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Management Tools: On the Brink of Failure

HR Magazine, February 2008On the Brink of Failure

Keep your team from going over the edge by diagnosing the problem and taking the steps to fix it.

Supervisors may want to throw in the towel if they are in charge of a group filled with interpersonal conflict, misaligned talent or organizational structures that lack efficiency. But don't give up just yet. When such a situation rises to the level of an urgent distress call, you can turn it around by taking a candid look at either reinventing the structure of the group or replacing certain key individuals within it. As a supervisor or department head faced with a department that's about to implode, you'll want to conduct departmental structural and workflow analyses with your direct reports to determine areas of overlap as well as areas where resources might be needed. That's often the best time to launch training workshops on leadership and communication in conjunction with formal weekly meetings to ensure that all voices are heard in the effort to make "fixing the crisis" a shared goal.

In a fairly short amount of time, and with the right help and guidance, you can determine if you have the right players in place to move your department forward and meet the immediate challenges ahead.

Phase 1: Structural Audit

A simple organizational analysis is typically the best place to start when faced with the urgent need for immediate turnaround. "And that's where your internal HR team or an external [organizational development] consultant could come in handy," according to Paul Butler, co-president of Newleaf Consultants in Valencia, Calif.

Most line managers in corporate America don't understand the difference between organizational development (OD) and training, he says. "Training improves individual performance, typically by building a particular individual's skill set, whereas OD looks at the structural system in place to determine if the organization has proper alignment and efficiency," explains Butler.

"OD work accounts for fixing 70 percent of an organization's problems," he continues, "while training typically accounts for repairing only 30 percent of the ailments that may plague a company at any given time. Critical problems are often more systemic than individually based." In short, if the system and structure of your workflow paradigm are off, you could have Einstein in the role and not see success.

When conducting a candid review of your department's current structure, keep it simple: Map out, on butcher-block paper if that's all that's available, your entire workflow, from inception through end result. Map all contiguous areas where your employees touch the process and add value. Your rudimentary organizational analysis should quickly indicate where people and processes overlap or conflict.

Next, weave in the roles of ancillary support by collaborating with senior members in other departments such as finance, information systems and customer service, as well as with external vendors, customers and key stakeholders. Finally, overlay areas where conflict and staff complaints seem to converge so you can physically see areas of tension.

The next day, roll out your workflow draft to the rest of your staff and ask them to comment on your senior team's initial insights. Drill deeper until the majority of your staff members agree on the pressure points that squeeze productivity, and ask for suggestions on how to reinvent the workflow to ensure smoother operational processing. Finally, ask for internal leaders to volunteer to assume responsibility for fixing the smallest and most manageable parts of the dysfunction. Such "stretch assignments" should be accomplished within a week and will result in concrete, positive outcomes that all can see.

Phase 2: Training

Next, propose three or four short, 90-minute luncheons to discuss leadership and communication. Your com - pany's learning and development department may have "canned" training on hand, or you may invite an external training organization to establish your new expectations in terms of leadership and communication. Leave plenty of time to discuss the topics raised, relate the rules and lessons to your group, and tailor the materials to your needs. This becomes your platform for group interaction and peer reinforcement. Simple workshops may include topics such as "High-Performance Management Practices at XYZ Corp.," "Legal Aspects of Supervision and Management in California," "Power Recruiting and High-Impact Interviewing Strategies," "Mastering Progressive Discipline and Structuring Terminations" and "Managers as Mediators--Conflict Resolution in the Workplace."

The list goes on, of course, but two meetings per week during a two-week period will get your team off to a solid start in terms of outlining expectations and providing group leaders with the basic tools necessary to excel in their roles.

A natural byproduct from training will be requests for more-formal feedback and communication. Once the request comes your way, grant it: There's no better way to get people out of their foxholes to safely volunteer opinions or stop griping about others' shortcomings than by squaring them off in formal weekly meetings to share opinions and hear others' suggestions.

Remember that only mature teams whose members have worked together side by side and trust each other will benefit from a laissez faire management style, and those are almost always the exception. Most departments require more-formal feedback, structure and direction to excel on an ongoing basis. And if people only come together when there's a problem, then conflict becomes associated with all meetings.

However, if people come together in a regularly structured setting, then conflict need not enter into the equation. And even when it does, there will be more trust and good will because both sides get to express their opinions and assume ownership for the solution to the problem.

What if you hear resistance to this suggestion from certain members of the team? "We don't have time for meetings; if we did, then none of these problems would have arisen in the first place" goes the common objection. Explain away employees' fears by simply stating that you're keeping these meetings going only through this "crisis" stage. Once you see that regular and open communication occurs on an ongoing basis, you may choose to "kick off the training wheels" of weekly meetings and allow employees to revert to a more laissez faire style of communication and leadership without formal structure and direction.

Phase 3: 'Fit Factor'

Whether you're a new supervisor to the group or you've worked with these people for years, watching employees behavein this new environment with heightened expectations may go a long way in helping you determine who "fits" and who may be out of place. Some people naturally resist change and self-select out of the change process. Others "get it" and rise to the occasion, demonstrating discretionary energy and effort to accomplish the predetermined goals. "In short, extreme times call for extreme measures, and Most only under those circumstances do you often get the chance to see the real person behind the tired façade," says Butler. "The leaders will find ways to motivate themselves in light of the group's changing needs, while others will simply opt out or demonstrate an entitlement mentality, revealing their ultimate lack of fit in the renewed and reinvigorated work environment."

There's a simple litmus test to help determine who gets to stay and who might be better off leaving the company, called the "Fall off the Planet Test." Categorize all the players on your team by completing the following statement:

If [NAME] fell off the planet tomorrow, I would … a) Absolutely panic because I don't know how all the work would get done and how I'd be successful. After all, I rely on her so much both as a leader and an individual contributor that I couldn't face losing her. b) Eventually notice that she was gone, but probably not until a week or so down the road (or longer). c) Jump for joy, because I'd finally be able to get control of the group back and not have to hear her constant whining or worry about her gossiping and driving a wedge between the other staff members." Clearly, team members who fall into the third category represent your initial area of focus. Working with your HR team, either initiate conversations with the individuals to consider exploring opportunities outside the company or begin the progressive discipline process and issue written warnings and substandard annual performance reviews, as necessary.

With those Tier 3 individuals on the way toward termination or resignation (shy of an immediate and sustained turnaround), you can then focus your attention on the Tier 2 group--those who perform adequately but who may "struggle to the minimums." After seeing how you handled Tier 3 performers, people will know you mean business and will often raise their level of self-expectations to meet your expectations. If not, then Tier 2 employees may very well face the same fate as Tier 3 players.

Either way, you have the opportunity to grow and build on your Tier 1 team, and then recruit new players who demonstrate increased pride in their work, engagement and overall job satisfaction. And voila! The business cycle gets whitewashed and reviewed anew, all because of the urgency that faced you suddenly. Dire straits may cause more drama and adrenaline rush than you care for at any given time, but let cool heads prevail.

Sometimes the need for immediate turnaround of people, systems and structures provides you with the greatest ability and maximum dis - cretion to reinvent and re-evaluate who you are as a leader and communicator. You must create challenges that help you become everything you were meant to be and redefine yourself in light of your company's greatest challenges. Rising to the occasion may be the greatest way to move from the brink of failure to the edge of ultimate success.

Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.

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