Eight weeks of learning, 30 minutes to tell all (part 4)

On the first evening of class, we dove right into the perilous waters of decision making with the EMOB exercise: “Group Ranking Task: Alaskan Adventure.” With six people in our group, we struggled to get to a consensus on which items would be most valuable to hold on to in a survival situation in the Arctic Circle. It was only at the point where we were running out of time to have our group’s work completed that we pushed through the decision making processes to reach a group position. And ultimately, the group position was not strong in its own right nor in the sense that the group’s results are usually better than those of the individuals in the group. To me, the entire exercise felt like the Road to Abilene and was a wake-up call for what was to come in this course.

We learned first-hand about the disadvantages of group problem solving and decision making, among them the time required to get to a consensus, the diffused sense of ownership and responsibility, some riskier decisions being made than what a prudent individual might have proffered on their own, and premature closure of the debate in a rush to reach the conclusion. We also observed a few of the benefits of group decision making, such as the ability to draw on the diversity and experience of the group’s membership, the ability to gain acceptance through connections that each member could take back to the larger organization, and some level of cohesion among the group members.

We also learned that when a very persuasive person is given the ability to commandeer the discussion they can guide the group into a very poor decision and will often stifle dissent or alternative suggestions from other members. In the EMOB “Roles Nomination Form” discussion, we went through the 19 different roles and isolated those which can put a group’s efficacy at risk. For example, a self-oriented leader puts their own goals and objectives ahead of the group’s and can undermine the group’s ability to perform. A blocker does precisely that, taking the group interaction off track. Avoiders, dominators and recognition seekers also bring their baggage to the group.

Once again drawing on the experience of the in-class EMOB exercise, Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company we observed a series of bad decisions that largely stemmed from incompetent management at the top but also from poor judgment and attempts to cover up and conceal mistakes in the procurement process that materially impacted the company’s manufacturing and quality.

In my research paper, Organizational Communication in a Virtual Work Environment, I discovered that group decision making can also be stalled by the dimensions of time and distance, and that where the virtual team was designed to accelerate workflow and keep things moving around the clock, around the world, decision making takes longer due to the lack of proximity and must be considered by management as such teams are chartered, launched and sustained.

Stevenson’s so-called “FUBAR List” (in the Beyond Excellence video) was an interesting and often overlooked resource for helping organizations make better decisions in the future by learning from their bad decisions in the past. Very few organizations preserve their mistakes for posterity, choosing instead to simply forget about them and hope that they do not happen again.

Instead, companies default to a “minimax” or “maximax” approach to evaluating options and managing their exposure to risk. Frequently, the decision is based on gut instinct rather than hard facts, and ultimately falls back to the organization’s tolerance for risk when weighed against possible gains. In the minimax scenario, companies play it safe and make decisions that will minimize their risk and limit their losses. In the maximax scenario, such as with companies like Enron, the goal is to maximize the potential gain and in many cases to sublimate or ignore the inherent risks of the decision.

Such was the case in the EMOB exercise “The Quandry at Puredrug: Group Decision Making and Ethics.” In my role in this exercise, I was a strong proponent of distributing a drug within the Philippines market that was currently banned in the USA. These types of decisions play out every day with global organizations, seeking to maximize their profit opportunity even if there are obvious risks in their strategy. One need not look much further than the near-complete collapse of the US financial system in 2008 to see how these maximax decisions can play out in the worst-case scenario.

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Guidelines for communicating with remote and virtual teams

Image: Make Something Cool Every Day

Here is the full list of guidelines, as cited in my research paper and as originally published by Melcrum Publishing as part of their report, “Building a Strategy for Remote Communications.”

  • Create opportunities for people to get to know each other on a personal level. Create a closed website that introduces members and their families. Have photographs that are not just of head and shoulders, but of them with their normal work team, their family, or playing their favorite sport. Make the interactions human and personal.
  • Have a clear system for recognizing and managing misunderstandings. Make it a part of the rubric that anyone who feels upset or uncomfortable about e-communications from other virtual team members has a responsibility to share that concern openly, with a view to building greater understanding.
  • Have clear rules about when and how to contact colleagues out of (normal working) hours.
  • Keep the team relatively small — no more than eight to 10 people. The larger the virtual team, the more likely it is to fragment into uncoordinated smaller groups.
  • Have clear and frequent processes for reflection and review. Ask what they have learned as a group and what individuals have learned, achieved, and struggled with over the past weeks.
  • Be very clear about the team purpose. Review activity together frequently according to this purpose and the team values.
  • Be very clear about what roles each member of the team should play and why. Be prepared to exchange roles.
  • Have a clear policy about how the virtual team will capture its learning and share it, with new members, and with other teams. Maintain an electronic record of the team’s learning.
  • Value differences of opinion within the team as an opportunity to explore issues in more depth.
  • Hold virtual team meetings on a regular basis, just as you would with a face-to-face team.
  • Maintain a team diary.
  • Do not overly rely on e-mail. Expect people to talk in person, by telephone or video conference, at least once every few weeks.

Running on luck … the Young Manufacturing exercise

Tonight’s role-playing exercise from the EMOB, page 235 entitled “Upward Communication: Young Manufacturing Company,” illustrated a case where the CEO of the company was absolutely clueless and his management team was running amok. Apparently, if you order 1 million gaskets and find out they are defective, this can be the ultimate test of a just-in-time inventory system. And when your CEO doesn’t know that you’ve switched to a just-in-time inventory system, and you commit all of the companies resources to trying to rework the product of a defective supply chain, you get the Young Manufacturing Company.

I had the great misfortune of playing Roy Conti, manager of quality control and a direct report to Bob Young, the president of the company. And apparently my character has still not gotten over the fact that his son was not hired by the company, and that instead they hired Fran Kurowski. Now, Roy has been with the company from the very beginning ( nine years ago) and from the looks of things he’ll be there till the bitter end. It turns out that the genius in charge of production, Donna Kelly, specializes in obfuscation but not so much in production.

Don’t make me get the gun out of my trunk! (just kidding)

Seriously, this is no laughing matter. In tonight’s class, we watched a video called “Workplace Violence: First Line of Defense.” The video was a half-hour long, and focus on the prevalence, risks and mitigating strategies related to workplace violence. The number one cause of death for women in the workplace and the number two cause of death for men in the workplace is homicide, and companies need to have effective policies and response mechanisms to address any threats of violence, no matter how trivial they might seem.

We hear about the expression “going postal” and immediately associate that with fits of rage and violence in the workplace, ostensibly in some branch of the US Postal Service. The folks at USPS say it’s a myth …

*Despite a number of highly publicized post office incidents, a Postal Service commission reported in 2000 that postal employees are actually less likely to be homicide victims than other workers. The phrase “going postal,” which the commission noted has become a pejorative shorthand phrase for employee violence, is a “myth,” the report said. (Source: Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace, quoted in U.S. Postal Service Annual Report, 2000.)

The video debunked a myth that workers just simply “snap” without warning, stating instead that there are typically indications that lead up to a violent event. Some of the indicators and warnings signs pointed out in the video included a drop-off in productivity, a decrease in performance, increase in noted problems in the workplace with a certain employee, and what could be construed as an increase in paranoia. Additional clues include anger, hostility, fear, and a threatening demeanor.

Unfortunately, supervisors tend to distance themselves from the situation or isolate the employee to avoid a confrontation rather than applying discipline; this actually makes the problem worse!

The following early warning signs were pointed out:

  1. Making direct or indirect threats
  2. A fascination with coverage of or discussion of violence in the workplace
  3. A fascination with fire arms, particularly automatic weapons

Managers need to be aware of the problem, document what has been observed or has occurred, and follow and enforce company policy. Procedures for identifying the issue include interviewing the employee, interviewing the supervisor and interviewing coworkers to verify what was said, who else heard it, and what risks may be involved. Effective intervention may include counseling, disciplinary measures, suspension and termination.

In the video, there was an employee named Carl who was increasingly agitated by quality control scrutiny and other steps being taken by management that he believed were unfair. His supervisor simplified the matter by saying that Carl is “not a happy camper,” but clearly the warning signs were there that Carl was escalating his rhetoric and could already be a danger to his managers and coworkers.

By the way, the FBI offers an 80-page guide to workplace violence, take a look!