Backbiting means to speak badly about another person without that person’s knowledge. According to some, backbiting normally occurs as a form of release after a confrontation. By insulting the opposing person, the backbiter diminishes them and, by doing so, restores their own self-esteem. Such gossip is common in human society as people seek to divert blame and establish their place in the power structure.
Another reason for backbiting is to get into the inner circle of powerful people because many of them encourage it to establish an intelligence network within the organization. I have come across many such cases where persons in high places cultivate and reward their juniors who are open to it. But it is a short-sighted strategy. Others who are whispered about behind their backs sense it and try to avoid any interaction with the backbiters. They also lose respect for the persons who encourage it.
If it continues unchecked, the greatest sufferer is the organization. The atmosphere is vitiated and gives rise to negative vibes; trust amongst peers and across various levels is seriously hampered. The solution is simple but requires discipline, sustained efforts and perseverance. It is impractical to assume that the persons who benefit by backbiting would want to do anything to discourage it. But those who understand the ill effects of this phenomenon need to start asking just two questions to anybody who backbites to them about another; “How does it affect you?” and “Have you talked to the person concerned?” The first question separates gossip from genuine grievance and the second gives a clear message that speaking about another in either case without his knowledge is not acceptable.
As more and more instances of such questioning happen in an organization, it starts building a structure which progressively reduces the freedom and immunity with which the participants of backbiting can operate, because all are interconnected one way or the other. Slowly but surely it becomes part of the organizational culture. Once that happens, it has a powerful effect not only on the existing employees but even on the new ones who join the organization.
I would really appreciate any thoughts / experiences from you that either support or challenge what is said above.
This is the last of the three part post about some unusual but useful ideas from the book “Maverick!” by Ricardo Semler, the owner of Semco Brazil. The first part covered the challenges of creating and sustaining self-organizing teams and we saw some parallels between Semco’s approach and that of Scrum. In the next part, we saw how Semler came up with an idea of creating three concentric circles of the organization in place usual pyramid structure and how it helped Semco to become much more agile and lean. In this concluding part, I would like cover some ideas related to compensation and appraisal management and how it helped them to truly empower their employees and create a robust organization which could weather the storms created by Brazil’s runaway inflation.
Employees are told to set their own salaries keeping the following criteria in mind. “What they thought they could make elsewhere; what others with similar responsibilities and skills made at Semco; what friends with similar background made; and how much money they needed to live.” There was initial worry that people may ask too much, but “We needn’t have worried. Except for half a dozen people, everyone set salaries that were in line with our expectations. In five of the six exceptions, people set salaries lower than we had projected. it wasn’t always easy to get them to raise their figure either.” There are three reasons why reasonable prevails. “First, everyone knows what everyone else is paid. Second, we try to keep our top salaries within ten times our entry level pay. The third reason is to do with self-preservation. Our people know salaries account for most of our operating costs. It’s easy to solve a budget problem by eliminating a salary that seems to high, and no one wants to stick out.”
As regards profit sharing, “We begin with Semco’s total profits, the revenue minus expenses. Then 40% would be deducted for taxes, 25% for dividends to shareholders, and another 12% for reinvestment – the minimum the company needed to prosper. That left 23% per cent.” As regards the distribution, “Each quarter, the profit made by each autonomous unit is calculated and 23% of that sum is delivered to the employees of that unit. (If we don’t have any profit to share, we don’t give any consolation prizes.) What happens to the money after that is up to them. They can divide it up by head count or they can consider years of service, salary or other criteria. They can decide that rather than distribute the money, they will use it for other purpose, such as loans so workers can buy the houses. But whatever they decide, it applies to that quarter only. Three months later, they have to decide all over again”. Management doesn’t get into any of these details.
“We just wanted to know why some people hadn’t become the successes we thought they would be when we promoted them, and naturally asked those who worked for them. That led us to draw up a form subordinates now use to evaluate their managers twice a year. It has about three dozen multiple choice questions designed to measure technical ability, competence, leadership and other aspects of being a boss. The questionnaire is filled out anonymously, so no one is afraid to be honest. We calculate a grade which is posted, so everyone knows where everyone stands. 70% is passing, but most managers get between 80% and 85%. Managers who score below 70% are not automatically dismissed, but a low grade usually creates intense pressure on an individual change. What we want to see is improvement from one year to next. Supervisors meet with their subordinates to discuss their grades, so the process of change starts very quickly.”
“We developed the questionnaire to find out why some managers were failing. But we also had cases in which managers we admired – and repeatedly promoted – got such low marks that it made us wonder how we could be so wrong. But such cases are rare. Far more often the evaluation process helps people change. For promotions and new hires, we added one more step – group interviews – or interviews, since candidates are often asked to return for four or five meetings. I am sure it tries their patience, but it gives them and us a chance to be really sure.”
The above quotes from Semler are self-explanatory for what real empowerment is and why Semco was voted the best place to work for in Brazil.
Last week I had shared a few thoughts of Ricardo Semler from his book “Maverick!” about how he successfully created self-organizing teams at Semco and similarities with the practices that Scrum uses for the same purpose. This week, I would like to share from the chapter “Rounding the Pyramid”. Some of these ideas at first may appear weird, even crazy. But specific cases cited by him in the book make you wonder why other organizations shouldn’t try to benefit from them. I am quoting below a few excerpts from this chapter.
“The pyramid, the chief organizational principal of the modern corporation, turns a business into a traffic jam. Thousands of drivers start on the highway. But as it gets narrower, rewarding the few who keep climbing but demoralizing a far greater number who reach a plateau or fall by the way-side. Some drivers give up and take side roads to other destinations. Those who make their peace with the pyramid and develop specialized skills can expect job security. But is it reasonable to suppose that they will continue to be motivated? Because of the constraints of the pyramid, organizations are not ready to promote them fast enough to satisfy them, so many firms take the easy way out and create an extra level or two for their over-achievers but that only compounds the problem.”
After giving a lot of thought to this problem, Semler came up with an innovative solution. He created three concentric circles instead of a pyramid.
“The small innermost circle would enclose a team of half a dozen people, the equivalent of vice presidents and above in a conventional company. They would co-ordinate Semco’s general policies and strategies and be called Counselors. The second circle would enclose seven to ten leaders of Semco’s business units and be called partners. The last immense circle would hold virtually everyone else at Semco. They would be called associates. A group of associates is headed by a coordinator equivalent to departmental managers and supervisors.”
“The smallest circle would serve as a corporate catalyst, stimulating decisions and actions by the people in second circle, who actually run the company. The coordinators could have vastly different skills, responsibilities and salaries. Coordinators with relatively little ambition could move from one job to another provided there was an opening. They could also go back to being an associate. Associates could even earn more than the coordinators. A specialized software engineer as an associate, for instance, could make much more than a coordinator. The circles freed the people from the hierarchical tyranny; they could act as leaders when they wanted and command whatever respect their efforts and competence earned them. They could cease to be leaders whenever they wanted, or when the organization decided they no longer merited it.”
“How would decisions be made? Each associate would make all the decisions he felt confident to make by himself. if he was uncertain about a problem, he would go to his coordinator. Similarly, each coordinator would make all the decisions he felt confident of. He would bring other issues at a weekly meeting every Monday morning presided over by the partner of the business unit. Decisions that affected more than one business unit or involving large investments would be taken up to the Tuesday meeting attended by the representatives of each business unit (not necessarily the partner), plus all the counselors. All decisions in the meetings would be by vote; each person irrespective of his role has one vote.”
“Just three circles, four job categories and two meetings. That’s it.”
“Under the new rules one coordinator could not report to another coordinator and similarly one associate could not report to another associate. It was a big adjustment for those who held supervisor positions earlier but didn’t qualify now as coordinators. They found themselves floating in the big circle but their salary was not affected. Since there was a limit on number of coordinators, the associates have to take on more responsibility.”
It helps creation of self-managed to push decision making as far down as possible. Coordinator is there to help the associates make decisions only when required; similar to the role of a scrum master. Associates can easily get more exposure to different skills and capabilities and are encouraged to play multiple roles simultaneously in a team; very similar to Scrum. Whole team works for common goal.
Scrum teams could possibly benefit from two more practices from Semco; “Hiring and firing the boss” and “Sharing the wealth”. I will try to cover important aspects of these two next week and examine how these empower the teams to be more self-organized.
While reading a book yesterday, I came across an interesting statement “There is a need for provocation in any self organizing system; otherwise the system gets stuck in a local equilibrium”. It set me thinking about its implications. How true it is can be seen in a few examples below.
In software development, we have two methodologies which follow a very different approach.
- In waterfall development, there is a lot of stress on defining things in detail up-front and relies heavily on measurements and corrective actions to keep things as per plan and standards. This provides necessary provocation for the subsystems as it tries to keep the system towards defined equilibrium. However, there is no reality check with what the customer really wants now. We need the provocation to disturb the equilibrium so that we do not keep going too far off the reality.
- On the other hand, in agile development frequent customer collaboration provides required collaboration between what is being developed with what is needed. However, there is much less stress on measurements and process checks. This may adversely affect schedule, quality and cost.
If we can take the good provocations from one methodology and fit them into the other, we may possibly have a much better system which gets corrected on both dimensions.
We see such imbalances in the organizations as well. Some rely heavily on measurements and audits, are heavily process driven and neglect the provocations provided by effective collaboration between the individuals within and across teams and groups. Other organizations rely too much on people and are reluctant to have audits & measurements assuming that they interfere with freedom to be innovative and creative. If we allow processes and standards to provide their provocations as well as let people (who respect the processes and standards) have their interactions the resulting benefits will be better than the either.
Lastly, it is applicable to all of us individuals as well. Any challenge to our assumptions and beliefs puts us on the defensive. Our ego may even get hurt. But what if we welcome such provocations and reassess our assumptions / beliefs / habits? We may become much better persons and even enjoy it.
Last week, I was talking to a friend of mine who is with an NGO in Maharashtra. He narrated an interesting incidence. The commissioner of the city municipal corporation had heard about the work done by the NGO but had no direct contact with them. One day, he was passing by with his entourage when he saw the sign board. Though there was no plan to visit them that day, just on impulse he decided to stop by. He had an informal chat with the members of the NGO and then interacted with the interns. First question that came up was the road in front of the building which was under construction for quite some time. It was quite impossible to walk on it. With approaching monsoon, everybody was worried. The commissioner told his PA to phone the concerned department and make sure that the road is completed on priority. My friend told me that it was ready in next two days.
Next came some more requests which he could easily take care. Once the audience became more comfortable, there were tougher questions and ambitious demands. The commissioner was accompanied by the local MLA. Being a politician, he started making promises which he probably knew that he cannot possibly fulfill. The commissioner cut him short and took charge of the discussions. He explained to the audience the reasons why certain things were not possible; even not desirable in the larger interest. People understood and were quite appreciative of his frankness. As the time for his next scheduled appointment was fast approaching, he thanked everyone and left.
I started thinking after hearing this incidence that there are many lessons from it for us, the managers and leaders.
- We get so constrained by our overbooked agendas and detailed plans. How often do we go out of the way and act on impulse?
- Do we look for opportunities to meet new people, hear new ideas and sometimes even be challenged?
- Do we make best use of the chance for human to human communication and not limit ourselves to exchange of mails and reports only?
- Would it help us in prioritizing our tasks as some of hidden problems will now stare us in the face and demand attention?
- Are we frank about what is possible and what is not?
- Do we take others into confidence especially for things that we have to say “No”? While doing so, are we sensitive to the needs and feelings of others?
Yesterday we saw an absorbing and thought provoking Marathi movie “Shikshanachya Aaiecha Gho” by Mahesh Manjrekar. The name loosely translates to “To hell with the education system”. The story is about a father and his son. The son is very good at and passionate about Cricket. His whole life revolves around it and naturally the studies suffer. Father is working as a municipal clerk and financially always under stress. He is a single parent of two school going children; the other being a younger daughter whom the circumstances have made mature far beyond her age.
The father strongly believes that cricket is a game for rich people and the future of his son depends on being good at his studies and making a career in an established profession. The son on the other hand is so consumed by his interest in cricket that he can’t think of anything else. This makes his father progressively more and more frustrated and keeps losing his temper. He wants his son to appear for a scholarship exam and promises the principal that he will get his son prepared come what may. When he finds that in spite of spending scarce funds for special tuitions still there is no improvement he starts beating his son. He starts hating everything cricket. The son on the other hand can’t bear the pressure. One day, the situation reaches a climax. The father hits the son so hard that back of his head bangs against the side of the bed and he goes into coma.
Rest of the movie is about the father going through complete catharsis and coming to terms with reality. He decides to fight the system. Though, to keep the audience interest it does become a bit too dramatic at times and has a happy ending where the boy recovers and excels at his love, Mahesh has handled it with great sensitivity. You come out empathizing with the frustrations of both the father & the son against a system which has developed so much inertia that it is tough for an individual to fight against it.
I am sure that things have improved since the time I went to school in terms of encouraging different talents of students. On the other hand, competitive pressures have increased tremendously. I was fortunate in having right talents to get good scores in exams but I used to feel the pain when my cousins were constantly told to follow my example. I am sure they must hate me for it till today.
The problem is not limited to the education system alone; we see it in the society & the organizations as well. The main issue is that the system believes it knows what is good for the individual and he must fall in line even though he strongly feels the contrary. The system also believes that anybody can do anything if he tries hard enough. It’s just that one person may do it more easily and the other needs to put in more efforts. It believes that standard strengths and weaknesses are applicable to all and only way to improve is identify and focus on your weaknesses.
When I look back on my career spanning 45 years, I can see clearly the highs and lows. I felt great at the highs and frustrated when in lows. I would blame myself and feel guilty but would not know what the solution is. Then one day, a colleague of mine introduced me to the online strengthsfinder assessment from Gallup which identifies your top 5 talents and guides you on how to convert them into your strengths. It encourages you to accept that everybody may have different combinations of unique talents and that it is okay. You could try and improve in areas where you don’t have talents to meet the needs of everyday life. But you can’t become strong in those areas however hard you may try. It was such a great relief. I would say it was a turning point in my life. Since then during last few years I have consciously chosen areas of work & leisure which are in line with my top talents. The results have been dramatic. I would also like to do whatever I can to make it easy for others.
Yesterday a little before noon, I was driving from M.G.Road to Nath Mandir when I saw a marriage procession. The bridegroom was on a horse all decked up and loaded with garlands. There were a few seniors with suits & turbans walking solemnly and perspiring profusely. Ladies in flashing saris and in all their finery were following the horse. Enthusiastic boys & girls were dancing and the band was providing some standard tunes played at such occasions.
May be all of them were enjoying their procession in the Sun at 44 C (112 F). But I just wondered in case any of them were not, what choice they had. The bridegroom would not have liked to miss a chance of a lifetime but surely might have preferred late evening. His father might be concerned about what the relatives will say. The ladies would be worried about breaking a tradition and poor members of the band had no choice unless they were prepared to give up their livelihood. Why then do we get involved in such rituals blindly, afraid to question? And who would be first to raise such a question?
We see similar situations in the organizations as well. Once certain traditions or conventions are established over time, its not easy to change them. Such system structures are invisible yet very powerful. Over a period of a few years in case of organizations (and over centuries for cultures), they build a momentum and provide the life force. But at the same time, they have lot of inertia and anybody wishing to change finds heavy resistance, not only from members but the system itself.
Whose call could it be? I feel anybody who feels strongly about it. Once he raises an issue and keeps raising with patience perseverance and with a positive approach, others will slowly start questioning, look for the reasons why such traditions were initially found useful and whether they still makes sense. Then more and more people would join the band wagon and ultimately we will see a new convention new tradition becoming commonplace. The person who started it all may be forgotten by that time, but he is still around he may feel a deep sense of satisfaction.
Last week, I read in the Times of India corporate mission statements of some well known companies, which I am quoting below.
Google: Organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
Wipro: Build integrity, simplicity and intensity to win.
TATA: Ensure what comes from people goes back to them many times over
Infosys: Strive for fairness, honesty, and courtesy to all.
Microsoft: help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.
Bloom energy: To make clean, reliable energy affordable for everyone in the world.
One interesting pattern I noticed was that all the companies from India in this list had missions based on values whereas the US companies focused on what they would do for their customers and society at large. Was it just a coincidence or it has to do something with the respective cultures?
Last week a colleague of mine made an observation that the owner of any initiative is not only responsible for carrying out different actions but more importantly to also close the initiative. He said that most of the time, it is stuck at the last mile. I felt that this approach is quite important for us in every walk of life and we should follow this approach with all our open loops, big or small. It also made me to think of different aspects of “Close the open loops” theme which I wish to share with you.
Recently I came across an article “The agile analyst – eye for waste” at http://www.ebgconsulting.com/Pubs/Articles/TheAgileAnalyst-EyesForWaste-Gottesdiener.pdf
Related to the lean software development approach, It identifies seven kinds of waste which don’t add value but rather act as bottlenecks and delays completion of tasks. If we focus on identifying and removing them, we not only add much higher value for our efforts but also are able to “Close the open loops”.
There is a very nice book titled “Getting things done” by David Allen. He suggests a very simple method of managing our day to day tasks. I have been using it for last six months and find it very useful. Main theme of this book is to keep all actions moving forward and not allow them to get stagnated. In short “Close the open loops”.
Lastly, some of my colleagues have recently gone through the landmark forum course. From what I know about this course, it helps to “Close the emotional open loops” by interacting with persons with whom we are not on good or open terms.