Tag Archives: organizational culture

Alternatives to bureaucratic hierarchy

I don’t doubt that its possible to have an organization with out traditional managers. I’ve read about Semco and Morningstar Farms. I’ve talked to people who work at Gore. My husband works for a less well know firm that doesn’t have traditional managers.

But those companies didn’t get there by happenstance. They got there by design. People chose, designed, evolved practices and structures to support a specific culture. They didn’t take off-the-shelf models of functional or product based organizational structures.  They didn’t slide into typical  for people management practices, organizational structures, job levels or reporting relationships.

Most companies settle for practices shaped by management thinking of the first half of the last century–without a second thought. The language of this thinking is mechanistic and dehumanizing. It’s the language of efficiency, compliance, hierarchy, rules.

If you want a different sort of company, start with using a different language.

For example, rather than talk about “managing performance,” talk about giving people the information they need to continually improve or sitting down on a periodic basis to examine how we can work better together.  Does that feel different to you?  It does to me. Those words offer a different set of possibilities.

Because we are talking about people and complex human systems, not moving parts in some vast machine.

Trifecta of Doom: How Expectations for/about Managers Stymie Learning

When I was promoted to a management role, I realized that the skills that made me standout as a programmer were not the skills I needed in my new role. I started reading. I found a mentor. I applied for a graduate program in leadership.

But I was something of an exception. Many managers feel too busy to read. Many don’t have good role models within their companies. I meet many people in management roles who have never picked up a serious management book. Some managers I meet express relief that they no longer have to keep up with evolving technical trends–they can relax and stop learning.

I find this puzzling. But I see it all the time.  Why might that be?

My hypothesis in another snippet from my interview with Softhouse.se for Lean Magazine.

LM: Could you give examples of ways in which we can create a organisation where constantly managers get better at being lean/agile managers and where there is a “learning culture” even for managers?

E: In the US (and I suspect some other places) we face a trifecta of obstacles in creating a learning culture for managers.

FIrst, when someone is promoted to management it is a sign he’s “made it,” proved that he is “management material.” When you’ve made it, asking for help can signal that you weren’t “management material” after all. 

Second, in many organizations, it is more acceptable to be sure and dead wrong, than admit uncertainty and be approximately right. In such organizations it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help or show uncertainty.  That slows the learning curve for new managers.

Third, people have been taught that a manager’s job is to get other people to work hard.        Most people are motivated when they start a new job. But motivation drains away when people must work hard to overcome obstacles in the form of procedures, rules, and organizational hoops rather than value-adding work.  Managers need to focus on creating an environment where it’s easy to do the right thing and do valuable work. Then people will work hard on their own.

All these work against learning.  So we have some hard work to shift manager’s perception about their role.

I have seen organizations where managers hold their own retrospectives, to see how well their decisions and actions are working out. This is a critical feedback loop that’s missing in many organizations.

I know many managers who are learning to admit mistakes, and realizing that failing fast applies to management, too.

Finally, managers have to examine their own assumptions, and start figuring out “what they know that ain’t so”  (to paraphrase Will Rogers). This is difficult, no matter who you are, or where you sit in the organization. But it is a key to learning.

As Goes the Contracting, So Goes the Contract

A while back, a colleague, Susan, called to ask me for some advice.

“I’ve been planning a vacation with my family for months,” she said. “And now my new client wants me on-site next week. I’d be happy to come the week after next, but they keep pushing. I told them I couldn’t come because I had family plans.”

“Have you been able to schedule the visit for a time that works for both of you?” I asked.

“No, not yet. The next day, my client called me back and said they really needed me, and to make it easy for me, they’ll put me and my family up at a five star hotel for the week and through the weekend. They’ll provide a nanny, a car and driver, and obtain VIP passes at the local theme park and children’s theatre.”

“Are you going to do it?” I asked..

“It’s tempting,” she said. “They say they really need me, and my kids would probably love it. But something doesn’t feel right.”

I had to agree.

Susan is at a turning point with her client: the way this initial exchange about scheduling her site visit unfolds will color the rest of their working relationship.

All of us establish working relationships, whether we are employees or external consultants like Susan. We make agreements with others about what’s expected and how we’ll work together. Sometimes our agreements are explicit, as in creating a project charter, setting a sprint goal, or establishing the boundaries of a new assignment. Other times the agreements are less explicit—the agreement comes about without conscious attention.

Pay attention to what happens in the early stages, when you’re working out how you’ll work together. The early stages often foreshadow the entire working relationship.

Susan’s client was establishing that he expects people to switch priorities at short notice and sacrifice personal balance to support his sense of urgency. If Susan acquiesced to this request, her client would have her asking “How high?” each time he said “Jump.”

After we analyzed the situation, Susan decided to stand firm. She called her client and thanked them for their generous offer, and said it didn’t fit for her to upend her family vacation. She reaffirmed that she’d be happy to be on-site with them the week after her vacation.

Susan’s client was surprised that anyone would act this way, but accepted her schedule.

After her week at the client site, Susan called me back. “You know how my client wanted me to drop everything, change my plans, and react to their sense of urgency? It wasn’t really urgent. And they treat almost everyone that way.”

“Yep,” I said. “Everyone but you.”

Resources don’t write software. People do.


1. a : a source of supply or support : an available means —usually used in plural
b: a natural source of wealth or revenue —often used in plural
c: a natural feature or phenomenon that enhances the quality of human life
d: computable wealth —usually used in plural
e: a source of information or expertise
(Source: www.mirriam-webster.com)


Economic or productive factor required to accomplish an activity, or as means to undertake an enterprise and achieve desired outcome. Three most basic resources are land, labor, and capital; other resources include energy,  entrepreneurship,  information,  knowhow,  management, and time.
(Source: www.businessdictionary.com)

Sometimes, when I hear people talking about “resources,” I ask if they mean people. Usually, they agree that they are talking about people, but the responses fall into two categories.

Some people have a moment of recognition, as if coming out of a trance, that “resources” isn’t the word they want to use. They know that people do work, and they’ve fallen into a habit, led there by the language of corporations and project tracking software.

Other people respond with a brush off, as if only an idiot would ask such a question.

What happens in the rest of the conversation is interesting. For the second group of people, even when they use the word “people,” they still talk about people as if they were “productive factors”  in a reductionist universe, not living, breathing people.

And that’s a problem.

Productive factors may be fungible. People aren’t. Even when they have the same skills, people aren’t interchangeable. I tried a little thought experiment to see if I could imagine a job where people are fungible. Dishwashers? Are dishwashers fungible? They have no special skills, one is pretty much the same as the other. errrr….Not so much. On the task level, dishwashers might be interchangeable. But if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that not all dishwashers are the same and that the human characteristics of dishwashers can change the mood of the kitchen.

Productive factors may be required to have specific skills, and those skills are all that matters. The rest of the person is irrelevant. I sat on a panel recently, where one of the other panelist was a resource-thinker. Some of the people attending the panel discussion were training for a second career, and asked about trends in the current job market. According to the resource-thinker, the employment outlook for these folks was entry level work.

Some of these folks had managed dozens of people, run businesses, designed precision parts, taught school, managed inventory, or managed job queuing. All of these strike me as interesting when I consider how a person can contribute to a team or an organization. Apparently, none of that matters if you are a productive factor.

Productive factors don’t have personalities. People do. Even when people have similar technical skills they have unique preferences, qualities, styles. They bring their own experiences, points of view, ability to solve problems and relate to others. To ignore this is to ignore the importance of human communication and group dynamics in getting work done.

Productive factors are utilized. But thinking of people in terms of utilization leads to burn out. The resource-thinker on the panel talked about requiring 90-100% utilization after layoffs. Since he was in big consulting firm, that mean 90-100% billable hours, which are only a portion of the hours actually worked. Oddly, most resource-thinkers realize this about machines, but often forget it about people. When you fail to change the oil in your car, the cost are visible. But the cost of fixing a person (sick time) or replacing a person (after the burned out person leaves) is hard to count, especially on the local budget level.

Productive factors can be allocated–across many many tasks. (People in manufacturing recognize set up and switching time, many people managers do not.) I’ve seen project managers assign people to five or ten tasks in little tiny slices–15%, 10%, 5%–all in one week. There are lots of tasks that only take an hour or so. But assigning people 5%? Micromanagement. Task-switching. Utter lack of understanding of how most humans work. Many project managers reverse engineer their understanding of project management from software tools; maybe that’s where they get such ideas.

Productive factors don’t care about autonomy, mastery, or purpose.

Resource-thinking leads managers to focus excessively on labor rate. Labor rate is not labor cost. Driving labor rates down is very likely to drive labor costs up. Work gets done by people who can figure out how to work together. Managers who have a plug-and-play mentality about people may achieve lower labor rates, but almost certainly have higher labor costs.

Resource-thinking leads managers to ignore that work involves communication, interactions, relationships.

Resource-thinking sucks the soul out of work.

Our thoughts shape our language, but our language also shapes our thoughts. The zeroth step in creating humane workplaces is to start talking about the people not resources.

BTW, first know use of the term Human Resources was 1961.  So much damage done.

culture of entitlement, culture of blame

I received an email advertising  a workshop for managers, titled “Overcoming a Culture of Entitlement,”  last week.

Here’s the hook:

“When employees feel “entitled,” they resist change, they drag their feet, they’re not accountable, and leaders are constantly frustrated.”

Who are these leaders that are constantly frustrated?  Might they be the same ones who had a part in creating the entitlement culture they want to overcome?

To understand how people come to feel entitled, let’s look at the definition (from Merriam-Webster online):

en·ti·tle·ment Pronunciation: \-ˈtī-təl-mənt\ Function: noun

1 a : the state or condition of being entitled : right b : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract

Employment agreements usually specify such things as vacation days, sick days, salary.  People are entitled to those by explicit contract.

I recently met a woman who was having trouble performing her job. Her desk and desktop computer were right by the window. At certain times of day, there was so much glare on her computer screen that she couldn’t do her job.  Further,  she suffered from light induced migraines.  Between the glare and a debilitating head ache, she struggling to do her job.

Under company policy, she was entitled to an ergonomic consultation to assess her office set up.  If she had a medical statement about her migraines, she would also be entitled by law to reasonable accommodation in the workplace.  That might include drawing the blinds or moving her to a different workstation.

(Her manager denied her request to close the blinds—and implied that she was selfish to want to draw the blinds when no one else was bothered by the sunlight.  The manager warned the other employees, “don’t you dare close those blinds.” Absolutely astonishing!)

But there are other types of contracts.

If company has given out a Christmas turkey for 25 years, people come to expect that this year at Christmas, they will receive a turkey.

If people observe that programmers are promoted from junior developer to senior developer on the 2nd anniversary of employment–like clockwork–they’ll come to expect it.

People come to expect certain patterns of behavior because they’ve experienced them over time.  Reliable, repeated behavior creates an implicit social contract.  When one party to the contract withdraws without notice or explanation, the other party wonders what happened, and may feel disappointed, angry, or mistreated.

2 : a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program

If an employee looses his job through no fault of his own—due to layoffs, or a position being eliminated—he is eligible for unemployment insurance. Most people who lose their jobs (even if they have been fired) believe they are not at fault, and are therefore entitled to unemployment insurance.

3 : belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

Sometimes people generalize a social contract in one context to apply in others.  This happens most often when people experience a pattern of behavior from the time they are small children.

Kids who receive every toy, candy, item of clothing, pool party, trip to the amusement park and all else they ask for tend to develop a belief that they are entitled to everything they desire. Children who are protected from the consequences of their behavior come to believe that they can do what ever they want with impunity.

Personally, I’d try to find out about this mindset in the interview process.  It come under the heading of “maturity.”

A culture of entitlement is about patterns of interaction between managers and employees over time.

Few people get to feel entitled all on their own.

I suspect that the “frustrated leaders” mentioned in the email are dealing with the first type of entitlement, the sort that comes about when there is an implicit contract.  But they are responding to the situations as if it were the 3rd type of entitlement—employees believe they deserve privileges.

When there is a “culture of entitlement” it is that way because it got that way.  And it got that way because of the interactions between employees and managers as managers carry out (stated and unstated) company policies.

These “frustrated leaders” can change the dynamic–because they are part of the pattern.

They can do that in way that ignores their contribution to the situation and blames employees—forcing, cajoling, threatening, and manipulating them—as advised in the email.

The alternative is to own up to the part manager’s actions played, treat employees like adults, talk frankly about the situation, and renegotiate the social contract.

A Defining Moment

ac-count-a-ble adj. 1. Subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable. 2. Capable of being explained; explicable.

(The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition, 1988.)

Did you know that’s what accountable means?

I never would have guessed that from listening to how people use the word. And I hear people use it a lot lately. It seems like the one of those management buzzwords that pops up from time to time, like “leadership” and “nimble” a few years back. When I ask, most people who use the word can’t give me a precise definition. They trail off saying, “Accountable means . . . well, you know . . . accountable!”

I suspect that accountable is used as a surrogate for other, less palatable, expressions. I’ve got my decoder ring right here, so let’s figure out what’s really behind this word.

False Definition 1: To be pressured

When you hear someone say, “You must hold him accountable,” pay attention to the emphasis the speaker puts on the words. When the there isn’t any particular emphasis and the statement is followed by some examples of what the staff members are expected to do, and the tools they have to do the job, the speaker is probably talking about setting achievable goals and tracking progress.

But if you hear particular stress on one or more words (“You must hold him accountable,” for example), the speaker may have a mental model of management that says, “people are basically lazy, and if you don’t push them, they will take their own sweet time getting anything done.” Listen, too, for what comes after the statement. If you hear that colorful phrase “hold his feet to the fire,” or the word “disappointed,” then accountableis a code word for pressure. And the speaker really means, “You must pressure him to perform.”

False Definition 2: To be blamed

Take for example, “The project manager is accountable for project success.” If you read this according to the dictionary definition, it might mean, “The project manager is responsible for reporting on the current state of the project, explaining the situation, and justifying the need for resources that will provide a reasonable chance of success.” It might also mean, “The project manager is responsible for explaining and justifying plans to achieve the project goals.” Or even, “If something goes wrong, the project manager must explain why.”

Unfortunately, I often hear “The project manager is accountable for project success,” (or it’s more obvious evil twin, “You are accountable for project success”) in situations where the chances for project success given the current situation are slim to none (and none just left town). Then it really means, “I will blame you if this project fails.”

False Definitions one and two are forms of pressure: a threat of unpleasant future consequences. Will that pressure really help? Or just make the blamer feel better?

False Definition 3: To be responsible for someone else’s mess

Ever heard this one? “The problem around here is that no one is accountable.” I usually hear this variant in organizations where the measurement or reward system is driving behavior that makes life “downstream” a misery. The problem isn’t really that people aren’t being held accountable; it is they are being held accountable for goals that are in conflict. For example, a certain project manager was held accountable for meeting a schedule. He’s now in the Bahamas enjoying his bonus for getting the project out on time. Meanwhile, the support manager is working overtime dealing with irate customers whose software is crashing. He is being held accountable for a goal (perhaps maintaining a certain customer satisfaction rating) that is nearly impossible to achieve, because the project manager had a goal to meet a delivery date, but did not have a goal to meet a quality standard. When someone says, “no one is accountable,” it probably means, “Because of the way someone else did his job, it is very hard to do the job I am accountable for. I feel like I’ve been left holding the bag.”

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? After all, accountable is only a word. And I do believe that people should be accountable for their actions. But when there’s a coded meaning involved through context or emphasis, then no one is well served. I believe that the vast majority of people want to do a good job. They may not always know how or have what they need to get the job done, but their intention is to do good work.

We will all be more accountable if we remember the true definition: The first part “subject to the obligation to report,” reminds us to report on our understanding of the task and our ability to get it done with the current resources. The second part, “capable of being explained; explicable,” reminds us to check that the task can be credibly described. When we remember the real meaning of accountable, we can stop talking in code words and get on with building solid software.

(c) 2002-2012 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared in STQE magazine, July/August 2002