18 February 2006

Why is people management so difficult?

If you have been a manager of managers, undoubtedly one of the things that would have frustrated you is how so many of your managers who had an otherwise perfect record were woefully lacking in people management. The pattern has repeated like clockwork in my life.

This has prevented numerous ambitious managers from moving forward in their careers and often has frustrated them immensely. (Don’t count on the latter though. Most managers far overestimate their organizational and people skills). I am not talking about managers who “are liked by people”. While this can be a charismatic leader, often people “liking” has little to do with a manager’s effectiveness with their organization.

I am talking of a manager’s ability to get the most out of individuals and the organization in a way that is profitable for both the company and the individual. I am talking about a manager’s ability to keep the organization continuously hungry to scale greater heights. I am talking about a manager’s ability to deliver 5X results compared with similar sized teams. (In the IT industry as well as many others, this is absolutely achievable)

There are various books written on how to become a great people manager and such other topics. Given the number of books written on this subject, I suspect this is not a commonly agreed upon topic!! I shall try not to add to that literature base.

However, what I am going to narrate to you is what I believe is the fundamental reason why so many bright managers who manage just about every aspect of their business very well, find it difficult to get the people management aspect straightened out.

What makes people management so different from other streams of management?

At the core of the difference is standardization versus differentiation.

Pick up your MBA courses or the millions of books written on management – be it production management, development management, sales management whatever. The focus is always to derive higher gains by running it as a well-defined process. The general theme is very simple – look at the processes, standardize the processes, set in the measures and then drive higher goals through those measures and exception management whenever there are variations to those standardized processes.

That is how Ford drove how to manufacture cars. That is how companies like Siebel and salesforce.com have made money – by helping to standardize the sales process. That is how developers have increased product quality – standardized development process.

You don’t make one car fundamentally different from the next on the assembly line. You try not to make every sales deal a Picasso (unique creation). You follow the same steps to write the next line of code as you did for the previous one.

However, this management upbringing falls completely flat while dealing with people. Each person truly is very different from the other. They need and demand very different kind of treatment. They respond to different kind of stimuli. Given two machines, you will roughly follow the same steps to get 30% more productivity. Try that on two employees sitting next to each other and you will quickly realize the futility.

The art of differentiating makes or breaks a good people manager. The method of “standardize-measure-manage” will not work here. Good people management takes far more time. The best people managers try to find the right buttons for different employees and figure out how to challenge each one of them while keeping them focused on the corporate goals.

Any “broad brushing” of people issues usually has a very limited effect. I am sure you are aware of what kind of exciting responses you get from your employees when you talk of HR Policies. I suspect it is this “one-size-will-fit-all” approach that they roll their eyes for. As individuals, they demand individual attention and micro-plans/policies. (I am not saying all of them are justified).

Next time, you are facing a personnel issue or are drafting something of that nature, take a step back and give this a thought.

Rajib Roy

3 February 2006

Perpetual Optimism is a force multiplier

n my experience, organizations have a tendency to dwell on the negatives. How many coffee bar discussions have you run into or have been part of – where the basic theme was “why we are not doing things right” or “why this manager / executive is totally screwed up”? Surely many more than the ones which talk about the company wins or what the organizations are doing right.

As I think back on this, there are three things I believe I have learnt…

1. Negative news travels much faster than positive news: Have you seen how sales “loss” stories are known by more people faster than the “win” stories? How some negative press about your company is on more desktops of your employees than positive press? You would think there is almost a salacious side to all of us that focuses on the “gossipy” side of events for this to happen. Organizations behave as if negative news is more “urgent” than positive news.

2. “My self-worth is tied to how I can prove others are screwed up”: I believe when people – in a work as well as a social environment – engage in pointing out how and why things are screwed up, there is an inherent human psychology working that is trying to portray that “I know better”. I also believe that there is a side of us that is convinced that others will think that we “know more” if we can show the imperfections than if we talk about the perfections.

3. Positive people have a remarkable effect: Although rare, I have indeed come across people who can always see the brighter side of things. Who can focus on the things that are going right. And I am not talking about “spin” marketing. Though such leaders are few and far between, people tend to agree that such people are “better” leaders than your run of the mill ones.

This is probably a great pointer to many of us who aspire to become great leaders some day and leave a mark in this world. I loved it the way Colin Powell put it – “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier”. My personal experience has been that it takes time to get organizations to share your level of optimism. But you can do that by being sincere, acknowledging that there is work to be done but repeatedly focusing on the wins. Once you do that, organizations grow a natural tendency to follow you as a leader.

In a previous environment that I worked, where we were clearly losing path as a company, it was remarkable to note how the “optimistic” leadership statements, while bought by rank and file initially, was quickly seen to be spin and insincere since that is exactly what they were. Ever since, I am convinced, that as a leader, you first establish your sincerity – then focus on the positives. That is an amazing combination that can energize organizations. The “can do” attitude is very infectious. Once the leader exudes it, the whole organization exudes it.

I would like to end by quoting from Colin Powell again which best articulates my theory on this topic…

The ripple effect of a leader’s enthusiasm and optimism is awesome. So is the impact of cynicism and pessimism. Leaders who whine and blame engender those same behaviors among their colleagues. I am not talking about stoically accepting organizational stupidity and performance incompetence with a “what, me worry?” smile. I am talking about a gung-ho attitude that says “we can change things here, we can achieve awesome goals, we can be the best.” Spare me the grim litany of the “realist,” give me the unrealistic aspirations of the optimist any day.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this. Or what your experience has been.


1 January 2006

What CIOs are looking for

If you have been selling enterprise software in the last five years, you have undoubtedly gone thru the following scenario multiple times. You did everything that you know you should do – you have put in a perfect value proposition, your software scored most points in a bake off with other competitors – you even got a off the record assurance from the business users that yours is the software they will recommend. And yet you lose the deal – sometimes to the ERP vendor and increasingly to a decision to make a home grown solution.

Whatever happened? After interacting with scores of CIOs in some of the largest companies in the world, this is what I have distilled in my mind…

The shift of power to the CIO

Ever since the internet bubble burst, as organizations have realized that they went overboard in buying packaged applications (most of which could not be implemented due to want of implementation funds and time), there is a subtle shift in power that has happened in this buying process. And that is the emergence of the CIO as the more powerful decision maker. It used to be the business side of the house. But that underwent a change.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that business value of a solution lost its utility. It absolutely remains a driver. Contrary to popular belief, CIOs are totally aligned with the business folks in extracting business value from their investments. However, a second driver has emerged as a decisive factor in many of these decisions – and that is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

TCO includes not just the license cost of buying the application but also the cost of implementing it, integrating it, writing code to extract data and massage them and then more importantly, maintaining all this over the years.

And here is where the whole charm of best-of-breed application vendors starts falling down. While a lot of software has been written in the last 15 years solving some business problem very elegantly, very little has been done, in what I have seen, to solve the CIO’s problem. A typical supply chain product implementation across the industry as an example usually had the following breakup – for every $ that you spend on license software, you will spend anywhere from 30 to 50 cents on hardware and other middleware, anywhere between $4 to $10 on professional services (to configure, implement, integrate etc), and another 1 $ over the next 5 year or so for annual maintenance.

Add to that the cost of upgrading the software (application vendors will invariably ask you to upgrade once every 3-4 years and these are not simple technical upgrades of putting the CD in and pressing some buttons here and there) and the cost of the internal people or external contractors who are involved in the long term maintenance of the implementation code written. Now you get an idea what makes the CIO cringe even though you are asking for just a $ of product to be bought.

This is where broad providers like ERP vendors win. They may not have the best and most elegant solution – but their “good enough” solutions are very attractive since that avoids a lot of the integration and data manipulating costs (the story at least from the ERP vendors is that the new modules work perfectly on top of the old data models). Maintenance is far less of a cost and there is one less vendor/provider to deal with for the CIO. If you read a previous blog I had written about mergers, you will realize that it is the same driver – focus on total cost of ownership – that made the winning mergers rewrite the acquired software all over again with their existing architectures and data models.

The re-emergence of home-grown software

The swing towards the home-grown software is occurring ever since three things have come together. First, as I explained, the cost of making a best of breed solution sit on a pre-existing IT environment is high. But the fun starts after you have decided to spend that money. No pre-packaged software ever solves all the business needs and requirements that you have. (That is the nature of the business – it is not necessarily the fault of the application vendor). However, for you to get those features built in, you are asked to stand in a queue of other customers and follow the product release deadlines that the vendor has.

While vendors are absolutely eager to help you and see how to expedite things, there is no guarantee that your feature will be put in. The vendor is in the business of making standard products and will always prioritize “commonly asked for” features higher than the rest. (Don’t forget the sales and competitive pressures R&D organizations go thru also – their internal sales/executives saying “have to have this feature else we will lose the deal”!!). From the CIO’s point of view, he can’t care less about all the plethora of features that he never uses. He just wants his stuff – his way and that’s all he is asking for.

Second, as the budget of the CIO kept getting squeezed over the last five years, the ratio of money spent on “new projects” has been going down. A CIO divides his/her budget roughly into two parts – the ongoing maintenance of existing systems and then “new” projects. Pre-2000, the new projects could command as high as 25 to 30% of the total budget. Over time, that has been squeezed down to sometimes as low as single digit of percentage. Think of ongoing maintenance cost as almost fixed cost. And as budgets got squeezed beyond those levels, the CIOs started adopting the India model whole scale since that brought down their maintenance side of the budget by about 30% on an average.

However, the business demands did not sit tight just because budgets were being cut down. If anything the landscape became even more competitive and customers were less tolerant of service levels being missed. In this world, the CIOs started looking into the possibility of harvesting their existing investments. Technologies like web services have made it much easier to leave the existing code as is and put wrappers around and use these existing functionalities in workflows that you can build outside these code bases. These are usually called composite apps. The theory is – as I said above – you put in wrappers over your legacy code to expose the functionality as web services. And you can write composite apps that use these web services and any new ones that you write to solve a business problem. You leverage the existing data models as well as functionality.

Finally, the emergence of quality labor at a fraction of a price from the India vendors has made it much easier for the CIOs to attempt to build these solutions themselves. And some of the CIOs have gone to the extent of opening up their operations in India themselves (almost without exception, given the market of India, these companies have some sales presence and a legal vehicle already existing in India). Opening up your operations gets you further cost advantage (almost 1:4) but on the other hand you take on some of the management problems on yourself.

In any case, hope this helps you understand what goes thru a CIO’s mind. Hope this will help you in steering your company strategy on how to build solutions. In the least, you will know how to give a good sense of where your products are on the TCO front to the CIO.


23 December 2005

What makes people go thru walls?

Have you ever wondered why certain companies have extremely loyal band of employees and some do not? I am not talking of people who continue to work in an environment due to sheer inertia and the inherent human inclination to avoid a change. I am talking about those set of people who work with maniacal ferocity towards a vision often against large or at least better place competitors. What makes them drink the “Kool Aid”? What gets them the mantra?

What is that the leaders of these companies do? Without exception, these employees consider their leaders to be charismatic. What is charisma? And how does one achieve it? Is it purely a personality thing?

Sometime back, I was doing some research on what makes organizations last very long. Most companies die out before reaching double digits of age. I think it is worthwhile to study the parallels in how these employees behave with some very long standing organizations. The three longest standing organizations that I can think of are (i) the army (ii) the church and (ii) universities. Their longevity has run from 200 to 2000 years. Only half a dozen of corporate organizations can come close to even 200 years of age.

I will take a parallel from the army to explain the loyalty of employees. Why would any logical-minded soldier rush up a hill under heavy machine fire with incredible personal peril? Similarly, why would anybody not revoke their religious beliefs even under the severest torture? Why do employees work for a small company where the odds are against its survival?

There are three conditions that need to come together for the above to happen.

(*) A soldier needs to have tremendous belief in the commander that he is asking them to charge the right hill.

(*) A soldier needs to believe that, with enough sacrifice, the hill can be conquered.

(*) A soldier needs to believe that they have the “moral” right to win the hill.

Thus in companies where you see the maniacally loyal employees working towards a “great cause” invariably have the following things…

(*) The leader has painted a great vision – a vision that surpasses Wall Street expectation of mere fiscal pressures – a vision that shows why the world will be a far better place to live in – a world you would like to leave for your children if you achieve your vision. The leader exudes confidence in explaining to the employees why that is the “right” hill to charge up.

(*) The leader has impressed upon the employees that the only difference between the winner and the losers is execution. It is hard work. It is a success that is built upon a lot of sacrifice from the employees and their families. The leader acknowledges the sacrifice and thanks them for that. But also maintains that there is no short cut to success. Is quick to articulate why he believes he has the best “soldiers” too. What makes his employees different from other employees?

(*) The leader impresses upon his employees why it is their moral right to win the war. How they have the best vision. How the world is served best with their view of world order. How they focus on the right things which supersede small elements of focus like quarterly profits which is the sole focus of the competitors. How the competitors are busy make money for themselves while they want to make money for their customers.

That is the essence of what I have concluded…

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this. Or what your experience has been.