Between a rock and a hard place

Labor Day seems like a good time to talk about…. labor. Montana has a few labor conflicts going on right now. A commonly solution to such problems is for the employees to organize. In other words, they’d become employees subject to collective bargaining done on their behalf by their labor union.

Why do my employees want a union?

First, let’s talk about how an employer might find themselves in a place where their employees want to organize.

There are a number of reasons why your employees would want to be in a union. The best reason is that you hire skilled plumbers, electricians, riggers, iron workers, welders, etc. In other words, you need people with highly specific skills. These skills are usually in heavy demand – and today is no exception. Trade unions have historically been a great resource for training and managing the full career life cycle for highly skilled workers like those described above.

However, trade unions aren’t typically the ones you often hear about in the news. Instead, you probably hear more about organized labor unions. A fair percentage of them were provoked to organize due to poor behavior on the part of the employer. 

What provokes employees to organize? Poor pay and benefits are obvious, but it sometimes goes beyond that. Poor leadership, which often creates a culture no one would choose to be a part of. Pushing everyone to fewer than 30 hours a week so that you can avoid some benefit costs. Consistently using inconvenient scheduling such as split shifts. Cutting staff to the point where employees can’t take the vacation time they’ve accrued. Creating separately organized companies for groups of employees. This is done to avoid hitting “headcount” thresholds that require additional employee benefits and/or record keeping. 

When not to organize

Recently, a situation has arisen in Montana where a company told its people that they must either lay off the majority of their employees or close the business. This business was purchased a short time ago by a company who owns many businesses in their market. 

It seems clear that the purchased business (a former competitor) was bought to remove them from the market. Happens all the time. Now the purchased “sort of competitive” (my words) business is being killed off. Employees affected by this are trying to organize a union. This tactic is intended to prevent layoffs and/or avoid closure of the business. 

I don’t believe organizing is a viable long-term solution to this problem. When negotiating, it’s important to be able to trust whoever you’re working with. Avoiding negotiations with such parties is recommended unless you simply have no choice. If they plan to shutdown, how well will negotiations go?

Will it work?

Applicable wisdom: “When people tell you or show you who they are, believe them.

This company has consistently demonstrated what to believe about them.  They buy decades-old, locally owned businesses, then slash staff and ship many of the jobs out of state. The work these businesses do doesn’t benefit from remote work. Doing this work from out of town actually puts the business at a significant competitive advantage.

Organizing a union with a company like that is probably going to result in employees being treated poorly within the terms of their contract.  That’s if they succeed in getting organized before the company shuts down the business. I think that’s a long shot. I don’t believe organization is going to stop this company from completing their shutdown plans.

The path to a long term solution for these employees is probably to start a competitor. I know it won’t be easy. 

Difficulty created in advance

It gets tough when employees decide they need to organize when there’s almost no chance that the business is closing. The relationship between the company and employees just before organization is usually sour. Leadership needs to look in the mirror during these situations. A little research into what happened prior to organization might help. The patterns are fairly consistent, even if the details vary. 

If your team feels like they’re the enemy, organization is a likely solution they’ll choose. People want consistency. They want some security that they’ll be around next month. Fear based management is a fast path to resentment and your team lacking any feeling of security.

Ego-free discussion between all parties is likely the sole route to business survival.

Update: Tuesday Sept 11, 2018
A single day after this post was published and 17 months after buying the business discussed above, the corporate parent locked the doors of the business and closed it. With no advance notice of the closure, they emailed all the employees telling them that the business was closed (they also called some and left voicemail). Employees were told not to visit the office and that they could make an appointment to pick up their things. They are paying their salaries until early October 2018. In other words, their behavior has not changed, as predicted.

A Labor Day perspective on performance

This is a little long, but bear with me, even if you aren’t into football. The football details are just a setup.

Written by ESPN’s Matthew Berry about drafting fantasy football players, think about this when dealing with your team.

“Quarterback A is, well, a work in progress. And that’s being kind. There were 31 quarterbacks last season who had at least one game with at least 22.5 points. C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler were among the QBs who reached that threshold at least once. Quarterback A did not. He failed to throw multiple TD passes in seven of his final 11 games and he finished poorly, tying Joe Flacco on a fantasy points-per-game basis in the second half of last season. While averaging 10 percent fewer pass attempts in wins last season than losses, the less our guy did in the passing game, the better the team did on the field, which is good for his NFL team, bad for us. Is this the end of the line for the veteran QB? His 2016 sure seems like a fluke after his touchdown pass total in 2017 fell by 36 percent from the previous year (he had fewer TDs than Andy Dalton, for Pete’s sake), and his QBR dropped for a third consecutive season. Despite playing all 16 games, he still had his lowest rushing total in five seasons, but don’t think that means his passing is improving. Last season was not only his first with his current team without a completion of 55-plus yards, but also his worst in terms of air yards per pass attempt. Given the state of the NFL, it makes sense why his NFL team has to trot him out this year, but that doesn’t mean you have to.

Meanwhile, Quarterback B is one of those set it and forget it, draft him early and don’t worry about it types. Another year with more than 4,000 passing yards, another year of being top 10 in pass attempts. This QB always airs it out and that’s good for fantasy players. Because when he throws, it’s high quality. Last season, he was top three in the NFL in completion percentage, completion percentage on play-action and red zone completion percentage. And you see that high completion percentage and I bet you think he’s a dink-and-dunk guy, right? Nope, our guy also led the NFL in yards per attempt last season. He’s consistent as they come. In his many seasons with his current team, he has never been outside the top 12 in terms of total touchdown passes, even in the seasons he got hurt. A weekly warrior last season, he posted the lowest interception rate of his career and played in all 16 games. In fact, only one other qualifying QB who played all 16 games threw fewer interceptions. When you keep the ball, good things happen, which explains why, over the past three years, only five QBs have more weekly top-two finishes than our guy. He can single-handedly win you a week, which explains why he’s top five in total fantasy points over the past three years as well. Instead of trying to play the matchups each week, just draft Quarterback B and never worry about the position again.

So, which quarterback do you want this year?

Realize that every single thing I wrote about each player is true.

Which one do you want? Go ahead and pick. Think you know which guy you want? Feel confident one guy is significantly better than the other? Know which of these two guys you would draft and why?

Fair enough, but before you click “draft,” you should probably know one other fact.

Quarterback A’s name is Drew Brees.

And Quarterback B? Well, that’s also Drew Brees.

Yeah.”

http://www.espn.com/fantasy/football/story/_/page/TMR100facts2018/fantasy-football-100-facts-consider-2018-season

The point? Hire well and remember that how you look at your team and their work changes how they appear.

PS: Yes, I realize the QB in the photo isn’t Drew:)

Reflecting on leadership

Recently, I’ve been catching up on the Jocko podcast. Jocko is a former Seal who has built a leadership training business. 

As you might imagine, the podcast tends to focus on military leadership. Sometimes there are guests on the show, sometimes they’re going over a book, which could be anything from recent works to a Chinese essay called The 36 Stratagems from 400 B.C. The discussions regularly turn toward how a business (and the listener) can leverage what’s learned during the talks with guests or the book being discussed. 

Listening to Jocko and guests – including men who lead platoons as far back as WWII (including one who lead teams in WWII, Korea & Vietnam), it’s interesting to see the parallels between the work of military leaders in the field & leadership in business – particularly when the latter is being done right.  One recent anecdote reflects on the current trend to badmouth “unmotivated millennials”, drawing a parallel between leading them and leading draftees in Vietnam.  

One thing recently stood out. There have been several discussions about what the guests see as their most important job as a leader, or as their most important / highest impact leadership role.

A substantial number have been training roles.

Things like training a team heading to Afghanistan based on the experiences of a team that returned recently so that when they get to their deployment, they already know the tactics necessary to succeed (and stay alive) rather than having to learn them from scratch while under fire.

It struck me that I couldn’t recall such a targeted situational / role oriented training going back 35 years – except at my first job back in early ’80s. That was at EDS, which at the time had a fair number of  former military as employees. Their training of new technical employees assumed you knew nothing (and many did). I watched music, foreign language & history majors become solid programmers in a few months. It was like boot camp for geeks, without the ten mile hikes.

EDS was preparing their new employees to “go into battle”, where the battle was taking on production tasks, supporting their apps, reviewing changes with others before the change was made, programming new things, etc. All of this was designed not just to make sure someone knew how to program, but to make sure new employees weren’t going to fail miserably in their first assignment. That’s a far cry from simply teaching someone how to program and then turning them loose with office supplies and a “Good luck!“.

The more I thought about it, the more disturbing this reflection became.

I thought back to any number of employers and client businesses and the training they offered to new team members. Training was never about preparing a new (albeit, sometimes experienced) employee to succeed / survive IN THE ACTUAL SITUATION / ROLE.

Nope.

Instead, the training was about how to get stuff from HR (if that), & perhaps the system managed by the team they’d be joining, oh & a pile of manuals, maybe.

This training was usually the MINIMUM that the company could get away with, if there was any training at all. Training isn’t “If you have questions, ask so-and-so.” A lot of this “training” happened when someone was taking on a role from a person leaving the company. I wonder what they forgot to tell the new person, even unintentionally. 

I thought back to this summer’s point of sale (POS) issues, where all but senior employees were struggling with the POS system. People at stores across several states made the same mistakes. It’s clear that the senior managers in these stores were trained or senior enough to figure it out. It was also clear that most employees received poor training (if any).  

Are you training your new staff to succeed in their situation / role, or are you cool with letting them fail until they figure it out? Combat team training ROI is obvious. Lives and mission objectives are at stake. 

Your training ROI is likely a bit less extreme. It might only be about lost orders or customers. Some training-related failures could have a higher price. What’s the best training you ever received for a role you were about to take on? Why wouldn’t you want a new employee to be prepared to succeed in their role at the highest possible level? Is that training too expensive?

If you lead people & you care, check out Jocko’s podcast. 

The Self-Managing Business

If you get enough email from “gurus” and you see enough Facebook ads, you will find yourself reading discussions about that unicorn of unicorns, the self-managing business. It sounds amazing. “You mean I’ll have the freedom to go skiing, hiking, or fishing and when I return, my business will better than it was when I left?” Yes, they say. If you dig deep enough, they will begrudgingly admit that your business will be no worse than it was when you left. In some cases, that’s normal because the business actually gets more and better work done when you’re gone. But they leave out a lot of detail, or more often, people read far more into the title than is really there.

The four hour work week

Take Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. Tim’s built an integrated team and systems that allow him to spend his best, most productive four hours of the week working on things he loves to do that no one else in his business can do as well as he can. It’s real work to create systems and train people to work autonomously, or at least close to autonomously. It’s worth it, of course. He shows how to build a business that lets you work from anywhere. Could you turn your bait shop into an absentee business? Sure – if you’re put the time into developing systems and training people.

However, it isn’t just about training people to do the work. That’s the easy part. If you are truly going to disappear, someone will need to make decisions for you. Presumably, you’ll want their decisions to be the same ones you would have made. Otherwise, it becomes more like the business of the people you left behind, not the business of the person taking the three week horsepacking trip. Upon your return, you might not like what you find.

What does self-managing business mean?

To some, it means that all the stuff that can be automated has been automated. A self-managing car might drive itself to the dealer (or your preferred mechanic) if it detected a problem that wasn’t enough that it meant the car couldn’t be driven. It might know when to get gas (etc) – and to go to a station that offers full-service, since it can’t fill itself from a standard pump.

It isn’t simply about automation. Automation simply buys time / speed, and reduces / eliminates human error. While automation is getting better every day, someone has to tell it what you want it to do. The same must be said about your staff. They need to be told HOW you want things to be done, but also, how to decide and prioritize those things. Everything, in fact.

Making decisions is also work. Sometimes it’s the work that makes a difference for the business – and it’s often the kind of work that repeatedly pays off. So how do you replace that?

Being Like Mike

This is the real work of “systematizing” a business. Building & implementing automated systems isn’t nearly enough. You need people who are prepared & ready to make decisions close to as fast as you do, based the same points and considerations you use, and after all that – make the same decision you would have made (mostly).

Until they do that consistently, how can you leave for a month?

Write down a short note about the last five decisions you made. I don’t mean major like “we bought a competitor”. I’m referring to the kind of decisions you make daily or weekly. With list in hand, take your best staffer for a walk. For each decision on the list, put your staffer in the scenario you were in, provide them with whatever info you had, and then ask them to make the decision they thought you would make. Now ask them to tell you how they arrived at that decision. After a few decisions, is the staffer on track?

If they aren’t, think about the training that’s necessary to get them there. Are your managers ready for that? If you left for a week, would they have the data, tools and decision-making process (from yours) to make it for a week without calling, texting, or emailing you?

Start slowly. Train them, give them the autonomy they need, & coach them. When they’re “ready enough”, start leaving them for longer and longer stretches.

Photo by Colynn

What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic

When customer service consumes a business

Recently a software business came to me looking for some help with sales emails. During the initial discussion, they hinted at being a bit overloaded on support. While explaining the big picture situation that provoked their request about the emails, they revealed some details about support tying up development. This was also keeping them from attending to sales. Thus, the emails needed to improve so that sales can improve without needing quite so many phone calls to people wearing a sales hat right that minute, when they needed to be wearing a different hat.

When the phone rings, it’s important

You might wonder why the same people are doing sales and support. If so, you probably don’t have a small company anymore. Think back to how things were when your company had four or five people juggling business development / sales, customer service and whatever else you have to do.

Three calls come in at about the same moment. All three get answered by the four or five people you have. This is standard operating procedure in a small business. We do what has to be done with what we’ve got at that moment. When the phone rings at a company that maybe doesn’t know with absolute certainty where next month’s revenue is coming from – every ring sounds like “ka-ching”, either whether the money is heading in or out. The phone gets priority.

The idea seemed to be that better emails might reduce the demands on the folks trying to juggle sales and support. While that might be true, it’s the wrong problem, even though I totally understand why it’s the focus. Sales feeds the bulldog, folks.

The trouble with priorities

Jim Rohn once said that every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else. Customer service calls can consume every moment of your day… week… life. Yes, they can literally consume the rest of your life.

Why? Because your priorities need to be adjusted.

Look, I’ve been there. I know those service calls have to be handled. I know you base your reputation on the quality of your support. But you’re missing the big picture, and I’m that guy who in this very spot has written many times about lame service and differentiating service and so on. I’m not waffling on that, but when support becomes all consuming, it means your priorities need to be adjusted.

It’s time to sit down with the sales, support, development and management teams. You might not do software, so you may have a manufacturing, installation, customization, and/or deployment team. Whatever. Point is, this is not solely a software business issue.

Customer service eats the world

Like a fire consumes all the oxygen it can, that’s also how service loads can work. Certainly you’ve heard “Your call is important to us, please hold for the next available agent, blah blah blah“. Normally, this means that a large company has understaffed their customer service department and simply won’t admit it, so they tell you they’re experiencing “unusually high call volumes”. Yep, sure they are.

Sometimes it means something else is going on, such as the entire internet is down, or Metallica announced an extra show, or similar.

The point is that this is the nature of customer service. It can and will eat the world unless you make an intentional effort to eliminate the need for it.

Eliminate customer service?

Yes. Eliminate it. Not the department. The need.

When ELIMINATING the need for service is the goal, everything changes.

Imagine if you told the people who write your user manual that you were giving them a new goal: Eliminate the need for a user manual.

Next, tell your folks in shipping (or on the dock) that all shipping customer service calls will go to whoever packed the box.

Finally, tell your product development / install / deploy / customization team that  all customer service product questions will go directly to whoever made it.

After they finished howling at you, they’d ask why, how and so on.

Try something like this: “Let’s build something that people can use without asking for help.”

It completely changes how they think about what they do, much less how they do it. What about new users? What about experienced users? What about power users? Which one of those users does the dev team focus on now? Probably none of them.

It also completely changes how & what you manage.

 

Photo by Kay Kim(김기웅)

The scary thing about artificial intelligence

The phrase “artificial intelligence” might bring politicians to your mind’s eye, but today, we’re talking about the real thing. Maybe you own an Alexa (or five of them), but I’m guessing many of you don’t have one. As with most “new” technologies, you’ve probably seen a number of articles that seem bent on inspiring fear about artificial intelligence (AI). Some of them forecast that AI is going to put everyone out of work, take over your life and eventually try to chase down John Connor’s mom.

Even Elon Musk has noted that our (society’s) failure to manage AI could have a bad outcome. Certainly, there’s quite a range of meanings for that phrase. I’m not so worried about Arnold’s metal, computerized alter-ego as some seem to be. My concern in the short term is more about taking advantage artificial intelligence in your business. As with any other technology, there’s the threat of wasting time and money by using it simply because it exists.

AI is already part of your business

Before we consider whether or not artificial intelligence has a place in your business, it might be worthwhile to accept the fact that it’s probably already there. Naturally, there are the obvious things like Siri, the directions providing parts of Google Maps, Waze and similar. They may not “feel” like AI, however.

For decades, software has assessed credit scores & determined risk for insurance underwriters. While that might seem boring to some, the folks in those lines of work still appreciate their value to the quality & accuracy of underwriting. They’re an important factor in insurance company profitability. To me, that’s like the feature of table saws that detect the touch of skin to the blade and stop it in milliseconds to avoid injuring the operator.  Cool, but not AI.

I remember seeing logs entering the then Plum Creek Columbia Falls mill a few years ago and being impressed at the laser-guided saws that assessed a log’s size and shape in an instant and then made initial cuts to maximize yield from that log. This sort of automation has been in place in large, highly-capital intensive manufacturing businesses for some time.

Small businesses have benefited from this sort of automation via CNC (computerized numerical control) driven routers and similar tools. While full-sized CNCs might be too expensive for smaller businesses, a Bozeman-based company makes reasonably-priced desktop-sized CNC.

Learning & problem solving

While all these things are cool, are they AI? The log sensing thing is the closest, but ultimately, the AI purist (there are always purists) might disagree.

Wikipedia describes artificial intelligence as:

when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with human minds, such as learning and problem solving.

Notice that “decision making” is not mentioned. All software makes decisions. A tool that can look at an apple and determine its variety (or its ripeness) based on a previously analyzed group of 10,000 apple images isn’t making decisions per se. It’s using AI based on the training it received by analyzing 10,000 apple photos. Every photo was associated with ripeness and species data.

When processing 10 million apples per year, production speed matters. If separating apples by ripeness and/or species is important to that process, then AI-enabled sorting equipment might be of use.

Software like Adobe Lightroom assesses & automatically “corrects” a photo’s color, contrast, color saturation, etc. Pro photographers who hit the “auto” button probably don’t accept the automated settings as their final choice, but the button still saves time.

Artificial intelligence & your business

Ask yourself this: “Does artificial intelligence have a place in my business and if so, where?

If you’re the apple processor, it probably depends on the price tag.

Is there (perhaps mundane / routine) work / analysis that must be learned to become productive at your company? It’s possible a system could be trained to perform some or all of it. Like the time savings associated with automation, it might eventually free your team’s time to focus on work that you’d never cede to AI. It’s still early, but it’s worth investigating for the right kind of processes. The scary thing is the number of unknowns when you get started, but you’ll get past them like you have with other new things.

This can help improve customer support, but don’t confuse that with customer service. Empathetic, knowledgeable people belong there, not AI.

Ever asked WHY you’ve always done it that way?

In the programming world, there’s a term called “technical debt”. Technical debt is refers to work created by existing systems, processes and methods. You might call it maintenance, upkeep, re-work, refactoring, re-design, etc.

The term “technical debt” is typically used when discussing programming, but as a friend reminded me a week or so ago – programming doesn’t own it. It’s about any process, whether it’s new or has been around a while.

For legacy processes and methods (and yes, programs), the key phrase is “we’ve always done it this way”. For new techniques, processes, infrastructure and programming, a critical concern is planning, design and creation that intentionally minimizes the creation of more technical debt.

Technical debt appears, like it or not

Think about the handwringing that decision makers face when they find that a road, bridge, or other infrastructure requires substantial maintenance to continue to allow it to remain in public use. This tends to happen years after repeatedly putting off regular maintenance that used to be performed routinely.

Often times this situation is created because the work was set aside because of a shortfall, and sometimes because the funds were re-directed to another project in the same department. When this happens for a decade (or several), the costs of “catching up” are immense. They’re a form of technical debt – a particularly ugly form that can overwhelm an agency budget. The same can happen to a company that fails to maintain and update their processes, systems, and methods.

While it’s easy to say “Don’t create anything you can’t afford to maintain”, you often have no choice in the matter when “the thing” was created several generations ago (such as public infrastructure), or at a time preceding your arrival at the company with looming technical debt.

So what do you do?

“No one likes change, but everyone likes improvement.”
Chris Hogan

Deal with “Always done it that way”

Do you still do it “that way” because:

  • It’s so much cheaper this way?
  • It’s far more efficient?
  • You regularly review alternatives and those reviews have (so far) shown that the current process still works best.

As you might expect, the third answer is still a reason why your process hasn’t changed.

Even if your processes are reviewed regularly and are up to par, it’s important that your existing systems, methods are not only solid for existing uses, but ready to meet the challenges of systems and processes now under development – much less those being considered. A review of systems that fails to review readiness for the next three to five years of operation isn’t doing you any favors.

There will be investment to bring existing systems up to the standards needed to work with your next big thing. It’ll be expensive and time-consuming, perhaps seeming insurmountable. That’s no reason to let it sit unaddressed. even more important to minimize creation of new technical debt.

Triage and chip away

People get defensive about technical debt, so you have to be careful how it’s discussed. As with so many things, it isn’t about blame. It’s about improvement. The way it was done “back then” was very likely the best way at the time. Most of us (hopefully almost all of us) are smarter than we were five or ten years ago. When we look back at work we did years ago, does anyone think it’s as good as it should be when viewed through today’s eyes? Rarely. We all make the best decisions we can at that time with the info and resources we have. 20 years later, we may seem much smarter, but we have the benefit of the passage of time.

Prioritize / triage the technical debt in the context of your future. If improved and readied for your projected needs three to five years from now, what existing systems, processes and/or methods will have the greatest impact on the work you’ll do during that period? Chip away at that.

There will be people who need to be convinced. There will be some who see the challenges as insurmountable. There will be some in the middle of the road, waiting to see. Choose a small but important project, involve your influencers, and start getting some small wins. Use them to create momentum. Give your people and the work time to rise to expectations. Photo by ustung

When problem solving, look for simple solutions

Problem solving discussions on news broadcasts, in newspaper op-eds, on social media, and in political speeches have a consistent thread: “We can fix it by changing (one thing).

Most problems are not particularly simple. Societal and economic problems are incredibly complex, even in a small community. Winning a game of chess against Bobby Fischer or IBM’s Watson might be easier.

As a result, problems usually require a multi-faceted approach. Unfortunately, that often tempts us to eliminate any “one thing” strategy under the presumption that it’s ineffective, naive, or “too simple”.

Problem solving cause & effect

Rotary has for decades funded and built simple hand pump water wells in villages where there’s no dependable, convenient source of clean water. Many other organizations do similar water projects.

Does convenient access to a dependable source of water (ie: eliminating a three hour round trip hike) solve 100% of a third-world village’s problems? No. However, gaining easy access to clean, disease-free water for a village’s people is comparable to the impact of U.S. rural electrification projects of the mid 1900s. Electrification didn’t solve every rural problem, but it had a huge positive impact on rural communities.

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer, sociologist and economist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. While he “invented” modern microeconomics, many recognize his last name thanks to his “Pareto principle” – what we call “the 80/20 rule”. The principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.

Is it accurate to six decimal places? Probably not. Does it describe cause & effect in 100% of situations? Probably not. Does it describe a large percentage of cause and effect in business and society? Pretty close, I’d say.

If a single, simple strategy or tactic solves 80% of a problem, I’d call that a pretty good start. You may not have implemented a perfect solution, but you’ve made a boatload of progress.

Expectations matter

Managed expectations go a long way when solving problems.

Name the last time you solved a problem with a single solution and that solution performed perfectly 100% of the time, in every possible scenario so far – and can reasonably be expected to continue solving the problem in the foreseeable future.

A simple solution is often dismissed because it doesn’t solve the problem 100% of the time, or in 100% of scenarios where the problem can occur.

The “Do Not Call” system is a good example. Elected officials seem to agree that robocalls, cloaked and spoofed calls need to stop. Yet they’ve done nothing about it and continue to exempt themselves from existing robocall legislation.

While technology, laws, and a few vendors make it very difficult for us to solve 100% of this, you can solve 80% of it by using a Google Phone number when you don’t expect or want that party to call you. This is particularly true when the data is somewhat publicly accessible, such as voter or website domain registrations.

Google Phone will take those calls / texts, letting you avoid numerous unwanted interruptions via your cell.

Refining problem solving

Most solutions won’t resolve 100% of a problem’s scenarios. If they do, they’re often incredibly expensive, difficult to implement, hard to use, or all three. Even so, edge cases still find their way in.

Despite that, 80% isn’t always enough. Instead of looking for perfect solutions, try iteration. If your first simple solution solved 75 to 80% of the situation, look at what’s left.

What additional simple change can you make to fix the majority of the remaining situations? If you have 100 problem situations, your first 80 / 20 solution leaves 20 situations to resolve. Solving 80% of the leftovers leaves only FOUR percent.

Look at that again: Two simple solutions take you from 100% to four percent.

If you need to, refine again. At some point, the ROI of the next solution will tell you it’s time to move on to other problems.

Imagine that a single tweak to your sales process results in closing 80% of the sales you weren’t closing. Or that a single change in your manufacturing process reduces costs, in-use failure, or warranty claims by 80%. Neither are 100% solutions, but I doubt too many would object to that level of improvement.

If your approach to problem solving starts by looking for simple solutions, testing, implementing and iterating, the number of problems you face and the time and expense invested in dealing with them is going to shrink significantly.

What would you do with that newfound time and money?

Why would you want remote employees?

A friend who owns a manufacturing business recently decided to hire a remote software developer – his first remote employee. He asked if I had some advice for managing remote employees as he knows I’ve done so. In fact, I’ve managed remote team members in some way, shape or form since 1998. While the folks I work (and worked) with have been a mix of folks close to home and scattered around the globe, he’s starting with a remote developer here in the U.S.

Why remote employees?

Hiring a remote employee might seem like the craziest idea ever. Even so, remote work has been growing steadily since the late ’90s for several reasons: People have roots. Their families have jobs, friends, schools & communities they love, outdoor recreation your community can’t compete with (and vice versa), etc.

In the ’60s-’80s, when a company transferred or hired an employee who lived somewhere else, they generally paid movers to pack and move that employee’s possessions. In some cases, they would buy the employee’s old house if it didn’t sell within a reasonable amount of time. Serious investment. Remote work during those decades was difficult, but it still happened. Companies like IBM (“I’ve Been Moved”), Kodak, Xerox and others had field sales / service reps all over the country – and not always based out of a local company-owned office.

Today, such transfers are far less common. Companies lower their standards, extend their search effort, hire remote people or find another solution.

If an ideally trained, experienced candidate with domain-specific knowledge for your opening lives somewhere else, and cannot (or doesn’t want to) move to your town, do you:

  • Do without and settle for someone who isn’t ideal.
  • Keep looking and wait until the right (or close enough) local appears.
  • Hire no one and leave the opening unfilled.
  • Hire a local and invest in the proper training.
  • Ask a candidate to move to your town (think about how you might feel about that if the situation were reversed)

Questions to ask new remote employees

Have you worked remotely before?” should have been discussed during the interview. After the hire is not the time to start this conversation. The first time an employee transitions from in-office work to remote work is a substantial shift – more so than you hiring your first remote team member.

What’s your schedule?” and “What times do you regularly need to be away?” aren’t probing personal questions. They let both sides discuss expectations and avoid surprises.

For example, I take kids to the bus stop a little after 8:00 am. I pick them up a little after 3:00 pm and a little before 4:00pm. As you might expect, there’s a few minutes of “cat herding” that takes place before the morning bus stop and after the two afternoon bus stops. While no one depends on me to be in a certain place with immediate availability at any specific moment of the day, it’s important to communicate the team’s schedule on both ends.

Likewise, it’s on me to make sure someone understands my schedule when we’re trying to arrange a meeting time. If I am trying to finish up before the bus stop or am rushed to get to a meeting just after a bus stop time, meeting prep (or the meeting itself) isn’t as productive or focused. That isn’t fair to clients or your remote employer. It’s as important to discuss the times where all hands are expected to be available for scrums, meetings, standups, etc.

Lunch is a good example of scheduling, even though you might not give it much thought. Some people eat lunch at their desk. Some like to get out of the house and meet a friend. Some mix it up a bit, often because working at home by yourself can be lonely. Some people need regular interaction, and text chat (like Skype, HipChat, or Slack) doesn’t feed that need. None of these things are wrong, but when your phone rings and you don’t answer, or you answer and a noisy restaurant is what your employer hears – they’ll wonder. It’s natural. You don’t want to make them wonder. You want them to know what to expect.

It’s OK to say “On Thursdays, I meet a few friends for lunch, so I’m not around from 11:30 to 1, and I start early or finish late those days“, as long as you’ve worked that out with people who need to reach you. This isn’t about someone expecting to know your butt is in your seat every minute of the day. It’s about being considerate of both parties.  It’s about trust.

Tell me about your workspace” – also isn’t a probing personal question. An employer or client has an expectation that you aren’t trying to work in a room full of toddlers, barking dogs, or gaming teenagers. Speaking of, summer plans are important. If you have young school-age kids, how will they be cared for while you’re working? Will they be in a different space than you? If the kids are older, it generally isn’t a problem, while two to seven year olds don’t generally manage their day on their own.

If this isn’t the new employee’s first remote rodeo, it’s a good idea to ask them what worked and what didn’t work in previous remote gigs. Take advantage of their experience and perspective – it will almost certainly add nuance to my comments. This gives you the chance to learn from another owner / manager’s efforts at no charge, and it will help you understand the persona, priorities and needs of your new remote worker.

Communication

Work out a protocol for communication during travel, weekends, evenings and during emergencies. This is really no different for a local employee than it is for a remote one, other than the fact that a manager can’t easily show up at the front door of a remote employee. If you’ve ever done that for business purposes, your communication plans probably need work. Showing up to pay your respects or attend a BBQ isn’t “business purposes”.

An emergency might be that your biggest client is having a meltdown or that there’s an angry boyfriend at the office. Either way, establish a protocol for getting the word out, conveying its severity, & indicating what action (if any) is necessary.

Keep in mind that every family (thus, every team member) may have different needs. Babies, shift work & roommates impact phone/ringer use.

Relationships

Mentoring & the “first friend” – No matter how many years of experience they have, they’re new to you. New people need mentoring. Even if they don’t need it with the work you hired them to do, there are plenty of reasons why their “first friend” at work will prove beneficial.

Do you hire someone to stay in the same position “forever”, or do you want them to grow into a position they aren’t yet ready for? Even if you don’t expect a new hire would be ready to run your shop in five years, they’ll almost never get ready without training, mentorship and interim experience to prepare them for that role.

Qualified people still need mentors. They also need to be mentors. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later – and with intention.

Connection – Remote employees need connection to the nest. Bring them on-site early and often. It’s particularly important to make this happen early on. Everyone at the home office needs connection with those remote employees. They need to be able to trust their word, trust their work and think of them as they do any other member of the team. This isn’t just about the line employee. It’s about the managers as well. When the remote employee becomes a black box in a room in another town that no one can see, the unseen person and their work are easy to devalue. This could happen even if their work happens to be strategic. The reverse is also true. They need the opportunity to understand the value of their peers work as well their colleagues do.

Team meals – For a business with on-site employees, team meals (on campus or not) are a commonly-used way to build team harmony and nurture relationships between team members. This may not be easy particularly effective with remote employees, so be sure to have these meals when remote employees are on site.

Video meetings (IE: conference calls with webcam) – Some people really dislike the addition of video to a call. People are fussy about their hair or generally how they look, don’t want to be seen eating during a call, are sensitive to what’s visible in their work space (like that monstrous Siamese cat laying next to the keyboard), and/or the idea of others seeing them appear to be disinterested because they’re multi-tasking during a meeting.

Ease into this. Start with short, less critical meetings to raise the comfort level. You’ll probably need to set the example for a while so people get comfortable with it. It’ll make everyone more aware of the ambient noise and distractions in their (and others’) workspace. In a face-to-face meeting, most people can manage their facial responses to a speaker’s comments. Experienced conference callers have learned to mute early and often, but may not be practiced at managing expressions when video is introduced.

The lesson: Don’t make a big deal out of the expressions you see on video. Use them as a signal to ask for group feedback. It’s natural for facial expressions to change when we hear something we have questions about, don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand. I prefer the Zoom (all faces on screen) way of doing this, mostly because it seems to train everyone that their expressions change while listening to people talk. Most of us don’t want to embarrass a co-worker, much less ourselves. Use it as an advantage and an opportunity to improve, not as a way to create drama.

Does this differ for workers outside the US?

Usually.

The differences between inside-the-US & outside-the-US team members include (in decreasing order of owner/manager/employee pain & suffering): Culture and values, enterprise experience, time zones, environment, infrastructure, payment & language.

Culture & values – Not everyone thinks like a U.S.-based employee/owner. Start by remembering that and keep remembering it. You’re used to what you’re used to. Others are just as used to their experience and how their work habits were formed.

Remember when asking for help was considered by some to be a sign of weakness? It remains that way among some groups because the pace of change differs among groups, and likewise among cultures. Every country’s culture has its range of work habits, inclination to ask for help, communication styles, etc. If you find yourself frustrated, ask questions that allow new people to unwrap what happened. Cultural learning is difficult to change. Differences in cultural norms should be expected. Both parties need to take steps to help everyone understand one another.

Company cultures and values work the same way. There are things that your company does your way – your culture and values. You should expect employees to take those seriously, regardless of their upbringing, culture, etc. Sometimes this takes training, mentors, etc. Someone who has never experienced a culture like yours will need help (and time) to them learn your culture and values. You may hire someone who is used to being browbeaten over deadlines, or they may have never worked under a deadline. No matter what their experience has been in the past, your experience is probably different. It will take time for your culture and values to become their new normal. Trust takes time and it goes both ways.

Enterprise experience – Enterprise experience is about more than buildings full of servers or time working at large multi-national companies. It’s about having a mindset that goes beyond the current project. It’s about having the ability to look around corners (and knowing that’s important), seeing the big picture, understanding inter-departmental needs, and communicating effectively with others whether they’re C-level execs, your team’s family members, prospects on the trade show floor, or high school kids on a field trip. Enterprise experience can mean more than that, but it starts with mindset, the big picture, and communication.

Time zones – Time zones can be a blessing and a curse. When your team member is seven to ten time zones east of you, you might start your day at 3:00 pm or later in their day. Good, because you have a bunch of work to review. Bad, because you only have an hour or two before the end of their day. Some folks work their normal hours (ie: 8:00am to 5:00pm in their time zone), some work normal hours in yours. You have to figure out what works best for you and for your team member. One thing about having them work your hours is that it may tempt them to take a job in their time zone, then work your job once the other job’s time is done. You need to ask that question. You don’t want your work to be their second job – which could affect your pay scale for them.

Environment -Not everyone lives in a pleasant, treed cul-de-sac in a neighborhood with people they’ve known for a decade, or on five quiet acres on the edge of town. I have had remote team members tell me that their apartment building was hit by gunfire – and they kept working. Culture & experience train you to know when it’s time to take cover, leave, etc.

Infrastructure – People in some countries lose power far more often than U.S. folks are accustomed to. This is not something your remote worker can control, other than by moving to another country. The good news is that a laptop combined with a UPS can easily fuel a full day’s work.

Payment – Five years ago, this was much harder. Paypal, TransferWise, Upwork simplified the process & traditional methods are still available. Some countries are still a bit of a challenge but for the most part, this barrier has all but evaporated.

Language – Most business people I encounter from outside the U.S. speak English fairly well. This has been my experience with both solo consultants and employees of large companies outside the U.S.

One more thing about remote folks. Visit them a couple times a year, if you can. It won’t be cheap. It probably won’t be easy and it will occasionally frustrate – but most of the negatives come from getting there, not from being there. When you visit them, you learn far more about them, their motivations and how they work than you’d ever learn in a video meeting or a phone call.

Links for working with remote employees

A few links that might come in handy:

https://biz30.timedoctor.com/scale-your-remote-team/

https://blog.trello.com/master-remote-team-communications

https://blog.trello.com/tips-for-tackling-remote-work-challenges

https://blog.trello.com/how-to-stop-micromanaging-your-remote-team

https://shift.newco.co/why-i-only-work-remotely-2e5eb07ae28f

https://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2015/09/03/7-habits-of-exceptionally-successful-remote-employees/

http://www.enmast.com/7-tips-empowering-employees-remote-work

https://medium.com/taking-note/the-secret-to-remote-work-its-not-all-about-you-ff8cd862d704?source=linkShare-c89c09aefc29-1516770156

Photo by Kim de Groote 1980