Categories
Coaching Leadership

Swing and a Miss

We all give feedback to lots of people, in a wide range of situations. Sometimes it’s really well balanced, hits the mark exactly and really helps that person drive forwards to a positive change. Sometimes it doesn’t land perfectly, but with some reflection they find value. Sometimes it’s a total miss, that elicits a negative or even hostile response.

What do you do?

First up, consider the response. Reflect on the content. Is it an emotional outburst? Is the person giving additional context or information? Where’s the difference between what you were aiming to share and what they’ve taken from your communication?

If you struggle to unpick this, then take a bit of a break. It’s very normal for your own emotions to spike out if you hit this type of reaction, and reacting in turn will not help matters! It may be helpful to reach out to a less involved third party to get their view, especially if they witness the situation that arose to the provision of the feedback.

Now you’ve got a better picture, you need to decide what to do. When feedback misses badly, it can put a real dent into a relationship. You’ll need to do some work, and it’ll take some time to get back to where you were.

First off, were you just wrong? If the recipient has given some more information and you recognise that something you said was factually incorrect, then don’t be afraid to offer a strong and full apology. “I’m sorry, what I said was incorrect and I recognise this has upset you. Thank-you for sharing the additional information, I will ensure that I’m fully up-to-speed in future before commenting”. Then follow through on that commitment, and demonstrate to the recipient the learning you have stated you will undertake.

If you were factually correct, but the recipient has reacted emotionally, then you still may apologise (It’s not nice to make people feel bad). If you are doing this, make sure to make it a real apology, no soft “We apologise for any emotion you have felt”, nor ones that make things worse “I’m sorry you took that so badly”.

As a leader, you may still need to land the message to drive a change in behaviour, so your next step would be to reframe the feedback (repeating it will certainly not work). Focus on what you observed and the impacts of the behaviour you saw. In this higher stakes scenario, practice this reframing before delivering it. Write down your observations, run them back and check that they are better than before. Review them against Situation/Behaviour/Impact or your own favoured feedback framework.

It’s also great at this point to recognise it’s a tough conversation! It might feel meta, but highlighting this gives you the chance to remind the recipient the value that can come from these tough moments.

Finally, you will look towards rebuilding that relationship. Again, depending on what your miss looked like, this will take different forms. Listen again to what the recipient is telling you. The fix might be as simple to change the style or format of the feedback. This is a very likely outcome in the remote world, as text chat can come across many times harsher than the same message given face-to-face in real time.

Alternatively, the recipient may have given you that extra information that changes the situation somewhat. Here you can provide additional support by removing a blocker or doing something else to smooth their path forwards.

As you are repairing the relationship, you must ensure that whatever you commit to in this stage is something that you stick to and continue to do, even beyond the initial repair period. This is how to build back trust that you have damaged.

So, sometimes feedback misses the target, and sometimes it misses in a destructive way! If you spot this early, then you can correct it. It’ll take some effort, but doing it with care and attention can rebuild a damaged relationship and even strengthen it for the future!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Bringing in the New

I’ve been watching the theatre across the road being built for over a year now, and it’s really great to see some of the parallels between construction in the physical world vs the crafting of software in the virtual.

As we get into the New Year, then it’s very likely you are starting to put into practice some of the new ideas that will help you start building up your flywheel of change and achieving your goals. Today I’m sharing a couple of insights on how to do this well, from what I’ve observed throughout this construction process.

Every time a new material arrives on site, there’s a simple approach used to get it into the construction process. The experts in the particular area will fit a small area (something like a single window in a frame). They’ll review it, look at how it’s sitting in the shell of the building. If it looks good, they’ll show it to other workers, who are able to go and fit the rest of the items across the full facade. If it’s not working out, they’ll re-work this area, re-do the process and learn in a low risk corner of the site. If it goes really badly, then they’ll strip it out, and wait until improved materials can be delivered.

This low risk test and learn allows the construction to proceed at pace and in a more predictable way. There’s two clear stages in play, once the process is great and easy to apply, then it’s rolled out quickly across the whole building. The rework is limited to the testing phase, where it’s quick to correct any issues.

This is absolutely the best way to approach launching new practices and processes in your organisation, or building and launching new software products.

The most powerful part is to recognise when you are switching between the learning cycle and the rollout cycle, as that’s the point you change how you are delivering that change. This is also the most important time to communicate clearly and set expectations as to how that change will land.

So, in summary, to make your change a success:

  1. Test out a process or product in a controlled space
  2. Learn quickly, and adapt your approach
  3. Loop around again if it’s not right yet
  4. Recognise when it’s good enough, and roll out at pace

This approach gives the best chance of landing significant change with the smallest cost.

Get out there and do it!

Categories
Book Review Coaching Leadership

Top Posts for 2020

At the end of what’s been a really tough year, I’m taking the time to look back over all the visits to the site, so I can share my most read posts.

Hopefully, you’ve already had the chance to enjoy them, but if not, these are the top highlights for you to enjoy.

  1. The Art of Leadership – My Review of the new leadership book from Michael Lopp. Short sharp lessons on doing the small things well. Standout book of the year.
  2. Losing it Hurts More – It’s a lot more painful to lose out on something you thought you had than it is to get something unexpected. Covered in a lot more detail in Thinking, Fast and Slow, but I think a number one takeaway is think about how you communicate changes in benefits or opportunities, especially in uncertain times.
  3. Dedication to Goals – Some ways to understand how to get stronger commitment from a Coachee when they outline their goals. Great reading for people leaders as we get into Annual Review season.
  4. Radical CandorKim Scott’s highly rated guide on an approach to giving feedback in organisations. It’s a powerful skill to learn and really worth putting the effort in to get right. It is especially important to do the learning with this approach, and don’t let “Radical Candor” be a smokescreen for the negatives behaviours of the Jerk.
  5. Strength of No – Get mindful about how you are saying “No”. Is it a hard no, is it a maybe that’s opening a negotiation or is it a disguised form of “Yes”? If you focus on this, you’ll really improve outcomes in all sorts of conversations.

These were my top five posts of the year. Let me know which ones you enjoyed the most, or if one of your favourites didn’t make the list!

See you next year!

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Performance Reviews

Lots of you are going into the holidays with a weight hanging on your mind, the annual performance review coming up in the New Year.

The weight can be for a lot of reasons, but they mostly boil down to a well intentioned idea (look at what you did, improve next time), turning into a torturous and badly run process that ends up leaving everyone involved dissatisfied with the outcome.

I can’t save you from a badly run process, or a bad manager who has no interest in getting to a great outcome.

I can share a set of techniques that will help you get the most value from these processes, even if they are badly executed in your organisation. If you follow these, then I guarantee that this review season will be better than the last, and that you’ll be able to take this on into each year in the future.

I’m giving all my readers early access to my eBook, “Winning the Performance Review”. It’s available to download below, and through this early access period, it’s totally free.

If you find this useful, then please let me know! I very much encourage you to share it with anyone else who would benefit from it.

I’d also love feedback, I’m developing and updating this guide regularly. Drop me a note on james@jamesosborn.co.uk

Finally, if you’d like to discuss a personalised approach to winning your performance review, then book an initial conversation now, and I’ll help you set effective goals and get the recognition you deserve.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Clashing Over the Obvious

One of the most difficult situations you can get into is an argument over something that is painfully and blindingly obvious to you.

It’s difficult because you are stuck in a gap of meaning. The argument is occurring because the other party doesn’t see why it’s obvious, but because it’s obvious to you, you are unlikely to be driving forwards with compelling reasons or attempting to add to the pool of meaning.

Classic ways to recognise this situation are:

  1. You are throwing around words like “obviously”, “clearly” or “plainly”
  2. The other party “don’t understand the value”, “don’t see why that’s the right option” etc
  3. You are thinking about “them”
  4. You’ve gone deep, and are into “What are these idiots doing?”

When you spot these patterns, you are falling into the Obviously trap. It’s hard to pull back, but you can do it. You need to pause, stop telling and start listening to the concerns of the other group. Give extra context or information that will help show why this course is obvious to you, and help them come to a deeper understanding.

Train yourself out of saying “obviously”, as it’s an invitation to end dialog, which means you aren’t going to get buy-in, and if you get your way, it’ll be grudgingly at best, rather than with enthusiastic efforts to be successful.

If you can get to a point where the other party are saying that your desired outcome is the obvious one, then you’ve done great work, sharing the meaning without telling them what to do.

Categories
Leadership

Setting the Framework

It’s easy to make bad decisions, and it can be hard to make good ones. Almost always, just making the decision, implementing the outcome and correcting as you go is better than getting stuck in Analysis Paralysis and doing nothing.

Given that making the decision is a good move, how can you improve your chances of making a good one, and getting everyone bought in to that choice. We’ll tackle this from the point of view of a business decision, but you can use these approaches in any situation.

First off, get super clear about the scope and parameters of the decision. Create a statement of the problem, one that’s got enough detail to show whether the decision made successfully solved the issue.

So rather than “We need to do something about this”, prefer “We need to decide with investment option has the best chance of returning 3x on its investment inside 18 months”. Once you’ve got this, put together your options. What could you do to solve this problem? What are the pros and cons of each approach, where are the risks?

Now you are ready to take these forwards to make a decision. Get the smallest possible group with the authority to make the call, covering the groups who will be impacted by the decision. Review the problem statement, discuss the options, weigh up the tradeoffs and pick a course.

The outcome of the final conversation needs to be documented and communicated. The process should be made as visible as possible to show how the decision was made, and the outcome tracked to show how successful it was.

For a big decision, each of these stages can be a separate meeting. That allows you to bring in experts when putting together options, while keeping the decision making group small. For smaller decisions, you can use a single meeting, but make sure to split the phases of the meeting clearly. For some groups you’ll need a strong facilitator to keep the conversation moving, especially those that keep circling back to options multiple times. If that happens, don’t be afraid to pause, and regroup in a separate session.

There’s lots more reading to do about effective decision making, from traps to avoid, to emotional connections and much more, but following this simple framework and you’ll see an immediate improvement:

  1. Clearly state the problem that requires a decision
  2. Outline options with pros, cons and risks
  3. Convene a small group with authority, and make a choice
  4. Communicate the decision
  5. Measure the outcome
Categories
Coaching Leadership

Is it Better?

“Change is easy, improvement is far more difficult” – Dr. Ferdinand Porsche

When we make a change, we want to make things better. However, it’s not always easy to ensure that the change is actually positive overall. How can you increase the chances of actually making an improvement?

Good news, there’s a set of simple (not easy!) steps you can follow to vastly improve the odds on hitting that improvement you are seeking.

First, be very clear what the problem is. Write it down. State it in the simplest possible terms, which means you might need to refine it several times. Get specific, watch out specifically for weak or ambiguous terms. “We’re slow” is a very weak problem “We consistently take twice as long as our initial estimate to launch a product” is much stronger.

When you have a strongly stated problem, you can then work on what that improvement would look like. Do you want to improve your estimates, reduce the actual shipping time even if the estimates are still bad, or do something else entirely?

Next up, get explicit about what you are willing to spend to seek improvement. Are you going to invest more resources? Drop something that’s not important or high value? Maybe even make something else harder or not as great as it used to be?

Now you get to start trying things. You’ve got a framework to know if you are going in the right direction, and the guardrails to correct if it’s not going well. This is where the change gets to be implemented. Be as brave or incremental as needed for your problem and constraints, but be ready to measure and correct as you go.

Before making each change, record your hypothesis. “By doing this, I believe that we will move X to Y”. Take the actions, measure the impact and review against the hypothesis. If it’s going well, then keep it up! If not, don’t be afraid to cut the initiative and return to the status quo to try again.

Put in the effort to bring clarity to your proposed change, add the effort to measure as you go, and you are much more likely to find that improvement you seek.

Categories
Leadership

Building to Schedule

There’s a common mistake in the thinking of people outside the immediate world of software, and that’s in thinking that it’s a predictable and repeatable process that should be easy to plan.

The comparison that is made is usually towards building houses or something similar. We’ve spoken before about the creative endeavour of software, and about how house building might not be as easy as it seems from the outside. Today I’ll look a little bit more at that.

Across the road from me is a brand new theatre. It’s probably about 60-70% complete, and I’ve been able to watch it take shape over the last year or so. In it, I can see a lot of familiar activity from software development, writ large on the physical world.

It’s particularly relevant as it’s a unique construction. It’s following a plan, but it’s clear that there’s learning and refinement going on all the time. I’ve watched walls go up to be covered in insulation, that’s been inspected, taken down and redone. I’ve seen windows being put in whilst other trades are forced to stop their work to let the glazers past.

There have been days when the main activity is inspecting what’s been put-up, which has again led to rework and changes.

It’s not a simple linear progression of steps, it’s a cycle of work, review, pass / fail and rework or move on.

It’s clear that this distance from the linear progression is even more pronounced due to the unique nature of the building. It’s big and complex, and it’s not the same as anything that’s gone before.

That’s exactly what we get in a software product. Big and complex, a unique creation and something that needs to show learning as you go.

So if you are struggling with someone who thinks it should be an easy task of following a plan step by step, show them someone putting up a complex landmark building to open their eyes to reality.

Categories
Harvard Business Review Leadership

Strength of No

There are lots of articles online teaching you about how and when to say “No” to a request. It’s a common problem, especially for those of us who want to be seen as a team player or go-to person.

However, getting your “No” right is a super powerful way of building up this perception. It’s really bad if you say “Yes” to every single request, and end up delivering badly on most of them. The reputation for being flaky or unreliable is definitely not where you want to be.

Recently I had a classic opportunity to say “No” in a constructive way. One of my teams were racing to finish a high profile project with a fixed deadline. In the tech world, that equates to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign flashing over their heads. Another department had an idea for a short term initiative, with a desired start date that would impact the team and risk the high profile project.

First up, I did some fact finding. Pulling in some domain experts to confirm my understanding of the new initiative, and the impact it would have. Then I looked at options. Were there other people available with the skills to help out? What was the actual impact of the current work, and who cared about it being successful. If we left the team alone, when could they pick-up the fresh initiative, and what date could it launch by?

All this came together to present a strong “No” to the other department, backed up by the reasons for that answer. “We cannot support the new initiative by date X, as the required team are fully committed to Project Y in support of one of our major company objectives. They will be available in two weeks time, meaning we could launch the new initiative before the end of the year if that would still provide value.”

Even with the strength of the answer, I was able to present options for the other department, giving them an expectation of when we’d be able to support them, even though it didn’t meet their initially desired dates. This slight softening helps to maintain the long term relationship with the rest of the business.

If the project had been lower profile, there had been more lead time or the team was less committed, then I could have used a different approach. I’d use these for times where I’d prefer not to distract the team, but to keep the conversation open.

The lighter forms are statements like “Yes we can do that if …” or “Yes, but it’ll need …”. These are particularly useful approaches if the person requesting work is also the stakeholder for the existing work. You give them options on what to pursue, whilst being very clear that not everything will keep happening at the same pace.

Saying “No” effectively is a vital skill, so find opportunities to practice it whilst leaving a positive impression as a result.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

Follow Through

When you agree on an action, you need to make sure you put in the follow through to be sure it actually happens.

It’s especially important to remember this if responsibility is one of your key strengths. It’s very easy to assume that because you will always do everything you say you will, that everyone else will always hold themselves to that standard.

The follow throughs will be different depending on the person, the actions, the length of time to complete and the importance of completing them. You need to make sure that you balance the need for follow through against the tendency towards micromanagement.

I like to use a model of “trust but verify”. Your default position is that the action will be completed as agreed, but as the person eventually accountable, you will check-in on progress.

If you are going to use a formal check-in model, then agree it up front with the actions. I’ve worked with people who want to improve their public speaking skills, in that sort of long lived objective, I’ve then agreed monthly check-ins, to find out what sort of presentations they’ve been giving, the feedback they’ve had and what they are doing based on it. This formal agreement is super useful to make sure the goal is not forgotten, or people try and leave any activity until right before the final review.

For shorter term follow throughs, they can be more informal. Ask “How is X progressing?”, dig in a little bit more with “What’s left to do?”. By asking what’s left, you get a real view on the final 20%, which is a lot more useful than a brief “all on track” or similar.

If it makes sense, grab a demo or draft view, that makes the progress concrete. Give some warning on this, so it’s not a surprise. That’ll also give the person a chance to get the draft together if they’ve not picked it up yet.

Finally, make sure that your check-in is not left until just before a deadline. Reviewing the day before doesn’t give much chance to make any corrections or complete actions, it’s no fun doing homework on the bus, so avoid that feeling by making sure good progress is made early.

Following through is an important leadership skill, so practice until it’s natural and you’ll really drive the effectiveness of everyone you are working with.