Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Jan
21

No Surprises

As a CEO, almost nothing drove me crazier than being surprised.  And I don’t only mean being surprised by bad news, I mean being surprised by good news as well.  That latter part may sound a bit absurd and I can promise you that hypocritically, my reaction to good surprises was never as negative as my reaction to bad ones.  Further, there were plenty of times, when things weren’t looking particularly good that I prayed to be shocked with an upside surprise or two.  Nevertheless, the reason I have such disdain for surprises is that I strongly believe that being surprised by something happening in your business is often indicative of not knowing what’s going on or not having thought through the likely outcomes of your actions.  It’s ignorance which, in my mind, is inexcusable in business.

Surprises will happen, of course.  Unless you run your business in the most conservative fashion, no one has the ability to predict everything that can take place.  As a manager at any level, though, you should focus on trying to reduce the number of surprises that occur in your organization.  If you do so, your organization will move faster, respond better and work more fluidly.

In order to minimize surprises in your business it’s important to understand the root causes of most of them – people don’t know what’s going on or they know, but for one of several reasons, they don’t act on or communicate the information.  The former problem is basic; training or replacement will fix it.  The latter problem is more complex and has to do with politics and power.

There are three primary reasons why people don’t pass on information:

  • They’re afraid of the reaction they’re going to get from the person they’re delivering it to
  • Information is perceived as power, which they want to hold on to
  • They want to get credit for the information so they only deliver it to certain people at at certain times

Fear of the reaction

Some managers shoot the messenger, whether they’re responsible for the surprise or not.  If the manager does this enough times, the entire organization gets trained to shut up and keep things to themselves.  For the most part, information, especially if received in time enough to do something about it but in any case, should always be appreciated.  Good news, cherished and bad news, gratefully acknowledged.  If a manager creates an open environment where people feel that they are encouraged to speak up, more information will be available to base decisions on and the organization will work more smoothly.

Information is power

This one drives me into a homicidal rage.  There are those in almost any reasonably sized organization that want to use information to maximize their power and influence.  Perhaps they hold back information from certain individuals so that it can be revealed in a public forum with the boss.  Perhaps they keep such information in their pocket as a “told you so” when the shit hits the fan.  Whatever the reason, it’s bad and managers have stomp it out quickly and publicly.

To make matters worse, managers often implicitly reward the bearer of withheld information by focusing on the value of the information and ignoring the process by which it was revealed.  If a manager does this frequently, he’ll/she’ll just encourage others to do the same.  This pattern becomes very difficult to reverse. 

In an organization, knowledge itself should never create power.  The dissemination of it, should.

I want to be a hero

Similar to using information as power, some people hold on to information to be more visible or to save the day.  This can happen in any area of the company where a solution, relationship, sale, bug fix, customer contact, service completion or whatever, is revealed late in the process in order for the hero to appear as a savior of the period.  It’s difficult, of course, when such an action actually does pull the corporate ass out of the frying pan to keep from celebrating such a disclosure and the bearer of it.  A good manager has to, though.  Rewarding and, therefore, encouraging such behavior will only perpetuate the desire for people to hold back information to be a hero themselves.

 

Surprises happen when people in an organization don’t have information or don’t communicate it to the appropriate people.  In either case, the manager needs to stay on top of the problem and constantly be searching for ways to make sure that all possible knowledge of what’s going on pertaining to the business is understood and communicated in an open environment.  Only then can the business’ execution start to be optimized.

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 January 21st, 2007  
 Will  
 Management  
   
 2 Comments

2 Responses to No Surprises

  1. You focused entirely on deliberate and/or manipulative withholding of information, but even in a positive organizational context information can be withheld that shouldn’t be.  Two examples: – In fact, if people did NOT withhold information, both good and bad, no one would get anything done.  In an extreme example, if you are CEO of a 500 person software company, you do not want people running into your office or even sending you email to say “it turns out that the inner loop Joe is working on cannot start at zero – it causes a divide by zero error!  He’ll have to put in a couple of lines of code to handle the special case!!!!”  This is silly but the point is to illustrate that there is always a line to draw as to what information is WORTHY of bringing to the attention of superiors.  I think people do make errors in this – sometimes it is hard to know what will be of concern.  Frequent top-down communication (e.g., current concerns, initiatives, goals) as well as style (I want to know everything; I only want to know things of a certain level of materiality) can help.  Managers (and I have done this myself) can cause information to be withheld simply by giving off a constant impression of being busy – no one wants to bother busy people with what they see as minor matters. – The “hero” scenario you describe is an intentional one.  I think a lot of people withhold information not because they want to look like a hero to others, but because they want to solve problems themselves.  This is a good impulse in some cases but again it’s a line drawing issue.  Suppose an engineer made some mistakes estimating work, and gets behind.  He/she may try to work weekends, or really stay focused, to catch up.  This is not to look like a hero, but rather to save the day in his/her own mind.  Even if successful, the best public case is that things are as they were expected to be (indeed, it’s really more about not looking like a failure).  As a manager, though, you’d like to know that the schedule is behind, even if the engineer has a plan for catching up.

  2. You focused entirely on deliberate and/or manipulative withholding of information, but even in a positive organizational context information can be withheld that shouldn’t be.  Two examples:

    – In fact, if people did NOT withhold information, both good and bad, no one would get anything done.  In an extreme example, if you are CEO of a 500 person software company, you do not want people running into your office or even sending you email to say “it turns out that the inner loop Joe is working on cannot start at zero – it causes a divide by zero error!  He’ll have to put in a couple of lines of code to handle the special case!!!!”  This is silly but the point is to illustrate that there is always a line to draw as to what information is WORTHY of bringing to the attention of superiors.  I think people do make errors in this – sometimes it is hard to know what will be of concern.  Frequent top-down communication (e.g., current concerns, initiatives, goals) as well as style (I want to know everything; I only want to know things of a certain level of materiality) can help.  Managers (and I have done this myself) can cause information to be withheld simply by giving off a constant impression of being busy – no one wants to bother busy people with what they see as minor matters.

    – The “hero” scenario you describe is an intentional one.  I think a lot of people withhold information not because they want to look like a hero to others, but because they want to solve problems themselves.  This is a good impulse in some cases but again it’s a line drawing issue.  Suppose an engineer made some mistakes estimating work, and gets behind.  He/she may try to work weekends, or really stay focused, to catch up.  This is not to look like a hero, but rather to save the day in his/her own mind.  Even if successful, the best public case is that things are as they were expected to be (indeed, it’s really more about not looking like a failure).  As a manager, though, you’d like to know that the schedule is behind, even if the engineer has a plan for catching up.

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