Saturday, March 15, 2008

What is your Story?

One of my first assignments/meeting I took part in this company is to create a "service definition" for our "e-Learning Practice". The practice was 6 months new to the company and we were actively in business - Thanks to the "inorganic growth" and the customers who remained with us with the management change. The "service definition" is part of our quality process and systems. The compliance and audit trail will map and match this definition with practice work to ensure we stay on course. Hence falling under the purview of quality assurance team, we were meeting the quality head of the company for mentorship on the thoughts and the steps to create our "service definition".
When the meeting started, we were expecting templates, devilish level of details and forms to be filled in, the non compliance areas and penalties, the drills and procedures, what micro level do we document, track and trace, etc. However, the opening statement is a 2 minute pitch and it was on these lines. (Not reproduced verbatim)
"You are hiring a consultant in a distant location and will be airborne to a client site immediately on offer. What will you tell him and how will you ensure that he does a good job and satisfies the client. The consultant is experienced in the domain but not on the "way" that you expect to "Wow the customer". So how will you communicate the way to the consultant."

Sounds simple? Look at the details - It requires
1. Every single step mapped out,
2. Every single document listed,
3. For every document - a template created,
4. For every template - a design and thought applied,
5. For every design and thought, a checklist prepared,
6. For every checklist, an audit planned, and from here on
7. "A great improvement-fixes-validate" cycle steps declared, defined and detailed.

Did we care for these details when the quality head told this story? Not me atleast, but it was impressive enough to dive into details and start work. But only when we got the job, the "full story" came through as sunrise on a sunny day.

Did the story motivate me - Well "yes" - wouldn't it for you if you are starting a practice or a company on one service ? So can we identify the merits required in storytelling from above case: 1. Make a compelling context bordering on "Worst Case" hypothesis: In this case, sending a fresh hire, however senior to a project and that too on a client partnering role is bound to be scary for every manager, handling projects and clients. However there is always a realization that this could always be a reality in many situations. Hence any document or details required for such a target audience is always going to address all important points in the priority list order.
2. Do not explain the details: The story makes an impact only when felt and not told. For every question or solution, anchor your response to the questions posed by central theme of story. Repeat the story and ask if the Q/A context fits the central question of the story.
3. Practice the delivery: Amitabh and Rajnikanth are iconic superstars for their styles of dialog delivery. Hence the story you say, must be ,with your own conviction and importantly true to your style.

Have you told your story for getting work done?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Estimation - Unitization by solution or by components - Study of 2 Practices

Having been with e-Learning domain for around 9 years now, hence with little bit of confidence I can say that estimation techniques have been learnt the hard way and is still being perfected with various models. The maturity levels of gathering emperical data and improving upon the past estimation vs execution effort variances are rarely heard by me in my e-Learning friends circle.

Starting with per hour of learning model to Instruction design based effort multipliers to notional complexity level multipliers and currently looking at effort based estimation, I can say that e-Learning companies are still trying to get the "margin success" a recurring phenomenon.

In the company I work for is no different. Being an IT company delivering e-Learning content design services, it is expected that we too provide hueristic effort estimates like LOC, FP, resource loading chart (in case of a top-down approach) etc as with other technology projects. Any amount of convincing that we are different does not help either of us, since the sales team tuned to sell IT finds it complex to sell e-Learning. However few people who have had success with e-Learning find it an indispensable selling proposition for them to make some quick targets.

So initially we sailed in the same boat with classifying levels of interactive complexity and deriving best estimates by considering the good circumstances. Quick comparison with actual efforts we executed earlier confirmed our estimates are in right track.

Recently, we need to bid for an entire account where there was competition. The focus was submission of costs for various solution features. This broke our foundation with which we we defined levels - "based on interaction complexity efforts". This levels model required a great deal of documentation to make an inclusive list. The manager in me considers it to be a not good usage of effort.

While we mind mapped in our brain storming session, we found that there are various solution features, like PPT conversion, simple page turners, games, 2D Vector illustrations, 2D, 3D animations, 25 different interactivities and each of them can be combined to offer a solution in predictable ways.

The results were astonishing. Across the solutions there was a great overlap of efforts and it is indeed possible to group various solution in multiple price levels.

So instead of saying
  1. "For a given price I will give you Flip book, Drag and Drop, Match the Following and MCSS interactivities", or
  2. "My Instruction Designer would provide you with mandatory course features which is a passive animation and no support/interactive levels", I can now say

"For the given business requirement, I can think of the possible 2 solutions that address the need in the same price band. It is now dependent on the target users preference to choose one solution over another. So we would like to give you our User Research based Design Services."

Would you give your project to me, if I would tell you the above story ?
Well, the result of our submission to our client is still waiting for their consideration.

Friday, March 7, 2008

More on One to One Meetings

After practicing it as initiator for quite some time now, I feel the success of one-one lies in the inherent values present in the process itself.
1. Suits both Introvert and Extrovert behaviours: For people who are introvert or extrovert, one to one is an ideal setting. Extroverts can let go their feelings more forcefully while introverts will try to submissively but subtly put their points across.
2. Air of Confidence : News in the room is known to ONLY two people. So each of the parties know well who the source of any unwanted, unnecessary leakage is. Since it is a boss-subordinate relationship, it is always the respect for each that would make the sharing of news easier. This is important to be in "Sync with the ground realities" and getting the "pulse" of people before commitments made to the management.
3. Short and Sweet: This is something I used to like. It helped me improve my communication better. Whenever I need to ask a question to my remote boss or convince him of something closely affecting me, I felt the need for preparation to cover as much ground in the discussion within the available time. It helped me hypothesize situations and prepare statements that would lead to the points, I like to hear or get addressed.

Have you a good case to share for one to one meetings ?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Participative Management

One of the most important aspects of a manager is to share a common bond with the team. At middle management level the best bond element that works for me is - Crib about the system. This does not necessarily mean bad mouthing the company, but cribbing about cracks, red tapes in the system sends a vibe across the team that every one is battling the same "dinosaur" ("monkey" apparently drives an unintended pun these days to cricketing people) - the limitations that restrict the good work done by us as a team and the creative ways we need to adapt to be the best in circumstances.

One thing that I always see it working is to make people see genuineness in the manager. I look for empathy from my bosses about the system(see it is a common bond at higher levels also) and trust that people looking to me as a manager expect the same. Few good to heart initiatives I suggest because they have worked for me are:

1. One to One: I learnt it in my first company from my bosses who were disciplined and diligent in giving due importance to this meeting.

They use to manage it with recurring advanced meeting requests , apology emails (once in a while with proper rescheduling if required), asking what we can expect from next one-one meetings.

Few things that was never attempted and should never be done are:
1. Do not attempt at improving the quality of interaction in first few meetings. The bonds needs to be established first. The agenda and discussions will go awry. It is better to let it pass till the discussion carries itself forward. There can NEVER be a case where One to One will ever become bitter.

2. Never postpone a meeting as an initiator. If there is no topic or no need for a discussion, all it takes is a 5 minutes talk to listen to agenda and set next course of action.

2. Throw a Party: Something I really love to arrange or get done, is to throw a party suiting the audience style. Include everyone involved to make your life easier. Socialization is the best way for slipping the team to a "comfort zone". It has been the biggest teacher for me to know the "dialect" of the group. The way the team behaves, understands, and reacts are important aspects for a manager to not miss as much as deadlines, efforts. However efforts, deadlines, logs, issues, risks are manager's "dialects". Expectation of conformance to a foreign dialect with a team is downright insensitivity.

3. Follow up on smaller group parties: A genuineness can only be established by repetitive action. Once in a blue moon or sudden surprises get branded as "mood swings" of manager. Hence whenever possible, take smaller groups which are naturally formed wings of the team out for a party. It is important to be in team's familiar surrounding and see their potential.

4. Ensure that project party "overdue" is organized by you: Organizations need to be most happening place to spend most of the waking time. Hence "fun" theme events of HR are not inclusive models of team building exercise. It is important that teams "feel" the bond, live the life in office rather than earn the living. Hence if the team you inherit has a long overdue project celebration, that is the best moment to show the capability to make people look to you at having excelled in doing something that was given not to happen in their life with the company.

How did you participate with your team today ?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Evolution Story - Power of Need

The team that I inherited have many things in common - long time bonds of 3+ years with same company and almost all Maharashtrians. This would be the most ideal suited team for any manager - consistent performance, all good proven horses for longer races, great comfort factor and synergies within members, solid back up without expressing authority - What more could I ask for?

Isn't it the dream team that a manager would like who can spend time focussing on tasks at hand rather than work on individuals to ensure bonding and manage expectations and attrition which take time away from productive work ?

When such teams exist and you are new and want few tuning to be done for newer business needs, one long lesson I learnt after 1 year is to make the change a compulsion not through brute force or management decision but bring in the Need.

Case in Point: Because of the close knit nature, business was done as usual in tea breaks and regional language "talks" in canteen and numerous informal means. What this means to a manager is to be careful in bringing in fresh talent in the team and yet maintain the team spirit. Further with business expansion on the cards, there is always the lurking danger that the team will travel to various locations and still the "camaraderie" needs to be present from distance.

These required tapping the formal communication channels and utilizing them effectively. Making sure that formal communication means are practiced in a safe closed environment and improved, while informal channels will still act as life support system till the protocols and understanding is in place.

However, this realization seemed more compulsive only to me to ensure change happens and it happens fast. But moving from "comfort" zone of a well entrenched team (not just one but many) is a typical "new manager syndrome. It is tedious, pisses off most people and some consider it to be a case of "false alarm" or pressing the "panic button" too early.

The change happened recently when we were in fire fighting mode and the blame game started in a project. THe same project has panned many blog titles in last month :). The team members in the hidden firing line ( behind me), as if by magic were writing and sustaining themselves against the onslaught through carefully drafted emails, status updates, clearing the intent and scope of deliveries, making sure that "HELP" is duly recognized explicitly, telephonic talks, reference to discussions and surprisingly not wanting my interference.

The stress and strain of the entire episode led me to know the power of need and now our team have a couple of members who can be marketed on their own. I still have to work on the remaining team.

Can you help me with "NEEDS" you "CREATED" for change management?

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