Strip #5: “Your optimism has been a source of encouragement to keep the team working to improve…”
Hmmm…lots of subtext here, none of it comfortable. There were some very hard times in this group in the year or two leading up to my joining them. There were plenty of hard times after. It would be easy to focus on the “optimism” and “encouragement” in this feedback, and not pay attention to the “…keep the team working to improve” bit.
There was desperate need for improvement, and no margin left to take our time achieving it. We had to set a pretty relentless pace for change in the first several months, something I try very hard not to do in the first weeks of a new job. The recent troubles had bred default conservatism, risk aversion and widespread resistance to anything new, particularly if it involved judgement calls. There were two things that had to be done immediately.
First, we had to set a completely different tone and expectation for the consequence of failures. We established that our organization would become so good at achieving and maintaining quality, that other groups would want to model us. We would develop recognized best practices for monitoring data, identifying abnormal patterns, troubleshooting the causes, and implementing fixes. To this end, we expected everyone to redefine failure as an opportunity to learn how to be this organization. Most importantly, I committed to a firm rule that the last person to touch a problem would never be offered up as the cause.
Second, I had to completely deliver on these promises. Hence came the optimism. Understand, I am a true believer in the systems approach to root cause analysis. Not the 1950s “who is the root cause” kind of analysis, nor the 1980s “what is the root cause” kind, but the 21st century “why does our system allow errors to propagate into the failure we observed” kind. I love this analysis. It’s complex, it’s interesting, and it identifies all kinds of fixes that will actually work. Huge possible wins here. But you have to get the personalities and the personal blame out of it, or you will never get the defensiveness out of it, and the defensiveness will ensure no change lasts in your absence.
Every time we had a failure, I was the happiest guy in the room. I was happy for the skills that had identified it. I was happy for the courage demonstrated in reporting it. I was happy for the work that was done to contain the problem. I was happy for the fix ideas that were already being worked on. At the risk of stating the obvious, this happiness does not simply refer to my inner emotional state. It was what I was broadcasting all over the room, in every meeting, in every sidebar, in every email. You have to win the messaging war on this one, and you do it by using every message to reward the behavior you want.
But never, ever forget: You will kill all of this forever the first time you point the finger at the last person who touched the failure. Absent gross negligence, this kind of lazy management should always be off limits.
-Bottom line: Believe in what you think the team can be, make sure that belief is genuine, make sure they hear that belief in every way you communicate, and create a safe environment for failure.
-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion. They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there. I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-