Archive for September, 2011

Mixing Up Initiative

I am lucky to have three amazing kids. My middle son tends to be labeled as the most challenging. I like to think of him as creative and self-motivating. He shocked us all on Saturday when he poured himself a glass of kool-aid and then decided to make a fresh pitcher himself.

He pulled out the packet from the pantry. Grabbed a pitcher and added water. He knew that he had to grab a spoon to stir up the drink prior to calling it done. When it was all mixed up, he poured himself another glass, got one for his younger sister (who was mesmerized by this act of maturity) and cleaned up the remnants of his activity. His older brother quickly came in to tell him that he was using the wrong spoon to stir, and that it would not get mixed properly as that is not the spoon that Dad always uses.

I was proud. He took initiative to replace something that he had depleted and knew that others would want. He prepped for his activity (which means he thought about it), he executed, and he cleaned up afterwards.

What can we learn about growing our teams from this example?

  1. Encourage initiative – As a parent, I was thrilled with this outlet of initiative. I praised afterwards to let him know how proud I was and how much it contributed to the household (his effort allows me to focus my time elsewhere – like reading a book with him). When was the last time that you recognized a team member taking on an extra chore? Did you take time to thank them? Did you help them see the big picture impact of their contribution.
  2. Sets a good example – My kids are by no means perfect (close….) and they learn a lot of behaviors from each other. This is one of those times that I am happy that my other two children were watching the positive example being set by my middle son. At work, when one team member steps up and takes initiative, it can help others see the behavior they should strive for. Hopefully they benefit from the team member’s contribution, and want to pay it forward. And if they don’t gain from that perspective, they should see that the bar is being raised and they had better step up.
  3. Deciding when to coach – I was not thrilled to hear my oldest son trying to correct my son’s choice of spoons for stirring. We need to realize as managers that doing things the same way leads to the same results. Boring! When there is low risk involved (seriously, the kool-aid was going to be stirred, it was like a mini-tornado in that pitcher), why not let your team members pick their own path towards accomplishment? If it works out – Great! If it doesn’t, it’s not time to fuss or say “I told you so” but ask them how they would approach it different next time. And give them a next time soon so they have a chance to apply their experience while it is still fresh. And in our house, there is always a need to make more kool-aid.
Initiative can be risky. A person can decide to take on a task that’s a little outside of their ability. In this case, I was aware enough of what was going on, and I knew he could handle the task. Plus, what was the risk – a spilled pitcher of kool-aid? Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. As a manager, we should try to be alert to the tasks our team members are taking on. Give them a chance to stretch a bit but be ready to pull them aside and ask about their plan if you think the task is a little more than they can handle. Do not jump them and say “What are you doing?” (as I would if he had decided to cut the package of kool-aid with a knife or something) – just talk to them about their goal, their plan, and the risks. Ask a few probing questions that helps flush out the risks that are involved with their plan and then see if there is a way that you can help them strengthen their plan or get them the help they might need (another team member? better spoon?) to finish the task.
As a manager, it is also important to realize that the best way to get people to take initiative is to make sure they have seen the task be performed. If you are shielding your team from seeing how you handle various activities because they are already so busy (or any other excuse), you are taking away their chance to step up. Be mindful of their growth, and pull them into tasks that will help them seize a future opportunity!
It can be rare to see people step out of their comfort-zone and take initiative – at work or at home. It is scary to take something on the first time. It is important that anyone in a coaching/managing role, keep their eyes open for examples of team members taking on new tasks (without being asked) and use it as a chance to help them grow.
What ways do you encourage initiative – at home or at work? How do you handle situations when it has worked out well? How do you handle situations where it does not come out the way you would have hoped? How do you make sure that the initiative is not overdone by taking on more than a person can handle?
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September 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

Break It Down

My son is 9 years old and in the 4th grade.  I am afraid that I may have failed him as a parent already.  I know, it’s a little early, but it is a competitive world.  He does not know how to take a school project and break it down into manageable tasks. 

Now I don’t know that he’s going to end up living on my couch forever – there is likely still time to teach him this skill.  But how many people do you see in your professional world who struggle with this same thing?  I believe this one skill can make all the difference in the world between having an average career and an exceptional one.

So how do we teach this to our kids – or our team members?  Here is what I have tried to do – and I would love your suggestions!

1. Paint the big picture – help your team member understand how their project (series of tasks) will benefit the organization/company and fit in with other efforts going on (if applicable).

In the case of my son’s latest project, he had to do a display board with various types of leaves with the parts of each leaf labeled.  The big picture impact of this was their studies in school.

2. Mind Mapping – ask your team member to come up with a list of impacted areas.  Whether this is system functions, business processes, or something else – they don’t need to think about HOW it is impacted – just the WHAT is impacted.  I like to draw boxes on paper with the name of each WHAT in a box.

For my son’s project, he had to have a display board and leaves – two boxes.

3. Association – Ask them to represent how each WHAT is related to another by drawing lines between the boxes. 

Not as relevant for the leaf project because they are obviously related.

4. Chicken & the Egg – Ask them which boxes (WHAT) need to be addressed at a higher priority than others.

The leaves had to come first before the display board.

5. Task List (Scope) – Ask the team member to make a list of what needs to be addressed for each WHAT.  Now you dig into the HOW.  They should evaluate whether the impacts cause them to re-think their assignment of priority for the WHAT.

Leaves had to be gathered, laminated (his idea), and labeled.
Display board had to have a title and a nicely formatted sub-title for each leaf.

6.  Got the Skills – It is a good idea to validate that the team member has the skills needed to perform each step.  They might need to ask others on the team to help.  If this is a larger project that spans multiple areas, this whole breakdown activity should be undertaken with a group of people. 

In my son’s case, he had never used the laminating machine so he had to enlist a little help from his crafty mom!

It seems fairly simple when you consider leaves on display but I have seen this work for larger IT projects.  Or even projects at home…. Yes, I am that difficult to live with! 

In the end, being able to break down a larger effort into a plan of attack is a critical skill for anyone.  It helps paint a clear path of effort for the team member(s). They will have a greater sense of accomplishment for having developed a plan and completing the task versus having each task spoon-fed to them one at a time. 

You could get fancier (the Project Manager in me coming out now) by adding critical milestones, pre-defined percent complete to track progress, or target completion dates for the activities.  This might be overkill for the 4th grade project (maybe….) but likely a good step towards maturity for a work-related effort. 

I would love new ideas as this may have worked with my first son but guessing my second son will throw me a curveball when his first project is due. 

What methods do you use to breakdown projects into a list of actionable tasks?  What have you done to teach others this skill?

September 15, 2011 at 7:50 pm 2 comments


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