Morale Debt

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.

Plate Spinning

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.

What do you do to manage your energy?

– the MGMT


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?

– the MGMT

The Pooh Sandwich

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.

How have you received bad news?

– the MGMT

Picking All the Battles

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.

What is your battle reduction strategy?

– the MGMT


When I was a young boy my dad built a house. After the foundation was laid the framing began. Framing establishes the walls and the general structure of the house. As it turns out there’s a principle for perspective management called framing as well. With framing we evaluate how we’re looking at something.

For example, the oft told joke about the optimist and pessimist twin boys whose parents decide to test them on their birthday. They both are framing their life with their bents, but that year the pessimist’s present was a new bicycle and the optimist’s present was a pile of manure. The pessimist said, “I’m going to get a flat!” The optimist ran outside and exclaimed, “Where’s the pony? With this much manure there’s gotta be a pony around here!”

As we look at management opportunities ahead of us we see that our teams challenge us. They stretch us. They cause us to have to dig deep. And that, my friends, is the fertilizer for the soil of life.

What’s the framing to help you see the manure as fertilizer for growth?

– the MGMT

Explain It Like I’m 5

One of the worst things in today’s acronym laden world is terse explanations where jokes about TPS reports are at home. Nobody needs that. No one on your team needs to have their day spent deciphering gibberish. Acronyms serve a purpose, but any time you get a chance to explain a new concept avoid draping your explanation with a veil of confusion.

I had a manager once who quickly figured out (on his first day) that I was not familiar with his acronym cannon and switched to proper vocabulary and never switched back. It was glorious. I understood many of the acronyms in the industry, but he was new and came from a different background. His observation and flexibility made my understanding a lot easier and faster.

So explain things like your direct reports are five, even if they’re not, because that way it’s abundantly clear. And clear may deliver a better product.

Who Cares?

When I think about what the most important ingredients for a team dynamic are I think of caring.

Does your team sense that you’re aloof? Do you focus on the next career move? Do you ignore their problems? Do they find you difficult to engage? Do you care? Do they know you care? That’s a lot of questions, but caring is an important thing to reflect on because if you don’t care about your team, as a group and as individuals, they’ll pick up on it and you’ll be losing their focused energy if they have it to give. Caring for your team is critical.

I was asked in an interview once, “What is your greatest weakness?” And my answer was, “I care about my team too much.” I really invest myself in them and I want to know them and I want them to know they’re cared for deeply and personally. Sometimes this can color my perspective. However, if I’m not deeply invested in those I’m working with then they’re not likely to put in the effort required to exceed expectations and deliver on what we own as a team.

What are your most important team dynamic ingredients?

– the MGMT

The Wheel of Life: Mentoring Others

There’s nothing like hope to take the edge off of risk. There’s a naivete, hope, optimism, and then the negative rest of the list going on down towards, “I am a member of a late 80’s boyband.” Thats bad. Hope is awesome, though, because it cross beyond just being optimistic towards having a goal to execute towards. Change means risk to what is comfortable, to what has been safe, but also to what has been the default. The default, as we’ve said before, is high risk for long term atrophy.

As a manager of people you have to help them connect the dots between where they are and where they’re going to be. You need to help them see how they’re going to get there and what value that presents. I am of the opinion that the super-manager has a hard time when they’re promoted because he has a team of best choices to choose from for his own replacement. That’s because he or she has buried growth and quality so far into the psyche of their team that they all – no matter their core competencies and personality types – are prepared to take on the challenges of leading a team.  The reality is that some people don’t want to be managers, and not all people grow at th same pace. But we’re not here for that discussion, we’re here to discuss how to mentor your direct reports.

Your direct reports are going to need to be presented with the Law of the Lid from the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and understand that they’re part of their problem in growth, but also the part of the solution. You want to have already covered their personality profile so they get their strengths and weaknesses from that end. You want them to understand their core competency. And then you want to help them uncover a growth plan that helps them grow as a whole person so that they have specific results they’re after. Growth with purpose. Growth they can celebrate.

This is personal growth, right? So you’re going to give them the list, but you’re also going to give them a framework for the rest of their lives. This is the foundation for Key Result Areas (KRA) that will come later for work related metrics.

The value for the manager in mentoring through these things is to help establish a personal investment and bond. A path of hope, and establishing a baseline for future development. KRA’s will be a logical next step for growing people vs. The standard to work down to for those who don’t care and just see a meaningless metric.

Some tips to consider: make this a personal exercise for your direct report. Don’t force them to share their list, but let them know you’re going to ask how things are progressing and that they’re welcome to share as much or as little as they like.

Ask your direct report if there are any specifics that you can help with personally. Tell them – and mean it – that you want them to grow and you want to celebrate with them as they do that.

What do you wish your managers of the past had mentored you on?

– the MGMT




Accounting for Accountability

The word accountability has had disciplinary connotations for many people.  I have a variety of good stories about getting caught doing things I should not have done from growing up. I thought I was clever [but was not] and my parents were very consistent with their follow through. However, accountability is a potentially positive thing, and this writeup is an exploration of that idea.

Core Elements of Accountability
To account for the things that need to be done for success in various situations, the following elements are worth considering so that people can be held accountable for tasks:

1) An understood clear objective
2) A generally understood means of execution
3) An understood and agreed upon Deadline
4) Clearly understood benefits of success and/or consequences of failure
5) A review of completed work

The fifth element is key because when something succeeds it should be celebrated, and when it fails we need to be able to review which of the first 4 elements was missing or misunderstood. It’s the accounting of accountability.

Clarity of Objective
Knowing the objective of a task is of utmost importance. We need to be able to understand in detail what is being asked of all parties.  Often the critical piece missing from this step will create major issues for the next two elements.  The problem could be a gap in expectations because the objective was not clear.  If you point up into the Colorado Rockies and say to a friend, “Let’s go hike that mountain off in the horizon,” It will be hard for your friend to know which mountain you’re referring to.  However, if you say, “Let’s go hike Mount Evans,” your mate will have half a chance to understand clearly what is expected.  The clear objective should be understood and possible.

Clarity of Path
It’s easy to imagine the impossible, state it in clear and understandable language, and then have no way to arrive at the impossible objective.  I can say, “Let’s create a self driving hyperloop vehicle that can be turned invisible,” however, there is no clear path to achievability despite the clarity of the goal. Those leading projects should very carefully look for these sorts of tasks and avoid them with diligence.

Once a clear goal is understood those involved in the task need to have a solid outline of how the goal will be achieved.  This should be reviewed carefully, moving between the means of execution and the deadline.  If participants cannot come up with a plan for a schedule tied to an understood means of execution that seems agreeable, reasonable, and probable then the objective should be revisited or the deadline should be evaluated.  One of the worst things teams can do is understand the objective, but not have an agreed upon solution so that success seems highly likely.

Exceptions to this come with experience and the type of task.  For example we might have a team of experienced engineers doing some innovative work that is hard to plan for.  However, if it is easy to observe that there is no clear path through towards the goal this might be a red flag that should keep us from proceeding without more research.

Clarity of Timeline
After creating a situation where the goal and execution are agreed upon, the deadline should also be agreed upon.  How many times have you been approached after a deadline is given where someone wants to move it up by a week?  How many times have you agreed upon an outcome without a deadline?  Both of these situations are sub-optimal and create a harmful environment for those doing the work, those expecting the work, and accountability will be difficult to have because agreements were either broken or not made at all.  I once spoke to someone about a project they wanted rushed through for an already scheduled demo.  However, the clarity of the goal was not provided first, the only element that was agreed upon was when the demo of the product was to be ready.  That’s high risk.

Clarity of Benefit and Consequence
Take time to go over both positive and negative consequences of success and failure.  Positive consequences may be bonuses, continued employment, a big customer deal, and the negatives may be a release from a position, or a lack of a bonus.  Don’t be unclear on this, but don’t make it a threat.  The purpose of accountability is not fear, the purpose of accountability is confidence, clarity and deliverability.  Once the consequences are outlined review the goal, the means and the timeframe so that all parties are prepared for the consequences and can sign off on them ahead.  There should be no blindsiding of consequences if at all possible (sometimes 3rd parties can do this unexpectedly, but internal parties should never do this).

Clarity of Achievement
Lastly the retrospective, or post mortem, should be done to discuss what was delivered, what was learned, what could be done better next time, and a celebration of benefits or facing of consequences.

Single projects that do not have a guaranteed “next time” will still benefit from this because all parties will get a chance to learn from the experience.  It is not uncommon for R&D projects to be canceled, but leadership will still be able to learn about what happened during the steps of the process.  The post mortem also allows for failures to be called out.  Because the clarity of the first 3 parts were given participants can be held accountable.

Gracious Accountability
This review time should also be a place for contextual grace. If it is discovered that there were unclear expectations or a delegate or direct report is new to the principles above then grace may be the right response. This grace should be shown in context and all learnings discussions should be reiterated. As was said by Dr. Henry Cloud, “A fool has patterns, a Wiseman has a problem.”

Outside risks may also be a condition for leniency when an unexpected interruption of higher critical importance comes, or third parties do not deliver. These are still opportunities for growth and learning.

Concluding Thoughts
Proper accountability will actually be properly enabling.  When all of the elements above are clear then all parties can move with more confidence.  Sure, negative consequences may be possible, but positive outcomes are the goal.