Managing Uncertainty

The vast majority of company training I’ve taken over my 36 year career has been a pretty big waste of time.  However, every once in a while you run across a teacher you connect with and the take-aways really stick.

One such class was a an all day management class required by Tektronix by Dr. Ralph Katz.  It’s been so many years ago, I don’t recall what the name of the class, but he basically took us through the main points of his book The Human Side of Managing Technical Innovation.

Dr. Katz’s main points were all centered around managing uncertainty where;

uncertainty == bad

This point resonated with me personally, especially as it related to my years in the High Tech Industry prior to management.  High Tech is cyclical.  Today’s Google is tomorrow’s AOL.  You are never ‘set’ because change is happening so fast.  Combine this general trend with being in aerospace and printers while trying to provide stability for a family of 5, and  what you get is a fairly stressful situation because you’re always looking over your shoulder for the next round of cuts – wondering if you should’ve signed up for that 30 year mortgage or not.   Sleepless nights and overtime are a way of life.

I was a new manager at the time I took this class.  I was eager to try to be a good one in the sense of understanding the human side of the job and getting the most out of people because they were motivated as a team, not because of fear tactics.

When people are worried about their jobs on a daily basis and uncertainty is a way of life, some powers that be seem to think this is a good thing as far as squeezing more productivity out of people.  So what if they are scared, we got more done and met our goals.  What I’ve experienced is the opposite.

For 12 years at Xerox from 2000-20012, we were under constant pressure of cuts.  This is not the fault of management.  It had more to do with industry trends and decline of the printed page, but it was the hand we were dealt.  Senior management did make some horrendous mistakes along the way, but in general, it was just being in the wrong industry at the wrong time.

Be that as it may, Xerox is a big company.  They are spread over multiple continents and management chose a ‘distributed’ model for software development, which brings its own set of challenges.  In my role I had to collaborate with teams in Rochester, NY as well as Welwyn Garden City, UK, as well as 2 sites in India.  Apart of the time-zone challenges, the biggest challenges was, as Dr. Katz so adeptly pointed out in his book, managing uncertainty across these sites.

What management failed to recognize was that ‘team’ collaboration across sites in different organization was a recipe for territorial battles.  And we had them in spades.  Because of the back-drop of uncertainty in the workplace, peoples’ actions aligned first with protecting their site, and second towards team.  Oftentimes this was hidden in very subtle ways, but nevertheless, it explained a lot of behaviors I saw.

Here’s where Dr. Katz’s message could have been employed for much better results, but it was not.  Management failed to recognize the very existence of the territorial battles because they were worried about them themselves.  I often wondered what different results would have been possible had a Sr. Manager sent one email , genuine in nature, that set peoples’ minds at ease on the uncertainty question, and motivated everyone to work as a true team without the worry of territorial loss.

I do not think this was asking management to promise people that their jobs were certain.  Everyone knew they were not.  But a simple e-mail to let everyone know that hey, we need you to get these 3 things done as soon as possible, and nobody is going anywhere for the next 6 months for sure.  Let’s work hard together and get it done.  It’s not a message of relaxation, or promising things not possible.

Instead the rumor mill was always in full force, often at times when there was nothing to worry about.  This is not when people able to be their most productive selves.

I remember one time in particular when a rumor mill was hot for 3 months about an upcoming layoff.  The rumor was true, but at the end of the day they only laid off 10 people from our site of 1500 people.  That’s less than 1%.  There didn’t need to be that much fear and loathing over a < 1% cut.  I’m actually of the belief that most companies should go through and trim out the bottom 5% of performers as a matter of course, just to get rid of the dead weight.  Addition by subtraction and it’s good for business and morale.  But because they chose to be poor communicators and run a major clandestine operation of much-ado-about-nothing, a bunch of people ran scared who didn’t need to.

Another of Dr. Katz’s messages had to do with ‘what goes around comes around’.  For the better part of the last 2 decades, a poor economy has given corporations the upper hand when it comes to employee retention.  It’s not like we had a ton of options to move around for higher salaries, so attrition has remained relatively low.  That’s how it is right now, but it’s not always that way.

I remember in the 1990’s having an extremely difficult time getting the right people hired. They simply had too many offers on the table.  In my 36 years at this, I’ve only was one time in the late 1990’s where the management team had to huddle up with HR and have a serious discussion about retention.  People were leaving for startups and the impact was large.  Schedules were being missed. But it can happen and the tides may be shifting.  I’m starting to see more movement now than in previous years and funny enough, it’s not always about money.  A big factor is work environment and indirectly, level of certainty.

I exited management about 3 1/2 years ago and I do not miss it.  My favorite aspect of it for the 15 years I was in it was college recruiting, and there’s so little hiring that even that is not much of an attraction to get back in.  But I can’t help but remember Dr. Katz’s message as I see managers attempt to rule by intimidation and employ fear tactics.

At the end of the day, high tech workers don’t like to be treated like employees of U.S. Steele.  Often times when we do, what management gets is clock-punchers who aren’t motivated to care about their project beyond work hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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