Saturday, August 20, 2005

More inspired by that book

Last time I promised to tell you where John Seely Brown and John Hagel’s book “The Only Sustainable Advantage” got it right. To put it simply: growing capabilities, growing people.

You might be able to get competitive advantage from low labour costs but how do you keep this advantage? It seems there is always someone out there who will work for less.

You might get a competitive advantage from some special resource, say a good location on the high street, or the world’s only green-kryptonite mine but what if the internet makes the high street obsolete? And what if someone finds a substitute for green-kryptonite?

But if your advantage is in growing your capabilities things are different. This is essentially the ability to renew yourself. This is saying: what ever we do well today we will do better tomorrow but more importantly, we will have improved ourselves. At its heart this is about improving your people, making people more capable, making them better learners, making them happy with change.

To my mind this is what managers should be doing, everyone is an HR manager, everyone is a teacher, everyone a coach. I hate it when I see managers in meetings discussing release schedules, or resource allocation, or quality. They shouldn’t be doing this, they should be creating an environment where this stuff just happens.

(OK, I’ve used that awful word: resource, they are not resources! They are people! And what of the Human Resource Department - what an awful description Human? Resources? What ever happened to Personnel departments, lets put the people back in business.)

Unfortunately, a lot of this stuff happens on the quiet. Managers need to spend time one-on-one with people, coaching them, listening to them, helping them develop. And they need to spend time with their teams, helping the teams reach common understandings, common purposes, helping the teams see how they can improve.

But maybe this stuff doesn’t look very productive to you. 3 hours spent in a team discussion? Doesn’t sound productive does it? Surely they should be reorganizing people, moving Fred from one team to another, reallocating resources, planning, making, strategising.

I see this in software development organizations. Managers have to be seen to be doing something. So, I see Joe get promoted to Team Leader, at first he still wants to spend time cutting-code – after all you can do this team leading in the afternoons can’t you? Sometimes Joe doesn’t want to give up coding really, or Joe doesn’t know what to do, or Joe thinks spending time in meetings is a waste, so Joe just keeps on coding – they shy away from really leading the team.

Or Joe starts managing: goes to lots of meeting with product managers, spends time talking to other managers about “process” and “quality” and “new products” so he doesn’t have much time to team lead either but he is “managing” because he spends so much time with other managers. And when one project starts to fall behind schedule Joe moves Fred from one that is ahead onto the one that is behind. He’s managing.

But, what can the team do now that it couldn’t before Joe was promoted? How is it better off?

What I say is: Joe should be concentrating on his team, building the teams shared-vision, shared-values and responsibilities. Helping the individuals on the team learn and improve.

Joe (and his fellow managers) could produce a quality guide, a coding standard, and even a project plan. But who’s are these? These belong to the managers, they are imposed on others. Yet if Joe spends his time helping his team devise these they will believe these ideals and they will be capable of doing more themselves.

That’s capability building.

And yes, in the long run I think JSB and Hagel are right, it is the only real competitive advantage.

There is a catch though. Its a good catch, perhaps the best there is. To do this you need to do it personally, you need to have a good attitude, personal confidence, empathy with your people and time, lots of time. That’s hard. Its relatively easy for me (or you) to see the problem, agree the solution, but to actually do it? That’s hard.