Monday, July 19, 2010

Sharpen you axe

There are many apocryphal stories about Abraham Lincoln. In one, Abe was challenged to a tree cutting contest by an upstart neighbor. Abe took the challenge. The two met the next day at sunrise in a wooded area and started the contest. The challenger started at a furious pace, taking no breaks, and kept on cutting until the contest was stopped when the sun hit high noon. As expected, Abe won.

Afterward, the competitor went up to Abe and asked, “How was it that you were able to cut more trees? I never took a rest and never stopped swinging my axe, even when my arms were ready to give out. Yet, when I looked over at you, you would stop to take rest?”

Abe responded, “Every time you saw me stop to rest, I was sharpening my axe.”
Abe knew that an axe gets dull with repeated use. The more you use it, the less it cuts. With a sharper axe, Abe was able to cut more trees.

The sharper your tools are, the more you can do. Your tools are your skills. Sharpen your skills on a regular basis. Any skill worth learning is worth practicing and getting better at. Learn new skills. Whether it is people skills or technical skills, the good leader never stops learning and improving their toolbox of good leadership, management and technical skills.

What skills do you need to improve? What new skills should you learn?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The three types of teamwork problems

There are three types of teamwork problems: the ones you can fix with some work, the ones you can fix with a lot of work and those that can’t be fixed. It really comes down to whether the people on the team want to solve the problem or not, and that determines whether or not the teamwork problem can be fixed.

The first is generally some type of organizational or structural problem: goals are not clear, responsibilities are not clear, people with the wrong talents are on the team, the challenge is too big for the team, there is little or no communication, etc. These are things that can be fixed with some work from the team and management. It may take some time and supervision to get it going.

The second is generally some type of personnel issue: people don’t like each other, there’s mistrust, someone is slacking off, etc. This is harder because people issues are harder to identify and fix. Very few people relish working on personnel issues. However if the team and management really want to get the team moving, these types of problems can be overcome. Training on handling conflict, better communication skills, negotiation skills, and other people-time intensive efforts can handle most of these types of issues.

The third type of problem is also a personnel problem, but one is which the people on the team (or at least one or more of them) do not want to solve the problem. In fact, they may not even see that it is a problem. This is the person who refuses to change. They may have a problem with someone else on the team or the organization and will do whatever it takes to fight them at every opportunity, or some variation of this. This person does not want to solve problems. They want to grind their axe.

Okay, maybe this one can be solved, but it will really take a lot of effort – a long-term effort – to make it work. What you have to ask is whether this effort is really worth it. How long will it delay the team? How much time will you lose in getting your project or work done? What is the impact on the organization?

Solutions here are limited: fire or transfer the problem to another position. Firing is never easy. This is especially difficult in public employment where termination is often a long, difficult process. Transferring the person can also be a problem because other managers likely know that you are trying to move a problem person to their team.

The leader has to make that choice and make it quickly. It is hard to terminate a team member, but sometimes it really has to be done. But, the leader has to move quickly before the team suffers any more problems.