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Something to Talk About

Something to Talk About

A manager at a large publishing company once replied with this joke when an employee asked her for more feedback on his performance: "Once, there was a little boy who did not speak to anyone for the first years of his life. His parents were convinced he simply couldn't. Then one morning, the seven-year-old looked across the breakfast table at his mother and said: "The toast is burnt.' His father, pleased but shocked, asked: "Son, why haven't you ever talked to us before?' And the boy responded: "Everything's been fine until now.'"She's neither the first nor by far the only manager to apply the boy's twisted logic to interactions with staff -- "I'll let you know when you screw up; otherwise, mum's the word." For that matter, employees often take the same miserly approach to sharing information with their bosses. But if there is one thing the shift to working in teams and the subsequent focus on "soft" skills -- or more precisely, the discovery of the utter lack of those skills -- has proved, it's that keeping quiet doesn't do anyone any good. Problems fester, people repeat mistakes and everyone winds up grumpy and unproductive. Your staff's ability to talk honestly with you and each other about how work is done can ensure the success of IS projects, says Peter Axelson, founder and president of Garnet Consulting in Massachusetts.

"A good flow of honest feedback is one of the most difficult things to get right, but it's also one of the most important of the so-called soft skills," he says. "If you can create an environment where there is consistent feedback, there are tremendous benefits from a business standpoint." Among those benefits, according to Axelson: People's skills improve as they get advice and learn from co-workers; problems are identified sooner because people feel supported when they speak up; and trust and respect among colleagues grows. And they probably post fewer Dilbert cartoons, too.

Axelson has seen lack of feedback and honesty grind entire teams to a miffed halt. A few years ago, he was called in to help a team in a large financial services company that was responsible for moving a data centre from one continent to another. "The group was stuck," Axelson says. "Technically, this was a brilliant bunch of people. They knew what they needed to do to make this thing happen. But there were some extreme style differences. They had stopped having meetings, and some people didn't even want to talk to one another."What unstuck them was learning how to use feedback better. In one drill, Axelson paired team members and gave them the mandate to spend a half-hour having the most candid conversations they'd ever had about the effect of their behaviour on each other.

Scary prospect? No kidding. "Emotion, egos, competence, self-worth -- there are a whole bunch of things wrapped up in why [feedback] doesn't happen," Axelson says.

So as a CIO, how do you get people in a close-mouthed culture to start blabbing? Quickie seminars on "active listening" (read: how to look like you're paying attention while you're actually counting the other person's protruding nose hairs) just don't cut it.

The secret to good workplace communication starts with understanding your own working style and the factors that influence your perceptions of what others say and do, says Eileen Strider, former CIO and vice-president of information services at the Kansas-based Universal Underwriters Group. She gives the following example from an exchange she had with one of her managers last year.

Wyette Spotts, a manager in the applications area of IS, has been Strider's point person on maintaining Universal's legacy systems for three years. Several years ago when he was with the claims processing systems team, Spotts was trying to implement a performance measurement system that tracked the work process of that unit at Universal, which insures 25 per cent of US auto dealerships. His team was resisting his request for the new performance measure. In a meeting, as Spotts was re-emphasising the need to follow the new procedures, he saw some people roll their eyes and snicker. That was more than Spotts' strained patience could take. He just blew up.

"I don't think I've ever shown anger like that in front of my staff," Spotts says. "I just said, "Fine! Whatever. If you guys want to grow up and talk about this, you know where to find me.' I left and I was steaming."Spotts ended up drifting into Strider's office to chat. "We went through the scenario, and I said I felt like I needed to go back and apologise," Spotts said. "So we went through a series of questions."Strider: "Are you upset with your staff?" Spotts: "Yes."Strider: "Are you disappointed that you got mad?"Spotts: "No."Strider: "Do you feel like you want to apologise?"Spotts: "No.""Then why would you apologise for being angry?" Strider asked. "That doesn't mean you're happy about how you expressed it. But if you apologise and you don't mean it, they will know."Strider tried to get Spotts to examine why he had reacted that way and how he had interpreted events and comments in the meeting. "Somehow," Spotts says, "we got back to my childhood when I made a rule for myself that I would never express anger in public. But it had happened, and now I didn't know how to deal with it."Later, when he talked with his staff, he explained what he had seen, how he had interpreted those signals and why he had reacted the way he did. As it turned out, the message he had taken from the meeting ("They're not interested") was not at all the one his staff had intended to send. They really weren't thinking much about any message. One person thought the group had moved on to a different agenda item at that point; another was laughing at a side comment from a co-worker on an unrelated topic. No one had understood how important the project was to him. Once they did, they were all for fixing things.

As Strider asks, "If you don't know what's happening inside your own head, how can you possibly know what is happening for the other person or how to really listen to that?"Easy for Strider to say, but does she actually follow her own advice? Relentlessly. "I have to develop my own skills before I can help [my staff develop]," Strider says. "They've seen me cry; they've seen me get angry. If they can see me make a mistake or express an emotion and survive, they know that when they do the same, I will see it not as a mistake but as an opportunity to learn."Strider walked her talk two years ago when Universal was engaged in a custom development project that entailed replacing a slice of its largest and most business-critical legacy system. A year -- and thousands of dollars -- into the project, Strider called it off.

"I came to my senses and realised that the project was not working," she said.

"We spent two and a half days going over the project [with hired facilitators], and I told the group what I had done wrong -- and that included not looking deep enough and not listening to those who were telling me there was something wrong. I told them I felt really, really bad about it; I felt very responsible."Harder still, Strider brought that same honest feedback to her superiors. "I had to stand up in front of all the senior executives of this company and tell them I made a mistake," she says. "They were very unhappy with me.

But I kept my job, and they gave me another chance to restart the project."The incident has become part of company lore, according to Spotts. "What she did was a paradigm buster for this organisation," he says. "It used to be that it was always someone else's fault. [Taking the blame] meant she was one of us.

She wasn't our boss. She wasn't our vice-president. She wasn't our CIO."The project, which was restarted with a different vendor, is going swimmingly now, in large part because of the honest appraisal the team did of the first failed attempt, says Strider. "One of the agreements we had coming out of the [first] project was that we would encourage people to [flag] problems sooner," she says. "If you can't get the person above you to listen, [move up the management chain] until you feel you've been heard. My part of that bargain was that I would listen better this time."Strider's candid approach to that failure and the response of her IS staff have generated more than just good vibes. The performance improvement in Spotts' current group alone has been remarkable. When Spotts joined the team in 1995, the stats on the legacy system were pretty dismal. IS could deliver the legacy system up and running at the start of a workday only 23 per cent of the time.

That meant more than 75 per cent of the time, when the underwriting staff members tried to query the system, they couldn't process insurance business.

Spotts' team recently celebrated a full year of delivering that same system -- on time, every day. The system was designed to process 5000 records in a single night. Today, it sometimes handles up to 50,000, Spotts says. How was it done? A lot of cleanup work, getting rid of dead code and refining what was there without damaging the system.

Spotts says the change in the mainframe performance was driven by changes in the way his team members viewed themselves, their work and their importance to the company. "In 1995, it was a big firefight," he says. "There was no recognition, just a lot of work. We started putting some focus into what we were trying to deliver, how we could get through the night and get a full night's sleep." The demoralised IS staff had endured repeated beatings (both deserved and undeserved) from the organisation, and few people in the department could muster much optimism or faith in their own skills, Spotts says. "When you sit around and say you've never done anything right, it's pretty hard," he explains. "We decided to start focusing on some of the stuff we were doing right, and it helped us learn and grow."Spotts attributes some of this turnaround to Strider's influence and his own adoption of some of her tactics. He schedules a section in his staff meetings that he calls "temperature readings", which include a segment for "appreciations" when Spotts gives credit to the programmer who, for example, fielded an emergency maintenance call in the evening and missed bath time with his kids or to the employee who stepped in for a colleague on a deadline project. He also allows time for "complaints with recommendations", which gives people the opportunity to raise problems and think constructively about them.

Strider, who says she is thrilled with the personal and professional progress of her 160-member IS staff in the four years she has been with Universal, left in May to work full-time for her own consultancy, Strider & Cline, based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Spotts says she will be missed. "CIO in her case stands for "coach in office'," he says. "Anybody can walk into her office any time or call her at home. A very big goal that I have for myself is to be able to do what she does." SIDEBARWhat Do You Know?Larry Sheehan's job is the business equivalent of telling clients, "Excuse me, but you have a big piece of spinach stuck between your teeth." His Massachusetts-based company, Cambridge Assessment Centre, gives businesses the straight dope on what types of skills their employees lack-whether that news is good, bad, ugly or embarrassing.

Sheehan, the company chairman who has 17 years of experience with helping companies build soft skills in their organisations, developed with his partners, psychologist and statistician Susan Field, and psychologist Pamela Waite, a computer model for assessing different skills and personality types.

Using a Lotus Notes front-end, the program helps identify the characteristics of the person taking the test. The results can help companies figure out how to integrate different workgroups, understand what skills are necessary in their workplaces and learn more about how to reinforce the skills that make the company successful. "We're able to look at what the management style is in a group," Sheehan says. "What behaviour does the group reward and what behaviour does the group punish?"One major financial institution that used the model, for example, was surprised to find that the skills it thought it was rewarding -- teamwork, information sharing and collaboration -- were in fact hampered by its environment. The top performers in the organisations were to some degree information-hoarding loners, Sheehan says.

He says the assessment can be useful particularly when companies merge.

Figuring out which company's cultural norms will be dominant in the new union -- from work style to dress code -- can be significant, Sheehan says.

Sheehan's model also is used to assess whether IS people have the aptitude for learning object-oriented programming.

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