Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bad Breath Is Better Than No Breath At All!

On any given day you will see many ads on TV for mouthwashes and toothpastes that purport to help eliminate bad breath. Bad breath is presented by advertisers as a near-fatal condition that can have severe impact on your social life, and can cause people to quickly run away from you shrieking in horror. It is a condition that even your best friend is often reluctant to tell you about. According to the ads, it is something to be absolutely avoided at almost all costs. However, it is often useful to put things in proper perspective. While having bad breath may not be good, it is certainly far better than having no breath at all!  

OK Tom, what’s your point and how does it relate to workplace insanity and the workplace in general? Well, we often find ourselves in situations with two or more highly undesirable choices and need to make a decision on how best to proceed. Putting a proper perspective on those choices can often make such choices easier.

For example, a product, program, or project may be running late (though I recognize that this seldom happens with yours' J), and being late may significantly impact revenues that can be generated (see also Ineffective Engineering Costs You Time, Money, and Customers!, and Late Projects Kill Companies!). The choices in this case are whether to release the product, program, or project late (bad breath), reducing the net revenues and profits that can be generated (see Keep Your Eyes on THE GOAL!), or cancelling the product, program, or project entirely (no breath). This decision is not necessarily obvious, but should be dispassionately examined (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table). If there are still significant profits to be made even with the delay, then it makes sense to continue, but lessons should be learned on better estimating and delivering on schedule commitments. If the projected profits are substantially reduced or even eliminated by being late, then cancelling entirely may be the right choice. Even in this case, the impact of not having a product, program, or project in this market area must be carefully assessed to determine whether dropping it entirely may have a long term adverse effect.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Serendipity Can Change Your Life!

My son, Jeff, graduated from college a number of years ago with a degree in Music Business; that is he concentrated on music performance (he plays the bass trombone), but also specialized in business and the business aspects of the music industry. After graduating, he found that music performance and music business opportunities were scarce, and so took what has grown to be a rewarding career in a non-music business area. Still, he greatly missed being able to play his trombone regularly. One evening he met some friends at a local watering hole, commiserating with them on the lack of trombone playing opportunities. At that particular time and in that particular place (where he seldom ever went), he got a tap on his shoulder from a complete stranger who said he overheard their conversation and happened to be the leader of a regional big-band that happened to play a gig on the town common that summer evening (that Jeff was totally unaware of) and were relaxing in the nearby bar afterward. This stranger said that they were always looking for talent, especially a bass trombonist, and offered him an opportunity to audition for a place in the big band. Jeff took that opportunity and happily played with the band for about four years. When he decided he had had it with New England weather and housing costs, and decided to move to Arizona, it turned out that his big band leader had a brother in Phoenix who directed two big bands out there. So Jeff was actually playing in a big band out there even before he started work. This is an example of serendipity (almost serendipity squared!), and it certainly changed Jeff’s life. He moved where he wanted to, played there in a big band, linked up with a Ska band, and has had numerous other opportunities to continue his love of playing music. All of this truly helped him to adapt to his new home much more easily.

Serendipity is sometimes defined as “good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries.” Julius Comroe Jr., a biomedical researcher, defined it as, “looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a Farmer’s Daughter.” My son didn’t find a farmer’s daughter, but still encountered an opportunity that was unlikely, at best, if he hadn’t been sitting in the right seat in the right bar on the right night at the right time. It’s funny how life works at times. The key is to recognize that serendipitous moment and seize it!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What Horse's Ass Said You Should Do It That Way?

Have you ever asked what horse’s ass said you have to do things a particular way? A while ago I received an email from my old Bell Labs friend, George Scott, who forwarded an email from another old friend, Emil Wrede, about an extreme example of the impact of why things are done the way they are. It’s a story that has endlessly made its way around the Internet, and I had seen it many times before and chuckled, but George pointed out that could be good fodder for one of my e-Newsletters and blog posts, and he is absolutely right! So, here is the story, unedited.  Be sure to read the final paragraph; your understanding of it will depend on the earlier part of the content.
The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the US railroads.
Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used.
Why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.
So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Own Your Job! All of It!

You've just been offered a critical and highly visible new assignment that will be challenging, but if done properly should also be rewarding in a number of ways. You’ve been asking for such work to prove your intrinsic value to the organization and to demonstrate your ability to succeed and prosper with anything you’re asked to do. You truly appreciate being given the opportunity, but have some trepidation as the assignment will take you into areas that you are unfamiliar with and have never attempted before.  

Before you accept the assignment, you try to make sure you fully understand the ramifications of what you are about to undertake. You ask questions and get clarifications so that you can identify areas you may be unsure of. You do some research to learn more about the assignment (based on internal information, information from the Internet, universities, libraries, professional organizations, etc.). You seek to understand and appreciate all of the aspects of the assignment, and to try to consider the known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns that are likely to be encountered (see Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!). You know you won’t be able to foresee everything, but you ask questions so that you fully understand as much as you possibly can. You identify resources you believe you’ll need to help you along the way (people, equipment, facilities, etc.), and gain concurrence that they will be made available to you at the appropriate times.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Gossip, Cheshire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole

This blog post is the sixth, and last (for now), in my continuing “Herding Cats” series (see also Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly, Herding Cats 4: The "Wally" & The Prima Donna, and Herding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star) that addresses some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. To wrap things up, this Herding Cats blog post hits briefly on a number of different knowledge worker personality types. Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that are described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and emphasize just one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion. Further, every manager has his or her own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

Quick Takes:
The Complainer/Whiner:
The Challenge:  Nothing goes well for the Complainer/Whiner. He/she can find the cloud for every silver lining, and can find ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. While somewhat similar to the Problem Child (see Herding Cats 2), the Complainer/Whiner complains and whines to everyone about everything, and finds ulterior motives everywhere. He/she can’t take a compliment. No news is good news; only bad news. This behavior brings everybody down, and sucks the life out of everything, including group morale.
The Management Approach:  Let the Complainer/Whiner know this poor attitude is not helpful and is upsetting to all around him/her. Nobody wants to work with him/her, as it is always a downer. This person needs to adopt a more positive attitude, for his/her own benefit as well as for the group. While you don’t expect this person to become an Eternal Optimist, there is little value in being the eternal pessimist. He/she needs to shape up or ship out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Herding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star

This blog post is the fifth in my continuing “Herding Cats” series (see also Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly, and Herding Cats 4: The "Wally" & The Prima Donna) (see also Herding Cats 6) that addresses some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. Since not all personality types create problems, this blog post addresses three very positive types.  Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that are described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion. Further, every manager has his or her own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

The Solid Citizen:
The Challenge: The Solid Citizen is not a flashy person, and will not likely set the world on fire, but he/she is someone you’d like to have on your side when you’ve got work to get done. The Solid Citizen does the work consistently and ably, and has solid skills that he/she employs in a dependable and trustworthy fashion. The Solid Citizen is generally content with his/her role in the organization, usually as a solid individual contributor, not looking to take on management or administrative responsibilities. He/she works well with others in a collaborative approach. When you give an assignment to a Solid Citizen, you have high confidence that it will be done on time, with high quality, and with little fuss. The Solid Citizen is the foot soldier that is essential to a successful organization; not everyone can or wants to be a superstar.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Herding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima Donna

This blog post is the fourth in my continuing “Herding Cats” series (see also Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, and Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly) (see also Herding Cats 5 and Herding Cats 6) that addresses some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that are described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion. Further, every manager has his or her own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

The “Wally”:
The Challenge:  “Wally” is a character from the Dilbert® comic strip by Scott Adams. Many (most?) companies have a “Wally” (who can be a he or a she, but I will refer to “Wally” here as a he). “Wally” makes every effort (in fact he works very hard at it) to do as little as is humanly possible while trying to disguise the fact that he’s not doing anything useful. He’s full of meaningless buzzwords that he can string together into impressive sounding, but actually meaningless phrases that can mislead a less-than-savvy manager (think “Pointy-Haired Boss”) into thinking that "Wally" knows what he’s doing and is doing “good work”. “Wally” often does this at meetings, wasting significant time, but contributing nothing.  He wanders around the workplace, coffee cup in hand, striking up meaningless conversations with others, and distracts them from doing their work. For “Wally”, no job is hard for he who doesn’t have to do it (see No Job Is Hard for the Person Who Doesn't Have to Do It!), so he’ll often suggest “improvements” and “changes” for others to do that make “Wally” look good and involved, but that make the jobs of those who will actually have to implement these “improvements” and “changes” all that much harder. “Wally” will then stand around and critique the work of others, often suggesting yet more “improvements” and “changes”“Wally” is a drain on the entire organization, and requires others to both pick up the slack work that "Wally" is not doing, and to do the extra work that he has forced on others with his suggested “improvements” and “changes”.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly

This blog post is the third in my continuing “Herding Cats” series (see also Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers and Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard) (see also Herding Cats 4, Herding Cats 5, and Herding Cats 6) that addresses some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them.  Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique.  The personality types that are described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics.  Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion.  Further, every manager has his or her own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

The Boss Wannabe: 
The Challenge:  While he/she does not have the responsibility or the authority, the Boss Wannabe tries to tell everyone else what to do, and what is wrong or right about what they are doing.  He/she may act this way out of noble motives of trying to help the team by providing motivation or showing leadership that may be otherwise lacking and is needed.  He/she may be taking on a natural leadership position that has been earned by demonstrating superior knowledge, judgment, and expertise.  Or, he/she may be on a power trip that makes him/her feel superior and more powerful than peers and coworkers.  In any case, without the blessings and specific authorization of the manager, this can foster resentment and frustration; the Boss Wannabe can make others feel that they now have to answer to two bosses, their real boss and a pretend boss.  In the long run, this usually won’t work well (unless the real boss is so dysfunctional that people are starved for leadership and welcome the leadership of a pretend boss).

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Management Interruptus

There’s an old saying I remember seeing on a poster in one of my managers offices a long time ago that said, “Management is a series of interruptions interrupted by interruptions”. Unfortunately, this has always been a particularly apt saying. While it doesn’t apply just to management, it seems to be a significantly more serious problem with managers of every level. You can plan your work as best as possible, but interruptions will always come unexpectedly, messing up your well-laid plans, and unfortunately, the work of others both below and above you on the organization chart.

Let’s take the opportunity to explore what interruptions can mean to you, to those below you, and to those above you. 
  • Interruptions may force you to stop what you were concentrating on and pay attention to something else. This hurts especially if what you were concentrating on is challenging work that needs careful attention, particularly if you were in a groove in tackling this challenging effort and now have to stop that work, sometimes for a significant time, switch gears and your mind set to try to wrap your head around something entirely different. Depending on the interruption, you may find it difficult to get back into the groove you were previously in, thus significantly lengthening the challenging work you were doing before the interruption.
  • Interruptions may force you to take your eye off the activities of those below you (e.g. members of your group that need your attention and guidance). Since they are the people actually carrying out the detailed work of your group, these interruptions can derail important work and schedules, preventing them from moving forward without your concurrence.
  • Interruptions may force you to turn your attention away from critical assignments you’ve agreed to take responsibility for from your boss or boss’ boss. They are depending on you to deliver on your commitments so they can deliver on theirs’.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard

In my consulting practice e-Newsletters I've talked about effective teamwork and “team killers” (see Are You Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?). In the lead-off "Herding Cats" blog post, I raised the topic of “managing” knowledge workers (see Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers). This blog post is the first in a series of "Herding Cats" articles that will address some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. This and each of the subsequent “Herding Cats” blog posts (see Herding Cats 3, Herding Cats 4, Herding Cats 5, and Herding Cats 6) will address two or more different personality types. Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that will be described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion. Further, every manager has their own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

The Problem Child: 
The Challenge: The problem child seems to constantly lurk outside his/her manager’s office, and always has pressing problems that he/she needs to discuss with the manager that are “different” and “more important” than everyone else’s. He/she will ask if you have a moment so that he/she can explain what’s wrong, so you can help. Then, when you say, “Sure, I have a moment”, he/she will suck up your every waking minute, given the chance. Generally, when you get into it, you’ll hear that he/she doesn’t really have a problem; everyone else has a problem. The problem child is generally loaded up with problems, and is looking for other people to dump these problems on to (see Managing "Monkeys"). You almost reach the point where you’re afraid to look up, or where you want to close your door. You have to do something, or the problem child will consume your life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge Workers

I remember a Superbowl ad that ran a number of years ago that showed some cowboys on horseback riding the range trying to herd … cats! The ad was memorable, but I’d have to say it wasn’t terribly effective because I have no recollection of what product or service they were advertising. In any event, the cowboys were trying hard to get all of the cats moving in the same direction at the same time toward the same goal, but were having a lot of difficulty because, well, cats don’t really like to be herded. This reminds me a lot of managers attempting to “manage” "knowledge workers" (e.g. engineers) [see Knowledge Is Power!]. The desired intent is there, but the results are often not what was intended or desired. Like cats, knowledge workers don’t want to be “herded” or “managed”. In fact, they may simply refuse to be “managed”. There is really an art to “managing” knowledge workers, and if the proper approaches are not used, the results can be frustration and failure. If the “managing” is done right, the result can be positive almost beyond comprehension (see Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!).

Knowledge workers (especially engineers) are really different from other people. It’s not my intent to stereotype them, so please take the following with a grain of salt, but knowledge workers typically are highly trained, intelligent, technical, and independent minded. Many knowledge workers (and most engineers) are also very logical. Spock from StarTrek is more often their “ideal”; certainly far more so than Jack Welch or Warren Buffett. They are motivated by challenging work (generally far more so than by money, as long as the money is sufficient), and are resistant to being overtly managed. They respond far more favorably to logical reasoning than to emotional manipulation (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table). They see beauty in the logic of their ideas, and look with disdain on hype and sizzle with little real meat behind it (see Style Over Substance). It can be difficult to properly motivate them, but it is very easy to de-motivate them and turn them off.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Knowledge Is Power!

“Take this job and shove it!” is a well known refrain from a familiar country & western song. But it’s also a refrain that is far more applicable in today’s “Information Age” than was ever the case in the past. For anyone who is a “knowledge worker” (as will be defined below), it is a fact that today’s companies really need you far more than you need them. While you certainly shouldn’t abuse it, it is important that you recognize the power that your “knowledge” brings you in your companies. Knowledge is power!

In the “Pre-Industrial Age”, most production tasks were carried out by many people using simple implements, and much of the work was able to be performed by pretty much anyone. People were interchangeable, and if more products were required, more people were added to the production process. The term “man-month” was conceived, and implied that people were interchangeable with months. That is, if a job took 4 man-months, it could be performed equally well by 1 person working for 4 months, by 2 people working for 2 months, or by 4 people working for 1 month. The critical element of companies’ production efforts in those times were people, not equipment. This is still true today in certain areas, as demonstrated by much of the work performed by migrant workers.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When It's Time 'To Walk Away', Don't Turn Back!

OK, you’ve done the analysis of your present job situation (see Know When To Fold ‘em) and determined it’s time “to walk away” (or “to fold ‘em” or “to run”). You’ve given full care and consideration in making your decision and carefully weighed the pros and cons, recognizing how truly critical a decision it is that you’re making, and the implications if your decision is wrong. You’ve updated your resume, contacted recruiters, potential companies, and other contacts. You’ve identified the best opportunities, contacted them, interviewed, have been offered a new job both verbally and in writing by what appears to be a great company, and have verbally accepted the new position. You notify your current company to give them your two weeks notice and, shortly after hearing of your decision to leave, they decide to make you a counteroffer, with a significant increase in salary, potential bonuses, potential promotion, and/or other enticements to stay. What do you do?

Walk away! Leave! What are you thinking? Don’t turn back, look forward!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You'll Do!

When I graduated from college many years ago, I went to work at Bell Labs, one of the pre-eminent R&D organizations in the world, during its glory days.  I worked there for about 20 years before moving on to a variety of smaller companies and individual consulting engagements. I learned a lot about engineering and professionalism during my time at Bell Labs from both good and bad role models. While you can learn a lot from both, and often even learn more from bad role models (see Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!), the person who I learned the most from was an exceptionally good role model. John Sheehan (see photo) was one of my early managers and has had a profound impact on me as an engineer, a manager, and a person. His capabilities, outlook, and professional approach led him to deservedly rise to high positions in the Bell Labs organization. John remains a good friend and role model. John had an expression that was his guiding principle; one that I adopted and that has served me well. It is, Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do. It is an expression that can guide everyone who adopts it well, at work and in life.  I recommend it highly to everyone.

Let’s dissect this expression by discussing each of its parts.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad!

Throughout our careers we all have been exposed to a wide variety of people who have had both positive and negative influences on us, and knowingly or not, have served as good and bad role models for us. Most people feel that they can learn more from the good role models, and indeed the good role models set up behaviors to emulate, to learn from, and to pass on to others. However, it is my view that we actually learn more from the bad role models, for their misbehaviors hit us harder, and in a more visceral fashion that makes longer-lasting impressions.  The bad role models educate us in what we don’t want to be, and that can be extremely valuable if we recognize what we can really learn.

By no means do I want to minimize the valuable lessons that can be learned from good role models.  Good role models can teach you how to treat others, the value of integrity, how sound decisions are made, and much more (see Show True Professionalism). These good role model lessons should be taken to heart and put into your “behavior memory”. They should also be passed on so that others can learn these good role model lessons as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn't Have To Do It!

Do you remember, as I do, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation? In almost every episode Captain Jean-Luc Picard would encounter a horrific crisis, would seek some input and advice from his command crew regarding a virtually impossible solution, and then turn to his engineering staff or others and say, Make it so!, as if his simply saying this could make it happen, and of course it goes without saying, they are to “Make it so!” within an incredibly short timeframe (by the end of the episode). But no job is hard for the person who doesn’t have to do it!  It then falls on the engineers or others to try to make sense of the often ridiculous demands, impossible requirements, or unattainable timeframes and to try to turn the Captain’s “commands” into realities.

How often do you see similar situations occurring in the workplace? A person with no concept of what’s involved comes in and demands that a complex job be done within an impossible timeframe. That person then leaves the room, and subsequently yells and screams when things don’t happen as he/she imagines them. When you try to inject some reality into the situation, to explain the technical difficulties with his/her demands, or the time it will actually take to accomplish what is requested, this person does not want to hear it. The demand has been set, and it is your task to “Make it so!”  It’s easy for them to say, but often darn near impossible for mere mortals who actually have to do the work. This has always been a pet peeve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!

Have you ever heard of “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”? At one point in my career I got involved with a great group of people on a number of projects. While the projects were exciting and challenging, we recognized they had many potential obstacles that made achieving our goals of highly desired features, functionality, and timely delivery optimistic, to say the least.  People would ask us whether we felt we would be able to reach our aggressive goals, and our response would often be, “Sure, when pigs fly!”  But we didn’t really mean that. We felt, cockily, that we could achieve our goals despite the obstacles. In fact, to “prove” it (or, more accurately, to further demonstrate our cockiness) we even adopted a mascot for our department, the aforementioned “Pigasus, the famous flying pig!”. One member of our group (actually the wife of one of the members of our group) found a large stuffed pig and sewed large fluffy wings on it, and it was hung from the drop ceiling in my office (I was the department head at the time) to illustrate that we could make pigs fly! Cocky indeed! With hard work and high spirits we attempted to do everything we believed we could to achieve the stretch goals we had set for ourselves, and we succeeded more often than not. This was an approach and outlook that I have tried to foster throughout my career, and I recommend it highly, with caveats to be described below. It can make work fun, challenging, demanding, and exciting, and encourage people to eagerly look forward to going to work and doing great things.

So what does it take to build an environment where people love what they’re doing and achieve great things? How can you foster such an environment?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Know When To Fold 'em

We all start out in new jobs with great anticipation and excitement, hoping that the new position will be the long-term opportunity that will achieve our highest desires and lead to ever-increasing opportunities for growth, contribution, and perhaps even promotion. Many people do indeed find their new position to provide everything or at least much of what they’re looking for, and feel content. However, for others the initial glow and promise wears off sooner or later, and disappointment grows and discontentment and frustration begins to set in. It is often a difficult task to fairly evaluate whether the better option is continuing with what you know, which has become an increasingly frustrating job, or looking elsewhere for new opportunities that better match you and your goals in life. There is an old Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, with the refrain, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”  For most jobs, this refrain is surprisingly applicable. How do you determine when you’ve been dealt a bad hand or worse? When you reach a point of sufficient discontentment, this is something that you need to give careful thought.

I’ve directly experienced all four portions of this refrain across my career and have some thoughts about each. Let’s take each portion of the refrain and expand on what they can mean in a workplace environment:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pound the Facts, Not the Table

Have you been involved in discussions where people relate stories with high emotional content that may get you charged up and ready to jump on board with them, only to later hear facts come out that undermine the emotional impulse and make you feel foolish for jumping to conclusions that were not supported by the facts? At the end of such an episode, you generally feel taken in and mislead. Such episodes will most often undermine the feeling of trust you may have had for the person making the emotional appeal (see also Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!).

There's an old adage among lawyers that says, "If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table!" The approach in business, at least inside a company, is not by design an adversarial system as is the practice of law, and pounding the table is not appreciated and will almost never get you what you want. It is far more effective to convince people with facts and logic, and not with emotion and feelings.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Self-Destructive Behavior

Have you ever heard a new pronouncement from a company’s executive management team and just thought that it makes absolutely no sense? Or that what they think they’ll achieve with this pronouncement is clearly not what they’ll get? You just know that you will shortly have a ringside seat to a slow train wreck. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and think, “What are they thinking?” The problem is that often they’re not thinking. They’re engaging in self-destructive behavior, and they don’t even know it.

People often engage in personally self-destructive behavior such as excessive smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, overeating, etc. Too much of anything can be bad for you, and can become addictive and self-destructive. But individual self-destructive behavior generally directly impacts the individuals themselves and more indirectly their family and friends. It generally does not adversely impact their community at large.

When companies engage in self-destructive behavior it impacts everyone in the company, most of whom are not part of the decisions leading to the self-destructive behavior.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!

You and your team have been working non-stop for a very long time on a project with unrealistic milestones and barely possible deadlines. You have all just broken your backs to meet yet another critical but nearly impossible deadline, you’ve spent many nights and weekends to get this done. You’ve all missed important family events to accomplish this.After all of this, after accomplishing what looked to be impossible, you meet with your boss, expecting heartfelt thanks and appreciation, but instead you are told that what you did was simply not good enough and your boss is disappointed in you all for failing to deliver on what he promised, and that if things don’t improve, you are all in danger of losing your jobs. How’s that for a great work motivator! You are one of the “lucky” teams to have a boss who comes from the “Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves” (FWCUMI) school of inspirational management.

It would be nice to think that this type of management approach isn’t common, but it is far more common than it should be. The view is to concentrate on what you’re doing wrong and to ignore what you’re doing right. In the industrial age, where the means of production were predominantly the equipment used to produce products and where that means of production remained at the company when the employees went home at night, this kind of approach might work, although it would hardly be effective. But in today’s information age, particularly with “knowledge workers”, the means of production resides in the brains of those “knowledge workers”, and goes home with them every night. Using the “FWCUMI” philosophy is not only foolish, it is counter-productive and destructive.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Stolen Credit - It's Not Just About Credit Cards!

You've been working hard on a critical project and you need some help in order to overcome one troublesome obstacle. You’ve successfully completed more than 95% of the work on your own, and have a plan to complete almost all of the remaining work, but you just haven’t encountered this one particular problem before and need some help. So you go to a co-worker who you know to be knowledgeable about this particular aspect. You ask for his help and he is quickly able to get this aspect of the problem solved. You thank him for his great assistance and continue the remaining work needed to get the project wrapped up and ready for delivery. When you’re done, you go to your boss to let her know that this critical project is now complete and ready for release, including giving credit for the critical help of your co-worker.

But your boss then tells you that your co-worker has already been in to let her know about the great project he had completed on his own, and that she has already informed the management team up to the top ranks of the company about the great work your co-worker has done, and the rewards that co-worker has coming. You’re speechless and attempt to explain to your boss that you've done all the work except for the one small part your co-worker contributed, but your boss looks at you like you’ve got two heads, questioning why you want to claim credit for the work your co-worker has clearly claimed as his own. Unbelievable!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Sky Is Falling!

“The sky is falling! If we don’t fix this problem immediately we’re doomed! Drop everything else you’re doing now! There’s simply no time to think, just to act!” Have you encountered people who find and react to problems in this way? Do they have credibility that causes people to respond quickly, or are they the company cranks who see every problem as a crisis?

We all encounter problems every day in our work lives (and for that matter in our personal lives). Some problems are simple. Some are complex. Some problems seem simple but are, in reality, quite complex. Some seem complex but are, in reality, quite simple. Some problems are emergencies and must be addressed immediately with whatever resources are required (the sky really is falling!). Some only seem that way or are made to seem that way (advertently or inadvertently). What matters is determining what the case is really, and then determining the best ways for such problems to be addressed and resolved.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Munchausen by Proxy in the Workplace

You’re the leader of a team working on some difficult ongoing problems when an even bigger problem suddenly presents itself out of the blue.  You’ve never encountered such a problem in the past and this particular problem wasn’t at all evident in all of the work leading up to the current state. One of your teammates suddenly swoops in with a solution to this vexing problem and quickly becomes the hero of the moment. All around him, bosses, peers, and people from other unrelated organizations stop by to congratulate him for his outstanding insights and technical expertise to so quickly recognize and come up with an elegant solution to such an unusual and potentially crushing problem. You join in the accolades, happy that a member of your team has the know-how to spot and fix such difficult problems.

But then you start to think about the situation a bit more deeply, and start to do some background investigation to understand where and how this problem arose, so you can be on the lookout for such outlier problems in the future to prevent them from arising in the first place. Only when you start to dig in to the problem you reluctantly begin to come to the conclusion that this difficult problem did not really come out of nowhere, but was purposely injected into the project by the very person who is now the hero of the moment. This person had actually caused potential harm to the project in order to become the hero who saved the day. Unbelievable!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Office Whisperer

You’re in an organization that had been doing well, but you sense a bit of unraveling.  People are getting angry, sometimes for minor things. People are starting to get in each others’ faces and tear each other down rather than build each other up. People are talking past each other rather than to each other (see also What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate! and When It’s “Us” vs. “Them”, Nobody Wins!). Blame is being placed, sometimes improperly, and pressure to deliver is fraying everyone’s nerves. Roles and responsibilities are unclear and adding to frustration levels. You see people and organizations in the company engaged in what you consider to be self-destructive behavior (see also Self-Destructive Behavior). You see decisions being made in haste that simply don’t make sense (see also The Sky Is Falling!).  You know you’re in a good organization with good people, but things that were working in the past are no longer working well. How does what is becoming a dysfunctional family (see also Dysfunctional Families) get the help it needs to become functional and thriving again? One way comes from within if your organization is fortunate enough to have a great Office Whisperer.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

To a Carpenter with a Hammer, Every Problem Looks Like a Nail

You’re part of a team working on a vexing problem. Every time you believe you’re starting to get some traction on the problem, one of your teammates drags the team away saying he has the solution, and it involves using something in his specialty area. So everyone stops what they’re doing and goes to his meeting so he can describe his breakthrough. Only it’s not a breakthrough. It’s a rehash of the same thing, or a slightly different variant, of what he has been diverting everyone to every step along the way. “You’ve got to stop now to see this wonderful approach I recently learned at a seminar I attended.”  Or, “I just found a new way to apply this breakthrough approach I just read about.”  Or, “A specialist I know in another company just published an article that I think can solve our problem.” Like a broken record, he halts real progress over and over again with diversions to his area of expertise that, while well-intentioned, simply don’t apply to the problem at hand.

There is an old saying,“To a carpenter with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Your teammate is that “carpenter”, and every problem he sees is a “nail” that he believes can best be solved using his “hammer”. In extreme cases, they do all they can to prevent reasoned discussion and collaborative solutions (often not intentionally, believe it or not). They insist that their way is the only acceptable way to reach “the” solution.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Does Everyone Really Understand?

You’re a project manager tasked with leading a critical development project. It’s a big project for your company with significant complexity and a wealth of features. You’ve got a time-critical deadline to deliver a high quality, fully-tested product to market. You think you’ve nailed down the product requirements and project plan so that all involved understand, agree, and are working toward the same goals. But have you really?  Does everyone really understand?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Your Problem Is Not My Emergency!

You’re busy at your job managing a group of people who provide services to other groups and organizations in your company. The pace at this time is hectic, with everyone in the group involved in doing what they do best – providing high quality delivery of the services they provide. Your pace, as manager, is hectic as well, trying to ensure that all demands by your ‘customers’ are being met with high quality results in a timely fashion, while also attempting to ensure that all of your people are fully engaged in activities that meet or stretch their capabilities without being overwhelmed. You try to stay on top of things by polling your ‘customers’ to identify what’s likely to be coming so that you can plan accordingly and identify who will be doing what when. Everyone in your group is feeling somewhat stressed, but manageably so, and is, in general, feeling good about their ability to satisfy the demands placed upon them.

Then you get a call from someone outside of your normal ‘customers’. This person has a problem of her own making, and is seeking help from you and your group. She made promises to an outside customer to deliver something requiring your group’s services in an extremely short (and unreasonable) timeframe. She didn’t check with anyone about the reasonableness of the delivery, but just assumed it could be done in the timeframe she promised. You’re more than willing to help, within reason and within the constraints of delivering on prior commitments. But this person isn’t interested in your constraints or commitments. Her problem is ‘far more important’ than anyone else’s, and she expects you to drop everything else and, if necessary, make everyone in your group available to help address her problem (see also The Sky Is Falling!).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Too Much Drama!

Are there times at work when you feel like you’re in a soap opera? You’re trying to get your work done, generally with insufficient time to do it, when all around you deep drama explodes; way too much drama!

A guy sitting near you regales anyone within earshot of his stories of dating conquests and his trials and tribulations on the dating scene. Way too much information and too much drama!

Another employee goes on endlessly about the personal problems in her life, with her kids, her husband, her car, her house/apartment, her finances, her hair, her whatever. You try to turn your ears off but to no avail. You’re not really interested but you can’t get a word in edgewise or escape. Again, too much drama!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Putting Lipstick On A Pig

You’re working hard at your job of managing a group that builds ‘products’ for your customers, trying to do what has been asked of you using some internally developed specialized tools you’ve been told (forced) to use.  These tools haven’t changed substantially in years, other than minor tweaks and enhancements, but the projects you've been asked to use them on to meet your customers’ increasingly more demanding needs have gotten progressively more complex and difficult to implement, and the tools just aren’t up to the jobs.  

You’ve tried to make it known and clear to those in the organization that created these specialized tools that they are increasingly more inadequate to do the ever more complex jobs.  You’ve listed in detail what is needed to effectively and efficiently carry out your jobs and you’ve prioritized your needs to indicate what is needed most all the way down to what would be nice to have but isn’t as critical.  However, that organization has their own list of priorities to work on, and your group’s needs just never seem to make it to their list of priorities.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stuck In The Middle With You

Many times in almost everyone’s career employees come up against difficult situations where people who just don’t get along with each other (one of whom may be you) are required to work together cooperatively to achieve a critical goal, be it a project, a program, a sale, a presentation, an approval, or whatever. The drama can become intense (see also Too Much Drama!). Sometimes it’s easy, but other times it can be extremely difficult, not only for the people who don’t get along (they may deserve each other), but for all the others who are stuck in the middle with you.

How do you overcome such difficult situations to achieve the desired (required) result when you’re one of those stuck in the middle of such a situation? Here are some examples and some proposed solutions: