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.