Terri describes a game-changing approach to management that is based on the concept of being plugged into each one of the organizational dimensions — people, technology and organizational processes — simultaneously. Oftentimes, managers underemphasize one of the components; say, they address the people and organizational processes, but overlook the technological dimension. Or conversely, some consider technology to be a lifesaver, and the only thing they need to focus on.

The balance of people, technology, and processes is something that I think is really important for any organization. I refer to this triangle in my previous posts. So it was a pleasure for me to meet Terri and discuss this topic, as well as find out more about her new book. Naturally, our conversation went way beyond defining who exactly qualifies as a "plugged-in manager", as we proceeded to talk about the role technology plays in modern business. To learn more about the concept of a plugged-in manager, learn the best ways to leverage technology, and hear some interesting examples from Terri's experience (as well as my own) I invite you to read the transcript of our conversation in this blog post. 

And now we want to know: In your work, do you put more emphasis on people, processes or technology? Do you consider yourself a plugged-in manager?

P.S. You can get your own copy of “The Plugged-in Manger: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology and Organization to Thrive” on Amazon.

Transcript below:

Andrew: Hi everyone, it’s great to hear you on our podcast today. And let me introduce our honored guest. Terri Griffith is a professor in Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business. Located in the heart of the Silicon Valley, she studies how we mix together the technology of work (everything from telepresence to the size and type of tools a crew would use to build a fence), the way we organize to do this work (virtual teams, collaborative leadership, innovation strategies), and the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the people we work with. Terri has just released a new book called “The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive.” The book addresses an important topic that’s very relevant to what I usually write about: how we become more productive, how we work together both in the same office and in virtual teams. Terri, it’s definitely an honor and pleasure to have you here today with us.

Terri: Thank you very much!

Andrew: Let me jump straight into the questions. And the first one, I think you can already guess what it is. Could you tell the listeners who exactly the plugged-in manager is and how he or she is different from most managers we see.

Terri: First I’ll say that anybody can be a plugged-in manager because I think individual contributors, as well as managers, teams and even organizations, can be plugged in. They make sure that, as they think about an organizational practice, as they think about getting their work done, they think about the people — so what the skills are that the people have, how long they’ve been in the organization, the kinds of things they like to do. They think about the technology tools that they have available to them. So, like you said in the introduction, everything from telepresence to collaboration tools, to the kinds of tools we would use to build a fence, all those are the different kinds of technologies that we have at our disposal. And then what are the organizational process issues that we need to address as we think about the work that we’re trying to get done. A plugged-in manager is somebody who’s going to think about all three of those at the same time and going to understand that you have to mix them together. So if we’re going to use a particular technology tool, we may have to provide some training, and it may work out better if we have a certain kind of individual that we’ve already hired.

On the other hand, if we have a bunch of expert employees, we may not have to provide so much training. So the people would reduce the amount of organizational processes we might have to deal with, even though we were choosing a pretty sophisticated technology. I think the big difference is plugged-in managers, plugged-in organizations, they don’t seem to think about there being a magic bullet — that if I just had that technology, or if just hired that one person, or if just changed this one organizational process. They know that’s never going to work, it’s always going to be some combination of the people, the technology and the organization that really make something work well.

Andrew: I absolutely agree with you. This triangle of people, tools and processes is definitely crucial. And in my career, I’ve seen a lot of organization overemphasizing or underemphasizing part of that. My opinion is that people definitely are the cornerstone in that. Because, obviously, people make the choices on tools and processes, but other components, nevertheless, are also very important. Do you share the same view in terms of priorities between those three?

Terri: I’d say those priorities are right, but I’m thinking about Andrew McAfee’s new book “Race Against the Machine” or even Jonathan Zittrain’s book, where they talk about how a lot of our work is being taken over by the technology itself. You know, an algorithm might be choosing what articles are going to get presented on a newspaper, rather than an editor. And so, at the tail end of the whole distribution of how we might think about how the choices get made. I’m going to say people play the biggest piece because they are generally the ones doing the work. But I think as we move into the future, we’re going to have to keep a pretty open mind. Is it a technology that’s making this choice for us? And it may be the case that, originally, it was people who wrote the code that is making that choice, but it’s going to become more of an open question as we move forward.

Andrew: Yes, that’s definitely an interesting view. I’m a big fan of AI (artificial intelligence), so definitely one thing that I see on the market today is the concept of the big data, right? That we accumulate more and more data, and we come up with more and more sophisticated algorithms to process that data and build intelligence out of that data. So that’s an interesting angle.

And one other insight that popped in my mind is that, obviously, some people are key to the success. But then processes and tools actually help them influence other people on the team. It’s kind of an interesting flow where you may have a champion, somebody who is either creative or smart or experienced or versatile in change management. And then, through the use of tools and technologies, they actually multiply that knowledge or culture power. Going back to the plugged-in manager and to your definition, do you see many managers right now who you could say are really plugged-in, or is there still a way to go for all of us?

Terri: I’m not sure about you because the technology your company is putting out is pretty plugged-in, in my perspective. But I’m a little bit sad to say that it’s more rare than it is common for me to get into a conversation with someone and to immediately be able to say: “Wow, that person gets it, that person’s completely plugged-in.” We collect a lot of data about this, and we continue to collect it because we want to make sure we have a tool that will help us assess different levels of how plugged-in you are, and then hopefully we’ll be able to change the kind of training and workshops to be based on the kinds of results that we’re getting. While a lot of people think they are plugged-in, when we actually put them in situations where we want them to make choices, often they are biased toward taking the shiny technology. And they’ll go rank a technology solution higher than a solution that includes the technology, the organization and the people.

We’re doing whatever we can to make that change, and we would like it to be really common for somebody to sit down and say: “All right, we have a new team project we need to do. What are the technology tools we are going to use, who are the people that we need to have on this team, and what’s our process going to be? Is it going to be a very face-to-face kind of process? Is it going to be more virtual? How are we going to approach the problem? And just have it be super common that everybody goes through that kind of three-point checklist of people, technology and organizational process. But I’m not seeing that yet.

Andrew: I like Gartner’s hype curve. They do an aggregate, but even when we look at the particular person or organization, oftentimes what happens is they get excited about a shiny tool, but they hope that the tool will solve their problems by itself, and they don’t make their organizational challenge, and then it drops, and they become naysayers. They become the other part, and they develop a culture of “everything is already invented.” Then I talk to those people and ask them: “Do you remember the time when we didn’t have mobile phones, Skype, e-mails, so it makes them think. If you put it in perspective, technology does change our life. You can’t delegate everything to the technology. You have to control the process, but technology does change our life in a big way. Starting from something that we consider everyday, like giving a phone call and air travel and obviously e-mail and everything else. As we look at it, more and more work becomes informational work. And that actually goes hand-in-hand with that trend of the big data that we’ve just touched because it reinforces it. There’s more and more informational work, the information systems become more and more sophisticated, and there are more and more helpful tools.

Back again to the plugged-in managers, I think this concept is very important. But why do you personally consider this is a game-changing approach to management?

Terri: I think it goes to the number of organizational changes, either technology changes or organizational process changes that fail. And the number hasn’t changed in decades! We’ve been collecting data about organizational change failure for a long time. The number hangs around 50%. So 50% of all organizational changes, either technology or process changes, don’t do what the people who set out to implement them think they are going to do. And generally it’s because they don’t manage the implementation process very well. Oftentimes, what they’ve done is they thought: “Well, if I just make this one silver bullet adjustment, and I parachute this change in, everything is going to be different.” And it just doesn’t work that way. As a result, that’s just painful as a professor of organizations to stand up in front of a class and say, “Here are all these ideas about great things you can do to improve your organization, but by the way, 50% of the time they are not going to work for you,” I would like to see that change. It’s almost painful, too. I was giving a talk on this issue last night, and they asked, “Why would you spend two years writing a book? And I said, “Because it’s painful for me to see the situation where someone’s only focused on one of those three issues.” I thought about the United States TSA, our transportation safety authority that brings us all that fine effort that we go through, as we come to the airport. And for the most part, that was a technology change. That was: “We’re going to run this technology, and the technology demands that you take off your clothes, and the technology demands that you take off shoes. And we’re going to focus on that technology.”

I think all the fighting and unhappiness that goes along with going to the airport now didn’t have to happen if they had thought about their stakeholders a little bit more and thought about how they could integrate stakeholder needs into the process that they need to make airport security good. But they didn’t think about it that way, as far as I can tell from reading the external reports.

Andrew: Yes, I think that’s a great point. Now, in your book, you speak about three key practices for the plugged-in managers. Can you please briefly describe them for the listeners?

Terri: Absolutely. The way I like to describe it is that here we’ve been talking about 3 dimensions: the people, the technology and the organization, and then we also have these 3 practices. So if we just keep in mind the number 3, maybe it’ll all help to stick a little bit. So the first one is “Stop, Look, Listen,” and even though it has three words in it, it’s still just one practice. But the idea is that you stop and you look. Can you say who are the people who are going to be impacted by this? What is the technology that we’re talking about? What do I have available to me already, or what might I need to go buy, and then what’s the organizational setting that this thing has to go into? By stopping for just a moment to reflect on what the current status is, and what the opportunities are that are out there, what the different choices are. And I think that keeps us from grabbing for that shiny thing and forgetting about all the rest. So if we just say to ourselves: “I’m going to go into this process. I’m going to think about a new way of doing things.” First thing I’m going to do it, I’m going to stop and look, and then after I take that first step, I’m going to start to listen. Well, I took the first step. What was the feedback from that? And is it going well, or do I need to make some adjustments?

So “Stop, Look, Listen” is the first practice. The second practice is really the most powerful one, and this is the issue of mixing, mixing together those 3 ingredients: the people, the technology and the organization, in a way that makes sense. And I’ve shown this a couple times, as putting out on a table all the different ingredients for a chocolate chip cookie, and if you look at those ingredients, some of them are pretty tasty on their own, but for the most part, we’re going to have a better outcome once we mix it together. We’ve got to mix it together in the appropriate proportions for what we’re trying to achieve. And so mixing becomes the key. I like food a lot, so mixing and thinking about mixing a great meal or mixing a great dish is the way I kind of keep that one in my head. And then the 3rd practice is — really, you were talking about it a little bit — how do you multiply or leverage your advantage? And it’s through sharing.

Sharing is the 3rd practice, and I’m going to kind of think aloud as I work in a team setting or think aloud as I talk to a group of executives and say, “Always look how every time I assess a situation, I’m always looking at the people, the technology and the organization. And always see how I’m trying to figure out what the blend is. I’m not going to try and change everything all at once, but I’m going to change a few things as I go along, and then gather up the feedback. But as I talk aloud about that process, I share the process, I’m doing 2 things. The 1st is that I’m spreading the idea of how to be a plugged-in manager, but the other one is, as I teach that idea through sharing, it means that the next time we go to make an adjustment, they are already going to know what we have in mind. I won’t have to implement the idea of being plugged-in, as well as implementing whatever the changes are that we’re looking at. Instead, they are already going to be aware of that part. So sharing is an important one, if we want to expand or leverage the impact that we can have in our organization. The 3 practices are “Stop, Look, Listen,” the reflective piece; then mixing, which is really where the heavy part of the process takes place, to really find out what a good combination is going to be; and then sharing, just to make it easier down the road.

Andrew: Those are indeed great practices. There was the PMI Global Congress in Dallas, and I was invited to speak on virtual teams, and I brought out the topic that in virtual and distributed teams, a lot of communications are asynchronous, compared to the team that is co-located in one office. And in that environment, sharing is really crucial because you not only want to tell people what to do, but you also want them to understand your thinking. Exactly what you said, thinking out loud, so they know your reason, and even though the communication is asynchronous, and you are not necessarily there to make the decision for them, when they need to make, it they know your reasons, so they can make a similar decision, so it’s very aligned with what you’ve just described. So in your opinion, this approach, does it differ between SMBs and enterprises?  And if so, how? And if we’re speaking about enterprise, will it work for all levels, or does it differ as we start speaking about enterprise-wide changes and things like that?

Terri: I think it’s just an issue of scale. So in a small or medium-sized business, it will be easier to demonstrate the process. Even if it’s a small organization that is virtual, it’s just easier because you’re talking to fewer people. You have more opportunity to clarify what your meaning is and clarify the approach. But even at an enterprise level, some of the top executives have the skills that they’ve learned to be plugged-in through experience, they’ve learned over time, and they are already practicing these approaches. They may not be calling it plugged-in management, but they’re certainly doing it. And as I think about executives at Microsoft that I got to talk to for the book, that would be a big organization looking at how to manage a virtual team between Washington and China. Then if I look at some of the startups that I was able to talk to in the book, they’re all doing the same practices, it’s just the matter of scale. In the larger organizations, and I’m thinking about Nucor Steel — as I say, Nucor Steel, the largest steel company in the U.S., and I think the largest recycler in the world (metal recycler). And for them the process that I would describe as being plugged-in, to them it’s just the new core way of doing things.

They’ve been building that approach since the 1960s, and it actually came from the top, which I think may be a little bit rare. Often what I see is people in the middle of the organization find that these are good approaches, and then as other people see their success, they learn from that. So it’s almost a top or bottom-down of that process in larger organizations. If you are a big enterprise, and people are practicing plugged-in management, that’s a lot of leverage, very successful.

Andrew: Now I only have a couple questions left, one would be, could you share with us some interesting anecdotes that might illustrate concept of your book or your research?

Terri: Certainly. I often think about sailing, as a process that helps people learn about being plugged-in. I have a sailboat, and I have a crew of other people on their boats.  A sailboat itself is a technology, and so if you think about the size of the sails, the size of the mast, the size of the boat, everything has to scale appropriately. Also because I’m a woman, I’m not as strong as some of these big football-player-looking guys who might be on the America’s Cup boat or something like that, and because of that I have to use more pulleys. I have a lot of pulleys on my boat because I don’t have that much strength, but I can use the technology to increase the strength and increase the benefit of the strength that I do have.  Sometimes in class I’ll draw a picture of a sailboat that has 2 sails, and then I’ll draw a picture of a sailboat that has 3 sails, and we’ll talk about the difference. As for someone who isn’t a football-player-strong person, it’s harder to pull up one really large sail. Maybe I’d be better off pulling up two smaller ones. How do you make those choices, and how do you keep those choices top of mind? And it really does back to this idea of reflection. If we’re just charging ahead, we’re not going to be thoughtful and think about the different options we might have. So if we do that “Stop, Look, Listen” practice, we’re going to think of a few more options and maybe make a slightly better choice.

Then the other example I have is probably a little more standard. Here at the university, we haven’t been all that modern about our own collaborative practice. As you can imagine, as somebody who writes about collaborative practice all the time, it’s been a frustration for me. But we’re finally moving ahead and looking at our communication and collaboration and even workflow. And I’m getting to practice these very things myself. I’m the chair of this university task force on communication and collaboration. And I can see why some people are drawn to simply make a decision and move ahead quickly. We keep pulling ourselves back and saying, “No, let’s not focus on the technology, let’s focus on the work to be done. Keep those examples top of mind. And then we’ll bring in the technology as we need to.”

Both of those, both the sailing and this collaboration task force have been great learning experiences for me.

Andrew: Yes, I think that sailing was a great metaphor because oftentimes people just go with the flow, especially if the user of technology and the decision-maker are not the same people. If their CIO chooses the software for business users, they are not necessarily going to be the most happy and productive with the defect or the most marketed choice, or the most feature-heavy choice, or the most complex choice. So that’s an interesting metaphor because they are not those football players oftentimes; they just want to get the work done.

So applying your ideas about plugged-in managers, I know you already gave a lot of good advice. Before the closing, what would be the final advice that you’d give to project managers and business managers for getting their work done more efficiently.

Terri: It’s all going to come back to the “Stop, Look, Listen” idea, but once you’ve done that “Stop, Look, Listen,” and you’ve moved into mixing together what your choices are, the simplest way I have of describing that is you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to be a technology expert, you don’t have to be a management expert, you don’t have to be a people expert, but what you have to do is have an appreciation for all three of those being important, and then to be able to put yourself in the shoes or in the minds of the other stakeholders and really think about the work design as a negotiation. We all negotiate. We either negotiate well or we don’t, but we all at least know how to do that. And think about the organizational change. The thing that you’re looking at, as you’re trying to be a plugged-in manager, think of it as a negotiation and have the different issues of the negotiation that you have on the table be all those different options. So is it going to be a big team or a small team? Is it going to be a team that has core members, or is everyone going to be equal? Are we going to use this kind of collaboration tool or that kind of collaboration tool? Are we’re going to have experts on the team, or is everybody coming from the lower levels of the organization, and they’re going to have to learn on the job? And what’s the negotiation that I might go through that’s going to come up with the solution, that’s going to be best for us? I like to take a practice that we already understand at least a little bit, and so if everybody’s done a negotiation, then everybody has done a little bit of this mixing that I’m talking about.

Andrew: I think that’s great advice to wrap up, and I welcome all listeners of the podcast and readers of the blog to go to amazon.com and check out Terri’s new book “The Plugged-in Manager.” There are both hard cover and Kindle versions available, and if you like the book, feel free to leave a great review on Terri’s work. Terri, thanks a lot for your time today. I hope the readers will enjoy it, and I hope the rest of you day will be great!

Terri: Thank you so much. I’m going to go tweet about the conversation because you made me think about some new ideas!