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Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

How Better Listening Can Improve Project Outcomes

An upsetting recent experience Have you ever felt like the person you’re speaking to is just not listening? Last week, we pulled the plug on a server migration. If you've ever done a move like this, you know how hard a call this is to make. The team had been working on this for the past five months. Multiple teams of people had gone above and beyond to make it happen, and to say we were gutted at this result doesn’t even begin to cut it. What brought about this unexpected and disappointing outcome? In the end, it came down to one question. It was one of the first questions we had for the software vendor. It was asked multiple times through the process, and it turns out, at the last minute, that the wrong answer had been given, multiple times! It was like the software vendor was hearing the words and doing the surface motions of listening but not really getting it! Oscar Trimboli (deep listening expert) really had this covered when he made this comment: 'Projects that run over schedule and budget, (and) customer opportunities that are missed, nine times out of ten can be put down to that we're listening to the words but not the meaning'. Stephen R. Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, shares his ideas on effective listening framed as a ‘listening continuum.' Like a ladder of improvement, the pinnacle of his continuum is empathetic listening, at which point the listener has achieved the ability to listen within the other’s frame of reference. We see empathetic listening practised among a variety of professionals who want to help their clients, including counsellors, HR managers, CEOs and VPs. It's an important quality of leadership. One of the key qualities of empathic listening is to stay out of judgement. Christine Porath and Douglas R. Conant researched the turnaround at Campbell Soup and credited an increase in what they called ‘civility,' a vital component of this was ‘listening better.' You can read about their findings here. They talk about the time and effort that is required to create a culture of civility that has its foundations in listening, respect for each other and working to make people feel valued. Like lots of other research, their findings showed that it’s the small everyday interactions that count towards building trust. They heard the question and answered it, more than once, but they missed listening to the meaning. The meaning for us as the client (customer) had a significant impact on the rest of the business. To me, deep listening is a bit like an indicator on a car; right there and available for use but not used as often as would be helpful. So how can we all get better at listening deeply? Well, Oscar is an expert, and he describes four types of bad listening habits. I myself am an interrupting listener at times – seeking to solve the problem before the whole thing has been explained. In the case of our server migration gone wrong, someone seeking to solve the problem might well have helped us out. Some tips for better listening Sometimes it helps to have a physical thing to do, as a reminder or trigger. Some tips that I have picked up along the way that sometimes help me are: Take a deep breath (or three) and calm your own mind. Open your mouth a little (in a relaxed way, no goldfish impersonations required). Studies show that when we’re sitting in judgement, we’ve usually got our mouths firmly closed. Uncross your arms. Developing our listening skills benefits all team (and personal) interactions. This means spending an effort acknowledging people’s contributions and improving our own capacity to listen better. Getting to the meaning of what's really being asked can save you a lot of re-work and time wasted. It might even mean that when you ask that one super important question, your software vendor will really understand what you mean.  

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What if you Treated People as Assets?

Some time ago, (admittedly over a drink), a software provider was heard to wonder… “What if we selected the people we want to work with first, and then figured out the plan and the system?” At the time, this struck a chord. One of my measures of success is to ‘work with great people’, and I had enjoyed working with this provider.  To me, great people are those who are interested in doing the work and bringing their best efforts to it. I had observed how much faster the work flows and how clarity of decision making helps to smooth the path of working with software teams, even remotely! So, have you ever done this? Selected the people first and then figured out the plan? I’ve seen something like a hybrid approach, in that the big picture goal has been worked out, and then the team put together. Making sure you get the right people on the project team and the right mix of skills and intentions is important but how often does it get the level of attention it deserves? Stephen R. Covey in ‘The 8th Habit’ hits the mark, he observes… People are put on the P+L statement as an expense; equipment is put on the balance sheet as an investment. So his point is leading us to ask the question: What if, instead of treating people as an expense, we treat people as assets and look to appreciate their value through development and learning? How would that be on the balance sheet? Imagine an organisation's investment in people increasing in value over time instead of just increasing the liability accrued against their long service leave? "A good team makes the work go smoother (faster and better). Investing time and energy into developing that team means treating people with respect as a baseline", says Christine Porath author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace.” Her study surveyed over 20,000 employees globally and found that employees who felt respected by their leaders reported: 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 26% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement.” Compelling statistics in a tide of what feels like a world of increasing dis-interest, dis-satisfaction and dis-engagement. Patty McCord, author of “Powerful” and a founding contributor to the legendary culture at Netflix, (you know, the slide deck that has been viewed more than 16 million times), documents the path that Netflix took to stripping away bureaucracy and developing strong disciplines in their culture. They developed an environment that encouraged “open, clear and constant communication, the practice of radical honesty that was timely and face to face, strong fact-based opinions and rigour around debate." The focus was to take away as many layers as possible in terms of procedures and policies and create a trust that people already understand what the right thing is to do. What you call it is not the most important part. You can call it civility, or radical candour or a manifesto. The most important part is that the people part of the plan gets attention. And that we revisit it, frequently. The business of the business is evolving all the time, and so do teams need to evolve not just to meet the needs of the business but also the aspirations of the people in the team. In our project work, we work with teams who are at varying stages of development and evolution. Teams who are just starting out need vision and alignment of purpose according to this article and as teams grow, leaders need to adapt their style. Making sure that as your project comes to life you’ve considered how the people plan will evolve is a critical part of your success. We have seen exciting businesses with vision and ideas, with financial workability and operational expertise fall at the first hurdle because they have not thought through how to build out their team or create a decision-making framework that will allow them to move quickly. Making people an asset requires a shift in thinking and the ability to go against the status quo. Are you up for the challenge?

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Mentoring: Learning from Others

A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. — Oprah Winfrey I love this quote, and mentoring, for me, has been the backbone of creating hope and development in my growth. Mentoring has been one of the best investments of my time and energy and has contributed greatly to my focus on continuous learning. Having been a mentee (both formally and informally), and having learnt so much from those who have shared with me - I am now in the position of being a mentor for others, which is a different kind of learning. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I’m done with being a mentee, there's still heaps of learning ahead! Early in my career, I was lucky to have some great bosses who modelled the best on how to support and protect the team. Something that I consider incredibly important, and which can be basically summed up for me in one phrase: When a goal is achieved credit to the team, when something flops it’s all on the leader. I think so much of learning is about modelling. When you become a parent, one of the most confronting lessons is that no matter what you say, your kids will do what you do! So, those aspirational behaviours that the pre-kids you always knew you would absolutely insist upon, actually has to be lived to really take. It's common sense, but it's very difficult to appreciate until you're in it. So, is mentoring just an extension of this ‘Common Sense Manifesto?’ I have followed Colin Ellis and last year was a participant at one of his courses. I wish I had written the 'Common Sense Manifesto' - just the act of committing it to paper is perhaps the thing that makes the most sense! Colin has a way of simplifying and articulating 'common sense' that can be used in your personal and/or professional day. I encourage you to have a read. I feel strongly that there is another point in there somewhere about not wasting [time, attention, raw materials, energy]. Many times in my life I have looked at situations and people and felt that what was lacking was a strong dose of common sense. To me, having a great mentor relationship fits in nicely with common sense manifesto number 6: ‘Never Stop Learning’. How can you keep learning when you don’t have a formal mentor relationship in place? A friend who has recently started running their own business asked me how I get mentoring in my own business life. I have at points had a formal relationship, but right now it’s less formal. Some of the things that I do that keep the learning alive are: Reading (and Listening): I read and I listen. A lot. In the car, on a plane, I even listen to podcasts when I have trouble getting to sleep (some of my personal favourites are below). They’re not all business focused, some of them are just smart people who I explore ideas that I find interesting. Writing: not as much, or as well, as I aspire to, but writing helps me to construct my thoughts and feeds into the development of my own ideas. Sometimes it’s a stream of consciousness kind of blurt and then sometimes it’s trying to put myself in a position where I can see someone else’s point of view. Sometimes it’s this where I’m sharing what has worked for me. Thinking: putting time aside to think is not something I have a special place or space for (yet, I would really like one). Lots of people I know talk about the benefits of meditation and I agree with them, but I spend a lot of time in my work life at a desk/ in front of a screen, so I tend to combine thinking with exercise. I started running because I really hated it, and I keep running because it makes me feel physically tired and allows me to just think. I deliberately don’t run with music. At the start of a race recently I heard one participant say to his running buddy, “How do you do this without music? If I have time to think about this I’ll start to ask myself why I signed up for 21km” – it made me smile. Participating in groups: I recently signed up to a group challenge online. No one is going to check what I’m doing but it’s creating an action list for me, not all of the items need action but so far, it’s been a good experience to re-align and re-focus on some basics. I am in the fortunate position of working with technology teams; things keep changing and there are constantly new things to learn and grapple with, so learning is part of my everyday. It's this learning that allows me to keep developing, contributing to my own knowledge and sharing it with the teams that we work with. 6R don’t specifically align with one type of software or system, we are constantly learning new software, processes and about the people that we work with. My favourite podcasts Chat 10 Looks 3 with Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales Slow Burn by Slate Art of Charm (advanced social skills training for top performers) Freakonomics with Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner On Being Project (deep thinking and social courage to renew life)  

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Decision Making is Easy (when you ask the right questions)

"In good decision making, frugality matters," says Malcolm Gladwell;taking complex problems, and reducing them to the key levers that help us choose is a critical skill. Getting to the heart of the decision, however, isn’t always so easy! I was recently reminded of this; a project team spent weeks designing, dreaming and negotiating what could be achieved with their new website design. There was a list of requirements that was like an out of control Christmas list, and everyone was very excited at the idea of something new that would improve the customer experience. But one thing had been forgotten. Just a small matter of how much they had to spend. We’ve all been there, beer budget but champagne taste (I do it all the time). So, in the end, the decision was easy and the constraint of having to work within the budget helped them decide. Constraints help the decision making process I  noticed a similar pattern years ago whilst waitressing. When customers came into the restaurant, if there were no bookings, it didn’t matter where they sat. Gesture to the restaurant's ‘sit anywhere you like’ would result in much debate back and forth.  They would often choose one table only to move to another and then another. Whereas, if I gestured to a specific table and said, "would you like to sit here?" customers would either accept the offer or ask to be seated at another table. It’s that old chestnut about cognitive load. If the decision is made for you, it is either accepted or not, but being forced to make an active choice and decide for yourself from the whole restaurant is much harder. The project team were constrained by the limitations of what they had to spend. How much time and effort could they have saved by getting this basic building block in place before the requirements even got underway? The decision could have been made a lot earlier in the project. Finalising the budget and the business case before the project starts helps make the decision process smoother because it’s obvious to everyone the boundaries we’re working within. As soon as we were able to articulate the right question(s) the decision was easily made. Projects are all about working with constraints. Usually, there’s limited budget, time and people.  Clearly articulating the constraints that are going to drive a decision early in the process, can save a lot of time and energy and reduce frustration and disappointment all around. Why does restricting options help us to get on with good decision making? There has been a lot written on the topic of 'choice' and I particularly like the advice of Sheena Iyengar, who highlights 4 ways to help with decision making: (Read more)

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Persistence and Practice; Project training essentials

Years ago, I worked on a project where we took a legacy horse race rating system used by a bookmaker and upgraded it to a modern technology platform. I spent a lot of time with guys who were professional gamblers, they were incredibly knowledgeable about horses and horse racing. They had a methodical practice that took hours each day, doing what they called, ‘rating the race.’ This was a practice that to an external observer (me) involved watching the same horse race over and over again until you had gleaned every last piece of information possible from it and had ‘rated’ (or scored) each horse in that race. After that, the race itself would be rated, and so would many other details that they had been trained to look for. This bespoke system they had developed of rating horses, races, conditions and riders all contributed to their knowledge about how the horse would perform over time. What they had observed over years, was that a horse would improve incrementally for a period but was also capable of ‘jumping’ very quickly up a few levels in performance and it was this jump that they carefully watched for in their rating statistics. It was their ability to be ready for improvement that gave them a competitive edge. Like horses, us humans, can sometimes give the impression of making an improvement very quickly the quintessential “overnight success.” Improvement requires practice and it’s never quite clear when we’re learning something new, when we’re going to improve or whether that breakthrough will happen at all. The constant practice and search for improvement can be a bit daunting and demoralising at times. This week, I was lucky enough to be present for one such improvement breakthrough moment. One of the users we’ve been working with on a project appeared in the doorway of the cupboard/ workroom that we’ve tucked ourselves away in. “I’m so happy, I have to share!” He was beaming from ear to ear. He went on to explain his breakthrough. He has been on the project team since the beginning and has been an active participant the whole way, but it has been difficult terrain. His commitment has never wavered, but we can tell that he’s struggled with the way the new system works, there have been a lot of confused looks and ‘why are we doing this?’ moments over the last few months.  His breakthrough was the result of persistence and practice. He reminded me of the importance of practice, and the absolute necessity of training for the job that people will do with their team. It’s a much more exploratory to learn but it pays off in these moments when someone gets the reward of their own efforts. We’ve spoken before about what it takes to deliver training in a project.  Over the many projects that we've worked on, and people that we've worked with, we learn more about how to better deliver training.  This breakthrough highlighted to me, the importance of persistence and practice. In this situation, we had also used the technique of having a ‘training buddy’ someone to work things out with, a fellow explorer in the new system. This mirrors a development practice in agile process, where two developers work together at the one screen. So the week's learning has been: Practice, practice and more practice! Celebrate the breakthrough moments (we did!) and acknowledge people for their persistence; Buddy up – two heads have more observation power than one! If you are struggling with the best way to train on a new system, get in touch.  We buddy up with retailers to equip internal teams for the project efforts ahead. Our project management tools are light and flexible for retailers. The 6R team work behind the scenes, leading through project management, testing, training and team building to deliver project success.

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Learning New things is Hard (especially in projects)

We’ve reached ‘that stage’ in the project, the learning curve is steep. Last week one of my team members was showing people how to open multiple browser windows and explaining that this was not a feature of the browser-based system they’re training on but rather of browsers themselves. It was enlightening! The learning path ahead is going to be a bigger effort than I had expected for this team. To get a project off to a good start the internal people need to get the objective of the project, be clear about what success looks like and understand what it is they need to do. They also need to be good at their regular jobs or have someone help them with their regular job because what they’re about to embark on is a long way from their regular work and often it takes additional effort and focus to get the new stuff that they’re not used to processed. The most significant thing the internal team are going to do in the execution of new project is learning; (Read more)

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