Monday, February 28, 2022

New Manager: No Immediate Changes

Actions to take: Make no immediate changes as a new manager. Wait to implement changes until you have established a rich understanding of each of your employees, and they understand who you are as a manager. A rough rule of thumb is three months. During that time, spend your energy on developing those understandings. Write down any change ideas you have for later review. 

Its your second day as manager, and you can already tell some things need to change. Maybe you were promoted internally. You've been around for years and seen the cracks developing thanks to a series of weak bosses. Maybe you were specifically brought in to "clean up the mess" in this department. They warned you during the interview process that this team needed to be whipped into shape. 

Or maybe it's more mundane than that. You just see a few fixes that will make everyone's work easier.

Whatever the situation, you need to wait. Do not make any immediate changes as a new manager. After referencing this advice in the Transition Costs article, I realized that we hadn't covered this important topic. If you are an ambitious type who wants your team to succeed, you're probably internally shouting at your screen. Wait? This will improve things! We'll work better with this change! Why should I wait!?

When you make changes as a brand new manager, you won't know what you are doing. You will think you know what you are doing. No one will tell you otherwise (part of the problem). But from both a personnel perspective and from a process perspective, you won't know what you're doing.

On the people side, you won't know who is for this change and who is against it. You will have no idea how to effectively manage your team's commitment to the change. Everyone will have reactions. If they are smart, they won't share their honest opinions with a new manager. Think about it. They've had bosses who punish them for being candid, who did not reward them for having opinions that differ from the boss's opinions. We've all had bosses like that. Until you've spent time proving that you can respect diverse opinions and reward candor, they will be smart to treat you like you don't. 

On the process side, you do not know the details of your change.  No matter how much you've thought about it, no matter how well this worked in other environments. You have the broad idea, but you don't have the fine-grained understanding of this environment that is necessary to effectively implement this change. Every workplace is an integrated system. Move one part, and every other part compensates in some way. 

In truth, the manager never understands the whole environment well enough to anticipate exactly how a change will go. Our workplaces are too complex for that these days. It isn't your job to perfect understand every detail of the work you team does. Rather, it is your job to communicate and work with your team. It is your job to ensure that they will help you implement change by understanding the change and communicating how it will impact their work. Even the "process side" of change is really a people issue. As a team, you can effectively implement changes.

Implementing changes early on is like going into a dark cave without a light. You have no idea which step will be the one with the hole that breaks your leg. You won't even be able to predict if that leg-breaking step will come in the form of a process issue or a resistant staff member.

There is no hard line for "too soon" to make changes, but a rough rule of thumb is three months. The less defined but more accurate answer is that you can begin making changes after you know your team and they know you. That doesn't happen with one or two chats. It doesn't happen by asking how their day is going once in a while. It requires intentional effort and significant time. During that first three months, spend your energy on learning about your team and their work. (The internally promoted folks may be saying "We already know each other." Nope. They know you as a coworker, but they do not know who you are as a manager.) 

The only exception to the "no immediate changes" rule is routine one-on-one meetings.  If the previous manager never did one-on-one meetings, you do not need to wait to implement them. One-on-ones are the primary way that you'll establish the understanding we are talking about here.

Think of it this way. Imagine you were hired to paint a house. First day on the job, you show up with your brushes and rollers, and the home owner says, "Oh, the last painter just used their hands. They didn't need brushes." Painting a house means applying a thin, even layer of paint to a surface. Brushes and rollers are the easiest, most efficient way to do that job. Managing people means frequent, detailed communication on a thousand different subjects. One-on-ones are the easiest, most efficient way to do that job.

Rather than making changes right out of the gate, write down your ideas for change as they come to you. After a few months, return to that document armed the knowledge you've gained about your team. You'll have a good laugh about what a disaster it would have been to make those changes in early days.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Transition Costs: Whether or Not to Make the Change

Actions to take: When you see an improvement to be made, wait and consider before implementing it. Examine how much it will improve things. Assess how resistant your staff would be to the change. Recognize that even with zero resistance, there are still transition costs in the form of time, effort, energy, and resources. Accept that sometimes the right move is to leave sub-optimal processes in place. 

New managers often make the mistake of making changes too early in their tenure. They implement changes before they've developed goodwill or understanding with their employees. It inevitably backfires, even if the idea itself was good. Most of us learn this lesson after our first or second management position and stop trying to implement changes right away in new positions.

There is a more subtle mistake that the average boss never fixes: failing to account for transition costs.

Sometimes the problem isn't that you introduced a new idea too early. Sometimes the problem is that you introduced a change at all. My background is mainly in libraries, so let's use an example from that industry. A big part of running a library is checking in, sorting, and shelving items that patrons bring back. Some staff like to sort items as the check them in: check the item in, put it onto your cart into the proper place for later shelving. Other staff like to do it one step at a time: get everything checked in and then sort everything onto carts for shelving. 

Workflow studies have shown that sorting as you go is faster, without a doubt. The staff who sort as they go can get more books checked in and shelved over the long term. Time is saved, efficiency is gained, more work gets done. If your library's employees do the one-step-at-a-time method, they could improve their process by switching to the sort-as-you-go method.

However. The improvement for any one cart of books is small enough to barely notice. It might take 30 minutes to check in and sort a full cart of books. A 10% improvement means 27 minutes instead of 30 on average—a bathroom break takes longer than that. Furthermore, that average varies depending on the types of items that come in. It could take 20 minutes to fill a cart with long novels or 40 minutes to fill it with tiny kid's books. Over the course of the year and millions of books checked in, a 10% improvement is huge. For the employee, though, it feels like no improvement at all.

If employees didn't have opinions how to do their jobs, we could still institute this change and get our benefits. They'd say, "I don't get what the boss is talking about," shrug their shoulders, and that would be that. 

That isn't the reality we live in. Employees have opinions about how to do their jobs. You do, right? If you like managing a certain way, and your boss tells you "change it to this" with no explanation, what will happen? Even if you are a perfect employee, you'll need more than that to get on board. You'll need explanation. You'll need your boss to help you see why it is an improvement. You'll need them to address your concerns (after all, you presumably believe that your way is better). You'll need to practice the new way. You'll need time

The time (and resources) it takes to move from one method to another is called the transition cost. Managers vastly underestimate transition costs, leading to disastrous results. 

Here is a common scenario. The boss sees an improvement they want to make. They implement that change without realizing how much resistance they'll get, or sometimes realizing and not caring. The change takes longer than they anticipate. It is a year down the road, and the efficiency improvement they expected haven't materialized. In fact, things are slightly slower (because the employees never really embraced the new method). The manager incorrectly concludes that their idea was the problem and moves back to the old way, causing even more slowdown with this second transition. A ton of time lost and goodwill spent just to end up back where they were in the first place.

Do not be this boss. Consider transition costs when you consider making changes. People are used to the way they are currently doing things. Even in a highly functional environment with great trust, all change carries some transition cost. Your new method may be objectively, unequivocally better. It is objectively, unequivocally better to sort books as you check them in. But only if employees commit to the new process and do it well. Ask yourself how much better your new method will be. Take time to examine how much resistance there would be to this change (casually probing during one-on-ones is a great way to go about it). Remember that even changes with zero resistance have transition costs. Make absolutely sure that your change is worth the effort, energy, resources, and time.

Before we become bosses, we see a bunch of improvements to be made. We cynically wonder why the management never fixes these issues—the solutions are obvious! Then we become managers. When the average boss tries to make these "obvious" improvements and fails, they draw the wrong conclusion: the ideas or the employees are the problem. Better bosses see the underlying issue. They recognize transition costs. Better bosses know that sometimes the right move is to leave things less than 100% perfect. Sometimes the cost of making the change outweighs the value of the improvement.

Note from the author: if you enjoy this blog, please consider sharing your favorite posts with others.

Monday, February 14, 2022

One-on-One Tracking Templates

Not a lot of preamble to this one, but I think you'll like it. Here are two one-on-one tracking options, a spreadsheet version and a document version. There are links where you can view and download an editable file of each for your own use. 

First is a document template. With this one, you would have a separate folder for each employee where you keep finished ones and blank copies of for future weeks. The biggest pro of the document version is its simplicity. The record-keeping document is the note-taking document you're using during the meeting. Afterward, you just put the filled-out sheet in the file and you're done. 

The biggest con is after-the-fact recall. You have to manually leaf through pages of notes looking for whatever you need. When you're writing year-end performance reviews, for instance, the document version is far more time-consuming to compile the relevant information on each employee.

Here is a screen grab of what the document version looks like: 

Next is the spreadsheet version. With this one, you have a single file for all employees (and your team meetings and your boss if you want). The employees go down the first column, and your dates go across the top row. The huge pro for the spreadsheet is organization. You can grab multiple weeks' of notes and easily scan through or control+f for keywords (e.g. "fb:"). The spreadsheet is also easier for planning topics several meetings out. For instance, you might assign a task with a due date two months out. It's super quick to toss a follow up note in the cell for meetings one month and two month down the road. 

The major con is that each meeting requires a little more record-keeping work. Each week, you have to pull your prepped topics onto a notepad prior to the meeting, then take your hand-written notes from the meeting and type them up afterward. This is about 10 minutes of extra time that the document version doesn't require. (Though this work integrates pretty easily with the work 5 minutes before and after you should already be doing)

Here is a screen grab of what the spreadsheet version looks like:

Download these, modify them to your needs, and get a little better at your one-on-one record keeping. Enjoy!

Monday, February 7, 2022

Documentation is Just Notes

Actions to take: Avoid giving the word "documentation" too much power in your mind. Keep accurate notes for all your work meetings. See the DOs and DON'Ts list below for more detail. When HR asks for documentation, compile the relevant notes with minimal exposition.

The first time most managers encounter the word "documentation," it is in reference to a poor performer. Things have gotten to a point where the manager needs to call up HR and talk about taking more serious steps. Before giving any recommendations, HR will always ask for evidence proving that the problem is serious, that it has continued for some time, and that the manager has attempted to address it through more informal means. "We'll need to see your documentation of the problem and the conversations you've had with the employee up to this point." 

This context leads managers to dramatically misunderstand what "documentation" is. Imagine it. Your are dealing with a big issue. You've been hitting your head against it for months. The employee refuses to acknowledge their issue or make any kind of meaningful change. And the person you turn to for support says, "Prove that it's actually a problem, and prove that you've actually tried to do anything about it."

The natural reaction is to argue your case. Since it is a serious issue, you write up a multi-page memo explaining every detail of the issue, your conversations with the employee, your opinion on where this is headed, your opinion on the employee's mindset, etc. You want to absolutely convince your HR rep that it is time to take action, so you pour everything into this document.

You have just sunk your chances of moving forward with disciplinary or probationary action.

Documentation is just a record of your work. Nothing more, nothing less. When you hand HR something that "makes your case" about the situation, you are adding problematic elements. Stop thinking of documentation as some big, intense thing. Documentation is just notes. Anything you've written down is documentation. A sticky note with the line "Fb- missed deadline" stuck to a one-on-one sheet is documentation. 

Now, there is a difference between good documentation and bad documentation. There is a difference between documentation that HR is satisfied with and documentation that is problematic for one reason or another. Documentation DOs and DON'Ts:

  • DO make contemporaneous notes. Take your notes during or immediately after meetings or incidents. This is both a best practice and most legally defensible (which is something HR always has in the back of their minds).
  • DO NOT write up notes about a conversation that happened weeks ago because you forgot to at the time. Even a minor error from a memory lapse will cause problems. "Honest mistake" looks a lot like "the boss intentionally making things up to make me look bad" to an angry employee or their lawyer.
  • DO keep your notes completely factual. Describe observable behaviors that your employee engaged in and, if relevant, exact comments they made.
  • DO NOT make notes that guess at your employee's motivation, willingness to improve, or anything else that relates to their thinking. First, as we discussed in one of the earliest posts on this blog, there is no way to prove what is going on in someone else's mind. Second, notes about an employee's motives will end up turning the spotlight on you and your motives.
  • DO take notes as soon as you implement one-on-ones and DO take notes for all employees. Frankly, every professional should be taking notes at every work meeting. Employee discipline is not the primary (or secondary or tertiary) reason we take notes. Notes are about tracking work that has been done and work that needs to be done. Taking notes for all employee one-on-ones demonstrates that you are egalitarian and consistent in your management.
  • DO NOT only take notes for problem employees. And DO NOT only begin taking notes after problems surface. Again, this shines a light on your motives—it looks like you've decided to build a case against this employee in order to get them fired.

When HR asks for your documentation, simply compile the notes you have that are relevant to the issue at hand. At most, give a two-sentence explanation of what a note means if it is unclear. HR may want to go over these conversations with you in more detail, but they'll do it verbally. Follow this advice, and you will be much more likely to get meaningful support from HR to help with your problem employee.

Finally, remember that firing someone is never your goal. Termination is the result of a failure: the employee's failure to improve to an acceptable standard and your failure to help them improve. Feel disappointed about it, feel resigned to it, but if you ever feel eager to fire someone, check yourself. 

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