Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Guest Blogger Melina Leary : How to stop your inbox stopping you

This is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog. It was written by Melina Leary, my long suffering partner, about the blight that affects so many of us, so much of the time. Enjoy!


Although the ability to send messages between computers has been possible from the early 1970s, when I started office work in 1987 it was not widely used as a mechanism for communication. Things were so much simpler in the “good ole days” though. I generally worked within co-located teams with our customer not far away. If I needed to consult with anybody, I only needed to glance across the desk or room to see if they were available.

Email as a blessing

Fast forward 30 years with advent of the internet and a major shift in the way we work, team members may now be scattered across a variety of locations around the world. No more glancing across the desk to check out a colleague’s availability to discuss a matter, they are somewhere else and may not even be awake. The email, along with instant messaging, are perfect tools for asking questions or obtaining feedback from someone who cannot be seen or who has such a strong regional accent is difficult to understand on the ‘phone anyway. Email is also perfect tools for introverts, it is so easy to hide behind a computer and fire off an electronic message and avoid a face to face confrontation.

Email as a curse

The problem now is that email is being used too much. I regularly hear colleagues complaining of email overload, especially after taking a few days off.  Some are even proud of the amount they get as if it is a sign of their importance. However, heavily loaded inboxes become unmanageable and sap productivity. 

Shouldn't take long to go through 4,294,967,295 messages!
A quick search on Google can bring up a number of ways of managing unruly inboxes, from only checking emails at certain times of day and using the 2-minute rule to respond, to flagging important ones and setting rules for auto filing. However, these are all reactive strategies. I firmly believe that if emails are coming in so fast that you can never get around to addressing them all in a timely manner, then it is time to sit back and plan a solution to the problem.

Stop the curse!   

One of the biggest issues I have seen recently is the habit of people to manage entire projects or functions using email as the communication mechanism. There are many other ways of collaborating and sharing information, and the key to doing it effectively for any endeavour is to Plan.

Planning means, identifying and understanding your stakeholders; working out who you need to deal with, why, and how they prefer to be engaged or informed. For example, there is no point in sending emails to people who are rarely online.

Planning how to engage with your team, managers and customers will help ensure communications are managed. Understand what is needed to be shared by who, when, how often, in what format and how shared, for example:

  • if possible, use collaborative tools and documentation repositories to prevent items from being emailed around. Make sure everyone is aware of the filing mechanism and uses the tool
  • use action logs for unscheduled activities to track who is doing what, and meet to progress actions rather than chase via email. If an email is to be sent out for action, put this clearly in the subject heading "For Action: " and only include people in the To: field who actually have to perform the action
  • don’t forget the good old fashioned mechanism of talking. If working in a virtual environment, ping the person first via Instant Messaging to check they are available. Talking to someone about a problem takes much less time than crafting a suitably worded email
  • avoid asking for consensus or opinion from more than one person by email. By doing that you open up a communication channels that may not involve you at all and lead to confusion. It is better to get everyone together in a room, on a call or, if email must be used, obtaining responses via a voting mechanism
  • if you are managing a team, impress upon team members that they do not need to copy you in on everything they are doing. Some do this to prove they are doing their job. It is not necessary; progressing can be done via 1-2-1s or team meetings  
  • notifications can be sent out via business social networking tools such as Yammer
It may not be possible to do any of the above under all circumstances, but using these techniques some of the time will prevent your inbox getting clogged up and missing anything really important.


Email is an essential tool in the workplace for passing on messages and collaborating with others, but, if your inbox is out of control you need to sit back and plan a better way of dealing with your collaborators.  Understanding your stakeholder requirements and planning communications will help keep your emails at acceptable levels and as a result, will increase productivity. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

What Exactly Are Change Agents and Change Management?

I've spent a large proportion of the last thirty years involved in or running organisational, business and software process improvement initiatives. It was probably two or three years before I realised that I was actually managing change. Back in the late 1980's, business change was far from the talking point it is these days - at least not in my circles (and most definitely not in my manager's circles). When the penny dropped, my professional life changed completely.

One of the catalysts for me was a book called "Agents of Change: The Manager's Guide to Planning and Leading Change" by Hilary Maher and Pauline Hall. Although it's a long while since I last looked through it, a casual glance at it's condition shows how much use it received in the past.

Recently I've read a number of articles about "Change Agents" but none of them seem to resonate with my own perception of what a Change Agent is. And yesterday I read an article that even had me questioning what exactly Change Management is. Once again I find myself being frustrated by our use of terminology and how relatively common business terms are perceived so differently by so many people - and that perhaps our adoption of certain terminology actually feeds some of the problems that some of us are trying so hard to eliminate.

Change Management

As I inferred in my opening paragraph, Change Management (or Management of Change) is relatively new in the business world. I doubt that there is anyone who has ever worked someone else who has not been subjected to changes in their working environment without any input to or control over the change. Top down edicts from all levels of management have traditionally been the norm as the command and control culture has predominated across the world of work (and increasingly in government also - but that's a different story).

Because of that command and control system, managers felt it unnecessary to involve staff in the mechanism of change, which was largely achieved through sticks and occasional carrots. Staff reactions to change were considered irrelevant; The prevailing sentiments were "if they don't like it they can leave", or "we know what's best for the company (or shareholders)", and Fear Uncertainly and Doubt were often the chosen tools for affecting change.

As people started pushing back and resisting the big brother approach to change, a few enlightened people began to look at the psychology of change and the effects it was having on staff, especially in terms of productivity and staff retention. People began to understand that a chaotic, dictatorial approach to change was not the best way to implement change, and Change Management became one of the key buzzwords of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

In my view Change Management involves taking a holistic view to making sustainable change in a organisation, and looking at the change from a people perspective (whilst still understanding the technical and business requirements of the change) rather than simply as a push process whereby complying with the corporate diktat is the only criteria for success.

Many companies have proprietary 'methods' in place to help manage change - and they usually involve elements such as leadership, communication, collaboration, planning, monitoring and education. My own 5 Facets of  Change is a work in progress.

Even with the concept of Change Management firmly established in the business world, there are still a large number of managers and businesses that force change through the organisation by paying lip service to genuine change management - plans are written, teams established and change agents appointed to carry out the will of management and disregard the will of the people.

So why am I now coming to the conclusion that the term Change Management is not only wrong but may be harmful? It's down to that word 'management', which still has the connotation of someone managing someone else and an overarching implication that leaders define the change and the staff change.

What we're really talking about is the Facilitation or Realisation of Change - helping people at all levels of the organisation to shape change, buy in to change, and work collaboratively across the business to make change successful and sustainable. That last word is key - even force feeding change into the organisation can succeed to a certain extent, but it won't take long before people revert back to the previous status quo.

The Change Agent

I have written about change agents before in this blog (posts about Change Agents). But once again, the use of the phrase causes consternation from some readers. The implication is that as 'agents' they are management spies or puppets, only there to execute the will of the diktat. I recently used the word 'champions' in the context of change and was firmly rebuked by one reader, suggesting that if we needed people to champion change then"good luck with getting it to stick in the long term".

I think of the change agent as a layer of protection from misguided management and wayward change initiatives which are not undertaken without due diligence and planning - those ad hoc changes which do far more harm than good. I see these people as "champions" of doing change appropriately, and making sure that staff get to share their issues, ideas and solutions and get heard!

I see change agents operating at all levels of the organisation, and not all performing the same role. Some will be change process experts, others will be great at building relationships with stakeholders, others acting as devil's advocates, and still others acting as management foils, but collectively they have a single collective goal of making a change work and making the change sustainable.

The problem with terminology is that it doesn't take long for it to become adopted universally and popularised, by which time it's usually too late to realise that we words don't really reflect what we originally intended. What were perfectly good words at the time, become vilified - not because they are bad words, but because people have misunderstood what concepts were being represented and have manipulated things to serve their own purposes. You only have to think about how the term 'agile' has been misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood to appreciate how quickly we make a mockery of ideas that were full of good intentions but get hijacked to serve completely different agendas.

So Change Management and Change Agents have become enshrined into our vox populi. If I try and come up with alternatives it will only serve to further confuse and obfuscate the original intentions - so I'll keep away from talking about Change Stewards and Steering Change, and some of the other phrases that came to mind while I was writing this. Instead I'll focus on trying to make sure that we have a common and shared understanding about the terms we already have in place!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

You Get By With A Little Help From Your Friends

There's no shortage of internet articles and books about toxic workplaces, toxic co-workers and how to avid them. But I rarely see articles about the best people to work with, so I've put together my own set of stereotypes of the best sorts of people to have around you in the office. If you can't choose your work colleagues, and you know the types of people to avoid, this guide will help you gravitate towards the folk who might make your working day that little bit more bearable.

The Realistic Optimist

The Realistic Optimist is an ideal change agent. Unlike the perpetual pessimist who argues against change and only sees the negatives (usually before even knowing what is changing), the Realistic Optimist understands the arguments from both sides, and generally accepts that things are going to change regardless, so the best thing to do is make the most of the opportunity. At the same time, the Realistic Optimist is quite happy to argue their corner with management - they aren't going to roll over backwards and let management walk over them. The grass most certainly isn't always greener in their eyes, but it is still green and grass and not a car park.

You need to look after the Realistic Optimist. It's hard work trying to see the best in everything, and when they fail they will come back down to earth with an almighty bump.

The Go-To-Guy 

There are always some people who seem to know everything (whilst actually knowing very little that is correct and even less that adds value). To counter these toxic individuals who just like the sound of their own voice, seek out the Go-To-Guy. The Go-To-Guy is the person who just knows stuff without making a big deal out of it. They've probably been around for a while and have been in a number of different roles - maybe some very senior roles - and have large networks and understand how things get done.

The Go-To-Guy might not have all the answers, but knows the right person to talk to. The are typically affable, entertaining and self-effacing people who genuinely like to help, and see others thrive in the workplace. They don't need bragging rights and they left their egos behind them a long time ago.

On the downside, the Go-To-Guy may be a little bit of a 'company guy', and may be just a little hung up over compliance for the sake of it, or even just a little too attached to the status quo. Which after all is what he knows best!

The Beamer

The Beamer is just that person who is always smiling. The person who laughs at all the right jokes (at the right time and in the right places). They are probably quite quiet, diligent and just get on with their work, but their bonhomie is infectious with being tiring. Every office or team needs a beamer!

The Influential Unleader

The Influential Unleader is the person who always steps up when needed. Voids are usually uncomfortable, and the Influential Unleader sees to it that voids get filled. When management asks for a volunteer it's the Influential Unleader who takes the job on, or is volunteered by their colleagues. They don't need to prove themselves - they've already earned the respect of their peers. They take things on from a sense of duty, and probably to stop an alternative solution being thrust on them and their colleagues.

They are unleaders because they don't have formal leadership roles, and they don't act as despots or dictators in their leadership style. People look up to them, and know that they are in good hands.

Influential Unleaders will never make it to the top levels of the organisation, and even though this is often through choice, they will eventually become disillusioned and move on as they see under-performers and less able people take over the key positions.

The Spokesperson

The Spokesperson is similar to the Influential Unleader (they may be the same person in a small group). They will fill a void of silence, but probably don't have the confidence to take the next step and actually perform the leadership role. But they are incredibly articulate, passionate and have the best interests of the team at heart.

When the Spokesperson starts a challenge with "I think I speak for the rest of the team when I say...", they usually do. They will be acutely aware of how the members of the team feel, and will not be scared of taking the flack for saying it out loud. But beware of the False Spokesperson who is only speaking for themselves, but hiding behind the team.

The Man For All Seasons

Clearly not an exclusively male role, but a Person For All Seasons or even (Wo)Man For All Seasons doesn't really work. The Man For All Seasons exhibits all the above traits. If you have one of these in your team it should let you off the hook as there will always be someone in your team that has your back.

But you still need to build your personal skills and aspire to become the Man of All Seasons yourself. When you find yourself in a new team without one, who are you going to call?

Friday, 15 January 2016

Key Attributes of an Effective Process

When I used to cut code for a living there were a number of attributes we used to look for in a 'good' program (application!). Maintainability, Efficiency, Readability, Flexibility, Reliability, Reusability, Portability and Testability are some of these non-functional or quality requirements that spring to mind. A programmer today may have a slightly different list as development environments have changed and technology has advanced. Security probably trumps portability for example.

A couple of days ago I started writing a post whinging about processes that, at least from a user's perspective, appear to be constantly changing. These are often pretty, bureaucratic changes but are exceedingly frustrating for those on the receiving end of the changes.At the same time I was documenting an existing process as part of the day job, and I started thinking about the quality attributes for a process. What makes an effective process?

I know that many folk would argue that there is no such thing as a good process. but for the rest of us here's my list - written from the perspective of a process user (not purely as a process author)...
  • Stable - whilst the whole point of continuous improvement is to ensure that processes are kept up to date, there must be a period of bedding down a process before you start changing it. Constantly fiddling with a process, even in the minutiae, irritates and confuses users, and will inevitably lead to some kind of failure before too long as people simply don't know what's right and wrong anymore. Unless a process is shown to be fundamentally wrong (in which case it there should be big questions about how or why it was published in the first place), let a reasonable amount of time pass before updating it. And where processes are cyclical, e.g. monthly, don't make changes every month, especially at the point of execution!
  • Complete - there are plenty of great examples of how to document a process, but all too often these are ignored, and valuable or even critical information is missing from the process definition. For example, entry and exit criteria are often missed out, sometimes inputs and outputs are only partially listed. Attention to details gives users confidence in the process
  • Understandable - if you document all your processes as essays, don't be surprised if people struggle to follow them. It's also important to get the level of detail right - don't mix up process definitions with work instructions. Few users actually need to read a process end to end if they are already familiar with it. They are more likely to want to find elements within the process like process inputs or specific roles and responsibilities. If using web based descriptions, draw on good user interface guidelines to hide or show levels of information that people can focus on. If your using more traditional document based descriptions, a tabular approach is often a good way to present information.
  • Current - people expect to be able to access processes that are up date and relevant for the work they are currently doing. Old, irrelevant processes should be withdrawn and archived if necessary. And publishing process changes is simply not enough - there needs to be communication that processes have changed, and how they have changed
  • Usable - in the age of corporate intranets, wikis and even SharePoint, there is no excuse in not making processes easy to find, navigate and access. Libraries of documents are no longer relevant nor desirable as vehicles for users to access information. The best process libraries are those that users can interact with, even to the extent of having processes describes from different user perspectives according to their role or function. More importantly, thing about how the process flows from a user's perspective - something obvious to an author may not be so obvious to a user, especially in the heat of the moment when they are battling against a deadline
  • Simple - many working environments are already unnecessarily complex so your processes need to be documented to help remove the complexity as much as possible, They need to be clear and precise, and focused on the people who do the work - they should not attempt to showcase the author's writing talents!
I'm sure there are other attributes that you may want to add to my list - drop me a note or leave a comment and I'll include them in a future post