Author Archives: chris493

Persistent Joke #5

Similar to the Twelve Days of Christmas, we are drawing special emphasis to Number 5!

This one comes to us via Henry Mintzberg at McGill University. Karl Moore has a very popular cover version of this joke.

Here is the joke:

A group of soon-to-be freshly minted MBAs are sent on their final program project where they leave the world of case studies and simulations. They are to test their skills on a “live patient” as they analyze a real organization and provide strategic counsel to improve their future competitiveness.

Through a family connection, they start to work on a mid-level professional orchestra.

Sound strategic analysis tells the group that one high-potential strategy for “regional service providers” is to focus on efficiency in delivery, which can create the case flow required to acquire and grow. After careful and thorough analysis, the group reports back with observations and strategic recommendations. Highlights include:

Under the heading Talent Effectiveness:

  • The group seems to be performing mostly on evenings and weekends. Payroll is a major expense for such services and we are concerned that you are paying a premium for work outside of regular business hours.
  • Performances tend to be 2 or 3 hours, several times per month, with summers off. Operations Management thinking around “batch processing” will suggest that grouping performances together can curtail costs for set up and take down.

Under the heading Technology Deployment:

  • Some of the instruments appear very outdated, with one violin being several hundred years old. A comprehensive equipment refresh would take advantage of new materials that require much less maintenance and, in many cases, weigh a great deal less than older instruments.
  • Audio technology to amplify sound could mean that some of the sections that currently employ several people—who, by the way, are often playing EXACTLY the same thing—could be reduced to one player per part.

NOTE: This latter recommendation will allow additional seating for audience members on the stage. (The group attributed this insight to Blue Ocean Strategy.)

Owing to extreme tact, the group was able to access position-level compensation. This had them create a special subheading Immediate Next-level Impact:

The conductor’s remuneration is the highest of the group, although the function of this position during performances seemed to be largely to keep time and cue musicians. The group provided contact information for a classmate developer who would create an app that could both keep time and provide instant messaging cues through small electric shock so as not to provide audio interference.

Needless to say, when leadership of the Orchestra politely rejected ALL of this strategic advice, our group took it as evidence that status quo decision makers often reject “out of the box thinking” only to come to regret that decision later on when they inevitably cease to operate competitively.

Here is the point:

In many workplace interactions, let’s be mindful of three important elements for those participating:

  • Level of understanding of the situation,
  • Level of insight into workable improvement, and
  • Level of confidence to share thoughts.

Misalignment between the last one and the first two creates unfortunate situations where EITHER people speak without knowing what they are talking about OR they do not speak when they really should.

Persistent thought-provoking joke #3

Jean-Paul Sartre occasionally frequents a local cafe. His order is always the same:

“Coffee, please. Sugar, no cream.”

Understanding his particular thinking on “being,” the server faces a predicament due to a supply chain issue. (Yes, these were a pre-COVID thing, too!) The following dialogue ensues:

Sartre: Good day to you, sir. Coffee, please. Sugar, no cream.

Cafe Server: I am so sorry, Monsieur Sartre. We do not have any cream. Can I bring your coffee with no milk instead?

(Thank you Sarah Bakewell for relaying this joke of uncertain origin in the book “At the Existentialist Cafe.”)

This shows the limits of imposing philosophical rigour on real-world business problems.

There can be great merit to exploring a logical distinction in making a decision, but sometimes it is of such little consequence that rather than let such sticking points hold up a decision, the nuances are best left for discussions in the lunchroom. This is the realm of, “Do you want to be right or do you want to get some work done?”

Persistent thought-provoking joke #2

Having shared passengership on an ill-fated cruise, three professionals (a mechanical engineer, a chemist and an economist) find themselves marooned on a desert island with no source of nourishment but cans of tuna. Together, using emergency equipment from a life-raft, they have fashioned a means to capture fresh water from rain and condensation. Having mitigated the risk of dying of thirst, the three now turn their problem-solving skills to avoiding starvation:

Mechanical Engineer: I am going to walk up the beach to see if there are rocks and vines we can use. We may be able to generate enough force to break into those cans.

Chemist: If we can get enough super-salinized water in a receptacle, we may be able to soak the cans and speed up the corrosion that will weaken the cans. I am going to start by digging a hole in the sand.

Economist: I’ll set the table.

Both non-economists in unison: Hey! We can’t eat until we get these cans open!

Economist: Oh, sorry. I should have told you. I am assuming that we have a can opener.

The metaphor here is for the problem: “how do we open these cans of tuna?” and the point of the joke is that we all bring our own tools and orientations to any problem. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is yet another humourous illustrating of the weight of our own expertise in driving the action we think is best.

Rather than mocking economists for making assumptions, this joke illustrates that we all make assumptions all the time. In dealing with areas that are complex and have a degree of ambiguity (like managing performance in any business), we have to make some assumptions and make some decisions based on less-than-certain data and evidence.

Perhaps, once our two non-economists gently raise awareness to the fact that the stated assumption does not hold, our economist can engage in a more impactful supportive role. Such moments of redirection require a fairly specific context that includes shared focus, mutual trust and assertive communications.

Persistent thought-provoking joke #1

A new beat police officer patrolling the street one night finds a man squatted down at the base of lamppost. He appears to be looking for something. The officer learns that the lost object is indeed car keys and, being a kind soul, joins in the search. After a few minutes, and almost apologetically, the young officer probes to kick off the following dialogue:

Officer: “Where did you last have the keys?”

Man: “I had them when I went into that alley to, ah, take care of something.”

Officer (curious about the “something”, but feeling the next question is almost patronizing): “Then can I ask you why you are searching for them at the base of this lamppost?”

Man: “Well, you see, the light is so much better out here.”

Funny? Relevant? Yes, indeed!

The joke relates to the area of organizational performance in that people will focus on the data/evidence/findings that they have. The metaphorical circle around the base of the lamppost that is reasonably well lit. The statement, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” suggests that we pay attention to what is under the lamppost… or, bring big lights in to illuminate the alley.

The alley is the metaphor for the ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds many business decisions. Even with top-flight (and expensive!) lighting, we are not going to see every nook and cranny. Alley is a misleading metaphor because it has walls and eventually ends. Maybe the joke should reference a recollection of having the keys while in “the abyss.”

Maybe we can wade into the alley/abyss with a flash light and create more well-lit circles to inform the situation. This should be an area of curiosity around what else we could be measuring.

Maybe we simply venture into the alley and see what we bump into. This may indeed uncover some learning about which parts of the abyss are more interesting.

It is much more comfortable to stay by the lamppost, but this limits our ability to assess the situation and, thereby, monitor and judge performance.

REPOSTING – Supporting Clinical Leaders in LTC

5 steps for tackling Canada’s long-term care crisis: It starts with valuing the well-being of workers

For workers in long-term care homes, distress due to difficult working conditions is often dismissed as a part of the job description. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Sophy Chan-Nguyen, Queen’s University, Ontario and Colleen Grady, Queen’s University, Ontario

Canada’s long-term care sector was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rapidly climbing patient deaths, a lack of safety provisions coupled with already-precarious employment and difficult working conditions took its toll on the mental health of health-care workers.

Yet, wellness in the long-term care sector is rarely discussed. Distress due to difficult working conditions is often dismissed as a part of the job description. Workers are expected to “suck it up” and manage their own emotions on their own time.

The sector is currently being held together by a very vulnerable workforce and it is situated to fail without immediate intervention.

Support for self-care and protection from moral distress

In our research, we examined the impacts of two critical psychological safety factors on the long-term care workforce amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — support for self-care and protection from moral distress. Health-care workers expressed the increased need for resources to support their well-being and to address longstanding workforce issues. Five recommendations for a stronger long-term care sector are proposed.

1. Address long-standing structural issues

Structural issues have been brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes issues that are economic, social and organizational in nature.

While the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges facing the long-term care sector, workers stated that these issues are not new. Rather, decades of neglect and lack of funding has made low pay and unsafe working conditions acceptable.

A sign reading 'Now hiring PSWs RPNs RNs support services full/part time avail'
A masked worker walks behind a hiring sign on his way into the Dover Cliffs long term care home in Port Dover, Ont. in November 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The pandemic intensified existing problems with staffing shortages. In 2020, long-term care staff members made up more than 10 per cent of Canada’s total COVID-19 infection cases. Further, restricting informal caregivers from entering homes contributed to increased workloads.

Institutional support for any sort of resource (mental health, personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing) was stretched thin to keep care homes running. Resource limitations kept the hands of management teams tied, suggesting that distress was endemic across the sector.

2. Continuing education and training for self-care

Supporting staff through continuing education and training can increase their capacity for psychological self-care and help protect them from moral distress.

A woman with gray hair and a woman in scrubs and a face mask hold hands in a corridor
A resident holds hands with a health-care worker in a COVID-19 infected ward at Idola Saint-Jean long-term care home in Laval, Que. in February 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Continuing education and training can significantly improve psychological well-being among long-term care workers. Communication-focused training approaches have resulted in improvements in staff turnover, depression and anxiety. Self-compassion and acceptance-based approaches found a significant reduction in mental health symptoms.

Educational sessions connect staff with other staff, allowing them to share their expertise and frustrations — helping to alleviate conflicts and tensions amongst teams. Virtual forums can be used for peer-to-peer learning, community building and moral support.

Training must be made available to all staff. Our study found that unregulated staff such as personal support workers were often not invited to take part in training programs or company resources.

3. Invest in leadership development

Improved leadership can foster improved team functioning.

Bullying and gossip is particularly rampant in the long-term care workplace. Workers expect one another to work through distress and asking for a day off can be seen as a weakness and increasing the workload for others.

Supportive managers are critical to the psychological well-being of staff. A study on transformative leadership found a reciprocal relationship between leadership, self-reported staff well-being, team efficacy and self-efficacy — leading to job satisfaction and well-being. Transformative leaders encourage employees to create change inwardly by connecting professional goals to a wider sense of belonging in their workplace.

Underfunding and resource constraints make it difficult to provide meaningful and accessible supports, reducing workers’ ability to protect themselves against moral distress in the workplace.

4. Ensure safe working conditions

Three people in PPE seen through a window
Long-term care workers in PPE look out the window of a long term care home in Québec during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Insufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) at the workplace was a concern for workers in the sector. Staff shortages and lack of knowledge from management contribute to poor infection control and safety. Low wages and limited benefits also place workers in vulnerable situations, with limited options to practice physical and psychological self-care.

Funnelling resources and funding into this sector will not only improve staffing. It is critical for reducing the rapid turnover caused by uncontrolled exposure to COVID-19.

5. Supportive human resource policies

Long-term care needs to develop and/or improve human resource policies that support workers and acknowledge their value.

Low wages and precarious employment characterize this sector. Workers were fearful to take time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine for fear of losing wages.

Part-time and contract workers in the sector, often personal support workers, are not eligible for medical benefits and must pay out-of-pocket for injuries incurred at work. Many of these workers are racialized, immigrant women. Workers also often do not have entitlement to paid sick days. These factors point to systemic discrimination and undervaluing compared to other professionals in the sector.

A call to action

The Royal Society of Canada argues that the very first step to tackling the long-term care crisis is through workforce reform and redesign. This not only addresses low wages and resource shortages but serves more importantly to rebuild trust and dignity. To bolster support for the sector, public awareness and advocacy play a key role in advancing health-care reform.

Sophy Chan-Nguyen, Research Associate, Queen’s University, Ontario and Colleen Grady, Associate Professor, Family Medicine, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It has been a while – what’s new and what’s changed?

Maybe it was the uncertainty around Twitter, but I have decided to return to blogging here. Talk (blogging?) is cheap, so we will see how long this energy lasts.

Off the top, looking back and some of my posts and drafts from almost five years ago (The last time I published on this site was 2017), much of what I had originally positioned as “fundamental thinking” is unchanged. I will continue to review and revise. The first set of posts will likely be focussed on such changes or affirmations.

Turns of phrase that I have found myself using more and more center around “action” and “inaction.” The retrospective brings together binary thinking (from Bandersnatch, 2018) and the “always three options” from my reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (also 2018, based on the publish date of a Linked In article). So, in the face of “stay the course” or “try something new,” that every business faces, we can indeed act in a new way or not. The “not” part of if can be divided in two: not acting because you can’t figure out what to do or are still talking about it AND not acting because you have consciously decided to stay the course.

Note: If you want to further dissect the “stay the course,” one could ask: “Are you staying the course with confidence OR staying the course with curiosity?” As Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance warns, it is possible to over contemplate.

Looking forward to getting back to this kind of writing and thinking. I am always looking for things to think and write about: questions, developments, concerns, etc.

Stay tuned.

The solvable problem with Self Evaluations

I have a vivid memory of a self-evaluation from my undergrad days at McGill. We had to take a writing course, which must have been a cross-cultural exercise for the Faculty of English instructors that ventured into the Business building for these weekly encounters. There was a self-evaluation at the end of it, which, if I recall correctly, included a pre-amble that encouraged reflection on your development over the 12 weeks, as well as your ability compared to your classmates. I think I may have been guilted into responding “B+” and admitting that I could really have done more. I talked to classmates afterwards, some of whom skipped a number of classes. Their responses were “A. Can I give myself an A+?” (Note: A+ was not an option. McGill operated on the U.S. 4-point GPA system.)

This is a very obvious example of the challenges of “self-evaluations.” Self-attribution bias leads us to truly believe that we excel. Self-preservation instincts dampen the guilt of over stating the truth because these results can create positive future options or avoid negative future outcomes. For the undergrad business student, “strong marks = better job opportunities upon graduation” so, go for the A.  In a business context, if staffing cuts are looming, do you really want to have a mediocre self-evaluation in the HR file?! I wonder how many of my fellow graduates, decades into their business careers, have grown to learn that actual strength in writing provides a significant advantage in the workplace.

Necessary perspective

The self-evaluation brings the performer’s perspective into the discussion, which is absolutely crucial and applies to an organizational context. In addition to “perspective,” objectivity is also vital and this is enabled by clear criteria. The healthiest criteria mix features both “what you do” (e.g. somewhat controllable; gets at “how” your get results) and “what you accomplish” (e.g. somewhat more impacted by external factors; focussed on outcomes).

The evaluation becomes less of an assault on the ego if we can validate that someone did “what was expected” even if they did not “achieve expected results.” This demands some time and effort up front to go through the exercise of making logical connections between activity and results. You have to be ready for a reasoned conversation about what drives performance.

“How are we doing?” is a big question

For an organization, the questions about “what results do you want to achieve?” and “what do you think gives the best chance at achieving those results?” are really big questions that bring out some deep-seeded assumptions. A good strategic discussion will expose these and will explore some of the big decisions behind some of our assumptions. This should surface options to move forward rather than a clear best way. Imagine interactions where people say, “We said we are trying to reduce T&E, so we can’t fly everyone down for this meeting,” OR “We said that our focus was growing our business with our top-tier accounts, so we can’t get too anxious because we lost some tier-3 business.”

Like anything, involvement breeds acceptance, so it makes sense to have a senior-team conversation to tease out relevant expected outcomes and relevant expected actions. When you are involved in creating your own report card, the evaluation feels less daunting. This may turn down the volume on the “self-attribution bias” and the “self-preservation instinct.”

All I really need to know I learned in… Business School?

Every once in a while you will see the “Everything important I learned in Kindergarten” claims that list insights like: clean up after yourself, share everything, be nice to others and wash your hands before you eat. I find myself thinking about the responsibility of business schools (especially at the graduate level) to encourage business-ready behaviours in addition to business-ready thinking. A big part of this, in my opinion, is dialling down the teacher-student dynamic whereby the latter is extremely attentive to discerning what the former wants to hear and restricts all commentary accordingly. There is an interesting transition from “what are your expectations for a deliverable?” to “what should I write for the deliverable?” I know managers face the same challenge in dealing with some direct reports.

School can be an exciting and stressful time for students and any instructor has to deal with a wide range of behaviours. As an instructor in an MBA program, I frequently use the litmus test of “would this be tolerated/encouraged in an effective workplace?” to determine my responses to some of the more notable cases. Consistent with this, in my opinion, an effective workplace would not have employees pandering in the aforementioned manner to the “bosses,” although I know that such corporate cultures and managerial styles do exist.

There are two big buckets of behaviours that catch my focus:

  1. Surprise and delight – e.g. Wow! I didn’t even ask you to / tell you to do that.
  2. Jaw dropping – e.g. Wow! Someone has to ask you / tell you to do (not to do) that?

The contents of Bucket #1 often shed a light on areas where I could have been much more clearer with my instructions. As I find myself with dozens of downloaded files with the title “mid term,” the file stands out when it includes the student’s name and other identifying information (e.g. chris_irwin_mid-term_ WED class). People often talk about little things making a big difference, but the impact of that alone is huge. Perhaps those who include it have received guidance in the past (e.g. please include your name and section number in the file name). Perhaps they have been in a similar multiple-file-receiving situation themselves. I can’t help but draw the assumption that this is an example of someone thinking “My professor will get a lot of these. What can I do to make their life a little easier?” (Note: I am fully aware that any future student, having read this,  may engage in that specific practice because they know that is what I want.)

The agonizingly opposing actions (destined for Bucket #2) is the response: “You didn’t tell us we had to…” Understandably, this is most often in response to students losing marks for things… and usually the student is “right” in that I could have told them. (Equating “grades” and “performance evaluations” is a topic for another time.) Invoking my earlier litmus test, should someone at a Masters level of education be expecting to be told everything they need to do? My answer to this is, “No,” but I am sure there are differing responses that are completely reasonable. In some work contexts, it is reasonable to be prescriptive about the tasks involved. I have heard many a manager complain that their team members are too quick to say “just tell me what to do,” rather than be reasonably pro-active… maybe thinking “I do have some questions, but my boss is really busy; can I do anything to make my bosses life easier?”

In addition to analysis tools and skills, in addition to practical conceptual frameworks, I think that business schools have a responsibility to promote behaviours that will lead to success in the workplace (and discourage behaviours that won’t). Idealistic as this may be, if we go back to the litmus test, we are looking for behaviours that align with an “effective workplace.” Whether these behaviours are the cause or the effect of business success is an academic question (that could be kicked around a business school!).

“That’s a great company name!”

When the prompt of “Company name?” comes my way, “Measure of Success” often gets a reaction. Just this week, my bank paid me the complement you find in title of this post.

NOTE: An SEO expert would not share this evaluation: a search for “measure of success” does not easily serve up Measure of Success Inc.

The original naming contained a double entendre referencing “measures/metrics” (e.g. “So, tell me what do you use to measure your success?”) and “small amount” (e.g. “Well, our last foray into that market did generate a measure/modicum of success.”) Clever, no?

The practical focus of this venture is the importance and complexity of measuring performance. Financial measures are great to show past results, and forecasts are great for setting expectations. For current activity, attempts to “measure” cause more problems than they solve.

No one questions the importance of setting goals in order to mobilize a group of people or an organization. These are important gauges for individuals to derive a sense of accomplishment and, perhaps more importantly, set the expectation by which we are evaluated and judged. Choosing the measure shapes activity and can quickly change the focus. Recall the oft-relayed story of the spouse looking for keys in the kitchen. It is later revealed that the keys were indeed last seen in the bedroom, but “the lighting is better here.” (There is also a version involving a drunk, a lamppost and the other side of the street.)

The clarity of metrics and measures give rise to an emboldened sense of purpose for both current activity forecasting. I have written about the utility of logic models in isolating what exactly you are measuring. Again, the rigour of this model—and the fervour with which some apply it—suggest that it is all encompassing when in the very large picture, the greater impact of any activity will be necessarily ambiguous.

Here is an example that is near to my métier: Evaluation of training and education.

The Kirkpatrick model seems to mirror the logic model in moving from more superficial to more complex:

  • Level 1 – Reaction (Did you .. . like it? … find it relevant? … etc.)
  • Level 2 – Learning (Did you… remember it? … get it?)
  • Level 3 – Behaviour (Are you using it?)
  • Level 4 – Results (Is it making a difference? What is the ROI?)

Sounds pretty straightforward, yes? Well, imagine you conducting training on some area of communication like being assertive, professional and respectful  in dealing with workplace conflict.

  • Level 1 – What is the reaction if a participant learns that she/he is not very good at listening? How is “reaction” affected by a hot lunch?
  • Level 2 – Can you test this?
  • Level 3 – What do we look for? What if, during an observation, we get the sense that people are “going through the motions”?
  • Level 4 – Where do you even start? Complaints to managers (conceivably of people who encounter approaches to conflict which are not professional, respectfully, etc.)? Retention numbers (because, if we manage conflict better, people will be happier and stay)? Instances of obvious conflict (because people are not shying away from these important conversations)?

The tremendous temptation is to (1) oversimplify or (2) not really even try to measure impact. Temptation #1 would be invoked if the client (internal or external) demands measurement. The real danger here is that the oversimplified metric sways activity. Imagine if we were tracking “visible searching hours” as a Level 3 indicator after we had trained people in “looking for keys.” The camera is in the kitchen. (Recall: the keys are in the bedroom.)

I would love to think that my services can help you avoid Temptation  #2.

So, is there irony in a company called “Measure of Success” suggesting that it is impossible to clearly measure your success? May it’s not such a good name…

Oral tradition and written word in the workplace

Bloomberg published a fascinating article on a potential transition from society’s reliance on the written word to a society that works more heavily in spoken word (e.g. Post-literate) even if that “spoken word” is actually written in short burst (e.g. tweets).

Thankfully, no organization has to manage the breadth of diversity and divisiveness that exists today in the United States, but it is worth looking at the interplay between spoken and written word in providing the context for the working environment (e.g. corporate culture). The Bloomberg article identifies ways to make the most of a primarily oral environment (and how Donald Trump used these so effectively):

  1. Use tightly descriptive language (e.g. Crooked Hillary);
  2. Be redundant and repetitive (e.g. “I am a leader. I am a leader. I lead people,” etc.); and
  3. Engage in reflexive debate (e.g. “You’re the puppet!”).

To the first point, any workplace teems with acronyms and lingo that can convey a great deal of information quickly. We are also quick to hammer such mantras as “we are here for our customers” or “we have to be patient-centred.” Reflexive debate may be visible in more formal meeting environments or can also take place between two people behind closed doors. Unfortunately, such quips are also part of corrosive e-mail chains. The manner in which an organizational culture allows such “debates” can be defining of the work environment.

On the other side of the divide, the written word provides the luxury of being able to reference (rather than simply recall) decisions that we have made, policy that we have crafted and lessons that we have learned. In written documentation, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to fully explore a nuanced space, for example, we can describe exactly what “customer-centric decision making” entails beyond the tagline that “the customer is always right.” Further benefits of written communication come to bear when we make such content widely available, which can promote transparency beyond the group that is directly involved.

Technology has given us excellent solutions for availability. Accessibility may provide the biggest challenge for workplace policies and procedures. The written documents become very important in dealing with such issues as compliance, governance and litigation. The expectations of these areas tend to pull us away from being “widely accessible.”

NOTE: I was recently exposed to the acronym RTFM (Read the F@#%!*@g Manual) or RTFI (Read the F@#%!*@g Intranet). The predictable “oral response” to this written barb is: Make Your F@#%!*@g Manuals More Accessible (MTFMMA).

Discussion and dialogue are the means of collaboration that are most familiar and effective. In today’s work world, “oral” may not mean just spoken (think “chat” or informal e-mail discussions). The Bloomberg article references Marshall McLuhan’s edict “The medium is the message.” In a workplace, one can expect a blending of media and messages. The written reflexive debate can get ugly very quickly. As an example (ironically), have a look at the written “oral” comments at the bottom of that Bloomberg article.