In software development we have a term for design or architectural decisions that will ‘save time now,’ but will not be great building blocks in the future called ‘tech debt.’ A similar phenomenon may happen in project management that I’m calling morale debt: a decision is made that will not build up, empower, or strengthen the team, but will produce a sense of expediency.
It is known that tech debt will need to be repaid, often with interest, but leading people into morale debt comes with a steep cost that can be much greater to recover from. Once a leader forces an issue, violates trust, and removes ownership from individual contributors earning trust again can take months to years.
Morale debt may cause an entire organization to operate with great dysfunction [see also: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team] because at the core of morale debt comes a destruction of trust. You don’t borrow from a pool of funds, you reset to a negative balance instantly, and the payback must be done in installments, it can’t be repaid in 20 minutes. All apologies only start on the path to reestablishing trust. Steps will have to be taken to regrow trust and a new history of trust will have to be created.
One violation, but hundreds of steps to correction. On top of that morale debt may cause teams to dysfunction as sides become politicized and so causing trust to be lost and morale to be destroyed could be needing repayment for months at different layers.
Morale debt is not insurmountable, but if you ignore it, you will be crawling on your knees for miles in the hope that penance has been paid. Don’t do it. Move slower; move deliberately; check your emotional intelligence, and seek counsel from those you trust.
Debt sucks, morale debt may be a death knell for your organization.
As I’ve written songs over the years I’ve had a hard time recording them. Firstly, because I’m not a great singer, I have a hard time sharing the ideas, and secondly, these songs are my babies and I don’t want people calling them ugly. That being said unshared songs are less useful. Here’s one I did a quick and dirty recording of just this last week.
In North End Boston there are quite a few pastry shops run by umpteenth generation Italian immigrant families. They’re all serving about the same thing, but one of them served a better “lobster tail” than the others. It was better because of the stupid food science that we’ve all been hearing about for the last 20 years due to food tv, blogging, and snobbish friends who only eat organic vegan gluten.
Jessica and I, because of our love of science, went to the top three recommended pastry shops to eat the pastries and do the food trigonometry so you don’t have to.
Don’t go to Mike’s. Don’t go to Bova’s. Go to Modern pastry. Here’s why: freshly baked or fried breads cannot hold up to refrigeration. The refrigeration traps humidity and breaks down the crispy, structured lobster tails and you get a soggy lobster tail. Or a soggy cannoli. Modern pastry fills your unrefrigerated pastry to order. Crispy mouth delight.
On the way to another destination we passed one of these shops and the case was so thick with condensation that you couldn’t see the pastries in the case.
This year I’m turning 40. For some reason my mental and emotional energy has turned to legacy like it was the only thing that mattered. My daughters are both teenagers and my sense of concern for setting them up for success is at a level that I cannot describe other than desperately being concerned that they are prepared to leave the world behind with descendents (if they have children) that are prepared for life, too.
As a Christian man I want my daughters [and beyond] to know what they believe, why they believe it and what they can do to help carry this on to the next generation.
As a thinker I want my family (not just my daughters) to be able to reason through life and its events and interpret the world around them.
As an artist (musical or otherwise) I want to leave behind the proof of my existence and art. What are the words? Do they mean something? What are the melodies, harmonies and chords and rhythms? Do they bear the fingerprint of my soul?
I’m hoping to maybe dig a bit deeper into these things with future posts. I’ve been a bit lax on blogging, but I have a deep sense of need to commune and to leave a legacy, so here’s to some bits of me being shared here in 2017.
Starting a new tradition is good. It’s part of habit forming. So on Sundays, let’s do a plug of someone else that you should be taking insights, ideas, and personal or managerial growth from. Today I want to celebrate Michael Hyatt and his This is Your Life Podcast. It’s a great podcast with very practical discussions about personal growth, leadership growth, and general wisdom. Some favorite earlier episodes (I am a bit behind) include:
I’m not going to suggest you skip around, most episodes are incredibly useful (unless you don’t blog or publish or want personal growth). The episodes after the earliest involve Michelle Cushatt as the co-host. Definitely worth a regular listen.
If you listen to his podcast, what are your favorite episodes?
Have you ever seen old footage of the Vaudeville acts where they would spin plates? It was masterful work that would amaze audiences. How did they keep the plates spinning? This is a modern problem in the work force. How do you stay busy, get busier, and do more than someone else so you’ll earn the raise, earn the bonus, or keep the job you’ve got? There are some rules to performance that until recently I had much less awareness of. I had always heard about work-life balance, and even things like avoid scheduling meetings. But what if those are wrong assertions?
In the book The Power of Full Engagement (Amazon Link | Audible Link) the authors argue for the cultivation of energy so that you can be present and engaged when you need to be somewhere doing something; when you need to spin plates. The idea is to be deliberate about your sleep, your food, your exercise, and your emotional well being so that the outcome of your life can be performance, not just barely getting by.
So should you keep the plates spinning? Maybe. But you need to pick the right plates that will return the most value. Take the other plates out of your life. They may be good, but they may not be the best use of your time. Criteria should be that things that drain energy have an opposing energy creation activity that you counter-balance with. If you have intense negotiations, for example, then you probably need to have some sort of exercise or positive activity to pair with it in the next 24 hours, preferably before you go to bed the same day. If I have presentations and planning all day I need to come home and do something that will restore my energy such as woodworking, playing the guitar, or cooking. I happen to brew beer, but alcohol cannot be my coping mechanism (or any other substance). Energy needs to be built up, not slowly depleted.
When was the last time you were encouraged? What sort of day did that help you have? I encouraged one of my team yesterday because I could see a few events in recent history had put her on guard. We talked about framing. We talked about how she could take action without overstepping her bounds, but still move with confidence.
She shared some concerns she had and we talked them through. I think we left the room heading in the right direction emotionally, and with a clear sense of purpose. Not only that, but with her having some autonomy and letting her shown what she had mastered so far. It was great because I got to do a positive thing.
How intentional are you about encouraging your team, to be a beacon of hope?
If there’s one thing that we all need it’s the truth. What we don’t need is a bunch of glad handing wrapped around the problems we’re facing. There may be a few members on some teams that are genuinely unable to deal with the reality that they need to grow, but maybe those are people who shouldn’t be on their teams, but instead go back to Oz, where nobody ever dies and nobody is ever harmed (except the witch).
When you have to deliver bad news check your culture and make sure that the pooh sandwich isn’t part of it. The pooh sandwich is traditionally called a $#!t sandwich, but we don’t use that sort of language here. You make the buns out of complements, but deliver the fecal matter in the middle. The supposed psychological benefit is that you start and stop on high notes. But it is better to be transparent and real. If you’re frank with me I’ll be frank with you.
Before delivering the tough talk you’ll want to think about what you’re going to say to be clear. How can you let them know what the expectations are so that they will not misread things. I tend to want to pad everything so nobody gets hurt or has any sense of offense, but this is not that time. You need to be clear more than you need to be a cloud of corrective light. It doesn’t mean you should be kind, it means you shouldn’t have on kid gloves and mask the issue for fear of causing someone to have to grow.
You may need to come up with a plan for how you expect them to address thir issue. You may need to plan a meeting in a week to review how things are being addressed. You may need to have your own personal plan outlined.
Once you clearly speak the concern or issue you need to ask your team member if they understand. You need to get that they get you. Then you need to ask them if they have questions about what you said, what you’re expecting, etc. Then ask them if they would like some examples of how to plan and execute the change. Many people won’t want it, but be prepared.
I don’t like bad news! But I like the trust that comes with honesty. If you need me to up my game then tell me so. Honesty builds trust, evendors if it makes us sore a bit. Keep the pooh sandwich off your managerial menu.
I’m known in my family for historically being argumentative, but somewhere in adulthood I got some maturity going and stopped wanting to be right about everything. Until we had our first daughter that is. As soon as she could reason I started picking all the battles; and it was ugly. Every moment was a teachable moment (to me). Those battles that I won were not great victories. Those battles that led to her crying and me feeling like a bully were useless. I was like a rookie playing a strategy game that they hadn’t figured out a strategy for.
As a maturing person you often need to think about the long game. That’s what broke me of my battle-minded practices. That and my wife telling me, “You have to pick your battles.” The long game recognizes you have to catch your team doing good things, rewarding them, praising them, and then your voice will be heard when something matters. The battles are potentially everywhere, the important ones are not.
When you’re in charge of progress you need to
know what it looks like
share what it looks like
Connect your team members to their specific contribution opportunities to progress
Celebrate the successes
This means that you will also need to observe roadblocks, and those can come in the form of battles. Not all of the battles are yours.
Consider what you can do to empower your team to remove their own roadblocks. What can they bring as solutions? If they come to you as a leader for guidance the first thing you want to do is help them unblock themselves. Help them ask What’s Important Now (WIN)?
The battles will still be there, but you’ll have fewer of them and they’ll be the important ones.