BOSSES MICRO-MANAGE. LEADERS MICRO-COACH.

As a new parent, I am increasingly getting sucked into the polarizing debate on how to best raise children these days. Should I adopt the more heavy-handed “helicopter-parenting” model, or should I run with the lighter-touch “free-range parenting” approach?

Coincidentally, as a leader who is driving change in a large organization, I face a similar challenge — I have to negotiate the fine line between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader. I know that I would disempower my team if I micro-managed them, and I would most certainly turn into a people manager if I disengaged from the details of the content.Neither of the two options aligns with who I aspire to be as a leader.

What if it was not about choosing between being heavily involved and being completely hands off? I have had some success resolving this tension by thinking of each interaction with my team as an opportunity for, what I like to call, micro-coaching. If you think about it, micro-managing is ultimately about retaining control over the team’s outcomes; whereas, micro-coaching is about getting your hands dirty alongside your team with the intent of growing them so that they can get to the best outcomesYou may think that this is not a scaleable model; however, I have found that investing in your talent early and often will actually help you scale fast without comprising quality in the long run.

Here are some micro-coaching principles I have put into practice when working with my team.

BE VULNERABLE

Teams are closest to the content, so honor their expertise. As a coach, you need to lead with open-ended questions to rapidly catch up with where the team is. It means that you, as a leader, are willing to ask seemingly dumb questions. By doing so, you not only better understand the foundational assumptions the team is making, but you also show up as a vulnerable and safe thought partner who is in service of the team. As Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith always says, “as leaders, we work for the team, not the other way around.

ELIMINATE THE NOISE

In their pursuit of getting to the best solution, teams often get too close to their content area and become myopic. Your job is to help them see the forest for the trees. As a coach, you should keep the bigger picture in mind and help the team sort through the noise, whether the noise was created by various stakeholders or self-inflicted by the team itself. There is something very liberating for the team when the coach maniacally helps them focus on what truly matters. It’s not about you narrowing on the final solution, but rather about helping the team let go of unnecessary information that might be causing analysis paralysis.

BREAK FRAME

A very effective way of eliminating the noise is helping the team reframe the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, teams find themselves solving for an apparent tension between two different ways of looking at the problem. Your job as a coach is to help them see a third way that breaks frame and helps them unlock new creative ways of viewing the challenge. I have found that provoking the team to think of analogies or metaphors prompts them to think differently.

ASK FOR A SOLUTION

This one might be a little controversial amongst design thinking practitioners since we don’t like to jump to solutions too early. Many teams get stuck at the synthesis phase of the design process, at which point they need to extract key insights from their vast learnings and answer the ultimate ‘so what?’ question. I have seen many teams getting overwhelmed by the task of synthesis, leading them to question themselves and everything they have learned in the process. When I see teams doubt themselves, I know it’s time to intervene. In these situations, I often ask for 30 minutes of the team’s time to do what I call a gun to your head exercise, which essentially requires each team member to quickly craft the overall narrative of what they have learned and what is their conclusion (the so what?). Once everyone shares their narrative, the team quickly sees that they are collectively closer to the solution than anticipated. Of course, this exercise does not get you to the final solution, but it dramatically accelerates the team’s progress towards the solution and helps them trust their intuition again.

HAVE SKIN IN THE GAME

Being a coach is not a role that should be taken lightly. The coach not only helps the team stay true to the vision of the work, but is also there to protect the team from organizational hazards. We all know the usual suspects — too many stakeholders with different opinions, not enough resources, and compressed timelines just to name a few. The team needs to know that you have skin in the game and that you will be part of the team in good and bad times. You own the outcome as much as the team does. In other words, you cannot disassociate yourself from the work if things go wrong. I always like to compare my role to a coach in the NFL or the NBA. Who is the first person to get fired when the team does not perform well? The coach is. The team needs to know that you are part of the team.

I’d like to leave you with a quote I once heard from an inspiring leader I worked with — I believe he was quoting Coach Krzyzewski. It went something along these lines:

“You know you are not a team when you blame each other. You know you are a team when you save each other.“

I hope these principles will inspire you to try new ways of working with your teams. Micro-coaching has been a key component in helping us build a strong team while generating high quality, actionable content that the team can be proud of. I really encourage leaders to put on the coaching hat (and a whistle if you want) and give yourselves permission to strike the right balance between being a “helicopter” leader and a “free-range” leader.

Would love to hear from you about other coaching tips that you have tried with your teams. While you’re at it, throw in a couple of parenting tips, I could use it 🙂

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The Power of Touch

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It’s innovation time. Your team has been blessed by leadership to come up with the next big thing that will win the hearts and minds of your customers. Meet the team. Joe the designer likes to work remotely from his house – he wants to spend more time with his kids. Sarah the engineer is located in your East Coast office – given the latest budget cuts, she cannot travel that often. Marc the Product Manager is located in your West Coast office – he’s always in the office, but spends 80% of his time in meetings giving updates to the leadership team.

No problem, your organization is giving you all the tools you need to “collaborate” and become a “high performing team”. The chances are that your IT department has spent a good amount of money to create an infrastructure that will theoretically increase productivity and minimize traveling costs. Webex and Cisco Telepresence are the weapons of choice. Past experiences have eroded your faith in these tools, so you’ve also built your own arsenal of reliable workarounds…Skype and Google Hangout, just to name a few.

You lay out a project plan with key milestones, daily check-ins, monthly face-to-face meetings, and clear roles and responsibilities on the team. This all makes sense until the sexy plan on the page turns into the reality of collaborating in meetings.

“Hey team, Webex is acting out today. I don’t see you on the video. Let’s try Skype. Oh, Skype is slow today; let’s go to Google Hangout. Dammit, for some reason Marc can’t get on Google Hangout. Let me text him and see if he can try Webex again.”

And round and round you go. Before you know it, you have spent 20 minutes figuring out how to finally get to a mediocre workaround to actually start the meeting. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.  Unfortunately, this has become the norm for millions of corporate workers around the world. Somehow, we have become numb to the imperfections of these tools with the hope that the technology will one day catch up with our collaboration needs.

Being a true believer in intact and co-located teams, it occurred to be me that technology is not really the problem here. The real problem might be our assumption that technology can enable true collaboration. Perhaps we are conflating communication and collaboration.

We don’t have to go far to witness true collaboration. All we have to do is turn on ESPN and learn from athletes. They high five, chest bump, butt slap, fist bump, and hug more than they play the game. Whether they’re celebrating as a team, encouraging each other, or consoling one another, these moments all have one thing in common – the power of touch.

fist_bump

These are not empty gestures – they reflect the true essence of a team. Touch strengthens relationships; establishes trust, equality and respect in the team; and more importantly it creates a system of accountability amongst the team members (in other words, friendship) that goes beyond individual performance. These gestures create rituals and traditions that the team can fall back on in good or bad times.

Leaders need to understand that innovation is ultimately a team sport, not a resourcing sport. Teams are not set up for success if you simply enable them to communicate. Innovation is harder than that – it’s garbage in, garbage out. You need to create the space for a group of random people to build genuine, personal relationships and let them emerge as a real team that is passionate about changing the world, and not preoccupied with the mechanics of working together.

Here’s to letting your teams “touch” each other, literally and figuratively, as well as HR appropriately 🙂

Leadership by the window

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INSPIRATION

It ‘s not often that a designer gets to use Borat as an example for how organizations behave, but this might just be the case for me today. Don’t worry I will NOT reference any of the vulgar jokes that make up about 99% of the movie.

For no apparent reason other than doing the Borat accent with a colleague at work, I decided to watch the DVD a few weeks ago. To my big surprise, I had completely overlooked one of the most insightful scenes the first time I watched the film: Borat’s interpretation of leadership – well, at least my interpretation of Borat’s interpretation of leadership.

In this scene Borat associates the access to a mundane hotel chair with the authority and power of a leader. He sits on the chair and immediately takes on the personality of a demanding king. And then it hit me! Leaders in large organizations have their own version of Borat’s chair – it’s called a window.

I have had the opportunity to work on a few space redesign projects over the past few years. The design briefs are always about transforming cube farms into more open, innovative spaces that foster collaboration and innovation. As with any design project, you first engage key stakeholders in establishing the hard constraints. Well, when it comes to most organizations, the constraints are pretty simple:

  1. x number of people need to fit in this space
  2. the location of the restrooms cannot move by much because of plumbing
  3. every senior leader must get an office by a window

While I can live with the first two constraints, I have always questioned the rationality of automatically giving a window to the leaders at the top of the corporate ladder. If the purpose of the space is to foster collaboration and innovation, shouldn’t it be designed to facilitate such interactions and behaviors for the majority of the occupants? I can’t recall the number of times my team and I had to stay clear of the space’s “prime real estate” (i.e. the corners where two windows intersect) because it was reserved for the highest ranking (and mostly traveling) leaders in the space.

As a result, the buildings of most companies are filled with empty, well-lit offices for the “kings of the castle”, and dark cube farms for expected-to-be innovative and collaborative minions.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As usual, this blog is not about throwing stones at the status quo. It’s important to recognize the symbolic meaning of having a window. In most organizations, the window becomes the tangible manifestation of one’s successful career. That said, it is also important to balance that reality with the fact that traditional workplace models are being challenged in a rapidly changing environment. As designers, it is our job to challenge the third constraint by engaging leaders in co-designing and exploring alternative configurations. Here are three principles that have helped me and my teams get key stakeholders (facilities, architects, occupants) to think beyond their existing assumptions about leadership and status:

1. DESIGN WITH, DON’T DESIGN FOR – It is amazing how easy it actually is to break taken-for-granted assumptions when you get occupants (including leaders) to co-design with you. We have often built full-scale foam core models to immerse key stakeholders in the design process. By building together, occupants develop empathy for one another and open up to new win-win possibilities.

2. GET LEADERS OFF THE BENCH – Good leaders want to be part of the action, and not just via email. Many leaders actually miss the daily face-to-face interactions with their teams. Unfortunately, the office by the window reinforces the gap between leaders and their teams. We often hear the term “leading from the front” or “leading from behind”, but we never hear “leader from the bench”.

3. LET THERE BE LIGHT…FOR EVERYONE – Light is energy. Light is inspiration. Light is fuel for innovation. Light is a reminder that there is a world outside of our buildings. That’s the same world where our customers live and breathe. Capitalize on the “prime real-estate” available to you by making them hot spots of collaboration and innovation.

ACTION

As Borat would say, “Dziekuje” [thank you] for reading my blog, and as always I hope to hear from you!