Perceptions

29/June/2009

Last saturday my elder son had a friend’s birthday party at a park outside the city limits. I drove him there and, having nothing to do the rest of the morning, I started my return to home enjoying the travel time. That is, going slowly for a highway standard. Suddenly, a truck  began getting very close to me, until there was no more than three or four feet, a distance too short for travelling at 50 or 55 mph. He also started to put the lights on and off, until there was space enough to go to the right and let him go his way to hell. He pissed me off, but he also gave me something to think about the rest of the trip.

As you know, I usually drop my kids at the school in the morning, and go to work after that. I am usually in a hurry because I want to get in my office’s building as soon as possible, and a lot of drivers seem to be going really slowly. And I discovered that a lot of times I start to blink my lights to them so they give me space to overpass them, much like the truck driver did, except for going so close to the other cars.

Is it a matter of perception of the time? I mean, if I am in a hurry, all of the other drivers seem to be going slow; if I have plenty of time, the other drivers seem to be insanely fast. The situation also reminded me about the famous size of the sun or the moon in the horizon, seeming bigger there than up in the sky. Or, and here is the point for today, the job of other people in the company: did you see how easy seem to be the other’s jobs?

A very good friend of mine told me about a nice experience he had with his team: he organized a “circus workshop” with them. One of the conclusions, among a lot of learning points, was that seeing someone do something gracefully gave the perception that it was easy to do, until the moment they try to do it. The “experiment” was seeing the workshop’s coach do some juggling with two or three balls. He was so good doing it that everyone thought it was easy, until they tried for themselves.

At the office, if we see someone that do his job with no evident effort, there is a tendency to qualify that job as easy, so the performer is immediately taken as lazy or one tend to think that he is overpaid. Really, have you ever try to do his job? As I mentioned before, reality and perceptions can go very different ways.

It is very difficult to experience the job of other person if you can not be in his shoes. Some companies have programs where the employees can do the work of other colleagues for a day; although it is not the same, since they are not seen as responsable, it can give a taste of the difficulties that we can’t see about other’s jobs, mainly because they are really good at what they do, so the work seem to flow around them.

The next time you think about a colleague being overpaid for what he does, think again, or try to juggle with the three or four balls he use to juggle everyday. You will be surprised about all the small, and not so small, things you overview about his expertise.

Regards,

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Blocking

28/April/2009

I am back. Maybe not for a long time, but I would like to share what I learn every day. And, again, my trigger was a driving experience.

I was driving along a very wide avenue. It was not new for me, but I started to note that some drivers were going not in between the lines that delimit the lanes, but exactly over the lines. What was their intention? After some blocks following their movements (with my eyes, not with the car), the behavior was obvious: they were “reserving” lanes. I mean, they were blocking the traffic from two lanes at the same time, waiting for a hole in the traffic that allows them to advance faster than the rest of the cars. And they succeeded and, really, they went faster. If this is really a method to accelerate traffic without modifying the max speeds, why not to use it broadly? Why not to erase the lines off the streets?

I am not such innocent. The answer is simple: they were faster than the rest just because they were only a few percentage of the drivers. They can go faster because almost all respect the rules and go along the lanes.

We see every day people at the enterprises that outstands over the rest of the employees. There are categories, but some of them belong to the one that break the rules and, because of that, achieve higher results, at least in some way. And they are seen almost as superheroes because of that attitudes.

If we analyze them in detail, we can spot some of the former drivers’ behaviors: they tend to “block” lanes, managing more than one matter at a time, waiting for one of them to become “high” in the top management’s mind, to fill the hole and advance faster than the rest. Probably they didn’t see it beforehand; they block the way to others so they can’t use the holes even if they saw it. But the “blockers” succeed. Is that a winning behavior?

Back to the driving example. Suppose all the street lines are erased so everybody can go wherever they want. I think that there will be a real mess and the whole traffic will become slower than before. Lot slower. The only reason to the success of the “blocking” strategy is that there is much more people that respect the rules than people that block lanes. In the enterprise example, what would happen if all of us do whatever we want, and do not follow the rules? That is, not to do our chores, our assigned tasks, just because we are doing a lot of things to block other’s lanes.

There will be always people that break the rules, people that prefer to excuse rather than asking for permission to do things. And sometimes it is a good strategy, not only for them but for the whole company; for example, when they “block” the way to someone that really prefer not to do his assigned task. But for the company, the best strategy is to have people assigned to every function that is needed, and to be the assigned person to do the assigned tasks. If everybody start to do what they want, the whole company will slow down.

Regards,

    Diego :D

Best (or just better) place

25/September/2008

My brother’s wedding gave me the opportunity to spend a week in a city of the west coast of USA, and to drive there a lot. I can not assure that everyone drives nicely, but the overall sensation was that of a very organized traffic system and a deep respect for the rules and laws. The street lanes didn’t dissapear; the drivers use the turn lights before taking turns and the people don’t stop in the middle of the street just because or signs the soon to be action. The summum is the respect shown for the pedestrians at the ped’s crossing sites and for other drivers at the STOP signs. I have never thought of myself living in the USA, but the respect shown for the others and for the rules made me think about it.

The former observations triggered me to think about the things that made me feel “good”, and they were very similar to those I look in a job: known rules and order; respect for people, things and rights; a sense of justice, where prizes and punishment are applied when is pertinent; and freedom to leave or to stay there.

I also thought about the things I also look for in a job, but I did not observe in an explicit way during my trip, although it doesn’t mean they are not there in some way or different essence: having someone who I respect and trust blindly to get advise from; seeing that the people who make the rules act according them; and having the beautiful feeling that I am doing something that makes sense, that will have some perennial effect in the way we live.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of the economical matters as the salary and the benefits; in fact, they are a very important decision point for me to take a job. But the things I mentioned really make the difference between a workplace and a job: doing it just because the pay, or doing it proud of being part of it.

See you. Regards,

    Diego :D

Too big

30/August/2008

Having already left my kids at school, I was driving to my office. I wanted to avoid heavy traffic, so I choosed a secondary street. The traffic flow stopped and this time the cause was an accident about fifty meters ahead. After a couple of minutes and realising that this was not going to be solved quickly, I started to signal the cars behind me to go backwards, task that seemed easy given that there were only three cars to the last corner. I saw through the rear mirror that one of the drivers was having a very difficult moment going backwards: he could not maneuver his four wheel drive truck going backwards, turning and avoiding parked cars at the same time. After some minutes, I managed to left the traffic jam, while the truck driver was still trying to maneuver. He almost pissed me off.

Having left the problem behind, I realized about how nice and new was that truck. And big, surely big. I use to fantasize a lot about how nice would be to drive a car bigger and taller than mine in this streets, with a better view of the ahead traffic and without worrying about other drivers crossing their cars over mine. But I never imagine a thing about this problem: can I manage to drive that monster? And I mean really dominate the car.

It seems to be a fairly extended problem: seeing the benefits without taking into account the responsabilities, or simply the abilities, necesary to accomplish the task. It is very probable that the mentioned driver has been using his truck for weeks without a problem and, if not having this problem, going on for lot of weeks more, as far as he was driving forward or only parking on his private, jumbo size lot.

At work, lots of people try to get higher responsabilities, seeing that they can manage very well their jobs. And they probably can get those promotions they were after, and they can do it very well once promoted. Off course, as long as they are driving forward. The really suitable people is seen when the problems arise and this can happen in any moment, or never. So, there is even a possibility that a person is promoted a couple of times before that truth moment.

Sadly, it is very difficult to pretest this persons; there is no “test drive” available. You can do any kind of test or simulations, and not knowing how he will perform at that moment. And, most of the times, there is no chance to get back: it is kind of “up or out”, or more precisely, “solve it or out”. It is a one way trip: good performance, promotion, not good performance, out?

As middle managers, we are the company’s reps closest to the people who is trying to get a promotion; so, we know them better. It is our responsibility to advise our people if we think they are not ready, as is to help them if we think they are.

The same applied to ourselves: the grass of the neighbor is always greener; but we can be blind to all he does to his garden and the problems he solved to give it this England green.

It is part if the human kind to try to be better everyday, but trying to manage something bigger than we can could be, at the same time, stressing and frustrating for ourselves and for others who depend on us.

I have been offered a very cheap Scania 112H; should I give it a try?

Regards,
    Diego :D

Bad signalling

9/August/2008

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving behind a cab, ready to turn left in the next street, when I was surprised by the taxi driver turning on his turn-light, signalling me he was also going to turn left. I smiled internally, thinking of my previous blog entry about signalling, but the driver stopped a couple of meters before the street, and waited there. Of course, with myself stucked behind him and trying to maneuver to follow my way. He pissed me off, but for not too long.

I talked about the importance of signalling, being it to get help from others or to help others to plan their actions. In the case I mentioned, the taxi driver’s action of using the turn light was as if he were saying me “Hey, no need to overpass me! I will turn shortly”. But no, he was not. It was a terrible signal. I understood he was helping me, but his action made me change my probable course of action and I ended worse than with no signalling at all.

In fact, it can be a hell of a strategy. You signal a competitor that you are going to increase your prices, for example, and you do nothing after his price increase. Or you can tell your team you will probably go to another area so they fight for your future vacant site, increasing some performance figure, but do nothing. It has its drawbacks, also: people learn. The human being is no stupid. Someone said that one can fool few people for a long time, or many people for a short time; but even that truth is limited: those few learn and next time will be very difficult to cheat.

I really prefer not to bad signal. I have a reputation and that reputation is my presentation letter, and the reason why many people at my company trust me and my decisions. It is a way of life.

Going on with the taxi driver’s case, I finally maneuvered to overpass him and, ready to curse him, I saw his front yellow turn-right light turn on and blinking, as I saw the rear-left one. I understood immediately: the driver put the emergency stop lights, not the left turn light, but probably the rear-right light was burnt off. His real message was “Hey! Overpassme, since I will stop and I don’t wat you getting stuck behind me”. A lesson to learn.

Being my main professional background about communications engineering, I could easily explain the problem as “line noise”. A message is deliverd, another message arrived, and was the message arrived which was interpreted. I didn’t misunderstood the message; I was interpreting the incorrect one. Anyway, the lesson here would be: ensure about the understanding of the receiving part is coherent with the message you intended to send. People’s histories are very different, and each history lead us to interpretation of a message in a different way. And that is not taking into account the different cultures, where the gap can be larger.

Speaking about signals, please, can someone signal me that this post is being read?  Any kind of signal :-)

Regards,

    Diego :D

The power of thanks

22/July/2008

This story is going to be very short. After being some moments stopped by the red traffic light, the queue of cars started moving. I was about tenth in the line, so I didn’t have a good view of the next corner, but it seemed most of the cars were turning left, as it was my intention. When I was near to turn, I stopped to let the walking people cross the street. Then, something weird happened: at the same time I received an insult from the car behind me and from one of the persons I was giving pass to cross the street. The first one argued that he was going to miss the green light and would have to wait, and the pedestrian because nobody before let him cross.  I can not say they pissed me off, but it was a bitter time for me.

I have talked about people that get mad because other goes by the rules, so the driver behind me, even with no right, can be understood. The one I really don’t understand is the pedestrian’s behavior.

I will try to re enact the situation from his point of view: I am a pedestrian trying to cross the street, a lot of cars turn the corner in front of me, no one let me cross until one of the follows the rules and give priority to crossing people. The driver let me cross and, instead of “thank you”, I curse him because of the other’s actions.

Everyone expects the people follow the rules and obbey the laws. Every manager expects that a task, given to the people that should do it, will be performed in time and with the right amount of quality. But that person, even if he knows that he only followed the rules, expects at least a “thank you”. And what he really doesn’t expect is that you complain to him because others in his “class” don’t react the same way.

Thank you is powerful. Use it a lot, even if the one you are thanking for just did what he should.

Regards,

    Diego :D

Bringing down your image

13/July/2008

I was going to my parents home, using the highway, as I mentioned in other blog entry. I was ahead of my schedule, so I was not hurry as other times; that means I was on the second or third lane, out of six. A small truck started to get near me, and the driver did not slow down until he was at no more than about two meters from me. Going at more than 60 mph, this was too close, for me and for everyone. There was almost no traffic, but the driver decided that I must move to another lane, instead of he moving to the left lane to overpass me. He put my kids and myself on danger, and really pissed me off.

It was a high stress moment. I reacted very bad and cursed the driver even with the kids in the car. After a while, having left the highway, I calmed down and, strangely, I remembered the phone number written in the front of the truck. I called and described my point, and the company told me they would talk to the driver. And there is more: I remembered the name of the company. From that moment, a company I will never use or recomend, even after the promise they made to me.

The image is a powerful but ephemeral concept. You can be a model of good behavior for years, and a small mistake is enough to go back to square one.

Companies, specially those who address a big portion of the population, seek, and need, acceptance of the society. They use a lot of means to achieve it, but the one of the first ones is showing the people that they are also part of the society. That includes that they will not do to the others what they do not like done to them.

You can not buy image. Image is constructed around a lot of aspects, some very concise and some than can be seen in an indirect form, but the number of repetitions is far larger than the others. In the case I mentioned at the beginning, an action from an employee affected the image of that company so negatively in my mind, that I will hardly choose that company in the event I need their services. The act was an employee reaction in the street, or with a client, or with a future client, an act that repeats a lot of times per day per employee. It is named as the “truth moment” in the theory: the moment an employee meets a client.

It is not enough to advertise, demonstrate civic responsibility, do donations or implement social help plans; if your employees are not aligned with the social responsibility that the company is claiming for, the image is negatively affected. It is like a policeman dressed in his uniform not acting in a robbery because he is not in service; just because he is dressing the uniform, he is seen as a policeman and must act like it is expected. In terms of image, one must be completely coherent. If a person is associated with your company by his uniform or by the tools he is working with, including the car he is driving, being him or not your employee, being or not in working hours, can affect the image of the whole company. It can be a positive or negative effect, but we all know that is more easy to see and spread the word about a negative action than a positive one. Is a manager responsibility to teach the team how to behave if they are seen as employees of the company.

As you can see, it is not enough to train the “Customer care” employees in the way they must behave in the name of the company. In fact, anyone in the company that talks on behalf of his employer can be seen as a representant of the company, and his word can influence people to construct, or destroy, the image they have about the company. Every little act counts.

See you around. Regards,

    Diego :D

Commitments

25/June/2008

I was going to my parents home last weekend. I use to take the highway more because the fact that it us more secure than for being the speediest way to get there. About halfway, the traffic slowed down and what use to be a half an hour trip became an hour and a half. The traffic jam hadn’t ended when I left the highway, and there was no kind of indication nor alternatives signalled by the highway operator, but I must pay the toll charge anyway. They did not comply with their obligations, nor for the commitment of “free toll if delayed more than x minutes”. Off course, the rest of my family was taking the dessert at the time I arrived, ans I had to lunch alone the “very very well done” barbecue… I was not pissed off, but very dissapointed.

You and me rely on assumptions all the time. Those are based on some tacit and some explicit commitments from other people we interact all the time. It would be very ineffective if we don’t do it that way. Just imagine calling the bus company before leaving home everyday to ask if the bus service is working, just to confirm. Or checking the voltage on the wall before connecting any device.
Sadly, not all the commitments are made with the same level of responsibility or thought. Some people really work to accomplish their promises, some don’t think about what they are compromising for and make promises not taking into account if they have or don’t have to comply them.

Even some promises can be categorized as “white lies”, mainly because nobody plans to honor them, but they are, at least apparently, harmless. Or it can be a plain lie, period.

Everyday I rely on the people working with me doing their chores at a professional level. I supervise some of the projects personally if they have some impact on other areas, and leader a small number of them that can have a major impact in cross company areas or from a bunch to all the clients. The order of importance is based on the impact over others, as the others use my commitments to do promises to third parties and the impact can multiply by a big number.

Not going to very big commitments, we usually act and organize our lives, and l am talking now about the work life, around the promises of our coworkers, providers and clients. Getting on time to meetings, sending the email with the information we promised or give our people the free day we offered when we needed them to work very late that “budget night” last month are just very quick and dirty examples. Some of them will trigger new actions, some of them will build confidence about our word and honor and, probably, give us the opportunity of giving out very well backed up promises in the future.

I am tempted to promise you I will see you soon, but it is impossible to honor that promise.

Regards,

    Diego :D

Signals

16/June/2008

I know that some day I will learn; in the meantime, I will continue making this kind of mistakes and collecting stories to share with you…

I was driving in a street and, having to turn right next corner, I positioned myself on the righmost lane. Some meters before the crossing the car ahead of me stopped without a warning, the driver step out the car and started to help his children out of it, there, stopped in the middle of the street. He was there three or four minutes during which I haven’t had a chance to change lanes to follow my way. I ended up really pissed off.

It is probably not the best example of what we are teached about signalling, but I think it applies to the concept. We face everyday situations like that one. We want to do something and we depend on the action or inaction if someone else to be allowed to do our movement. In my “story of the day”, if only the driver just turned on the emergency lights announcing his intention to stop, I wouldn’t changed my lane and continued my way without a problem.

We use to apply the term “signalling” to strategic decisions about competition moves, but it can be used more widely. For example, when someone from our team wants to do something we know it will be of negative impact in someone else, but we decide to silently let him do it and later stop him in the middle of the move, we fail to signal him. You can’t stop in the air after jumping; if you didn’t wanted me jumping, signal me before starting. The sooner the better.

We do it everyday; a look to let him pass ahead of me into the elevator, an email to warn about the effect a delay in the project will have in the company’s results, or simply the distribution of a new edition of the Code of Ethics of the company, can be an effective signal for those who are looking for them. Off course, some people need bigger signals than others, so feedback is necessary to be sure everyone understood the warning.

Going further, the same idea applies to our people’s careers. We can signal our teams if they can grow in other areas or if they can’t grow anymore in the company, for example, or if they must change some attitude or get a new skill to continue working with us; they can take a different decision path if only know that someone or something ahead will stop them.

From very small and almost insignificant situations, to very important ones, even to the point that it can change the life of someone, we are responsible if we could signal the other part and we fail to do it. Battles and wars have been won without human losses, just with the right amount of signals. And it is also our responsibility to understand the signals from the other parts. It is useless, or even harmful to ourselves, to ignore them.

I must stop writing right now. I think some is trying to yell me something, but I can not hearing him because the fire alarm is too loud.

Regards,

Diego :D

The phantom menace

9/June/2008

I arranged to pick up my kids at school, so there I was, trying to park in the very car-crowded blocks around it. I picked an apparent empty place 50 meters ahead and, when getting there, it was the front of a building in construction stage. The space was “reserved” for the trucks delivering work materials the next morning, but it is reserved from the afternoon of the previous day by means of rests of iron bars and rocks on the sidewalk very near the border of the street. Anyone who dares to park there, can end with deep marks in the paint of the car. They really piss me off.

Is kind of a threat, tacit but it is a threat. Another everyday example: there are some areas in the city that have free parking. During special events, some people start to “help” the drivers to park, given the scarce spaces, and offer to “take care” of the car. They have no kind of identification, nor allowance from the government to do that, so it is up to you to give them money or not. But you know what can happen you don’t give them money: your car can be the only one in blocks with the windshell broken, the music equipment stolen and have a very nice “human product” gift in the front seat.

There are some tacit threats in your private life, as the previous examples, and some in your work everyday. You give a tip to the waiter of your everyday coffee store even if you have not had a good service, just to be sure your next coffee will be just coffee, and you laugh at a gross joke from your boss about a non-present person just to be part of the “team”. There is something in common to all the examples: a risk to loss something; it can be your position, your car, your health or your secrets, you fear to loose something.

There is a darker view to this kind of situations, and is the fact that there are people that take into account your fears. It is a group of people for who the threatening is a common situation, almost a way of life. Some of them are easy to nullify, but others are not so easy. The latters are the people that have someone or something that “protects” them; thay have power, or they are protected by someone who has it, or maybe just a very developed ability.

The fear directs people to do things that are very near to the irrational. Michael Jensen, creator of the REMM model, describes those kind of behaviors as “Pain avoidance” model, in contrast to the “Resourceful, economical and maximizer”, where people start to act to diminish the pain in that moment, not taking into account the future. You pay for the “protection” of your car, but that only generates a feedback loop that attracts more people to “aid” you to park.

The examples apply to the work, off course. If a Manager ask an employee to end certain “very urgent task” very near the annual revision date, it is very likely that he will accept the task, even when he knows for certain that it is impossible to end it in the timeframe imposed by his boss. Or the fear to signal a bad action of a coworker because you can be seen as a “non team working” by the rest of the team.

Are those real threats?  There is no blackmail, no verbal or written menace, just the feeling of the “victim” that there can be consequences. It is even very difficult to do a formal accusation, not because the probable revenge, but because there is no proof.

As I mentioned earlier, some people use this behavior in their own benefit. They have mastered in the art of psicological menace. They are law offenders in the street; at work, it is called mobbing. As managers, we are responsible of our employees. It is our job to know the mobbers and ask them to stop.

There is a thin line between “stressing” the team and threating it. The power of the words is huge; use them to good. Respect your team’s values and yours, not doing to others what is wrong if being done to you. At the end of the day, we all want to go home happy about the day and want to return happy tomorroy.

See you. Regards,

    Diego :D