Over the weekend, I posted about my writer's slump and that I was working on a new book called, 10 Steps to Better Management. Several of you left helpful comments and several more sent me emails - thanks for the support!
I thought I would share a rough wee piece that's part of the chapter on how to build great teams. It's not edited, but I would love to read what you think about the concept. Interesting? Helpful? Annoying? Old news? What would you add? Thanks!
Cultivate Productive Irreverence
When we are irreverent, we show a lack of respect for people or things. Productive irreverence is showing a lack of respect for things, processes, practices, and tasks that ought to change in order for the team to progress. I am not advocating that team members demonstrate a lack of respect for one another, but I am encouraging a lack of respect for projects that no longer makes sense. Productive irreverence is needed to ensure that you and your team members are questioning practices and tasks that ought to be questioned. Someone who is productively irreverent is an occasional troublemaker and a person you want on your team – more than one would be even better.
Another aspect of being productively irreverent is knowing when and how to communicate concerns and knowing when to stop. I love occasional troublemakers, I really do. That said, too much is too much! Productive irreverence is selective. I have had the occasion to coach several less than selective folks about how to pick battles to have maximum influence and impact.
How do you, as the manager, cultivate productive irreverence? Here are two powerful strategies. I bet you can guess the first one – role model productive irreverence. Make sure that you challenge the status quo when warranted and show impatience with continuing to do the wrong things. I have had managers tell me that their work environment does not tolerate productive irreverence. I wonder why this is? Of the people who say this, perhaps 5% are really stuck – they work for the top paying employer, need the work to feed their five kids, and the work environment is really looking more for compliance than contribution. Honestly, this book is not written for people who work in this type of environment. And I believe that most managers – the other 95% or so - would improve their reputation, not harm it, by being productively irreverent.
Here’s a bonus - being productively irreverent is so much fun! It is fun because when we help our managers, peers, or team members see something in a new way, breakthroughs can occur. Breakthroughs are cool. Think about your current list of projects. I bet one or more of these projects ought to be changed or killed. What a relief to the team and business it would be to cross off irrelevant projects from their lists of worries. And this relates to enlivening the mind too, because working on a stupid project feels stupid – and draining – and no fun.
Here’s how you become productively irreverent. Look back at steps 1, 2, and 3 (blog readers, this refers to earlier in the book, sorry). Ask yourself if there are tasks, projects, or processes that are taking up people’s time and energy that do not directly support the results you are being asked to produce. Evaluate everything, even small things like reports, meetings, approvals required, or documentation. Each day, question one action or task with the appropriate people in a productive way. Here’s an example of how you might tee up that conversation:
We all have way too much on our to-do lists and I want to do my part in helping us reduce the activities that might no longer make sense relative to our other priorities. I did a quick map of the process we use to get product specifications to the marketing department. Everyone is frustrated with how long this takes and it’s nobody’s fault, the process is just very long and I think there might be a couple places where we can cut steps and make everyone happier.
I call someone who is productively irreverent a prodIR (sounds like prodder). Effective prodIRs share their intent first, which should always be something along the lines of making everyone’s work life easier and more productive. ProdIRs are a bit like beauty pageant contestants, they always want to create world peace. Productive irreverence is all about making the work planet a lot better. The power of this work is that when we improve our workplace, everyone raises his or her game.
That’s how you become a prodIR – start small and start having well intended, open, and positive conversations that ask, “Why?” Don’t get upset if people defend the status quo and decide they want to keep things as is. Do your best job of sharing potential opportunities for improvement and keep plugging away (to an extent, remember, we still need to be selective).
Never go negative – if you go negative that’s not productive, it’s just plain irreverent. I had a manager pal who would occasionally blow a gasket if he did not get his way when he brought up things he thought needed to change. This immaturity hurt his ability to influence his peers and managers and got in the way of his career. He eventually overcame this derailing factor, which is great, because had he not changed he would have one day become more of a troublemaker than the business could tolerate.
The second strategy for cultivating productive irreverence is to ask for it. Seek all kinds of input and show you are thankful for challenging questions, concerns, and diverse ideas. Call it productive irreverence and ask for it by name when you meet with your team. This will help some get over the fear of sharing their concerns. Ask for ideas that might seem crazy or impossible. Make it a routine to ask your team members for the tasks on their list that they think is not worth the effort. Show gratitude, no matter which tasks they identify. Ask clarifying questions to better understand why he or she thinks the task is of low value. Hire people who you know will challenge you. Promote employees who take the initiative to try and improve processes and practices, even when doing so might involve bringing up a sensitive topic (like your pet project!). If an employee questions your pet project – great! (Really, it’s great.)
Long live the prodIR!