Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.


In 2009 Google launched "Project Oxygen." You probably haven't heard of it, because it's not a product. It's Google's quest to build a better boss. In typical Google fashion, the company gathered enough data on managerial performance to float a battleship. They followed up with interviews, coded feedback, and ranked results in order of importance. What they found is music to any lean manager's ears. Here's how the NYTimes describes it:

Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight [drivers of managerial excellence]. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

John Shook over at the Lean Enterprise Institute has been talking about this for awhile now (most recently here). It seems so simple, doesn't it? Go see. Ask why. Show respect.

And yet.

Even assuming that your managerial team is staffed by well-meaning people and not those who think that Mein Kampf is the sine qua non for leadership lessons, this simple activity is surprisingly difficult, for two reasons.

First, finding time to "go see" is absurdly hard. Managers and executives spend so much time cooped up in conference rooms that you'd think they were mapping the human genome, not setting the sales price for a new candy bar. Spending six hours a day stifling hypnagogic jerks in a Powerpoint-induced stupor isn't exactly a solid foundation for a "go see" culture.

Second, we want to help. We want to solve problems. And, frankly, we like demonstrating our smarts. But in providing answers, we undermine people's intellectual development and corrode their self-esteem, just as surely as salt air rusts the supports on a bridge. People need to stretch themselves and solve their own problems -- with guidance and instruction, yes, but largely on their own. Otherwise they neither develop the capacity for learning nor the pride of accomplishment.

Your company may not be like Google (or even aspire to be like it), but good management transcends industries and idiosyncratic corporate culture. In lean terms, go see. Ask why. Show respect. In generic terms, make yourself available. Ask questions. Take an interest.

It's really not that hard. And hey, Google has quantitative proof that it works.

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