Friday, October 19, 2012

Delegating Successfully

One of the greatest challenges that managers face is effectively delegating and distributing the workload. Many try to do too much themselves. Some struggle to relinquish control. Others try to delegate but provide inadequate direction and oversight. In surveying employees over the years, one of the more common complaints relates to poor delegation of responsibilities.

Delegation is critical to your firm's financial success. We don't often hear the term in our industry, but other professional services stress the value of leverage. This refers to the mix of junior, mid-level, and senior staff in your firm. Having the right mix of staff (and corresponding billing rates) for the work being performed is critical to being optimally profitable. But having the right mix is only half the battle; you also have to effectively delegate and distribute the work.

Successful delegation also frees up time that you can devote to those high payoff activities that best use your talents for the benefit of the firm. At the same time, it enables younger staff to develop their skills, often providing better value for clients. Despite the fact that our industry has long worked in teams and delegated work tasks, we still struggle to master the art of delegation. Here are some suggestions for doing it well:

Set clear, realistic goals. Make sure that the expectations of both parties are clear and essentially the same. Allow the subordinate to provide input into what's reasonable in terms of level of effort and schedule.

Communicate the assignment thoroughly and clearly. See that the subordinate understands both the specifics of the assignment and how it fits into the overall project. Ask for confirmation that your instructions are properly comprehended.

Define the "rules of engagement." In addition to providing instructions for completing the task itself, you should communicate the expectations regarding how the subordinate will work with the team. Clarify his or her responsibilities to others, including yourself. This includes communication, workflow, schedule milestones, quality requirements, reviews, and collaborative activities.

Encourage empowerment. The subordinate should recognize where he or she is empowered to make decisions and take initiative, and be encouraged to do so. Resist the temptation to make all the decisions, especially with regards to personal preferences or noncritical matters. This stifles learning and professional growth, and limits the subordinate's value to the team.

But gradually build trust. When delegating to someone you have limited experience working with, increase authority and responsibility gradually until his or her trustworthiness has been established. While empowerment is encouraged, you don't want to set this individual up for failure.

Allow the subordinate to work out some problems. When difficulties arise, encourage the subordinate to take the initiative in defining a solution. Don't be too quick to give the answer. Instead ask questions that lead to the solution. This kind of investment in the subordinate's development will pay off in greater reliability and independence down the road.

Provide ongoing feedback. Stay involved with delegated tasks, providing regular updates, offering guidance and encouragement, tracking progress, and facilitating coordination between team members. Provide real-time coaching when appropriate. Failure to provide adequate oversight while the task is being performed is perhaps the greatest source of problems in delegation.

Don't expect the results to equal what you could have done. This is a significant obstacle to effective delegation—managers who prefer to do the work because they believe they can do it better. You probably can do it better, but at too high a cost in terms of billing rate and opportunity cost. Delegation often requires "satisficing," meaning achieving the necessary result but falling short of perfection. Remember, the gap will close over time.

Provide positive reinforcement. The best way to motivate better performance is to give positive reinforcement in appropriate measure. Studies suggest that praise should exceed criticism by at least a 4:1 ratio, and criticism should always be offered in a constructive manner.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Training Brains for Change

In my last post, I shared how focusing attention can physically reshape the connections in our brains, facilitating change. The brain's tendency to hardwire circuits supporting common or repetitive tasks makes it difficult to change those actions. The challenge, of course, is multiplied when you're dealing with multiple brains within an organization.

But the good news is that research in the field of neuroscience also reveals that focusing attention and effort causes the brain to rewire itself, developing new hardwired behaviors. The work of Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock has been particularly helpful in applying this knowledge to leadership. This post borrows generously from their research. My objective is to provide you with some guidance on how to focus attention to, in essence, train brains for change:

Cultivate moments of insight. Researchers have found that "large-scale behavior change requires a large scale change in mental maps." This, in turn, requires some kind of event or experience through which people change their attitudes or expectations more quickly and dramatically than usual. It's the "aha" moment when a fresh insight comes into view. This is the starting point for a reconfiguration of the brain's mental maps.

Brain imaging has revealed sudden bursts of high-frequency oscillations just prior to moments of insight. Turns out that the metaphor of a light bulb turning on is not so far from reality. These oscillations are conducive to the formation of new links across several parts of the brain. In a moment of insight, then, new connections are being created. This is key to overcoming the brain's hardwired resistance to change.

So in practical terms, how do you cultivate moments of insight? An important conclusion from the research is that insight comes more from self-discovery than by advice-giving. This runs counter to the common approach of setting change in motion by giving directions or training through one-way instruction. 

Instead, Schwartz and Rock advise asking questions rather than just telling people what to do or think. The ancient Socratic method of teaching still has value. Careful use of questioning can guide people to discovering the insights they need to change. Thus they are more likely to take ownership of the new way of doing things.

Promote active reflection. Schwartz and Rock suggest that the cognitive transformation that leads to new behaviors follows a predictable path: (1) awareness, (2) reflection, (3) insight, (4) action—what they call the ARIA model. Awareness is focusing attention. Reflection involves shifting our perspective. Insight comes when we can see the situation differently. Acting on that insight further enables new brain connections to form. 

Reflection doesn't imply idle "navel gazing." But it does involve reducing the usual noise and distraction to allow for focused evaluation of the issue at hand. Block out periods of uninterrupted time for your team to reflect on strategy and change. Once again, you are encouraged to use questions to guide the reflective process. Orient the questions toward evaluating opportunities, possibilities, and practical solutions.

Focus on solutions rather than problems. Managers too often concentrate attention on which old behaviors need to be changed rather than what new behaviors need to be added. Remember, focusing the brain on new connections is what leads to new hardwired behaviors. Giving attention to old behaviors, on the other hand, is more likely to draw out feelings of anxiety or defensiveness, which will inhibit change. 

Positive reinforcement is immensely valuable in shaping new dominant pathways in the brain. A favorable consequence increases the frequency of new behaviors, which helps the brain prune old connections and create new ones. Negative reinforcement, by contrast, may increase compliance, but it impedes the cognitive change process.

The best way to overcome entrenched behaviors is to supplant them with new ones. So focus on solutions rather than problems, new behaviors rather than old ones.

Increase relevant communication. Attention density is a term that describes "the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time." Leaders can increase attention density by keeping new practices and concepts top of mind. How? In large part, by simply talking about them on an ongoing basis.

Much of what I've read about organizational culture change stresses the importance of frequent, focused communication. Our conversations tend to reflect what matters most to us. Listen to what people talk about in an organization for a few days and you'll have a good idea what their culture is like. If you want to change that culture—and there's a strong correlation between behavior change and culture—then you want to increase the conversation around the desired change.

I touched on feedback earlier, but it's worth mentioning again because it's a powerful form of communication relative to changing behaviors. Coaching is one particularly effective method of providing feedback. It's impact is well documented. In one study, for example, a training program alone increased productivity 28%, but following up the training with related coaching increased productivity by 88%. How? By increasing the attention density that promotes the rewiring of brains for the new tasks.

For all the struggle most of us have endured in trying to accomplish organizational change, these steps may seem like an oversimplification. Schwartz and Rock anticipated that reaction: "Perhaps you are thinking, 'This all sounds too easy. Is the answer to all the challenges of change just to focus people on the solutions instead of problems, let them come to their own answers, and keep them focused on their own insights?' Apparently, that's what the brain wants."

Hopefully this post has you contemplating how you can better incorporate these amazing insights about the brain into how you lead others. With a little thought and practice, it may well make the job easier—not to mention more successful.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Power of Focus

"As a man thinks in his heart, so he is." This ancient proverb from the Bible has been repeated in various forms in wisdom literature down through the centuries. Now we have confirmation from the field of neuroscience of its essential truth, plus an understanding of the physiology behind it.

The next big thing in leadership may well be the application of neuroscience, the study of the anatomy and physiology of the brain. If that sounds too far from the realm of your own expertise to be practical, stick with me. Much of what comes from the research explains what most of us have already observed about human behavior. But understanding why people respond as they do helps us be more effective leaders.

There is also much from neuroscience that refutes conventional wisdom about leadership. Several common management practices are proved largely ineffective. Once again, we've probably already noticed this, but assumed it was simply because we weren't doing it right. By better understanding how the human brain functions, we can be smarter in our approach to improving employee performance and facilitating organizational change.

The focus of this post is how the brain responds to change, which gives us insight into why organizational change is so difficult. Yet the path to successful change may be easier than we've thought—when we apply the power of focus. Let's consider a few basic conclusions from what neuroscience teaches us:

Our brains are hardwired to generally resist change. This is true even when the benefits of change are clearly evident. Consider the fact that only one in nine people who have undergone coronary bypass surgery are successful in adopting healthier lifestyle changes. No wonder that trying to change the way an entire organization behaves is so difficult, with not nearly so much at stake.

Why is this? You might mention that people get comfortable with the status quo and that entrenched habits are hard to overcome. Studies of the brain help us understand the underlying cause. We can retain only limited information in the conscious part of our brain (see the discussion of working memory below). So the brain frees up capacity and energy by "hardwiring" the neural circuitry associated with repetitive, familiar tasks. This enables us to do many routine or habitual activities without conscious thought.

That's a tremendous benefit until we try to change such patterns of behavior. Then we find ourselves working against our brain's circuitry, which can cause significant discomfort and dysfunction. I experienced this recently when I learned that after all these years I was tying my shoes wrong. The difficulty in relearning a task simple enough that a small child can master it was amazing. For several days, when tying my shoes, I felt like I was physically disabled. From the perspective of the brain's wiring, I was.

So change conflicts with existing neural connections or "mental maps" in our brain. In some cases, this can trigger our innate "fight or flight" response when the brain detects "errors"—perceived differences between expectations and actuality. Besides producing fear or anger that further complicates the change process, when this part of the brain is activated, it draws energy away from the part of the brain that supports higher intellectual functions like planning, problem solving, and decision making.

Our working memory has significant limits. Working memory can be defined as the content of our conscious thoughts. It's the part of the brain that enables us to recall information that can be applied to cognitive or physical tasks. If we think of the brain as a vast library, working memory might be thought of as the table where a few books have been spread out for study.

Working memory is, of course, critically important. This is the part of the brain that we utilize for intellectual work. But it has some notable limitations. For one thing, it has limited capacity. Early research indicated that we could store only about five to nine "chunks" of information in our working memory. More recent studies suggest the number is closer to four. So how many things do you try to keep in mind at any given time?

Because our working memory has limited capacity, our ability to multitask is largely a myth. One study showed that switching between two simultaneous tasks resulted in a 20% time loss. Switching between three tasks caused a 50% time loss! Other studies have been more generous, but all have consistently found evidence of lost productivity. This can in part be observed through brain imaging, which shows that multitasking pushes associated cognitive function into areas of the brain not intended for those tasks.

So what's the application to leadership? Company leaders often strain the limits of their employees' working memory by contributing to information overload and increasing the complexity of work tasks. Think about it: When was the last time a management decision in your firm actually made things easier for employees? The byproduct of most management actions is more things to do and more time required to do them.

The findings of neuroscience illuminate our limitations in mentally processing the ever-increasing information and complexity of the modern workplace. Besides restrained capacity, working memory is also easily distracted and energy intensive. To bring out the best in your team as a leader, you want to help focus attention on the things that matter most. Distribute work tasks appropriately, help teammates concentrate on one task at a time, reduce the "mental noise" that so easily distracts.

If a typical day at the office pushes our working memory beyond its limits, consider the impact of change. There's still more information to process while the brain's hardwired cognitive functioning is less useful for the work to be performed. Leaders can help by keeping things as simple as possible, phasing in change over time, and aligning new tasks to old ones to the extent practical. Ultimately, however, you want to facilitate change within the brain.

Focusing attention helps the brain rewire circuits to accommodate change. The brain has remarkable ability to reshape itself in response to changes. We see this in individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, where normal functioning is lost in certain parts of their brain. In many cases, the damaged brains have rewired their circuitry to enable other undamaged parts of the brain to take over the lost functionality.

Similarly, our brain can reshape itself to respond to organizational change and new work tasks. As a leader, you can guide this process by helping people focus attention and activity. Brain research has shown that we can actually stimulate physical changes in the brain by concentrating attention. Over time, this focus stabilizes certain associated connections in the brain, allowing it to rewire itself. This relieves working memory by creating new hardwired circuitry to support new work functions.

Even if you didn't know the neuroscience behind it, you have witnessed this transformation many times. When you first were learning to drive a car, for example, it consumed most of your working memory. You had to consciously think about every step—where the brake pedal was, which way to flip the turn signal, where to position your hands on the steering wheel. But over time, concerted effort and focus enabled your brain to hard-wire much of the cognitive function associated with driving, so that you can do it now with little conscious thought.

As a change leader, you can greatly benefit from having a basic understanding of the neuroscience associated with change. Ultimately, you have to overcome the inertia of people's hardwired brain functioning and set in motion the steps to enable brains to change in order for behaviors to change for the long term. It may not be as difficult as you imagined if you can maintain focus on the right things.

How can you do that? That's the topic of my next post.