Engagement


For decades, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi has offered a ton of cash to anyone who can prove psychic powers. Currently at a million bucks, the prize will go to anyone who can show under experimental conditions, anything resembling telepathy, psychokinesis, paranormal contact with the dead—you name it. (Note that to date, no one has received the money.)

Given that Halloween is fast upon us, I’d like to do some debunking of my own (though true to the spirit of my blog). I’d like to take on what I believe to be nothing short of one of the greatest paranormal cognitive phenomena—a myth nothing short of the business equivalent of Loch Ness: Multi-Tasking!

I will award ONE genuine Halloween Snickers or Hershey bar—your choice—to the first person who can prove the existence of REAL business multi-tasking. Here is how I define multi-tasking:

The big prize awaits if you can prove the existence of multi-tasking. (Image: Mr. Billion/Wikimedia)

The multi-tasker must be able to prove she can solve two intellectual business problems at once. Let me be clear: If you are relaying between the two tasks—say, developing a competitive landscape of the document compliance industry, then switching to developing the financials for a business case, then switching back to the competitive landscape—you DON’T win the candy. Obviously, if you are in a meeting and tuning your boss in and out as you scan your Facebook page, occasionally drifting into your email inbox to respond to some underlings doing your work for you, that wouldn’t qualify either.

To win the loot, you have to be the first person to prove that you can be engaged in at least two intellectual, problem-solving business tasks SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Why? Simple: As I pointed out in my last post, the recession has exacerbated a big problem. Good talent is getting lost in big corporations.  As more and more people get laid off and big companies don’t know what they’re doing from quarter to quarter, those companies are passing more and more responsibility onto people who have neither the skills nor the bandwidth to accommodate the incremental work load.

The employees try to manage their managers’ expectations but what do they hear?

Multi-task! Get it done! Budget your time more effectively! Of course, the implication of all this is that if those employees can’t get it done, then the corporation can easily find someone else to do it. Believable, indeed, given that corporations these days are nothing if not good at firing their own employees and outsourcing to fill the gaps.

Bottom line: All work is incremental. There is no such thing as multi-tasking… unless you can PROVE otherwise.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s tackle the supernatural business dimension, if you will, and see if we can put the multi-tasking myth to rest.

Any takers?

– Mike Raven

 

I’ve never been good at taking care of stuff, particularly other people’s but my own, as well.

Who cares about a calculator, anyway? (Image: Wikimedia)

When I was in high school, my father lent me what was then a fairly advanced (and expensive) scientific calculator.  I crammed it into a deep recess of my backpack because, as my wife would comment years later about similar incidents, I could not be bothered to place it somewhere safe.

When I needed it, I’d pull it out, quickly slam it on the desk, and begin punching the keys. No time to coddle this thing.

When I didn’t have a moment to reach into the crowded, nether-regions of my knapsack for a ruler, I’d use the calculator. Sure, I ticked up the sides of the housing but what did I care? It was all about the job.

And, since I couldn’t be bothered to buy a decent knapsack to begin with or resist stuffing it to overcapacity, two things eventually happened:

(1) The calculator disappeared.  It had apparently slipped through a widening hole in the nylon, and was MIA for 2 days until my math teacher found it.

(2) Upon recovering it, I noticed a full-on lightning-style crack a la Harry Potter had seared through its tiny greenish LED screen.

But, of course, as I learned that we have to pay for things we break and suffer all sorts of indignities even in full payment, I’ve become more selective in what I abuse.  My wife has it right: I can’t be bothered to take care of certain things because I am too busy focusing on others.

I wish I could say I take care of the whole wonderful world of the stuff I touch but I neither can nor wish to.  In business terms, I achieve greater operational efficiencies by taking advantage of what I call the Law of Selective Abuse. We consume, even trash and destroy, some resources liberally so that we can generate some exponentially greater level of value for ourselves (or organization).

Insurance companies have to wrestle with this concept all the time. Think moral hazard. How often do you floor a rental car? How often do you floor your own? When you sheath a DVD you’re about to return to Netflix or pre-chapter-11 Blockbuster, do you carefully slide it into its case or smush your oily fingers all over its neat concentric lines like a perp getting fingerprinted?

Moral hazard, indeed! (Image via Wikimedia)

Now, what if the resources we were trashing in the name of operational efficiency and productivity were our own people, our own employees? Yikes.

The analogy works well. Heading into this latest recession, companies carried a lot of infrastructure (i.e., a full knapsack). Lots of people, lots of expensive but outdated software implementations, lots of real estate and equipment, and lots of projects and even businesses that in many large corporations, couldn’t really be accounted for.

Then, witness the collapse of financial services companies: This not only limited borrowing power but also eroded revenues from what was one of the largest customer segments for many large businesses. Bye bye better knapsack.

If we look at just one thing in an organization/knapsack, just one employee (i.e., calculator), what do we find? A few things:

(1)    The organization tosses that employee about much like my knapsack did that calculator. The employee is not likely to land in any part of the organization for very long. Why? It won’t stop to take the time to figure out what to do with her.

(2)    While she is working on the project of the day/month, the organization will burn through her. She will be over- and mis-utilized because the org can’t find the resources it needs to get the job done; instead, it will use what it has handy. As the org continues to lay people off, it will find that it has fewer and fewer people with the talent to get that job done. In that case, the org continues to task that calculator with lots of stuff she can do, lots of stuff she can’t really do, and lots of stuff there’s no way she can do. It will all wear her down, even beat her down. But the org will continue to do it. Why? All in the name of getting the job done, quarter by quarter. (And, yes, a candle CAN burn at both ends for quite a long time as this video clip demonstrates).

(3)    Eventually, the employee will slip through the cracks and get lost. Best-case scenario, she is tasked poorly. Worst-case, she gets canned before she has a chance to (continue to) demonstrate value.

What happens to the employee in this picture? We’ve already talked a bit about that in previous posts about employee engagement. When we’re lost, we lack purpose. When we lack purpose, when we have no meaningful objective within an organization, when those objectives keep shifting, we become sick.

But what happens DURING the selective abuse? What happens when someone keeps ‘punching our keys?’ What happens when the company keeps wanting more and more from us—more and more of our time, more and more of our life? What happens when companies try to ramp up productivity by spreading more work around fewer employees who may or may not have the skills necessary to handle all that work? And just how do those employees suddenly find the physical bandwidth to handle that work? How do they defy space and time?

Stay tuned… Coming soon to a blog near you…

But in the meantime, questions of the day: Is this you? Are you the calculator? Have you been burned out? Have you seen any of this happen to friends?

Thanks for reading!

-Mike Raven

In all his hand-to-hand matches with stealth government agents and terrorists in which he suffered minor knife slits across his limbs, did 24’s Jack Bauer ever hit the ER for an X-ray and stitches? In all their encounters with the Smoke Monster, or run-ins with the ‘Others’ across sideway-, forward-, and back-flashes, did the Lost castaways ever have to pause to tend to a simple but deep gash that wouldn’t stop bleeding?

Of course not but in my own little reality show, things work a little differently. In my own show, I can’t carry a bottle of Perrier up a flight of stairs without the thing falling through a paper-thin Stop & Shop bag (yes, Stop & Shop, you’re on notice), crashing to the ground, and propelling an arrowhead-like piece of glass upward into my left calf.  Now this didn’t actually hurt—much, anyway.  And it didn’t appear to be bleeding profusely—much, anyway. But it was hurting and bleeding and the problem was that it wouldn’t stop. So, off to the ER on a Friday night where all I could think about was that now I’d have to miss my evening run and worse yet, might have to miss a few more.

I just wanted to run. Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As the doc stitched it up, I asked if I’d still be able to run and he replied, “Well, I could tell you not to but you’re a runner. You’re gonna do it, anyway. So, I’ll throw some tape on and try to keep it stable for you. If the stitches dislodge, at least you’ve gotten a run in so no harm done, right?”

I wanted to hug this guy. “Right!” I affirmed.

There you have it: Engagement in its purest form.  All I cared about was making that next run.  And why was I so engaged? Put another way, why don’t I have the same passion for my work?

In my last post, I talked about how real employee engagement is about putting an employee to work on meaningful projects with meaningful outcomes for/with meaningful people that ultimately make a difference both for the organization and for that employee personally. What I implied but did not nearly emphasize enough in that mix is just how critical it is for employees to have a fighting chance to be successful at what they’re doing.

Let’s call this ‘Success Potential.’ If Success Potential is high, then employees become invested in what they do: they know they can get things done and that what they do will be valued. In such situations, employees are wholly and passionately engaged.

If Success Potential is low, if employees think they’re set up to fail, that what they’re working on may or may not be important but cannot or should not be accomplished given the organization’s (sometimes changing) priorities, we end up with a lack of engagement, even disenfranchisement.

Now, it’s true that some low Success Potential situations look high (e.g., for you Mad Men fans out there, remember when Joan is given a promotion in title only? Does she really have what she needs to be successful? Has the organization equipped her with the mindset?) and some high Success Potential situations look low (e.g., for your Project Runway fans, did you really think Michael Costello would go as far as he did; apparently, good designers DON’T need a ruler), but there’s no question about it: Passion, innovativeness, and yes, engagement—all those lovely buzzyworthy words business people throw about—are all tied directly to whether we think we can be successful at what we’re doing and make a difference.

I know I can be successful when I jump on the treadmill, when I flow through my Tai Chi form daily, and when I put good things into my body.  I look better, I feel better, and even better than all those betters, is that I am getting better and better every week.  Success Potential is high, very high, and I build on it every chance I get.

On the other hand, there’s my job with its odd, cold, mutable panorama of things in favor, where, returning to the Project Runway motif, one day you’re in and one day you’re out.  Certainly it’s hard to become engaged when I can’t jump into a project with the same outlook for success that I have when I jump on a treadmill.

So, 3 tips of the day (Tips #63-65):

  1. In the workplace, find stuff at which you can be successful. While this sounds like a ‘no duh,’ it’s anything but. Notice that I didn’t recommend attaching yourself to the boss you think will be the next CEO or looking out for the next big flavor-of-the-month project. My recommendation is actually a little more prosaic: Just look for the thing that you can do well, no matter how small, and which will likely hold its value at least through the next 6 months.
  2. Find personal sources of engagement—life passions, if you will. Within and beyond the workplace, within and throughout your life, find and do stuff at which you can be successful and that you’ll value over time. Good exercise and nutrition are great examples. Do these with gusto and look for other things, too. Engage in all these things relentlessly. Protect them relentlessly from the work-related things that want to diminish or poison them.
  3. Don’t sweat Tip #1. If you can’t find something to be engaged in at work, keep trying or find a different place to work. While you’re doing either or both of those things, always stay focused on your truest sources of engagement: all the life passions you’ll find in Tip #2.

With our focus where it should be—on finding true, personal sources of engagement, let me turn it over to you: What else are you good at the moment you begin doing it? What else can you be successful at as you continue to do it? What else gives you the satisfaction of knowing that it’ll be there to welcome you back, that it will grow with you, and that it will help you grow?

Looking forward to sharing…

All the best,

Mike Raven

Over the last few days, I have never felt more useful at work.  My boss, his boss, a couple of SVPs, and the CEO himself all wanted something only my team and I could provide. Put that together with the fact that we had just 48 hours to get it done, a mandate to sweep across the organization and pull whatever talent we needed, and a material, meaningful, and well-understood PURPOSE driving everything we were doing, and what do we get? An OPPORTUNITY! A real, honest-to-goodness, authentic opportunity to make a difference. And, you know, that’s all I—and tell me if I’m wrong–most of us really want.

(“One man CAN make a difference, Michael”)

When I am working hard for something I can believe in, for people with the power to make use of what I do, then I am needed. And when I am needed, I am in control. All of the fear, angst, and anxiety I talked about in previous posts, melts away, leaving me with a renewed clarity of vision and purpose.  When I have all these things, I am in modern org buzzspeak, ‘engaged.’

If you’re working for a big company, then you’ve probably had to take an engagement survey at some point, maybe at lots of points.  Now more than ever, large companies want to move the needle on productivity: they have to show their shareholders they can eke out greater revenue per employee quarterly. The thinking is that if you cut your labor force by 20%, then you’ve upped your productivity by 25% automatically, right?  Hey, even better, why not halve the workforce?  The moment you do it, you end up with a 100% productivity boost, right?

(Here, Donald Trump shows us HIS attempt to drive productivity)

Well, not exactly.  The math is right but in the longer term (maybe by next quarter), when a workforce is decimated, people scramble for the hills. They don’t work, partly because they don’t know whom or even what to work for, anymore.  Think sailboat here: You can throw some things overboard to gain speed but if the weight you happen to toss consists of your sail and rudder, you’re as good as lost.

Traditional sailboat, Mozambique

Hold on to that sail! (Image: Steve Evans, Bangalore, India)

So, companies drop some weight and find they’re not seeing the gains their consultants promised them.  They figure something must be wrong with their employees. The wrinkle is that large companies are so out of touch with their employees, so disconnected from what it takes to excite and drive them, that they have to hire more consultants to tell them they have a problem with… drumroll please… EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

The consultants administer surveys, they pinpoint managers with ‘engagement gaps,’ and the managers in turn do what anyone would do in their situation: coach their employees to answer the questions in such a way that the managers don’t get hammered on the next ‘engagement pulse survey.’ Duh.

Managers, listen up. If you want to enhance engagement, it’s pretty simple: Give employees a chance to work on something meaningful, for meaningful people, and for a meaningful, transparent purpose, and they will be engaged. Oh, and one other thing, you might want to stop firing them so much.

In the next post, I’ll look at what we can do to STAY engaged (and not merely by the companies we work for).

Thanks for reading, and I would love to get your reactions to this…

-Mike Raven