Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Innovation Story: Learning From Pixar

Last Thursday I was researching innovation to prepare for an upcoming OSEF event being hosted at Rove Mobile I came across a really interesting article about creating a culture of innovation at Pixar. Continuing in the theme of the last few posts I thought it would be interesting to examine what Pixar thinks, and to see what, if anything I can apply here at Macadamian.

Brad Bird distills 10 simple rules for fostering innovation:
  1. Herd Your Black Sheep
  2. Perfect is the Enemy of Innovation
  3. Look for Intensity
  4. Innovation Doesn’t happen in a Vacuum
  5. High Morale Makes Creativity Cheap
  6. Don't Try To “Protect your success”
  7. Steve Jobs Says ‘Interaction = Innovation’
  8. Encourage Inter-disciplinary Learning
  9. Get Rid of Weak Links
  10. Making $$ Can’t Be Your Focus
All these points resonant with me, but, let's focus on only two.

Look for Intensity
When I am interviewing people to potentially hire at Macadamian I look for people that are smart and have that spark in their eyes, that spark that denotes a deep passion for technology, and for what they have done and what they will do. I am sure that everyone at Macadamian looks for these same qualities, but when I looked on Confluence for the "Type of People we are looking for" that attribute wasn't listed, so the wiki being a wiki, I changed it.

Intense people want to do a fantastic job, there is no laissez-faire I don't care attitude. These people are passionate about the products we are building, they aren't just working on a project, they are building an amazing product. These types of people will "own" the product, they will talk to the customer and suggest features, or other ways to improve it. They want to build the best, most innovative product they can. This is a great attitude, and one of the key differentiators between the average, and the above average.

High Morale Makes Creativity Cheap
Not only does high morale make it easier to be creative, high morale increases productivity by several orders of magnitude. Morale is directly related to the leadership of the immediate manager, and of the company as a whole.

A good leader managing the team can go along way to improving morale via their positive attitude and their fair dealings with the team. I could go on and on about leadership's impact on morale but I would run out of space. Suffice it to say that a good leader can go along way to making a good team.

Of course the organization also has a role to play, the organization needs to create a culture that rewards people that take informed risks, works hard to get the employees involved and feeling informed, that people have the right tools to get the job done, shows genuine concern for all their staff, and gives appropriate praise and recognition for the good work they do. After all, you want to reward the good behaviour, not just punish the bad.

These two points resonated with me, and these are two that I will focus on here at Macadamian, to reinforce and improve our way of doing things with respect to these. Of course the rest are good too.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Consistency versus Excellence

A quick question for you all, if you are delivering every single project consistently, with good consistent results, have you achieved excellence?

At one point in time I might have said yes, but after reading this article I will have to say no. Unless you are in a field where everyone else are a bunch of numskulls, being consistent merely means meeting your customers expectations.

Of course being consistent is good, it means you are delivering your product or service in the same manner, allowing you to look for ways to reduce errors and flaws by providing new and improved processes to catch and eliminate them. That being said however, you put too many processes in place your team will look and act like a bunch of dumb robots, carefully following well defined procedures fearing to stray outside of the bounds. Hardly sounds like a fun place to work eh?

Excellence on the other hand is about going above and beyond, about not just achieving customer expectations but blowing them away. This type of performance requires passionate and driven people, people that will own the product and be devoted to its success. When pursuing excellence processes are only a tool to achieve a goal, they are not the goal themselves. Processes will never be emotionally tied to the product's success, only people are.

People drive excellence, processes drive consistency. If you are looking for excellence then don't look to process, look for passionate, driven people to push hard to always try and achieve more.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How savvy organizations motivate and inspire

Earlier this week I have talked about how to create an atmosphere of innovation, and longer ago how it is important to never stop learning.

In that post I talked about creating an atmosphere where informed risk taking is encouraged, and employees are not punished for mistakes they make when taking informed risks. This article further strengthens my point.

Dr. Gary Latham of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto encourages employees to make errors. "The research coming out of organizational psychology says that if you want risk-taking and you want people to be excited and energized about trying new things, such as embracing change, they've got to feel comfortable that they can make mistakes and learn from them." When it comes to motivation, Dr. Latham says people want just three things: "They want a sense of challenge, they want to grow, and they want to feel valued and appreciated."

Three key take-aways in that quote are:
  1. Employees want a sense of challenge
  2. They want the ability to grow their career
  3. To be valued and appreciated.
Number 1 is a leadership challenge. Well, everything could be distilled into a leadership challenge, but for the sake of argument leadership will be confined to an employees immediate manager. With number 1, a manager or leader needs to assign projects and tasks that are challenging, both technically, and by business domain. Of course not every single project in the world is interesting and challenging, but trying to mix it up for your team can be very beneficial with regards to productivity and morale.

Number 2 is an organizational challenge, sure there are aspects of leadership in this, as in the leader needs to understand how the employee wishes to grow their career, and giving him the tasks or challenges to accomplish that. But, at the end of the day, no matter how much a leader may want to advance the employees career, where the advancement means moving up the org chart, this may not be possible in every company do to existing issues, or lack of growth in the company.

Number 3 is clearly a leadership issue, yes, pay and benefits have something to do with this but where the rubber meets the road it's all about leadership. Thanking your employee for their hard work, or them going out of the way to finish a task, or recommend an improvement. At Macadamian our employees are our IP. We make a conscious effort to ensure that our employees feel looked after, both at an organizational level and at the manager level. A simple "Thank you, we couldn't have done it without you" can be a powerful statement on how you value your employees. Of course, it has to be sincere.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fostering Innovation

Tonight I am moderating an OSEF panel on innovation, more specifically, how do you foster innovation.

How do companies create an atmosphere of innovation? How do they encourage their people to innovate? Companies like IDEO have become famous for their culture of innovation. And of course everyone not currently under a rock or dead knows how Google innovates.

So how do other companies innovate in these lean times?

The CIO has a great posting about that, I encourage everyone to read it, I won't bother trying to summarize it here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

We will remember them

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

Today marks the solemn day of remembrance in Canada, a day to reflect upon the thousands of Canadians who have lost their lives defending the Canadian way of life, and helping those in need. From the Great War to Second World War, from Korea through to Bosnia and all the way to Afghanistan the brave men and women of the Canadian Forces have sacrificed greatly for the freedoms we enjoy today. It behooves us to take some time today to reflect upon their sacrifice and their hardship, and to remember all that they have done.

We will remember them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Performance Reviews

It’s that time of the year again, annual performance review time. The time of dread for employees across companies, all sectors, and all over the world, cue ominous music.

Yes I have talked about this before, but it is a very important topic.

Why is this? Why are reviews so stressful for the employee and even the reviewer? Does it have to be? Couldn't the entire process be much less stressful? Perhaps even enjoyable?

Without a doubt.

Communication between leaders and their employees is essential to the success of projects, the professional relationship, all individuals involved, and the companies themselves. Communication breakdowns affect everyone involved. Esprit-de-corps decreases, productivity decreases, and the all important employee satisfaction decreases. Leaders need to deliver timely, accurate, and effective feedback to employees all year, not just at performance review time, though performance reviews do play an important role in this continuous process.

So why are performance reviews so disliked?

Most people don’t like to receive constructive criticism, and most people don’t like to give it. The manager and the employee need to set aside at least an hour to discuss the good and the bad of the year. For the manager, especially the new manager, it can be one of their most daunting tasks. For the employee, they stress about their performance, and the salary/bonus numbers that may also come with it.

How do you make performance reviews less disliked?

You need to tackle the problems of performance reviews, and work hard to alleviate them.

Problem 1 - The surprise review

A common problem, and a huge cause of stress for employees. Basically, the manager doesn’t schedule the review in advance, leaving the employee to stress about it—in some cases the employee doesn’t even know a review is due. Then WHAM, one day when the manager has 20 minutes, the manager pulls the employee into a surprise review. Or, even if the review is scheduled, the employee doesn't know what to expect, and not sure of the feedback he will receive.

When this happens, the employee walks into a big, stressful unknown. But it’s an "easy" one to solve.

Managers need to get into the habit of keeping their employees informed all year long of progress towards their goals, and how well they are performing their jobs.

If they are doing a great job, tell them so! Throughout the year, you want to praise and reward good performance to reinforce it and encourage more of the same. And if the performance isn't so good, you need to let your employee know as soon you realize this. It’s only fair to the employee. And it’s good for you because it allows them to correct their behavior as soon as possible. It’s the manager's job to mentor them, ensuring they have the tools, training, and opportunity to succeed. It will also be easier on you, the manager, as you can work with the employee to improve the performance before it gets to the point where it is critical.

Another key benefit of keeping your employees informed of their performance throughout the year is that you can focus more on their goals and career planning during the review, after all, they already know how they did. It will be an opportunity to build relationships and discuss the future.

Problem 2 - The last 2 month review
Annual reviews are, well, annual. They need to encompass the whole year, or at least the time since the last review (if you do twice yearly reviews). It is often easy to focus on only the last few months since that’s what you remember best. But that’s unfair to your employees.

One trick I use is to keep notes on all the people I work with throughout the year. Not because I‘m keeping track of them, but because it lets me remember the significant and not so significant events throughout the year. This helps the manager or leader when it comes time to write the review and makes the review more honest and objective.

It’s easier to remember the bad than the good, and it is easy to focus on just the bad to the detriment of the good. Keeping notes will help alleviate this. It would not be fair to the employee who had a stellar year, but made a mistake in the last month of the review cycle to focus on just that mistake.

Another benefit of keeping notes throughout the year is to ensure "data integrity" as you won't be struggling to remember the facts. Of course when in doubt, double-check your facts.

Problem 3 - The unprepared manager
Nothing is worse for an employee to see the manager "wing it" during the review. Perhaps they are writing it front of the employee during the review, or are not prepared to discuss goals and career aspirations. Managers and leaders need to spend time ahead of time to write the reviews, and think about how they will conduct the review. So start the process early, and schedule lots of time for the actual review. Also, don't schedule them back to back, it’s hard to predict the end times and you don't want to cut it short just for the sake of your three o'clock.

Problem 4 - The one sided conversation
A review should be a two-way conversation. In fact, it should be a 80/20 conversation. (Isn't it great how often the 80/20 rule comes up?) where the employee speaks 80% of the time. After all, it is about them. Provide your feedback and let the employee do the talking. Most of the review should focus on employee reactions and takeaways from the discussion. Don't talk just to fill the awkward silence.

Problem 5 - The inaccurate performance review
It goes without saying to be honest and fair in the review, and not to play favourites. Everyone knows this. That being said, also don't wimp out! Don't gloss over the negatives in order to maintain relationships, or because it’s too hard. Addressing real problems, especially the ones about employees, is one of the hardest parts of a manager's job. It’s an important part of being a good leader.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Macadamian, a great place to work!

For the third year running, Macadamian has been awarded as one of the top ten places to work in the National Capital Region.

Employee satisfaction is a key element in retention of employees. Happy employees are productive, engaged, and motivated employees.

Good work to everyone involved!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

World Usability Day

It seems like everyone has a world day now-a-days, so why should usability be any different? Usability is certainly important.

How many times have you seen a door that confused you? A fire exit that opened inwards? A set of switches that didn't relate to anything you have ever seen before? What about a computer application that confused airbrushed metal and rounded corners with actual ease of use?

Usability is everywhere, it impacts everything in our lives, so, next time you see a friendly neighborhood usability person walking around, stop and give them a hug! They could use it, they have a hard job actually getting people to understand the importance of usability.

Macadamian and OCRI are holding an event in honor of World Usability Day, I will be there, will you?