Friday, July 31, 2009

Low hanging fruit give you stomach ache?

Taking the ‘low hanging fruit’ is a well established change management phrase. The idea is to tuck some 'easy' results under your belt to get some traction in your change initiative.

I'm all for building belief throughout the organisation by demonstrating that the promised change is happening. It's core to all my change work, as many people aren’t instant converts and need to see change to believe in it. But the trouble with stock ideas that anyone can latch on to, is that people can think they know what the phrase means without having any depth of knowledge behind the meaning. Watching CSI doesn't make you capable of investigating a crime for example, even though you will hear a lot of ‘real’ terminology. I wonder whether ‘low hanging fruit’ has become misunderstood or misused?

The key to low hanging fruit is to know that the fruit is good for you. Just as nature can hide poison in a pretty casing, organisational low hanging fruit may look tempting but may not be helpful for the change you need.

How often have you seen a new leader declare that a particular thing is to be changed & then find themselves embroiled in associated issues? Often an obvious change has many less obvious threads attached to it e.g. connected processes, IT patches or previously agreed HR entitlements. Picking that first thread can quickly start to unravel the organisation and take up too much of the leader’s time. Soon you find that change then dictates the changes that follow and ultimately, more patches, more process fixes and addendum's to HR agreements and not the reengineering the leader envisioned, promised the board and was brought in for.

So how can ‘low hanging fruit’ go wrong and how can you avoid it?

The world we live in expects results rapidly and sometimes immediately (I coach executives in their first 90 days and find that many organisations believe that 90 days is way too long and want strategic decisions in weeks!). This can mean that there is pressure to achieve a quick result and quick results are sought in the ‘obvious’ rather than ‘the best’. Picking the obvious low hanging fruit may mean that you stay on the outskirts and don’t walk further in to the forest and find the more nourishing options.

If you want to avoid the problem you have to remember some good change principles. One of those is diagnosis. Whether the change is to processes, culture, systems, structure (and if you want real change you cant do one without the other, but lets not digress), you need to take a good look at what the organisation does, how it does it and why it does it that way. Unfortunately diagnostics take time, effort and a bit of investment, and all of those are often in short supply. But don't let that get in the way of the principle of taking a good look at the business before you kick off the change.

If the benefit of low hanging fruit is to demonstrate that change is happening so that your people engage with change and therefore get more impetus to the change then each change that you make needs to be one you’ve promised and each change must be an obvious contribution to the overall purpose of the change programme.

To state that simply, why pick a peach when you’ve promised an apple pie!

So get clear on your vision, diagnose what you have, look at what needs changed and lo and behold the really beneficial low hanging fruit will become more obvious to you.
Then when you pick it, everyone will know why you’ve picked it and your change programme gets the credibility that low hanging fruit is meant to get you.

And no stomach aches!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Question of Time

Does it sometimes feel as if being a leader means you have no time to yourself? That sometimes you don’t get anything done in a day because your staff are forever knocking at your door to ask questions? Do you find yourself working at home just because you didn’t get everything done during the day?

If so, you are not alone. When you stepped up to leadership nobody told you that you would be in such demand did they?

Being a leader requires you to value your time differently and more importantly it requires you to value yourself differently. But lets start with time first as that is often the biggest challenge that leaders face at every level.

In the last twenty years or so the phrase ‘open door policy’ has become the norm. You’ve heard of that? I bet you use the phrase too. In fact many leaders feel that they are obliged to say that their ‘door is always open’. Its the right thing to do isn't it? Its what you should do as a leader!

In principle the idea of an open door policy is right. As a leader you are there for your team (the word lead implies others of course) and to be there for your team when they need you.

So the principle is sound, but does the delivery match the principle? Does having your door open at all times so that anyone can come in when they need you, actually work?

Lets look at you, the leader first. Do you know your working style? Are you the kind of person that needs to complete a task before you can break your thinking from it? If you get interrupted do you often need to go back to the beginning? Do you struggle to concentrate without perfect peace? Are there some detail tasks that are not your natural style and you need to really concentrate or you make a mistake?

I have found that many thinking styles need to focus on what they are doing in order to get the best result, and that when we are doing something that is not our preferred style we need to focus even more. So interruptions might not work for you. You may need long periods of concentration or you may need short. You may need time to draft before you finalise. You may be a reflective kind of person that needs quiet thinking time. You may be a talk it out or a try it out kind of person. How you work best will be unique to you you know yourself well enough to know what that is?

Lets look at your team now. How often do they need time with you? Every decision?Emergencies only? Hourly? Daily? Weekly?
How often do they need you to be immediately available? You know; ‘I have a problem and it needs sorted now’ type availability. Do they need that? or have they got used to that? Have you trained your people to think that you can be available at the drop of a hat? Does your open door policy mean ‘Always open’?

Lets put the two perspctives, of you and your team, together in to a formulae for you to think about if you have difficulty managing the time demands of your team;

How I work best + What my people need=How I organise my availability.

The outcome statement there is critical. Its good old time management. If you need thinking time, then book it in to your diary. If you need a solid two hour block to work on something then book that in too. Book time in your diary to match the way you work best and that meets the first part of the formulae.

Now you need to apply the same approach to the second part of the formulae. Take a look at what your people need from you. If you have got a good delegating habit, you will know that you need follow up to the act of delegation (to check if its done, to listen to problems, to coach for learning etc.). You might schedule regular sit down time with your staff to go through work in progress or to coach etc. You might schedule regular walk about time just to listen to your people’s problems, understand the mood in the workplace and give yourself time to see and be seen. And if you need blocks of time to work quietly yourself, you may also plan the opposite. Time that your team know they can interrupt you if they need to. Time when you are working on easy stuff, like reading e-mails or going through your own to-do list etc.

The key is to educate your people in how you work best and therefore how you can work best with them. If they are interrupting you all the time then its you that’s created the habit (by not planning time with them or not having a planned diary or by making yourself indispensable!)

Re-training yours staff means talking to them about what you are trying to do and what it means for them. They know you are busy and will be understanding of your need for some closed door time in a day, as long as its not 7.5hrs of closed door time and 0.5hrs of access time of course. You left that behind when you became a leader.

So its not really a question of time; its a question of organising your time.