instead of ping-ponging around between facts, optimism, pessimism, emotion, logic, and planning aspects of a decision, the team synchronizes their thinking to consider one perspective, or “hat” at a time, until all perspectives have been examined and all team members’ inputs have been considered. The approach makes it much safer for all concerned to name the risks and deal with them, instead of sweeping them under the rug under the onslaught of optimism.  The Black Hat Decision Review shortens the due diligence process by focusing primarily on the Black Hat, or risk.

Why just focus on Black?

Advocates for a particular decision, will instinctively focus on the positive aspects and the path forward. Because they are advocating, they may often short change or ignore entirely the topic of risks and probability of failure.   The black hat focus makes it easier for team members to feel safe in expressing critical or contrarian ideas, and thus allows for more complete “due diligence” and a better, more-informed decision.

Credit where credit is due!

Thanks to Brad Milner, Managing Partner at TechCXO LLC, for allowing to me adapt his Black Hat Deal Review for a broader audience.  Brad wows consultative sales teams with this approach, and invariably they are excited about its power and relevance to their success.