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Swarming talent and manpower outsourcing

| business, japan, management, work

One of the posts from the Smart Work Jam about the future of team work was about the idea of “swarming talent”, a talent pool that flows in and out of projects.

That sounds almost just like the manpower outsourcing (労働者派遣業, Google translation to English) I’d learned about when I went on an AOTS technical scholarship in Japan in 2004. In Japan, it’s difficult to do large projects in one company because payroll costs would be much too high during non-busy times. So they have a very flexible structure that’s similar to using lots of contractors or collaborating with lots of companies. It is not unheard of for someone to work at Company A, get dispatched to Company B, which then dispatches the person to Company C.

It lets companies manage their manpower requirements really flexibly, but it has its own challenges. My instructor emphasized the difficulty of working out disputes or making accommodations, because of the complex coordination needed between different companies. The Wikipedia entry lists even more.

Something worth thinking about…

I think it’s absolutely fascinating that we can look at how different societies experiment with different policies or systems, and we can learn from their experiences. I think it’s also cool that something I learned in one context turns out to be useful in another. Travel is tough, but being able to connect the dots makes it worthwhile…

Five reasons why I’m experimenting with outsourcing to virtual assistants

| kaizen, management

My experiments with outsourcing amuse some people and raise questions for others. It’s difficult for most people (including me!) to give up control and delegate tasks to other people. We’re not used to it, and we don’t have many opportunities to explore it.

A friend of mine asked me recently if I found that I needed to have many of my outsourced tasks re-done. Out of the 58 tasks I’ve reviewed so far, I needed to ask for four tasks to be completely re-done (or I found it easier to just fix it myself), and I had minor quibbles about the way six were done. That’s 7% redoing, 10% minor tweaking, and 83% totally happy with the results. Not bad, and the ratio will get even better as I learn more about delegation and as I make more of my processes explicit. I’m also very happy with the work I’ve delegated to my Philippine-based virtual assistants, which tends to be more about research or ongoing work.

As I reflected on my outsourcing experiment, I realized that I’m doing it for a number of reasons that might not be immediately obvious to people.

1. I can optimize my energy, kickstart tasks, and enjoy a little leverage on time.

The time savings are obvious to people, but for me, energy is the biggest factor here. There are some tasks that I don’t particularly enjoy doing, and some tasks I feel almost anxious about doing. Being able to delegate those tasks to someone else lets me focus on what I’m passionate about and minimizes interruptions when I’m concentrating. It’s also helpful for kickstarting tasks that I’ve been procrastinating. Someone else provides the initial energy – looking up numbers, putting together some links – and then I can work on improving the results. This is similar to the way first drafts are hard to put together, but easy to revise. And I can spend five minutes delegating tasks that would’ve taken me an hour to do, giving me just a little leverage on my time.

2. I can learn to scale even further.

We all have the same amount of time each day. If I want to make the most difference I can, I’ll need to either become a solo genius (think Tesla) or learn how to harness the power of others (think Edison). There’s a limit to how productive I can be by myself, and besides, I enjoy learning from other people in the process of working with them. So, if I learn how to tap the strengths of other people, I can scale up beyond the limits of my own time and energy.

3. I can refine my processes.

As I try to delegate more and more processes, I find myself describing them and reflecting on how to do them more effectively. This helps me be more productive, it helps my assistants be more productive, and it helps other people be more productive, too.

4. I can learn how to delegate in a safe environment.

If I’ll need to learn how to delegate in order to accomplish a bigger difference, I might as well learn how to do so in a low-risk setting. Many people learn about management when they become managers, which is difficult because they’re held accountable for real business goals. Outsourcing to virtual assistants lets me learn about delegation and management in a setting that simplifies many of the factors (I don’t have to worry about HR too much, for example) and lets me experiment with low-risk tasks. If I incorrectly specify a task, I’m only risking some Web research, not a big project. Think of this as an MBA on steroids, because even in an MBA program, you don’t really delegate tasks to your classmates or hold yourself responsible for making sure things get done. ;)

It’s like programming, too. I’m good at giving computers specific instructions to get the result I want, and I enjoy breaking problems down and coming up with solutions. I’m also good at understanding complex systems and holding them in my head, where I might not remember all the details but I’ll remember the relationships between components and I can figure out how to build something so that it blends in with existing structures and processes. What if I can get better at giving people specific instructions, and holding those complex systems in my head too? And just like programming, I won’t be able to do it well right away. I needed to write a lot of wrong programs (unintentionally, of course!) in order to get better at debugging them and learn about common pitfalls. As I learn more about delegation, I’m sure I’ll make mistakes–but that’s all part of the learning experience.

5. I can develop characteristics of leadership.

This brings to mind two interesting points from books I’ve recently read. One of the insights in Managing with Power that I found surprising can be found on page 73 and 74:

Not only do we overattribute power to personal characteristics, but often the characteristics we believe to be sources of power are almost plausibly the consequences of power instead.

Without, for the moment, denying that these characteristics are associated with being powerful and politically effective, consider the possibility that at least some of them result from the experience of being in power. Are we likely to be more articulate and poised when we are more powerful? Are we likely to be more popular? Isn’t it plausible that power causes us to be extroverted, as much as extroversion makes us powerful? Aren’t more powerful and politically effetive people likely to be perceived as more competent?

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Managing with Power
(thanks to Ian Garmaise for the recommendation; it’s an interesting book, well worth a read)

Now combine that thought with the thesis of Bringing Out the Best in Others (Thomas K. Connellan), which is that firstborns are statistically overrepresented among leaders due to a combination of high expectations, early accountabilitiy, and good feedback. That makes sense. Older kids are often asked to take care of younger kids, and so on. (Thanks to W- for checking that book out for me from the library!)

I’m the youngest of three sisters, so I never needed to take responsibility for my siblings, and they certainly wouldn’t hear of me delegating anything to them. ;) I don’t need to wait for anyone to give me authority so that I can learn how to delegate, though. I can invest time and money into learning that myself, so that I can learn how to build bigger things in the future. =) The more I practice, perhaps the more confident I’ll be, the more my analytical and communication skills will improve–which could lead to more opportunities to practice, and so on.

So it’s not just about saving five minutes here and there, or helping redistribute resources to developing countries (although that’s part of the reason why I’ve hired some virtual assistants from the Philippines). It’s all part of an Evil Plan. I mean an Awesome Plan. ;)

On the other side of the (virtual) desk

| kaizen, management

If I’m going to take over the world, I need to learn how to delegate. ;)

It’s a simple matter of mathematics. There are only so many hours in the day. I can’t achieve infinite productivity. Scaling up means figuring out how to work with others and how to delegate.

The traditional way of learning how to delegate involves being promoted to a management role, and that takes time and opportunity. With a little of the money I’ve set aside for my Crazy Idea Fund, I can experiment with delegation and personal outsourcing now. (Naturally, I delegate only non-IBM-confidential things.)

I interviewed almost 10 candidates out of more than 40 who applied. I’ve hired five people on a trial basis and assigned them a few tasks. In the process, I learned so much already! <laugh>

  • 80% of success is showing up. Half of the applicants didn’t notice the timezones on my invitations to pick an interview slot, even though I chose a tool that made it easy for them to translate the timezones to their own. And I’d already picked really early and really late times to make it easy for them to fit it into their schedules! Result: Many candidates had to reschedule interviews, and I lost time and sleep while waiting around. Making this better: Next time, I’ll assume people don’t know anything about timezones and I’ll point out the feature for changing timezones.
  • I’m a personal-development kind of manager. I’m pretty flexible in the tasks I assign, and I like finding out what people’s strengths and passions are so that I can find the intersection between my needs and their interests. I like how oDesk lets me get a glimpse of how people work, and I offer suggestions based on that. I also encourage people to take some time to reflect on how to make things better.
  • I tend to underestimate the time other people need. I find things on the Web really quickly because I’m used to opening a gazillion tabs and using web clipping tools like to store quick notes. I also speed-read like anything. Most people aren’t like that. I need to either scale up my time estimates or help people develop their skills.
  • A two-hour chunk is too short a time, particularly considering people are still getting started. I need to give people at least four hours to do a task. Maybe they’ll even get into a flow state.
  • I should start with highly-focused tasks or give people more time to become familiar with something. Web research might be difficult for VAs because they’re not yet familiar with the terminology, and I remember how it takes a bit of browsing around to get a sense of what things are called and where to look for information.
  • Trying people on a temporary basis is good. One of the advantages of working with small tasks and a structure like oDesk is that instead of betting the farm on one VA, I can try several VAs in parallel and then pick one who’s really the best fit. This is probably more expensive up front, but I learn a lot more because of the variety. After a month, perhaps I’ll decide which VA to work with going forward.

So the next thing that would make this VA experiment better would be to give people a four-hour task (perhaps building on what they’ve already done), and then continue with those who can keep up. I can also reevaluate my budget for the experiment, maybe add some more so that I can give people longer tasks and get a better sense of how people work, and then go from there. I think it’s worth continuing to invest in learning how to delegate, and it would be awesome to eventually build a support structure that can help me scale.

I suspect that after a short trial, I won’t find anyone whose skills will blow me away–but that goes back to what I’ve reflected on before, with employers who expect that people will have all the necessary skills right off the bat.

Yes, some people will figure out what they want to learn and invest time in learning those things. It would be awesome if I come across someone like that – but then I would want them to do more in life than handle other people’s web research and calendars! ;) So in the long run, I think it makes sense for me to invest in improving people’s skills.

Managers and companies sometimes complain that the people they invest in end up moving on. It’s okay if people “graduate” from working with me and go on to do other things. That’d be terrific, and it would give me even more return on my effort! In the meantime, the training materials I build to help people learn how to work can help the next person, and the next person, and so on. In fact, having more newbies go through the system would be great for improving it.

Writing this blog post seems to have fleshed out my reasons for doing this experiment, and what I can do with it… Can’t wait to learn even more!

Gen Y Perspective: Flexibility, Work-Life Balance, and Curb Cuts

| gen-y, management

In today’s Teach Me Teamwork seminar on managing Gen Y, Bea Fields (the author of Millennial Leaders) mentioned that many managers are taken aback by Gen Y’s demands for flextime, telecommuting, and other work-life balance initiatives. Some companies complain about the lack of work ethic in young employees and wonder how much of a circus work needs to be in order to retain and engage Gen Y. Other companies are adapting, exploring results-only work environments and other-than-traditional-office arrangements.

I am really glad that Gen Yers have the chutzpah and the numbers to make workplace flexbility and work-life balance a front-and-center issue. We’ve seen the consequences of other people’s decisions. We’ve seen people work overtime, weekends, and holidays for companies that then laid them off in resource actions or folded because of market circumstances. Many Gen Yers come from separated families where stress from work took its toll. The lesson? Making a living can’t be more important than living a life.

What do Gen Yers want? Here’s what often comes up:

  • A focus on results, not just face-time
  • The ability to work from home or from anywhere
  • The flexibility to work when we’re most effective, whether that’s early in the morning or late at night

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Workplace flexibility and work-life balance weren’t a Gen Y issue in the beginning. This started with working mothers who found themselves pulled between the demands of family and job. Some fathers were interested in this too, but social conventions stopped it from becoming a real issue. Gen Y of both genders care about work-life balance and flexibility, and not just because of family responsibilities.

I read a lot about work-life balance, and I talk to a lot of people who’ve made decisions either way. I’ve heard how focusing on work can become a vicious cycle: if the rest of your life suffers because of your focus on work, then it’s easier to focus on work and harder to build up the rest of your life to the point where you enjoy it again. I don’t mind the occasional crunch. I want a sustainable pace, and life is too short to work at a company that wants to burn me out instead of help me grow.

Initiatives for workplace flexibility and work-life balance are like the curb-cuts that make cities better for people in wheelchairs: they benefit many more people than the original targets. If you’ve ever rolled a stroller or a suitcase along a busy street, you know how great those curb-cuts are. Flextime, telecommuting, results-only work environments, and other initiatives aren’t just about attracting and retaining Gen Y. They also help companies make the most of other people’s talents: Baby Boomers phasing into semi-retirement, Gen Xers starting to raise their own families, and people who work in non-traditional arrangements.

Flexibility and work-life balance: good for everyone.

Relentless improvement and a focus on the positive

| kaizen, management

W- asked me the other day, "Does everything need to be positive with you?" I thought about it for a bit, and I realized that yes, I firmly believe in the power of focusing on what’s positive and what’s actionable in order to grow. (So much so that I translate what other people tell me!) I think that focusing on the positive helps you build people up instead of tearing them down. I love Sam Decker’s description of one of Bazaarvoice’s workplace practices:

Quarterly performance feedback (our "3/3/1" process), including "upward" feedback for the managers from their staff – to help all of our employees rapidly grow and reduce the anxiety in our organization (everyone always knows where they stand); I have been told by many of our employees and managers that they have learned more at Bazaarvoice than anywhere else they have worked.  Our feedback is balanced (the 3/3/1 is a simple email form to document the 3 things you did well that quarter, the 3 things you could have done better, and the 1 initiative you are going to focus on as a result).  The upward feedback from staff illuminates blind-spots on our management team, many of which have never been discussed with them in previous companies because the feedback process was too poor to generate intensely constructive dialogue.

Sam Decker, myventurepad: Total Leadership and Bazaarvoice’s Amazing Culture

3/3/1. The three things you did well, the three things you could have done better, and the one initiative that you’re going to focus on as a result. Relentless improvement that gives you energy and opportunities to celebrate what you’re doing well and envision where you want to go. Good stuff.

How to find great developers

| development, management, philippines

Joel Spolsky writes about finding great developers. Internships are a terrific way to scope out a candidate and also get them passionate about your company. Previous blog post about career aside, I do really like IBM and I *am* really curious to see how far we can take social software – and one of the reasons why I'm crazy about that company and all the cool people in it is because I've seen it from the inside, thanks to the IBM Toronto Centre for Advanced Studies.

Check out the essay.

More thoughts: One of the things that frustrates me about the
Philippines is that we've got this entire chicken-and-egg problem in
the schools. Few companies do on-campus recruitment for challenging
internships, so students don't get motivation or experience – which is
why few companies bother to do on-campus recruitment or R&D.
Programming competitions help, I guess, and we do still manage to find
a couple of geeks who learn about open source and end up teaching
themselves. Still…