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“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

The US Postal Service just announced that in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas it would immediately begin delivering Amazon packages on Sundays (New York Times 11/11/13). The announcement, a recognition that American’s shopping patterns have been forever altered by Amazon, and coming at the start of the 2013 holiday shopping period, may give the post office a much needed boost to its profitable package delivery service. Sunday delivery of packages will be, for the moment, a clear differentiator for the post office, since no one else offers that service and for consumers it gives them a way to receive their purchases even faster. It is likely to be especially useful to Amazon Prime customers who get 2-day delivery included in their membership and those who have no one at home during the Monday-Friday work week.

Amazon and the Postal Service are making a pretty safe assumption that when someone purchases an item online they desire to receive their purchases as quickly as possible. It is in Amazon’s best interest to get the package to the consumer, as it helps to eliminate a competitive advantage of bricks and mortar stores and it is in the consumer’s best interest in that they don’t have to delay receipt of the goods they have purchased. Their respective timelines are operating in a congruent fashion and because of that it seems a safe bet that the offering will be very popular. And until Amazon can download your purchases directly into your home 3-D printer, Sunday delivery of packages may be the best way to shorten delivery timelines.

Timelines, however, don’t always line up between two people or entities in a congruent fashion, and in fact non-congruent timelines are the source of much conflict between people, organizations, investors and countries around the world. When timelines between two efforts or events don’t line up there is an increased potential for failure of whatever those efforts or events are, with the corresponding finger pointing of whom and what organization or country is to blame. Timeline incongruences are often overlooked as a potential risk factor that can derail an effort or event.

Think of a school system for instance. It may look at gradually improving test scores as a long-term trend that their policies and practices are on the right track. However, to parents, a long-term view of the trend of test scores is irrelevant to what they want as consumers of educational services for their children. They want the system to be at its best for their child, enrolled in the school right now. Not some future promises that things will get better for other “unknown” students. They want their child to do well in life, to be prepared to succeed, even though intellectually the parents know that change is often a gradual thing in organizations, including school systems. Their timelines of what they want can be fundamentally in disagreement with the school systems timelines and a source of conflict.

The teachers themselves may look at their course material as a gradually evolving, ever improving body of information, but the student typically only goes through the course once and that incongruence has at it source a fundamental difference between the timelines that a teacher is operating under (a teaching career that could span 30 or 40 years) and the student (taking the course once for 12 weeks).

There are endless stories of timeline incongruence between Wall Street’s quarterly-driven expectations for publicly traded companies and what those companies feel that have to do in order to build a robust, lasting enterprise. Sometimes public companies will be taken private when the timeline incongruence, along with other factors reaches a breaking point. Other times companies that could go public choose to remain private in order to operate with a longer-term view.

At an individual level, when you try to compress what you can get done within a shorter timeline, the potential for error or worse increases dramatically. At one extreme people are “multi-tasking” trying to fit more and more into an abbreviated period of time. Incongruence in the timeline exists between what it actually takes to do a good job on something, how much time and attention you should devote, and the expectations that you can do more and more activities within a compressed period of time. Many managers today feel that they must “multi-task” to be viewed as capable in their jobs. But ask yourself, how would you feel if a cardiac surgeon was multi-tasking while operating on your heart? Perhaps banging out a tweet while looking for that bleeder? Or what would your comfort level be in a combat situation walking behind the multi-tasking person responsible for spotting landmines? Does managing a group deserve the same level of focused attention? Or when talking to an individual, what does a singularity of focus, all of your attention on that person, in that moment in time, what does that buy you? Plenty.

While it is not uncommon for despair to take the form of immediate suffering and pain, ultimate despair seems to be driven when no positive potential future is seen for oneself or one’s children. And while people who can see a path forward to a better future are often very positive, even in trying circumstances, if you can’t see that better future, attitudes and behaviors can quickly turn in a very negative direction. It doesn’t matter if you are living in poverty in the rural south of the United States, within an inner city urban center, barely hanging on in a refugee camp, trying to survive a natural disaster or being controlled by a “benevolent” government. If you can’t see a bright future on your timeline, not the timeline of an organization, society or government, negativity will flourish.

Incongruent timelines may also be having a large and perhaps largely ignored impact on various peace negotiations around the world between countries. Americans tend to be fairly impatient, wanting to see progress on an issue within a fairly short period of time. Our maximum timeframe of focus is usually about one election cycle. But what if you are in negotiations with someone who has a very different timeline view than you? What if you are negotiating with someone who is thinking in hundreds or thousands of years and not driven by a 4-year election cycle? Their goal is not necessarily to achieve “immediate” progress on an issue or to resolve a conflict and put it behind them. With a long-term timeline view, the goal may be to simply do what it takes to pass time until more favorable conditions present themselves, 10, 50 or 100 years from now. And when you are dealing with multiple countries, each of which who view their ultimate success as being guaranteed by a higher power, the chances of a successful negotiation with immediate improvements in conditions is diminished.

Albert Einstein may be right about time being an illusion from a physicist’s view point, but from the view point of countries, people and individuals, all of whom live on a timeline, incongruence on respective timeline intervals and scales can at best cause miscommunications and at worst complete failure of the event or efforts underway.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 12, 2013 at 9:30 am

Why Improving Employee Engagement is not Strategic

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[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”]Employee Engagement is often viewed as a magic bullet. All we have to do is increase our levels of employee engagement and all will be well. Is your engineering done poorly? That is because your engineering employees are not engaged enough. They would exceed your customer’s expectations if they were more engaged. Putting your stores in under-performing locations? That would not happen if your real estate people were more engaged. Are your customers unhappy with the quality of your products? If only you could make your sales people were more engaged. This kind of thinking is of course nonsense, but there is a deeper issue here.

Some, if not many organizations have bought into the notion that increasing employee engagement should be part of an organizations’ strategy. But that is like saying reducing an ill person’s fever should be the strategy to get them well, without addressing the underlying cause, like the tumor that is spreading rapidly in their pancreas. Maybe if we brought the fever under control that tumor would resolve itself? Not likely.

As we conduct employee surveys there are several distinct kinds of questions that are used to gage what is happening within an organization and how it is functioning. One question type is called an independent variable. These are items like “do you have the training you need to get your job done?” They are directly addressable if the response scores are low. Another question type is called a dependent variable, such as “I am proud to work for XYZ”. These kinds of questions are dependent on other things driving them high or low, such as, we were just caught up in a bribery scandal, so I am not so proud to work here. How would you address pride in that circumstance? While there may be other underlying issues, simplistically, you would address ethics in order to bring pride back to higher levels. There are other kinds of questions we use in surveys but discussing these two types will make my point.

Good strategy for an organization is strategy that is simply stated, easily understood and directly addressable. Good strategy could be thought of as independent variables. Is your engineering done poorly? Good strategy may be to upgrade or bring resources to your engineering group. Maybe you hire or maybe you acquire or maybe you outsource, but the hallmark of a good strategy is that you can directly address the improvement needed of the engineering function. The engineering employees will become engaged when they have what they need to do their jobs well, are treated in an equitable fashion, with respect etc.

A strategy that states, we will increase employee engagement as the strategy itself, is not directly addressable and does not give the management team any insight into specifically what needs to be done to accomplish that goal. Without insight into the direct strategic actions that must be taken you get warm and fuzzy words that are not directional and will be impossible to accomplish.

Having high levels of employee engagement is a good end result, but it is an end result of other strategic actions you take and is simply not strategic by itself.

© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

August 26, 2012 at 9:37 am

Guidelines for Successfully Linking Employee Engagement Scores to Management Compensation Incentives

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A group of us, with a great deal of experience at this task, got together and pooled our collective knowledge of linking employee survey results, such as an index of employee engagement or other index scores (e.g. safety, customer service culture, organization effectiveness, innovation, turnover, risk-taking, customer satisfaction) to management incentive compensation systems.

Some organizations feel that the way to have maximal impact on “moving the dial” on critical measures of organizational performance is to put your money where your mouth is and to link the performance on these indices to a manager’s compensation. Now, there are about as many ways to perform that linkage as there are organizations out there, but when we compared notes as a group, certain characteristics and guidelines of systems that are deemed more successful seemed to consistently rise to the surface. Here is a listing of the guidelines that we came up with and that have proven successful in a great many organizations.

Overall Guidelines

  • Transparent:
    • Be open and clear about what is being done and how.
    • Avoid a “black-box” mentality. The calculation of the scores should be transparent and easily understood to all of those affected by the system.
  • Require Visible Leadership Support:
    • Leaders should encourage employees to participate in data collection,
    • Hold managers accountable for sharing results with employees and action planning,
    • With assistance as needed, leaders create plans for using survey results within their area of responsibility,
    • Create and cascade high level action plans,
    • Have regular feedback to staff on activities related to objectives.
  • Make the Effort Substantial and Relevant:
    • Rigorous survey and process design,
    • Ongoing validation through rigorous research of the instrument, demonstrating why it matters (e.g. linking index scores to business metrics),
    • Commit to continue the survey program on a regular basis.  Any performance goal or incentive program works best when consistently applied over a longer period.  Managers and employees begin to understand what types of efforts lead to success. This understanding is critical for the program to effectively motivate and reward improving the work environment.  The commitment to continue should include plans to re-administer the survey and the goal or incentive program on a regular basis.
    • Ensure that the managers who are affected by the performance goal or incentive program have the ability (including time, budget, and other resources) to make real improvements on areas identified as the priorities.
  • Have a Transition Period:
    • A “dry run” period where everyone gets comfortable with the process, the calculations and what is being incented, as well as what has to happen to achieve incented goals.
    • The “formula” for the linkage should be communicated well in advance.  As with any incentive or performance management system, expectations should be communicated well enough in advance so that managers have a chance to react and do not feel the “rules have changed” in midstream.
  • Provide for Mid-Cycle Corrections:
    • Providing feedback mid-way through the cycle so managers are not surprised by year-end achievements or failures. Provides an opportunity to focus on what is working or correct what is not.
  • Apply Incentive Compensation to Appropriate Levels/Managers:
    • Incentive pay should be aimed at senior managers or those long enough in their roles or those whose responsibilities can directly impact results.  Senior managers can often typically influence more organization-wide topics than a lower level or front-line manager.
    • Senior managers can also have group goals set (goals that they pursue as a group) as well as individual goals for their own units.

Guidelines for what/how to incent:

  • You Get What You Reward:
    • Reward the behavior you want, not simply target attainment
  • Amount to Incent:
    • The percentage of incentive compensation commonly linked to employee engagement surveys is typically between 5-15% of the total incentive compensation. Other items such as customer satisfaction scores, achieving financial targets etc. make up the rest.
  • Create Baseline First:
  • The first time out, goals should be kept simple, learn the process, create basic action plans and make any critically needed changes.  Second time out, goals can get more complex and are set for both action taken and score movement.
  • Numerical Goals Need not be Uniform:
    • Those at 25th percentile or lower, need to improve more (i.e. move their scores further) than those at 75th percentile or higher. Those at top of distribution can have maintenance goals. Specific goals are best set in consultation with supervisor, rather than by rote formula.
    • Base the program not just on improvements, but on attaining and maintaining a specified level of favorability.  In this way, the managers who are already good at fostering a positive working environment are not punished.  It is always easier for those who need the large improvements to realize the largest gains.
  • Goals Need Not Be Insular:
    • A Combination of Company Goal/Business Goal/Personal Goal can drive the message that both teamwork as well as personal achievement is required to achieve maximum benefit.
    • Goals can also be set only at an organizational-wide or BU level, and not at an individual manager level.  Lower level managers/supervisors can have goals related to activity (completing action plans) rather than numbers.
  • Goals Need Not be Limited to Next Cycle:
    • Longer-term goals aimed at the “ultimate” desired end-state are often necessary. For instance, a 6-point change in score over two years rather than 3 points within one takes a longer-term view.
  • Set Goals Against an Internal Benchmark:
    • Goals set against an internally derived standard often carry the most weight, and credibility, since the goal is to look like how other parts of the organization, or groups within the organization already looks.

Things to Avoid

  • Blindly Chasing a Number – Score Attainment as Only Goal:
    • Targets are often set and people then can lose sight of what they should really be trying to accomplish as they chase the number. Hitting an engagement target represents potential, nothing more. The business does not magically take care of itself just because you hit a number.
  • A Direct Connection to Non-Management Employee Bonuses:
    • Too often employees are encourage not to “screw it up” for everyone and to respond positively on engagement when their own and their immediate supervisor’s bonuses are simply tied to a numerical target.
  • Unrealistic Improvement Targets:
    • If an unrealistic targets or behaviors are selected as goals, when most people don’t achieve goals, they will either look for “work-a-rounds” or the process and goals lose credibility.
  • Statistical Significance as Driver of Goals:
    • As you go deep in organizations, groups get small and make statistical significance an inappropriate choice. Practical significance with a business orientation is best.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Acting on Employee Opinion

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There are those who think only they know best when it comes to organizational decision making. And while it is perfectly ok to have strongly held opinions, it also behooves one to know when to listen to the wisdom of the crowd. Assuming that you have crossed the Rubicon and are ready to heed or at least consider the advice of those who are usually more than willing to share some, there are some guidelines that if followed can make the process not too overwhelming and perhaps increase the probability of success. This is a quick summary and the highlighted links will point you to more detailed discussions on each topic.

  1. Don’t try to do too much. If every manager within an organization once a year picked one meaningful thing that went above and beyond and actually made it happen, significant positive change would occur. If two things were chosen, one should support an overall organization-wide initiative and one should focus on local conditions. By limiting the number you also eliminate excuse-making. You either did it or did not. Reference: The One Thing.
  2. Every organization has strengths. Sometimes picking actions that build off of and are natural extension of the strengths, the skills and talents already in place will be more successful than actions that come out of left field. If you are trying something new as an action and do not know how to accomplish it, set a learning goal – how you will learn more about and develop the skills that enable you to succeed on the action. If you are very familiar with how to improve on a particular issue then set a specific measurable goal. Reference: Increasing the Wealth of Organizations.
  3. People are people. We can spend our time searching for the differences between us, but when it comes to the world of work and what people fundamentally want and expect out of the work environment we are all much more similar than we are different. We all more or less want the same things. Find me a person on this planet, of any age, of any gender, of any ethnicity for instance, that does not want to be treated with respect and dignity. (I exclude those with pathology). Think about how the actions you are considering can help fulfill these basic universal needs. Reference: People at work: or it is Life and Searching for a gang in Nebraska.
  4. There are no magic bullets – success, most of the time, boils down to some brain power, hard work and a dose of being in the right place at the right time. Those who spend their lives searching for magic bullets, elixirs, quick fixes will spend their lives searching in vain. Reference: Models, Representations of Reality
  5. Don’t prematurely shut down the creative process. Create a lot of good ideas in a brain storming mode. On a second or third pass through the ideas generated, narrow the field. Pick the one thread that can be most leveraged, the thread that could unravel or hold together the whole organizational tapestry. Reference 40:1
  6. Your actions are at risk for failure. As you plan them out, understanding common reasons why actions fail can help you avoid pitfalls. Actions can fail because of a. lack of knowledge/training, b. lack of correct business processes, c. lack of desire/support. Reference: Errors
  7. It can be good to measure, to create metrics to measure your progress, but just because you are not measuring does not mean what you are doing is not good. Where you can create metrics, do so. Reference: Managing what you are not measuring, and Measuring what you are Managing.
  8. You will make mistakes. It is a given. Mistakes and errors will occur as you pick and execute on your action plans. Don’t be so consumed with making the absolute right decision that you make no decisions or miss opportunities because of decision delays. Reference: Peanut Butter Anyone?
  9. Change happens- look forward not back. Reference: Well I Guess that is not Going to Grow Back.
  10. Openness and transparency regarding what you are doing is the best policy. If you cannot be open and transparent about it ask yourself if you should be doing it. Reference: Transparency and Organizational Success.
  11. Aim High. Reference: Abnormal Change.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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The One Thing

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For many years, in manager training sessions which covered how to utilize your employee survey results, I always suggested to managers that they decide on which two or three issues were the most important and take action on that limited number. No more than two or three, not a long list of tasks, a long list that would almost certainly ensure that nothing would actually get done. Keep the list small, keep the list manageable. Everyone’s plate is already full and piling on to-do’s would simply become overwhelming. I am re-evaluating that advice, but my evaluation is not about whether managers should have a longer list of action items, but rather should the short list be even shorter.

While it may sound odd after spending so much time and energy on planning for an employee survey, collecting the data, analyzing it every which way and reporting it back, but I am beginning to feel that the best advice on what to do with it, in today’s environment is to pick “The One Thing” that rises to the top, that the management team feels will make a substantial difference and to go out and make a difference on it.

When you examine norm data and look at who are the top performers on a particular issue, which companies score most strongly for instance on customer focus, innovation, timeliness, cooperation, etc. or more broadly on Message, Performance enablement (against message) and Future related issues you find a somewhat different list of top performing organizations. Meaning that the list of top performers is a changing list, depending on which item you are looking at. It appears that a widely admired company for instance will not be the top performer across the board necessarily, but rather will excel in some areas, and be more average in others.

I would argue that no company has the time, energy or resources to simply come out and say that “we will be the best in the world on everything”, I would further argue that the logic doesn’t make sense. By definition resources are a limited commodity. No one has infinite money, people or time. Further there are relatively few cases where two companies exist in exactly the same market niche. In fact much time, money and people’s effort are spent in figuring out how to differentiate one’s products from the competition (both the products sold to your customers and the employee value proposition sold to your employees). Organizations need to choose which areas will be most critical to success in their niche. Will it be to become the most innovative, having the leading edge product to market before the competition, or to be the most responsive or to be the most value for the money spent etc? Sometimes these choices are somewhat contradictory. For instance if you are going to be the organization that provides the most value, stretching the consumer’s dollar, it can be difficult to be the most innovative, as innovation often carries a price tag as would concepts like being the highest quality or most responsive.

Companies that try to be all things end up having a confused Message that will hurt their performance, with changing directions and priorities the norm internally and customers seeing and experiencing inconsistencies. No one knows what the organization really stands for, including the organization.

Managers who are examining their employee survey results and require themselves to pick “The One Thing” are in essence defining what is important for their organization to stand for. What is the one thing that if done better than anyone else will enable the organization to succeed?

There is another aspect to “The One Thing” that is important and that is you can’t hide from it. When managers have picked 2-3 issues to tackle from their employee survey results they invariably go after “the low hanging fruit”, the easy fixes. While that is all well and good, sometimes after going after the fruit, they never quite get around to tacking the tough issues, the thorns higher up on the branch. Later on they can point to progress made in some areas, after all we got the low hangers, but the real challenges are still the real challenges, those thorns are still as sharp as ever. If managers pick “The One Thing”, when evaluating their progress they either did it or they did not, period.

The challenge is to pick “The One Thing” that has the potential for the greatest across the board impact, and that is where initial effort needs to focus. Which thing is the thread that if pulled will impact all the other threads that make up the organizational tapestry? Where do you concentrate? As you begin to think this through you rapidly come to the realization that picking “The One Thing” does not necessarily lead to any less work or effort to be expended in responding to survey results, it leads to a more focused, a more concentrated effort. In order to successfully accomplish “The One Thing” it is very likely that multiple other things need to be addressed as subtasks as well.  

Should an organization pick one standard thing, driven from the top so that everyone is working the same issue or should local managers pick the one that is critical to them at their level? I believe that Sr. Managers should pick “The One Thing” that is critical at their level and they should champion it. They should be held responsible for getting it done and for driving it through the organization. Other managers within the organization should be picking their one thing, which is in support of the top level one thing, within their control, if the organization is to have a concentrated effort in responding to the survey results and actually make a difference on an identified critical dimension. I believe that there are some nuances that will come into play here depending on where an organization resides across the board on some issues, but in general that is the concept.

“The One Thing” can be scary. It is much easier to pick a whole host of issues, knowing that if you do a bit of everything you will likely touch on the ones that are really important to your organization, but you will touch on them in a lukewarm, less focused way. If you are looking for maximal organizational improvement impact “The One Thing”, while likely the most challenging, has the most potential to deliver.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 5:56 am

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