Friday, October 29, 2004

Death by Meeting

Death by Meeting 死亡會議

This is Patrick Lencioni's new book published in 2004, again a fiction and management book. I think this one, for the story, is better written than his previous books. The description of the characters and the scenes in the story are more interesting and with more depth.

The story is about a company, having been acquired, facing its new boss. It sensed a death threat by the man from headquarters. The white knight who came to the rescue was a temporary administrative assistant to the CEO. Seems to be a proper EO job and I therefore call him the EO.

The lethal aspect of meeting has two meanings in the book.

First, meetings are the most important activities of an organization. All major decisions are made, strategies are formed, actions are planned during meetings. If the meetings are not effective, they will lead to the death of the organization. This was exactly what happened in the story, that staff meetings were boring and ineffective and did not came up with clear direction for everybody.

Second, the impending meeting to be attended by the man from headquarters would mean life and death for the CEO. He would be assessed on whether the meeting was really so bad as to affect the company, and if so, that would mean death for his career.

The story proceeded to saving the meeting, from the insight of the EO. He drew inspiration from his academic studies on film and television and compared meetings with headline news, television series and movies.

Drama - for meetings to be interesting, there needs to be drama and conflict. The EO suggested the use of the skills of script writers and directors, and compared the conducting of a meeting to making a good movie. The first 10 minutes should be used to set up the drama and suspense, and to focus the attention and interest of members. Then the chairman would mine for conflict and expose all different views. Meetings are better than movies as there is real-time interaction instead of passive reception of information. The chairman would encourage constructive ideological conflicts and arguments before coming up with a decision.

Contextual structure - The other fatal mistake of meetings is the lack of contextual structure, i.e. a meeting stew of everything that smothers the important issues. Drawing analogy to television and movies, the EO suggested that there should be different types of meetings dedicated to specific purposes:

1. Daily check-in for 5 minutes similar to daily headline news which people watch briefly for snapshots of information.

2. Weekly tactical meeting for 1 hour same as sitcom and crime drama that people watch weekly for short stories.

3. Monthly strategic meeting which lasts for 2 hours as a movie for detailed discussion of a particular strategy or a complete story from beginning to end.

4. Quarterly off-site review for two days like mini-series which draws people's attention for a longer period of time.

A remark in the book I like is the myth of too many meetings. Interesting and effective meetings will not waste time but instead save time. Lencioni points out that very often sneaker time is not accounted for as consumption of resources. They are the time spent by managers outside the meetings just to find out what others are doing, clarifying actions, clearing doubts. The matrix of a large number of managers consumes a huge amount of sneaker time. If the meetings make effective and clear decisions with all stakeholders present, a lot of sneaker time will be saved.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive


Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive 非凡CEO的迷痴 is Patrick Lencioni's second book written in 2000, again it is a fiction as well as a management book. The readers would be eager to know the obsessions of that very successful person. CEO is supposed to be rational and sensible. It is curious to note that such a person could be obsessed with anything. In fact, on very important issues, we had better be obsessed rather than let them off the hook lightly.

The story looks like a novel involving commercial spies. It is a tale of two companies, similar in the industry they were in, their niche, their strength, their customers, their size, their strategy. It is a matter of management style which made differences in their culture and organization health. The story evolves around a virus which attacked a company. It set off suspicion and created a crisis. The story told the strength of a cohesive team of good organization health and how it fought off the virus. The virus revealed the secret of the obsessions to the CEO of the rival company who thought otherwise. You will guess the ending about the future of these two companies.

The interesting part is the virus, who is the VP of HR, kind of like a very capable EO specializing in our professional area. The problem with him was that he did not participate actively in discussions, was not willing to share his views, and not wholeheartedly merged with the management team. He liked to hide himself and revealed his opinion last, and in a non-committal way. He appears to me as having the attributes of some civil servants. The virus was exposed as not being able to align with the culture of the company. I wonder if this is a sin for civil servant for not being able to align with the culture of the government, or the department, or the grade.

The thrust of the story is the obsessions. They are actually very simple and concern the organization culture, its core values, its identity, direction, strategy and objectives. The obsessions are how the CEO took these in mind and action. He was obsessed with being cohesive, being clear, over-communicating and reinforcing. These are the four disciplines to be upheld.

1st discipline: Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team - We all know that it is desirable to have team members working happily together. But the obsession went a step further of letting team members know one another's unique strength and weakness, openly engaging in constructive ideological conflict, holding one another accountable for behaviours and actions, and committing to group decisions. As a result, the cohesive and healthy team was able to fight off the virus which tried to contaminate the team spirit.

2nd discipline: Create organizational clarity - Writing up vision and mission statements is a common practice in setting up the identity of the company and its long term goal. It was trendy a few years ago and everyone did it. The CEO of the rival company said it was mentioned in Build to Last which all management people knew well and could readily recite. But these statements are just empty slogans only fit for display as decoration on the wall. The obsession is to make these organizational identity, culture, strategy and responsibilities very clear, that action plans could be formed without confusion based on them.

3rd discipline: Over-communicate organizational clarity - Over-doing anything is an obsession. But for issues as important as the organizational clarity, there is no thrift in over-communicating them. The obsessed CEO conveyed messages on organization clarity repeatedly on every occasion, using simple language to eliminate confusion and inconsistency, using multiple media to meet different level of reception, and cascading the messages down the ranks until the message was heard by all.

4th discipline: Reinforce organizational clarity through human systems - At the end of the day, it is human that preserve or undermine culture. The CEO was obsessed with sustaining the health of the organization by making sure that the human systems were used to reinforce organizational clarity. All staff were tested and reinforced of their alignment with the organizational culture through the recruitment process, performance management, rewards and recognition, and dismissal.

We all claim that culture is hard to change. But the reality is that culture is also hard to maintain. When the CEO found a culture that was good for the company, he was obsessed to preserving it, or seen the other way round, obsessed to changing the behaviour of the staff to align with the culture. Or you may say that he was changing other cultures or sub-cultures to align with his culture. This is very hard to do, and it really takes an obsessed CEO to keep the company on the track.

Monday, October 18, 2004

The 5 Temptations

The 5 Temptations of a CEO 五度誘惑

Just gone through Patrick Lencioni's first book The 5 Temptations of a CEO. It is a remarkable book on management issues written as a fiction. Thus it is quite enjoyable reading through the story. It is also easy reading. The setting was a bit scary, where the character met strange persons in a midnight train; sort of a twilight zone story. The day after, the CEO found out that these people were all past CEOs of his companies. I wonder why he didn't recognize them in the first instance. May be these CEOs are from ancient era. The fiction did not state whether they were ghosts, or returned from another time, or just old men still enjoying their retirement. From the lesson learnt on the midnight train, the CEO changed and performed differently at the board meeting the next day. But it was too late. The story took a turn and the leading character CEO turned into the phantom advisor himself.

The theme of the story is of course the temptations. They are all on behaviour and culture which are hard to change. There is nothing about strategic decision, competitive advantage and all sort of management theories. The main thrust is that if the CEO can get over the temptations, then the rest are just routine problems.

1st temptation: Choosing status over results - We've seen much of this in the government. CEOs put their concern on their own status at the expense of actual results. The temptation to preserve one's status is strong. An CEO will not like any damage to be done to his status. They choose the easy way out, deliver less, maintain status quo because less results won't hurt in government but mistakes will. 不做不錯,烏紗可保. To beat the temptation, one needs moral, ethic and real pride in his work achievement. Status will come this way.

2nd temptation: Choosing popularity over accountability - Everyone like to be popular with others. It is also the Chinese culture to 隱惡揚善, in particular when the subordinate is older, respectable and is an unchallenged expert in his field. Temptation to be popular kept the CEO from telling his staff the real problem and work expectation although dissatisfaction grew, in order not to hurt his feeling and be in confrontation. The staff did not realize the need to improve and was not given the accountability of his work. The irony is that the CEO would not hesitate to fire the subordinate when it got out of hand and inflicted permanent damage to other's career because the subordinate was gone for good and there was not more confrontation, while the timely honest advice did. Just look at our performance appraisals and you will know how hard to avoid this temptation.

3rd temptation: Choosing certainty over clarity - We learn about rational decision making. Right decisions are based on sufficient information, evaluation of alternatives, and the choice of the most advantageous, or least damaging action. In reality, certainty is unreachable. The maximizer will use up all his time choosing. 刨木直至無木. The temptation to be certain in making the right decision is hard to beat, but it will be lead to no decision, wait-and-see decision, muddy decision or unclear decision. The CEO learned that any decision is better than no decision. Wrong decision is not that bad if it can get the organization working, and clarity in the decision enables early correction of any undesirable results. All roads are not straight.

4th temptation: Choosing harmony over positive conflict - Harmony is the ultimate goal in human spirit. It is also the essence of Zen and many religions. Any kind human being will try to maintain harmony around him. The CEO did not regard creating harmony a temptation. He maintained harmony in his organization, during meetings and at work. The phantom advisor reminded the good effect of productive ideological conflict, that hidden issues could only be revealed in conflict, and truth would come out of debate,越辯越明, and keep the organization lively. On the other hand, pure harmony could stifle creativity and hide grievances.

5th temptation: Choosing invulnerability over trust - It is natural survival instinct that one does not want to be weak, wrong or hurt. It is a great temptation that one should feel invulnerable, and in the process creating suspicion and defense. The CEO learned that in order to fight this temptation, he should know how to admit that he was wrong and trust his subordinates in challenging his ideas. Only then the mistake committed by the organization has a chance to be put right.

Lencioni showed that the sequential impact of the principles of the 5 temptations are in reverse order, starting from the 5th. Instilling trust gives executives the confidence to have productive conflict. Fostering conflict gives executive confidence to create clarity. Clarity gives executives the confidence to hold people accountable. Accountability gives executives confidence in expected results. And results are a CEO's ultimate measure of long-term success.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

RFID and personal data privacy

I wonder if it is sheer coincidental or the situation has matured to a real management issue on personal data privacy. Another RFID article appeared in CNet on 30 September and this time it raised more concern on personal data privacy than the convenience of the technology on inventory control. Please see an extract below on how some people have taken back their words on removing RFID tags after the device has served the purpose.

---begin quote---
RFID systems work by placing special microchips--RFID tags--on merchandise. The tags signal their location across a network of readers placed on shipping docks, in warehouses and stores, allowing retailers and manufacturers to monitor products as they travel from factory to store shelves. Through an EPC code, a one-of-a-kind serial number, RFID tags can also store a wealth of information about the item with which it's associated, including where it's been, who bought it and when.

Privacy activists worry that consumers could leave stores broadcasting all kinds of information about their belongings. They fear that, with the right tools, anyone--including thieves--could detect what's in your purse or pockets. Another concern is that people's things would leave an electronic trail of their whereabouts and shopping habits for law enforcement officials, investigators, lawyers or marketers to collect.

RFID defenders say such concerns are overblown. One argument is that the only information companies are interested in storing on RFID tags are serial numbers, which are meaningless without access to the database where all the information about the item lives. Only the privileged eyes of certain employees would have access to that database, executives say. Another argument is that RFID tags only submit signals only when prompted by a reader within close range, generally a few feet at most.

EPCglobal, which guides RFID standards development, is also urging companies with RFID initiatives to follow its privacy policy, which focuses on informing consumers. Wal-Mart did with its Dallas test involving HP products, Board said. Wal-Mart posted notices on shelves carrying the tagged items with an 800 number and a Web site address offering more information about the tags. However, Wal-Mart did not remove or disable the tags after consumer bought the items--a practice that privacy advocates have demanded. Board noted that the tags were attached to the packaging, which consumers were likely to throw away.

Retailers and consumer-goods companies are hesitant to agree to removing tags from items at the time of purchase for several reasons. One reason is that RFID tags could help with returns by exposing people trying to get a refund for a product they never really bought, or one they purchased from another store. In the future, technology proponents envision medicine cabinets and home appliances equipped with RFID readers, alerting people to expired drugs and automatically selecting the gentle cycle on the washing machine for delicate clothing.

One of the valid concerns about RFID is what companies plan to do with all the detailed data they'll be able to collect about consumers, said Daniel Engles, director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Lab, an RFID research group. But, Engles added, that's a concern for all kinds of technologies that record people's activities and whereabouts, including cell phones and credit cards.

"Most people don't realize they're giving up a certain amount of privacy every time they use their cell phone," Engles said. "The question is how that information is being used. That's where the real concerns are.”

And on that issue, as with many in the developing realm of RFID--the jury is still out.
--end quote--

Monday, October 4, 2004

Case on employee monitoring

A real case on employee monitoring reported in Ming Pao today quoted below. It involves CITA, but it could easily be a government department and involves EOs. Colleagues working on HRM, general management and IT management please take note.


















Sunday, October 3, 2004

Symposium on RFID

I attended the Wireless and Mobile Symposium in July 2004 and picked the sessions on RFID and personal data privacy.

There are two sessions on RFID, one by Dr. CY Lee of HKUST and the other by Brian Eccles of IBM. Both are heavily dosed on the value of RFID on the supply chain, logistics management and inventory control. Personal data privacy was only briefly mentioned. In fact, Brian Eccles remarked that he was surprised at the little concern on the personal data privacy aspect on RFID in Asia, which was a hot debate topic in USA. Dr. Lee just mentioned that privacy concern, together with security and data integrity, would be an obstacle for RFID. Brian Eccles went a little deeper on the need of a privacy policy. His view on privacy was not on human right, but as an issue on the smooth implementation of RFID. Proposed considerations included transparancy on the use of RFID, use of killer switch for goods sold, data not kept without user knowledge, and not to use RFID in conjunction with spying.

Another session was delivered by Tony Lam, DC of PCO. Personal data privacy is his profession. He highlighted the use of RFID and LBS (location-based system) and their privacy concern: threat of building an individual movement profile, threat of being monitored and the potential loss of anonymity. Some guidelines to be proposed are: inform customers about the collection and use of such information, provide an opportunity to opt-out, ensure the security of information collected, provide uniform rules and privacy expectations.

The threats are real. Such information are actually those wanted by employers. They may want to have a movement profile of staff, monitor staff activities and know who is doing what, all for justified and good management of the organization. HR managers and IT managers will be asked to do just that. The proposed PCO guidelines will be a good basis on what we should bear in mind in developing the privacy policy and good privacy practices for the organization.

Saturday, October 2, 2004

Personal Data Privacy

I am not a defender of personal data privacy. My bottom line is that personal privacy must be balanced with personal needs. I welcome the up-to-date information sent to me by vendors and advertisers. I don't mind letting them know some of my personal data. I just want to be able to refuse those I do not want. It is a fact that we live in a city rather than alone in the wilderness and we enjoy much convenience and protection offered by the society. The price, or the duty and obligation, is to contribute to the collective activities of the society. Being a screw in the big machine means that the machine will need to know the property and function of the screw. Some of the personal data are actually part and parcel of the big picture.

The worry is the abuse of personal data, that someone is using the personal data in their possession for unlawful activities, which in turn infringe on personal rights. Personal rights come in many forms and are tied closely to vested interest. What you think that could be done legally with other's personal data may be considered the opposite if it incurs a loss to the data subject. I think the remedy should be decided by the court on whether the improper use of personal data has caused damages. The cat and mouse race of data protection will not produce a satisfactory solution given the ever advancing technology.

What I want to point out is the role of HR managers (EOs) in this subject. We are the collectors, keepers and users of much personal data, in particular employees' personal data. We can be the guardians of personal data privacy and restrict their use to the single purpose of their collection. We can also use personal data as a powerful tool to perform much HRM functions to meet the objectives of the organization. It works both ways. The challenge for HR managers is how to walk this high wire in order to meet both purposes satisfactorily. This is an opportunity for EO to go professional if we could have a core group of colleagues specializing in PDPO, their application and restriction, and the up-to-date trend and technology in data collection and monitoring. It touches upon areas in HR management, IT management, office management, record management and security management, all EOs' core duties.

Friday, October 1, 2004


Scientific American ran an article on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Tag) in its January issue. RFID is a small and inexpensive device which can give out its identity when in the proximity of a reading device. Benetton is planning to put RFID in its garments and Wal-Mart wishes to ask its major suppliers to put RFID in their products. The intention is to have automated inventory and cashier system with readers keeping track of product stock and in cashier lines.

RFID is not new. We have many applications in Hong Kong, such as the Autotoll, octopus, many smartcards and employee ID cards and access cards. In some countries, rich people implant RFID under the skin of their children to prevent kidnapping. The utopia predicted by scientists is that with RFID, computers will integrate better with people. There is no need to give commands to computer. For example, as soon as you walk into your office, a device read your RFID and know who you are. Your computer can be switched on for you, with the correct user profile loaded, it then checks your email and loads your favourite webpage for you.

In a security-conscious organization I worked for, all staff have an ID card which is also an access card. Most entrances are equipped with locks which can be opened with the card. Everywhere you go in the building, the computer will log all events of who is opening which door and when.

The catch is that people are not happy with this convenience which intrudes their privacy. In many countries, there are civic groups protesting against the use of RFID. They are afraid that high energy readers can be built to scan the RFID on clothing, equipment and ID card as people walk by. The thought of the big brothers linking information of your credit card and all things you bought is appalling. There were protesters with signs and banners in UK.

In any case, RFID will be more common in Hong Kong, being used by employers and the government, to monitor their employees and assets. Their use will have to comply with the data privacy guidelines to be issued by PCO. This will be a challenge for the HR managers to ensure that the principle enshrined in the guidelines is upheld.