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Avoiding the Eye

February 28 2011 in approach, management, mistakes

In “The Lord of the Rings”, the great work of fantasy literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, the villain Sauron has one fatal flaw. This flaw brings about his ruination. Sauron does not trust his minions to act independently of him and so must direct everything they do. The problem is he can only turn his “Eye” – basically his attention – to one direction at a time. If he is looking in your direction, the full weight of his power come down on you. If he is looking elsewhere, he barely notices you. In the end, because his attention is not where it should be, the heroes are able to accomplish their quest and Sauron is overthrown.

Too often, managers act this way. They do not trust their people to act independently. If the manager’s attention is on you, you feel the full force of their gaze. If not, you are left adrift.

At first, it might seem advantageous to have the attention of a manager, perhaps even the CEO. It is but not when it’s solely on one group. No one can operate effectively when they are placed under the microscope. Knowing that every thing they do is being scrutinized makes team members nervous. It signals to others that the group can’t be trusted since they are not being treated like they are trusted. Under this type of intense attention, group members spend most of their time trying to find ways to please the manager or move “the Eye” in a different direction. All the while, the rest of the team is not getting the attention it needs and deserves.

This is common in companies run by entrepreneurs. By nature, many successful entrepreneurs like control. They also think that they have more to give than anyone else. And more to lose as well. Both of these situations are true to some extent. As successful founders they have learned many lessons and have much of their own net worth tied up in the venture.

Entrepreneurs are also builders and fixers. This becomes a big problem when coupled with the Sauron style of management. Nothing the team does is good enough, everything must be fixed. Plans, experience, standards, other points of view,  none of these apply anymore and it is frustrating to the team.

Unfortunately, this management style denigrates the unique experiences that others bring to the company. It makes productive and successful people leave for places where they perceive they are more appreciated. It allows disaster to occur because of inattention to other parts of the company and because the manager is diving into tactical details instead of driving strategy.

I worked at a company like this. It was often a difficult place to work. When the CEO was paying attention to your department, everything was harder to do. You had to justify every action, no matter how small. You literally had to plan for interference in low level details. At the same time, you knew other things were slipping because “the Eye” was on you and not on others. Ultimately, many of the best people left or were poached. Often the company seemed to careen from crisis to crisis. A lot of time was spent insuring that the CEO was paying attention to anyone else but you.

As a manager, you have to be mindful of the tendency to place all of your attention on one part of your team. Instead, you have to show them that you trust them enough to carry out the plan but be around just enough to provide guidance when things are not going right. Place some under the microscope and you will only make them upset and frustrated. everyone else will be starved for attention. Your team members will spend time – time better spent on making products and generating revenue – trying to divert your gaze toward someone else. They will focus on you and not on the business.

Like Sauron, this will be your ruin. Sooner or later your attention will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and it will be too late. By then you will have destroyed your team and perhaps your business. Instead, learn to detect when your “Eye” is lingering too long in one place. Ask yourself “Don’t I have other things to attend to?” Avoid the trap that “the Eye” lays for you.


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Building Trust After Service Mistakes

February 23 2011 in customers, management, mistakes

One of the major trends in the computer industry today is cloud computing. There are a number of debates as to what cloud computing really is. Some feel it’s all marketing hype. Others view cloud computing as a way to completely change the way IT is financed, moving infrastructure form a CAPEX to an OPEX model.

No matter your religion on cloud computing one thing is certain – more and more IT is going to be outsourced to nearly anonymous services. Whether it’s Google, Amazon, or any number of other vendors who supply applications and infrastructure via a cloud model, a lot of IT will shift to these providers.


The big fly in the ointment is trust. Do I trust you with my data? Can you be trusted to deliver vital business services all the time? Should I trust the people inside your organization, most of whom I’ve never met?

Trust is the cornerstone of all services because it is a measure of perceived risk. There are certainly different levels of trust connected to different types of risk which, in turn, are associated with different outcomes and costs. Someone might trust you with something small with a negligible negative outcome but not when the stakes are high.

But gradients of trust and outcomes don’t matter as much as you might think. The psychological aspect of trust is a bit more black and white. One negative incident might be a temporary failure of the quality control system. Intellectually, we know this. Emotionally, it ruins our trust and raises the perceived risk well above the actual outcome. A single bad outcome can destroy all trust in the business. Even if you fix the problem, it introduces lingering doubts.

Quality programs, good business processes, attention to details, and a customer service focus are all part of maintaining trust. But we all know that a zero defect goal is unobtainable for service companies. Services are built on humans not on widgets and humans make mistakes. The big question is how do you build trust, especially after a mistake is made?

This is a simple one – convince the customer it will never happen again. That’s a simple solution but it’s hard to implement. As managers we have to take bold action to address the root cause of any customer problem, even to the point of taking extreme measures. It’s not about fixing the customer’s problem now. You have to be able to convince them that this was an anomaly that will never occur again. Ever.

That may mean showing customers the process you put in place to insure quality after the failure. Perhaps you may need to let them in on how much money you are spending to insure the same thing doesn’t happen again. Letting customers know that you have pulled an employee out of the line and sent them for retraining will help. You might even need to fire the hair stylist that gave someone the unintended buzz cut and let the aggrieved customer know about it.

In other words, fixing the problem is not enough. You have to open and honest with customers. It requires transparency.

Here’s an example. Several years ago, I took my kids to a local fast food taco restaurant. My daughter got a bean taco with a dried black substance in it. It was horrible and she couldn’t eat anything after that. Complaints to the manager went unheeded. The chain responded with an apology and a coupon. So what. Everyone does that. What impressed me was how they took corrective action and told us about it. They talked about retraining the staff and making some staffing changes. They convinced me that this was an aberration and would be unlikely to happen again. Unfortunately, my daughter was less convinced and it was years before she would go back to any store in that chain. She will never go back to the original store. Some distrust has lingered.

It is not enough to have systems in place to insure quality. It is not enough to take complaints seriously and give compensation to customers that have been wronged. You have to insure problems will never occur again and communicate that to the customer. When a mistake has been made have to begin to rebuild trust from the ground up. If you can’t, your business is doomed.

Whether it’s cloud computing or tacos, trust is everything. Service companies are only one mistake away from disaster at any time. You maintain trust by providing quality work. You fix trust when it has been damaged by bold action and transparency. Nothing less will work.

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