Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox

I lift weights because I was quite small as a kid. In grade two, a tall athletic kid named Micah spoke down to me. When I talked-back he threatened: “Watch yourself or there’s going to be trouble.” Things escalated and word got around. We ended up in on the gravel soccer field surrounded by older kids who stood shoulder-to-shoulder so the noon-hour supervisors couldn’t see. One kid showed me how to hold my fist, moving my thumb to the outside, then told me to aim for the nose. In the next two minutes, my opponent hurled verbal threats at me while I got him onto his back and bloodied his nose. The older kids pulled us apart, and said “great fight.”

There used to be a great divide between jocks and nerds. But it’s now obvious there is no meaningful line between a strong brain and a healthy body. You have to have your wholeact together in order to walk into meetings with calm and confidence.

The Effects of Fitness on Workplace Productivity

There is ample evidence that the benefits of physical health translate into intellectual and emotional health. For employers, that means improved bottom lines, as outlined in a 2003 Journal of Exercise Physiology article entitled, “The Relationship Between Fitness Levels and Employee’s Perceived Productivity, Job Satisfaction, and Absenteeism”. The authors are Matthew G. Wattles and Chad Harris.

The study looked at three indicators of workplace effectiveness and four indicators of physical wellbeing. Notably, not all fitness measures were associated with all workplace effectiveness indicators.

  • Muscular strength influenced productivity
  • Cardiovascular endurance influenced job satisfaction
  • Flexibility influenced absenteeism

Amongst those who had increased their activity levels, there was more than an 80% favourable response to questions about exercise affecting their quality of performance, ability to relax, think clearly, and concentrate. Experiencing less fatigue was a big deal because:

“Employees who have more muscular strength would not be as physically taxed as employees with lower strength levels. This may make the employees physical work feel less demanding and may have contributed to their feelings of increased productivity.”

In their literature review, the study cited one paper that found that “the average reported impact of fitness programs on absenteeism is between 0.5 and 2.0 days improvement in attendance/year and it is estimated that the improvement would translate to a dollar savings of 0.35 to 1.4% of payroll costs.”

It’s another case where doing the right thing and making more moneylead to similar conclusions.

Cardiovascular endurance, by contrast, creates a sense that everything is chill. Those with better cardio have less anxiety, more self-esteem, concentrate better, and are more satisfied. Interpretations beyond the evidence were that fitness increased work capacity, reduced minor illness, and provided “…relief from boredom, anxiety or pent-up aggression”.

I wonder if we could reduce aggression in the workplace – and in schools for that matter – if we just got more cardio into people’s lives. A lot of workplace issues relate to struggles between those with different levels of power. Yes, we can cultivate more meaningful conversations between those in the midst of a power imbalance. But people need to be physically calm in the first place.

Related to power imbalance is that results vary between men and women. Fitness improved sick-day absences for women by 32% whereas for men there was no change. This makes sense because fitness improvement is often about bringing women up to a level that already exists for men.

This Girl Can

The “This Girl Can” campaign out of the UK is a best-case scenario for inspiring people to get active. Sports England, a government agency, was concerned about the under-representation of women in sporting activities. In addition to an inspiring video-driven campaign homepage I also found an article in Campaign magazine which provides great drill-down.

The campaign started with a research base that identified that “by every measure, fewer women than men play sport regularly… despite the fact that 75% say they want to be more active.” Digging deeper, they found:

  • Women’s fear of judgment by others is the primary barrier to exercise. In particular, women fear being judged about their ability.
  • 44% of mothers feel guilty if they spend time on themselves instead of their family, in contrast to the fact that men having “hobbies” is encouraged.
  • 48% of women say that getting sweaty is not feminine so being seen sweating causes concerns about their appearance.

If you watch This Girl Can videos and read the write-ups you hear from women who are recovering from a major surgery, getting going after a breakup, or becoming active after having kids. These women had been put in certain place by their circumstances and the way they were born, and have decided to change their lives physically. The campaign created a manifesto:

“Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.”

Since the campaign, the number of women playing sport is up by 245,200 people over a 12-month period to the end of September 2015.

About the Self-Image of Muslim Women Kickboxers

Regarding all shapes and sizes, Asian Muslim women in Britain have a lot of extra work in overcoming the judgment of others. There’s a great article in Vice about a woman organizing a kickboxing studio geared entirely towards Muslim women. Khadijah Safari is a 5’4” Muay Thai boxing instructor who teaches classes in Milton Keynes, outside of London. In the past 10 years her community experienced a doubling in the size of the visible minority population, up to 26%, of whom 4.8% were Muslim.

The rising ethnic diversity and the occasional act of Islamist terrorism is now wrapped up in a toxic blowback about “British values” at the heart of the Brexit fiasco and open racism in the streets. Women wearing religious headdress feel particularly threatened, telling stories of being spat on and name-called. Instead of “going home” this vulnerable population can instead attend self-defence classes. In these women-only classes, the women remove their hijabs and cover the windows, while they build their muscles, skills, and emotional resilience.

One participant is a 33-year old woman named Afshah who has been in the UK for eight years:

“…I have three kids at home, and I want something for myself,” she says. “…before I came here, I lived in Worcestershire and people would shout ‘Muslim!’ at me in the street. I felt so insecure. I didn’t want to go out. This class has given me a little bit more confidence.”

These women have a great icon to look up to. Ruqsana Begum – known as the Warrior Princess – was the British female boxing champion in 2016 and at the time the only Muslim woman at the top of her sport in the UK. She’s petite, has used her sport to overcome depression, and has gone on to build a business designing and selling sports hijabs. She has a great interview in highsnobiety.com where she sums it up: “I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.”

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

[Repost from December 14, 2017]

Would you trust your doctor to repair your car

Reach for it (she made it, btw). By Lorie Shaull
Reach for it (she made it, btw).  Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.

When people move up in the world, do you notice how they sometimes expect to be trusted?  It’s almost as if the trust were some kind of cherished prize attached to status and position.  But that’s not how it works.  Trust is something people earn.  And the ways in which trust is earned are mysterious and counter-intuitive.

Onara O’Neill’s TED Talk on What We Don’t Understand About Trust is an eye-opening revelation of an ambiguous concept.  Trust is a sentiment experienced by the trust-er, not by the person hoping to be trusted. In order to receive the trust of others, one must behave in a manner that is trustworthy.  This trustworthiness is judged on whether someone is honest, competent, and reliable.

You can trust people on some behaviours but not others.  For example, you can trust leaders to make good decisions, but perhaps not trust them to understand the perspective of those who are less powerful.  This dichotomy can make lives difficult for leaders who make missteps in empathy.

It’s also possible to trust someone will give accurate information, but not trust that they will guard your secrets.  For me, that’s the analyst’s dilemma.  The act of sharing information too freely can discourage people from providing the very information that is needed to advance research.  Conversely, being over-protective of information sends off signals you’re using the information for your own benefit, or for the sole benefit of your masters.

Trust can be localized to the profession of the person in question.  There is no good reason to presume a physician would provide good advice on auto-mechanics.  A doctor’s importance, intelligence, and general credibility might normally sway you, but this influence should have no bearing on whether you trust them on topics outside their expertise.  This distinction should be key when considering the trustworthiness of senior leaders in your workplace.  Do you ever see leaders express their views about how the world really works, while they stray outside their area of professional competence?  It doesn’t instil confidence.  Someone should tell them.  But who?

If only it were possible for clear opinions to go up and down the hierarchy.

The Features of Two-Directional Trust

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article from July 2017 entitled “Want Your Employees to Trust You? Show You Trust Them”, describes how workplace performance suffers if employees perceive they are not trusted by their managers.

The authors note: “Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization.” The degree to which employees trust their manager is sensitive to the degree to which the manager trusts them. And if there is any chicken-and-egg question, it’s easy to see the direction of causation: leaders set the tone.  Sometimes by accident.

The authors bemoan how workplaces often have rules and structures which minimize risk, and this environment can undercut the degree to which those with less power feel trusted:

Centralization of authority, restricted resources and information, and bureaucratic cultures heavy with regulation limit employee initiative. Managers may support their employees taking that initiative — but in a risk-averse organization, such ideas won’t likely see the light of day.

Smothering risk-taking creates an environment where people are not free to apply their best judgment.  As I described in a related post on workplace dress codes, judgment is a skill that needs to be used regularly to be effective.  Excessive rules create a workplace culture where people are out-of-practice making judgement calls when something emerges in a grey area.  This is how a doctor got bloodied by security for refusing to get off an overbooked flight on United Airlines.

Instead of creating and enforcing rules, it is far more effective for managers to cultivate employee talents (i.e. generating competence), give a clear direction of what is expected every day (in a bid for honesty), and set clear accountabilities (fostering reliability).  If the manager has conveyed a sense of trust, the employee should be in a good position to ask for help, having already taken their talents to the limit.

The Paradox of the Bottom-Line Focus

In the HBR article, another reason managers convey a lack of trust is a bottom-line mentality.  It makes sense for management to focus on a core goal, which might be the earning of money.

However, in the pursuit of this top-level goal

…many managers become focused on their job security and respond by constricting control.  This can lead to the type of thinking that focuses on only securing bottom-line outcomes, which often come at the expense of other priorities, such as developing relationships and empowering employees to make independent decisions.

Pressure to focus on the bottom line may cause insecure managers to pass along the insecurity to subordinates in the form of control.  That dynamic creates enough side-effects that the people lose their devotion to profit maximization.  It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where powerful people think profit maximization is where it’s at, and their subordinates wonder “what’s the point?”

By contrast, a workplace culture of empowerment and independent application of competence can be an engine of bottom-line outcomes.  Some managers don’t perceive that this is the case, allowing their creeping control tendencies and myopic perspective to take over.  The villain here is not people who make sound leadership decisions while sacrificing employee independence, it is managers who perceive no trade-off whatsoever.

Self-Awareness Continues to Be a Key Attribute

The manager’s lack of self-awareness is a big factor in the lack of two-directional trust.  Many managers think in their own mind that they trust employees, but send off signals that they do not.  Managers often scrutinize work in a manner that expresses a lack of trust.  This scrutiny is so close to the expectation-setting and accountability culture that would be the feature of a high-functioning and high-trust environment.

How can you tell which environment you have created?  You can take stock through qualitative measurement and feedback systems to help managers overcome lack of awareness.  If the manager rejects push-back and negates survey findings, this might be a clue.  A trusting manager would need to carefully give up control in an incremental manner which measures and tolerates risk-taking.  Well-taken risks are usually calculated risks, and better information can reduce fear in the face of those risks. First, the information needs to be created, then it needs to be pushed down into the hands of the people to whom control and trust have been granted.

Employers need to increase information-sharing, including the sharing of bad-news items, on the presumption that employees are adults.  Employees’ understanding of management decision-making is important for two-directional trust.

On the topic of unpleasant conversations, a leader can also encourage transparent conversations about career aspirations.  From the metrics, a manager should know the odds that an employee might leave.  Maybe talking about goals more openly will give the employer the opportunity to help that employee grow into a new skill set?  I foresee an interesting exchange, that the employer has confidential information about corporate decision-making, and the employee has private information about their work-place and where else they think they could do better work.

The exchange of these two pieces of information obviously involves an exchange of trust, with the information mostly acting as the frisbee that is being passed back and forth.  And you can’t foster a high-functioning environment if managers keep the frisbee framed on a wall in their basement.

I wish I was insecure

teenage confusion, by Pabak Sarkar
teenage confusion.  Photo courtesy of Pabak Sarkar.

I wish I was more insecure, so I could relate better to colleagues who struggle with their insecurity. I keep missing opportunities to share moments of vulnerability.  I can’t tap into that common language where we all wish we were better.  People watch me, waiting for me to trip-up, and then I succeed.  Then they stop watching.  This is not how you get likes.

Perhaps I can overcome this challenge by doing more research.

My greatest frustration is articles proclaiming that almost everyone is insecure.  From a Huffington Post article by Susan Winter:

Every human being wonders if they’re “okay.” That’s the big secret no one shares and no one wants to share.  …at the core of every human is the desire to be accepted and seen as valuable in the eyes of those around us.  …There will be times you’ll feel on top of the world and times you’ll doubt your worth. This is normal. It’s a part of our forward movement as we take stock of who we are, in transit to who we’re becoming.

I feel like the captain of a Star Trek vessel observing “the planet of the insecure” hesitating about whether I should help.  If I could cure this planet of its insecurities, would their social order fall apart?  Would I take away that one thing that moves them forward every day?

What Teenagers Learn About Status and Insecurity

In this age of industrialized narcissism, the insecure are way better at delivering photos of their perfect life, drawing attention to their accomplishments, and working late to meet high expectations.  In an Inc.com article Jessica Stillman cites Yale psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who bemoans that a growing number of platforms are making it easier for us to gain status.  Prinstein differentiates between two types of popularity, status and likability.  Those who pursue and achieve high status tend towards “aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”

It’s great television.

In another article Stillman argues you should be relieved if you were not a cool kid in high school.  Cool kids get their reputation through behaviours that must become increasingly extreme in order to keep up with their subgroup.  At some point these antics veer into criminal behaviour and drug use which peers realize isn’t cool at all: “by the age of 22, these ‘cool kids’ are rated as less socially competent than their peers.”

By contrast, those who focused on developing one really close friendship “reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.”  Nerds and healthy people work on their likeability.  Not facebook likes – that’s just a type of status.  I’m talking about people liking you for who you really are.  This is hard work. You need to make yourself vulnerable to close friends.  Sincerely attempt to improve yourself.  Be authentic in your words and deeds.  Back to Susan Winter’s Huffington Post article…

A truly empowered person can look at their shortcomings and seek improvement. The arrogantly insecure must only see a mirror that reflects their perfection. …The nature of growth requires embracing the new and unexplored. Security is opposed to growth, as growth is chaotic and unsettling.  Insecurity is the gift of wondering what comes next in our discovery process. [Emphasis added]

Insecurity is a good thing?  I’m furious.

Defining Emotional Security and Its Evil Twin, Insecurity

When doing people analytics, the first pass at the numbers often hinges on a data definition that needs better clarity.  Humanity is ambiguous and the closer we get to precisely measuring people, the more the human element claps-back at the empirical system, exposing that it’s the quantitative models themselves that are vulnerable.

Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Wikipedia has a great article on emotional security, which by default gets into insecurity.  Wikipedia is the source of consensus amateur opinion, which is perfect for you and me.  I mean you.  No offense. Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”

Already we’re in a pickle given Brené Brown’s research that the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to make ourselves vulnerable to others on a topic of personal shame.  To go deep in a relationship, we must choose to be insecure.  Those high school kids with one close friend were onto something.

Is There Anything Tangible We Can Do About Insecurity?

Is there anything tangible about insecurity?  Yes. Wikipedia says

The concept [of Emotional security] is related to that of psychological resilience in as far as both concern the effects which setbacks or difficult situations have on an individual. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience.

Some people have a status and/or demeanor with which they can weather setbacks better than others.  Therefore the emotional state of insecurity relates to 1) things that do in fact happen to us, 2) our ability to adapt to those things that happen including our own actions, and 3) our perspective and emotional state that arises from our experiences and adaptations.

This trifecta reveals that there are multiple responses to these shocks to our lives.  We can prevent bad things from happening through precautions and defenses.  We can mitigate after things have happened through insurance claims, emotional debriefs with friends, or by pressing charges.  We can improve our adaptations by upping our game (by trying harder or changing our methods as individuals), or fighting back against a collective injustice (e.g. go to a rally or make a targeted donation), or sometimes just letting others win (e.g. I hereby choose to load the dishwasher).

Or we can choose a different perspective and emotional state, such as accepting flaws in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large.  There is comfort in humility.  If you don’t like that, there’s always hope.  Choose your emotional posture.  Shape the clouds with your own bare hands.

What a Secure Workplace Looks Like

Now, let’s consider what this means in the workplace.  If an employee knows what is expected of them every day, they can correctly self-assess if they are delivering on expectations and change course accordingly.  If an employee has one good friend in the workplace, they can share vulnerable moments in which they are reassured and accepted as who they are.  If an employee is mistreated or put at risk, they can only prevent and mitigate if they are free to complain, talk to the union, or refuse unsafe working conditions.  If the employee faces unexpected dental expenses or fears poverty in retirement, they focus better when their employer provides pensions and benefits.

Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

The employer is asking people to do work for them, and in return offers an environment that is economically, physically, and emotionally reassuring to their security.  Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.

There we go, my work is done.  It’s amazing what you can learn about a topic you know nothing about by putting a few hours into research and explaining things.  It feels accomplished.  It’s not that I was feeling insecure earlier.  I wasn’t.  I’m only doing this for you.

Do you like it?

Payroll systems are the Russian winter of corporate strategy

2016 USARAK Winter Games, by U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)
2016 USARAK Winter Games.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Alaska.

Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed?  It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely.  Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests.  How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?

In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco.  Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals.  Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background.  The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made.  All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades.  What could possibly go wrong?

But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal.  Have you ever talked to a payroll person?  These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory.  They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves.  Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?

Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter

I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.

There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army.  It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute.  It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.

With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key.  Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment.  Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.”  Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy.  For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice.  Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.

The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier.  Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted.  This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework.  For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.

Also, defense has the advantage.  Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire.  Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust.  Those who stay-put are more likely to win.

There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference.  Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.

The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership

Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset.  With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn.  There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants.  Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons.  Particularly if they lost.

…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]

These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence.  We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego.  Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage.  But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically.  If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle.  Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect.  And that spells trouble.

Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff.  The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked.  Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.

A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape.  You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.

Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside.  Who wants to go outside and play?  Not me.  I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.

Rejecting feedback a corporate ‘true crime’

Exed Formation continue à l'Ecole polytechnique. By Ecole polytechnique
Exed Formation continue à l’Ecole polytechnique. Photo courtesy of Ecole polytechnique.

What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors?  It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top.  But it’s an important question to ask.

In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start.  According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker.  Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance.  Let’s take a closer look.

The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre

The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in.  But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization.  The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell.  Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.

Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity.  A lot of staff were new.  Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride.  It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier.  But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed.  Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files.  After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.

This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor.  This gap played out on the grand scale.

…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress.  …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]

Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder

If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre.  Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build.  As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.

But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems.  The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground.  It’s a “no complaining” mindset.  And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.

Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important

The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes.  The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance…  that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.”  There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives.  Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives.  So, watch what you say…

The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command.  The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister.  There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people.  Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along.  Or not.

The Fake Consultation Meeting

In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions.  However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow.  The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented.  Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”.  But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved.  Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays.  They were going ahead.

The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over.  That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.

As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]

All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software.  In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.

Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts

It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going.  And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people.  Why do leaders do this to themselves?  I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy.  And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work.  But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.

It’s like reverse-provincialism.  Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals.  But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth?  What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field?  What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.

I know what we should do with these people.  We should teach them.