Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Trust Me, I'm Not Like the Others!

“If people like you, they'll listen to you, but if they trust you, they'll do business with you.”  ~ Zig Ziglar

What’s the difference between a bad and a good organization? How about the difference between a good and a great organization? How about the differences between bad, good, and great leaders? Clearly there are many elements that differentiate organizations, including their leaders, their people, the work they’re doing, the work environment, and much more. Likewise, with leaders there are elements such as knowledge, capabilities, abilities to understand and explain, abilities to work well with people, and much more. However, I postulate that one of the biggest differentiators between bad, good, and great organizations and likewise with leaders is the level of trust that exists in those organizations and with those leaders. For organizations and leaders to operate effectively there must be trust.

"Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people. But it takes time and patience, and it doesn't preclude the necessity to train and develop peple so that their competency can rise to the level of that trust." ~ Stephen Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

What has been your experience when you work with people who you truly trust? It has been my experience that in such situations you really look forward to going to work and to working with people you know and trust. You believe that as a team you can conquer the world.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Promises and Delivery

Who do you respect more? Someone who promises and delivers, or someone who promises and fails to deliver? Obviously, someone who promises and delivers. How about between someone who under-promises and over-delivers versus someone who over-promises and under-delivers? Your immediate reaction would likely favor someone who under-promises and over-delivers, but it really isn’t so clear. It depends on how much is under-promised versus how much is over-delivered, or in the other option, on how much is over-promised versus how much is under-delivered. In both of the latter two cases, it also depends on the stream of excuses you can expect to receive, and on how many you will tolerate. The excuses can absolutely drive you to distraction! We’ll go into all of these scenarios.

Let’s start with the person who simply promises and delivers, consistently and repeatedly. What does this mean? This is someone who says what he means (his promises), means what he says (his integrity), and does what he says he’ll do (his delivery). [See Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!] This is typically a person who doesn’t even think about the possibility of over- or under-promising; he just promises what he realistically and capably can do, and does it. This is a person who you can trust! [See Trust Me, I’m Not Like the Others!] When you have someone like this in your organization, you have a real gem, and this is a gem you should treasure. This is a gem who others should emulate and admire. No muss, no fuss, no excuses. He just does the job at the high level of ability he knows he has, and consistently delivers on his promises! Build your organization around this person and encourage your other people to follow his example.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Style Over Substance

You and everyone in the company are called to a company meeting and you head out with reservations, since you’ve attended such meetings in the past and have come away disappointed, with perfunctory messages, carefully manipulated company results, berating words for people or groups who have been unable to deliver on unrealistic expectations (see Unrealistic Expectations), and obligatory congratulations for a few people or groups. But this meeting sounds different. The big boss conveys a truly inspiring message and sounds like he really gets it. He lays out a vision for transforming the company in new and exciting ways (see Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View). He points to a future that holds great promise and potential.  He discusses a plan of action that can make a real difference and a call to action to make it happen. He points to changes that will take place starting immediately, and envisions a bright and hopeful future that will bring excitement and success to the company and its people. Everyone is charged up and anxious to get started and leaves the meeting with a new spring in their steps. Then … very little happens. The promised changes are always about to begin, but never really do. Those changes that do begin go nowhere with little real support. The hope in everyone’s minds diminishes with each passing day.  You have just been subjected, once again, to style over substance, and its result can be devastating. In fact it can be considerably worse than if the promising message had never been given. People’s expectations get built up, only to be torn down. They watch the bubble grow, only to see it burst; the bigger the bubble, the bigger the mess when it inevitably bursts.

Unfortunately, we see style over substance everywhere, and the consequence is that people are becoming more jaded and cynical. We see it in politics, where promises to “give” people this, that, and the other thing fly left and right from all parties, with few, if any, of the promises backed up by anything real or meaningful; but that doesn’t diminish the non-stop pandering.  We see it in companies and even in work, community, and social groups. In smaller group settings it is generally easier to identify who is delivering style over substance and who is really delivering substance, and to do something about those who don’t deliver.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sunny Day Scenarios

You’re a project manager tasked with putting together the schedule for a new and critical project. You are told by senior management that this is an extremely critical project, and that it is essential to the company’s future success that it is delivered as quickly as possible and that whatever delivery date you come up with absolutely must be met. You are told that Sales is basing their forecasts on the availability dates you provide, and that Finance is basing their revenue and net income projections based on your schedule. The whole company is depending on you delivering on your commitments without fail.

You know you want the schedule to be as aggressive as possible to get products to market as soon as possible, but recognize that it must also be realistic and achievable, and that it must be met. You meet with all of the appropriate people, define all of the necessary tasks and their anticipated durations and dependencies, and incorporate the critical interactions among and between organizations (including organizations within and outside of your own company). You do your best to push back on people to make sure what they tell you is truly achievable and can be counted on. You apply what you feel to be an appropriate level of contingency on critical path tasks. Still, you have some level of discomfort that you’re missing something in the schedule you’ve put together.  

Before you finish and present the final schedule as complete, do at least one more check (really considerably more than one). Make sure, to the best of your ability, that no part of the schedule is based on Sunny Day Scenarios, where the people giving you task duration and dependency estimates base their estimates on everything going just right, or on other people providing what they need just in time. “Sunny Day Scenarios” can and will kill a schedule, and over time you will watch your carefully put together schedule fall apart, and your credibility in the organization with it. [See also Failing to Plan Means You Are Planning to Fail!, What Gets Measured Gets Done!, and Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!]

What are some of the “Sunny Say Scenario” pitfalls you need to look out for? They can be categorized as Schedule, People, and Management related.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations

You’re just getting started on the development of an exciting new product or program. The product/program definition isn’t really flushed out yet and the real magnitude of it is not understood, but everyone, including you, is energized about the prospects of what this new product/program can bring to the company. They have visions of money growing on trees! The management team says they really have to have this by a certain date in order to have the impact they would like. They ask you, as a project/program manager if this can be achieved. Optimist that you are, not knowing the product details, and making some assumptions, you indicate that you think it may be possible (see Take the Time to Think!). Congratulations! You have just set unrealistic expectations that you can be quite certain will not be met.

No one intends to set unrealistic expectations, but it happens all the time. Everyone wants new systems, products, or programs delivered yesterday, with outstanding quality, even if they don’t have a clue about the amount of work involved in delivering a quality product/program that is aligned with critical business objectives. People are pressured to estimate what it will take to develop something that is not fully (or even mostly) defined.  When that estimate is viewed as too long (which is almost always the case), they are asked to pull time out of the schedule (see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game). Then, as the product/program definition starts to come together, additional features and functions are identified and are determined to be mandatory. It is often realized that the needed resources needed are not currently available. However, the end date (that was very broadly estimated in the first place, and then shortened by pressure applied early and continuously) is not allowed to be modified, unless it can be pulled in. Assumptions and caveats are forgotten. [What happens when you 'ass/u/me'?  You make an 'ass' of 'u' and 'me'!]. When anyone then  tries to adjust the date, they will then hear, “I didn’t set the date, you did!”, or "Don't confuse me with the facts!" (see Don't Confuse Me With the Facts!). Many other departments become dependent on that date, and when you don’t or can’t deliver, it is entirely your fault. Then it turns into 'floggings' (see Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!).  

How can unrealistic expectations be avoided or at least reduced?  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Common Courtesy (or the Lack Thereof)

You’ve just gotten involved in a new and important project, and you’re grateful to be involved, as it promises, if successful, to be a major driver of new business for the company, and can provide positive visibility for you. You go into the initial project meetings with a positive outlook and a ‘can do’ attitude. However, when the meeting gets started you notice there appears to be discontent between some of the representatives of the various organizations involved. Even more disconcerting, the discussions quickly veer off a path of respectful discourse to displays of snarkiness, animosity and even outright disrespect. This makes no sense to you, as it is clearly counterproductive and unnecessary. You expect common courtesy to be the norm, and can’t understand what you’re seeing or why. Unfortunately, bad behavior and a lack of common courtesy is becoming all too common in the workplace and out of it.

Where has common courtesy gone? It used to be that people, within and outside of the workplace, treated each other with courtesy regardless of the circumstances, even during very trying times. But manners, courtesy and civility seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Why, and what can be done about it?

There are many potential causes for the decline in common courtesy and civility.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hire Adults, Expect Results!

You’re a manager who has just been given control of an important new project, and you want to do absolutely everything you can to make it a sterling success with features and functions that will guarantee strong market success (generating great revenues), outstanding quality, on (or ahead of) time delivery, and within budget. You’ve been given some range of freedom in building your new team; some to be chosen from among existing employees, and the authority to hire some new employees specifically for your project. Most of the available existing employees have been around for a while, and have a mix of capabilities and motivations. You know most of these folks, to varying degrees, and can learn more about them from peers and others. Your new hire budget (as with your overall budget) is, of course, fixed, but you have a choice of how you want to spend that money. You can bring in a good number of inexperienced (and less expensive) people, or fewer (and more expensive) experienced people, or a mix of both. What should guide you in building your new team, and how should you go about it? In the words of my good friend Lee Beaumont**, “Hire adults, expect results!

First let me clarify what I mean by experience and by adult.

Experience in this instance should be viewed as directly applicable and applied knowledge about one or more aspects of the project that are essential to its success. Experience in this definition has little to do with age. There are people straight out of school who may have specialized experience that may be absolutely critical to success, and there may be people who have been around for a long time, but whose experiences, while significant and valuable elsewhere, may not be at all applicable in this project. If you want to succeed, you will need experts with the right kinds of experience.

Being an adult has far more to do with behavior than with chronological age. It has to do with levels of personal responsibility, integrity, and trust. Adults are people who can be trusted to honor their commitments and deliver honest and reliable results in the times they said they would (see Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!). With adults, you don’t spend your time babysitting and resolving stupid conflicts, picking up dropped balls, listening to “can’t do” excuses and other childish behavior. With adults, you get a level of initiative, creativity, and leadership that can emerge and transform the team and project to a new level; breakthrough products can result. With adults, new people in the organization have excellent role models to learn from, and a healthy mentorship relationship can develop that brings benefits to the mentor, apprentice, team, and project (see Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More from Bad!). With adults, you have people you trust to talk to and collaborate with in problem solving. With adults, problems can be foreseen, anticipated, and avoided much earlier and at much less cost. With adults, people rise to the occasion, and delivering on commitments becomes expected and fun. In my career I have known people straight out of school who exhibited outstanding adult behavior, and well-seasoned, even experienced people who still behave like children. Some children (of any age) can be trained, and some cannot! Being an adult does not mean you shouldn’t have fun in your work. Adults can still have fun at work, but not at the expense of others or the project. In fact, having fun should really be a prerequisite, since it is one of the key elements that motivate responsible adults to look forward to going to work every day.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Adapt or Die!

You recently left a prior position of your own accord, because you didn’t find it a fit, or the work environment was unacceptable, or for whatever reason (see Know When to Fold ‘Em, and When It’s Time to ‘Walk Away’, Don’t Turn Back!). Prior to leaving, you looked around for a good opportunity that would be a good match to your background and interests, and that would provide good opportunities for growth. You’ve just accepted a position in what you believe to be a promising company. You’ve been told what your job will be by your hiring manager, by the folks you interviewed with, and by Human Resources. You believe that job description to be a perfect match to your experience and interests, and you’re really looking forward to getting started. But when you start, your first assignment is actually fairly far removed from what you were told. But you do it well anyway. Then your second job builds upon your first, and is also far removed from what you had been told. As you move forward in your new job you find that, while there may be a passing resemblance to what you were told you would be doing, the reality is actually pretty far removed from that job description. What’s going on, and what does this mean for you going forward?

The mismatch of actual job assignment to what you were told it was going to be is typically not due to any ill intent on the part of anybody involved, but more due to the concept of ‘sh!t happens’, and what has happened, totally outside of your control, requires you to get deeply involved in these job assignments somewhat outside of what you expected (see The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). You need to decide whether you want to adapt, or find something elsewhere that is more in keeping with what you expected (see Take the Time to Think!).

A reality of life, at least for knowledge workers at almost every level of a company, is that the job you expect to be doing often bears fairly little resemblance to the job you will actually be doing. This can be true for a wide variety of reasons.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Showing Progress vs. Making Progress Syndrome

You are working diligently on a new and exciting project. You’re making good progress on your project commitments, and it looks like, if everything continues to go as expected, you may even beat the planned time to reach your coming milestones. Everything is coming together as you hoped and expected. Things are going great. Life is good.

Then your boss comes in and says that a critical customer will be coming in for a visit in two weeks, and he wants to be able to show a working demo of the portion of the product that you have been working on. He wants you to make this your highest priority. You tell him that you can do this, but that it will have to involve a number of other people working on other areas of the project, and will likely delay delivery of what will be needed for the real product, as you and others will have to take time away from doing that real work in order to get something temporary together for this demo. Your boss says that’s what he wants you to do, as this customer is very important. You do it, and the customer seems happy, although it appears to you that what you demonstrated was really of only mild interest to that customer, who appeared to have other, more important, things he really wanted to discuss with your boss. Your boss seems happy with your demo, but otherwise occupied with other issues related to this critical customer.  In any event, you’ve done as you were asked and delivered a good working demo. Nice job, you think.

A month later, you (and the others who were involved) are now about two weeks behind in your project efforts, and your boss demands to know why and how this critical work got delayed. You remind him of the demo he asked you to prepare, but your boss says, “But that was only a quick demo! You never told me that it would delay the project [despite the fact that you did]. This delay is unacceptable and so is your performance! I want to know what you’re going to do to get the project back on track! You know that this project is your highest priority!” You have just become a victim of “Showing Progress vs. Making Progress Syndrome”. No good deed goes unpunished! [See The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game and  No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!]

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Shout Out to Ukraine!

Here's a special shout out to the blog viewers from the Ukraine! In the past few months the Ukraine has risen to third place in total page views on this Workplace Insanity blog since the blog started in June 2010, behind just the USA and the United Kingdom. I appreciate your interest! If there are any topics you would like me to address, please let me know. Thanks!

Tom Dennis

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Multiply Ideas by Sharing

You’re working on an important project and you’re determined to complete the project yourself, to demonstrate your capabilities and ability to deliver on a critical commitment. You have stubbornly refused the help generously offered by others, believing that doing so would show weakness and a lack of technical understanding and ability. But now you feel like a marathon runner who has ‘hit the wall’. You’ve exhausted all of the ideas you have to solve the many issues you’re grappling with, and aren’t sure what to try next, what to do next, or where to turn. But you’re afraid to admit that you’ve hit an impasse for fear that it will reflect badly on you and your currently positive reputation in your organization (see Embarrassment Rules the World? and Take the Time to Think!). What can you do to revive yourself, get your creative juices running again, and come up with new approaches to solve your problems?

If you want to spur new ideas, for yourself or for others in your organization, the best thing you can do is to share your ideas and ask for others in return. It may seem counterintuitive to you, but it’s true! You will multiply ideas by sharing them! There is a famous quotation from George Bernard Shaw: "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

So swallow your pride. In your case, you’re about to experience “pride goeth before a fall” first hand! Your pride won’t mean much if you fail miserably on this critical assignment. One person can’t know all there is to know on a subject, as you’re learning first hand. Others will undoubtedly be able to bring a fresh perspective to your problems with many new ideas on ways to solve them. So search them out and ask for help!

This situation, though extreme, is far from rare. Even people who regularly share ideas and ask for help may find themselves in situations where they become reluctant to do so, for whatever reason. It is critical that they come to their senses and recognize the power of multiplying ideas by sharing

How does this work? First, you need to work up the courage to ask for help. Then you can start the process by throwing out one idea, and asking for more. That triggers an idea from another person, which provides an alternate route toward solving your problem. That idea triggers an idea from another person that turns the problem inside out and enables you and others to view the problem from an entirely different perspective with a range of not only new potential solutions, but also of new directions from which to attack the problem. Soon you have more ideas and approaches than you ever thought possible, all by simply asking others for their ideas and perspectives.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Methodology: Too Little, To Much, or 'Just Right'?

When Goldilocks sampled the three bears’ porridge, she found one too hot, another too cold, and the third 'just right'. Similarly, when she tried out their beds, she found one too hard, another too soft, and the third 'just right'.  Project or program methodologies are similar. They can be created with too little process, with too much process, or with the 'just right' amount of process. The key is finding out what is 'just right' for your organization. You’ll find that what’s 'just right' for your organization is unique and different from other, even very similar, organizations.

In small organizations, the tendency is toward too little methodology – often very little or none.  In large organizations, the tendency is toward too much methodology – a very formal, highly detailed process with very little flexibility. In medium-sized organizations, it is generally somewhere in between. Striking the proper balance is a difficult, but critical task that will determine the success an organization finds in effectively developing new products or programs.

What are some characteristics of too little methodology?
Too little methodology often leads to bedlam, anarchy, and a free-for-all atmosphere. There is no uniformity of direction; everyone is moving fast, but often in different directions (Brownian motion) (see Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View). People all feel they know what’s really best, and do their own thing independently of others. There is a 'cowboy mentality'. No one effectively leads (or everyone tries to lead), and few want to follow. Milestones are not effectively set, and schedules are for losers (see Poor Product Vision Blinds Development, and A Poor Product Roadmap Gets Everyone Lost). This can actually seem exciting and even intoxicating initially, but after a short time, people begin to get frustrated because the goals are not clear and little meaningful work is really being accomplished. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Embarrassment Rules the World?

When I worked at Bell Labs (lo those many years ago), I had an Executive Director whose governing management philosophy was that 'embarrassment rules the world'. That is, he felt that people achieved goals, met their commitments, and made all of their critical decisions based primarily on doing whatever was necessary to avoid being embarrassed. This Executive Director was also a person who inspired trepidation and trembling among many subordinates because of his forceful personality and this underlying philosophy. When he would hold meetings, or go around the organization to visit and check up on things, if he felt that people were not delivering to his expectations (which were often not made clear), he would publicly embarrass them in front of many others. The result was that people would make sure that they were doing enough to avoid such public embarrassment and humiliation, but most often just enough. They would often not work to exceed expectations or to excel, due to the chances of being embarrassed in front of others by this domineering executive.  

Such a management approach may ensure a level of performance just a notch above mediocrity, but certainly not a level of excellence. When a level of excellence was achieved, it was virtually always due to the natural desire of the person or people in the organization to excel, and not to satisfy the perverse philosophy of this manager. I learned a lot from this Executive Director, on how not to manage people (see Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More from Bad!, Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison The WellMis-Managers 2: Janus & Old YellerMis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole).

I strongly disagree with 'embarrassment rules the world' as a governing management philosophy and believe it is destructive. However, avoiding embarrassment does often serve as a strong motivator in people’s lives. For those witnessing the embarrassment being handed out, it is strange, but some people seem to take perverse pleasure at seeing others being publicly embarrassed. As an example, American Idol is one of the top rated shows on television, largely, until this most recent season, due to the embarrassment and disparagement handed out weekly by Simon Cowell to contestants who don’t live up to his expectations. Taking pleasure in another’s misfortune is a sad but unfortunately real observation on some people’s behavior that tends to reinforce the 'embarrassment rules the world' philosophy. In this blog post, I’d like to explore what an 'embarrassment rules the world' approach means, problems it can cause, and what I believe is a far more beneficial management philosophy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If You Want It Bad, You'll Get It ... Bad!

You and your team are working as hard as possible to deliver on your commitments by the agreed to deadline, and you want to be sure that what you deliver is of high quality. However, unforeseen problems have arisen that make it questionable that you will be able to deliver everything with the quality you want on time. The pressure is incredible. Your boss is saying things like, “I don’t care how you do it, but get me something by Friday!”, or, “I don’t care if it’s complete or fully ready; I need something now!”, or, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; just get me what I want, now!” [see Don't Confuse Me With the Facts!] Your boss has promised this to his boss, and your boss’s boss has promised this to his boss. No one wants to be embarrassed in front of their boss. However, you know that if what you deliver isn't everything that was promised, or isn’t really complete or fully ready, or isn’t of high quality, despite what your boss may say now, you will be crucified. You are stuck with the dilemma that if you want it bad, you’ll get it . . . bad!

Clearly, the world is moving faster and faster. Competitors are selling products and services which can quickly take away your company’s market share . If your product or service isn’t released to market within a certain timeframe, the company may face dire circumstances. Pressures to deliver more faster are very real, and demands to do so are made all of the time.  

What can be done to endure in a chaotic world? First and foremost, it comes to doing the basics right.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts!

You’re boss asks you to investigate a possible problem that has the potential to seriously derail a critical project or program. Work has been underway for some time now, and the release of this product (or service) is expected to have a substantial impact on the company. The problem, if indeed a serious one, could set back delivery and/or severely damage the image and reputation of the company. 

As you begin your investigation, it becomes ever more evident that the problem is real and is, indeed, serious. You know you’ve got much more work to do to fully understand the details and the consequences, but you want to give your boss an early heads up on your investigation. You don’t expect your boss to be happy about the news, but you do expect him to appreciate learning early in the investigation that there are real danger signs ahead. Instead, he starts yelling at you, saying that you simply don’t understand what your doing, and that you’ve simply got to reach the conclusion that everything is really alright (see Mis-Managers 2: Old Yeller). He is essentially saying, when the facts don’t provide the answer he wants, “Don’t confuse me with the facts!”

What’s the mentatlity at work here? Your boss asked you to find out if the problem is true, and when you find out it is, he refuses to believe you. He trusted you enough to ask you to independently investigate, but won’t accept your answer when you learn and present the facts (see No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!).

When facts don’t match assumptions, a common first reaction is that the facts are wrong, not that the assumptions are wrong. Often, the assumptions have been around so long that they are considered common wisdom. When facts betray that common wisdom, the boss may view this as an insult to his/her intelligence, and blame the messenger. Changing the boss’ perspective, even with conclusive proof, is often hard, and can lead to negative perceptions of the person providing the ‘contrary’ facts. Unfortunately, this negative view of the bearer of bad news can linger beyond the current instance and on into the future. [In older and darker times the bearer of bad news was often killed!]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What We've Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate!

In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman plays a convict in constant trouble. At one point the warden says to Luke, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate!” Trouble continues until the climax when Luke runs and is cornered in a church. He leans out the window and mockingly yells to the warden, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”, quickly followed by a guard putting a bullet through Luke’s throat. In the corporate world, a failure to communicate is a very common problem, and often results in drastic actions. In this world, however, a bullet through the throat is, thankfully, not a common outcome.

When most projects begin there is great hope and promise for all involved. A terrific product has been defined, complete product requirements have been written (he said optimistically), a thorough project plan has been put in place (also optimistically), and all parties have signed up to deliver what is necessary to successfully bring this wonderful product to market. There is a strong degree of trust among all the many parties from multiple organizations, including product development, product management, sales, marketing, finance, manufacturing, senior management, etc (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). All the world is in harmony! J It is virtually impossible for things to be much better from this starting point, so there is really only one direction that things can go – downhill. Along the way, problems will arise, eroding trust and straining relationships (see Trust Me - I'm Not Like The Others!).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Do Your Customers Really Want?

It is critical that your company deliver what your customers really want. But how do you know what the customer really wants?

Most people are familiar with the cartoon on the left showing a tire swing in its various realizations thorough the design process by various groups within a company, versus what the customer really wanted. It is all too easy for the customer’s needs to be subsumed by the desires of others within a company who interpret the customer needs through their own prism. What you often end up with is not what the customer wanted at all.

In sales-driven companies, product requirements often reflect a shopper’s mentality. Sales people see what customers are asking for today, that other companies are already providing, and say that’s what their customers want. This is really like driving by looking only through the rear-view mirror. You see where you’ve been, but have no idea of where you’re going, or should be going. When you deliver what sales has requested, not only is the customer disappointed, because they have already been able to get that product from others for some time, but by the time it’s delivered the sales people themselves are disappointed, because the view through the rear-view mirror has changed by then, and what they asked for is no longer what they want now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Keep Your Eyes on THE GOAL!

If you ask a typical engineer, “What is THE GOAL of the company?”, you’ll typically get answers like, “to build the best product”, or “to beat our competitors”, or “to be the best”, or something of the like. If you ask someone in marketing the same question, you typically get answers like, “to provide the best value to our customers”, or “to provide the best product at a great price”, or “to win”. Ask some more idealistic employees and you may get responses like, “to help serve the community”, or “to build environmentally friendly products”. Ask yet others and you’ll generally get similar types of responses. While all of these answers may well be desirable, they are not THE GOAL. Achieving THE GOAL may enable these to happen, but unless THE GOAL is achieved, these other outcomes are really meaningless. What, then, is THE GOAL? 

   THE GOAL of any company IS TO MAKE MONEY! 

If your company doesn’t make money, then, over the long run, you can’t build the best product, you can’t beat your competitors, you can’t be the best, you can’t provide the best value, etc. If you don’t make money, your company won’t be around long enough to achieve any of these outcomes. Instead, your company's doors will get padlocked, and all of your company's employees will find themselves without jobs. This simple fact of life, that a company must make a profit, is, sadly, not obvious to a lot of people. Nor is how they can have an impact on making this happen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Take the Time to Think!

Things are crazy at work. People are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They’re running in every direction with no semblance of purpose or foresight or understanding. The big picture is unclear; even the little picture is unclear! No one seems to have a clue. They just want something done! Many of the ‘leaders’ in the company appear to be equally confused, and are spouting out directives that are not well thought out and even contradictory, and these just add to the confusion. Their antics are disappointing and undermine confidence in the management team of the company. People are looking to you, as a person with some level of authority who is viewed with respect, demanding that you do something, anything, and do it now! 

What do you do? Adding to the confusion with ill-informed conjecture or unthinking 'actions' will only add to the chaos (see Like Trying to Change Tires On a Fast Moving Car!). The level of respect you have earned did not come by jumping to conclusions without understanding. You need to take the time to think before you act – to gather information, to analyze rationally, to comprehend, to understand – and only then to act responsibly, and not foolishly.

It’s your job to be an island of stability in an ocean of uncertainty. Before reacting, step back, block out all the craziness and distraction, clear your head, and think clearly. There is more than enough unclear thinking going on, enough reaction without any understanding, enough action without planning. Someone has to separate the wheat from the chaff; the important from the minutiae (see also Stop Picking the Flyshit Out of the Pepper!). Someone needs to develop and propose a thoughtful plan of action that recognizes what needs to be done, understands the potential consequences, and proposes a reasonable path to achieve the goal. It’s your job to be that person!

So how do you go about this? How do you ensure that you’ve thought things through carefully but expeditiously; that you’ve taken the right amount of time to think? Different people approach this process in different ways. There is not one right way to approach this, but there are many wrong ways.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Doing Things Right vs. Doing Things Over

How is it that, time after time, people seem to believe they don’t have the time to do things right the first time, yet they will later make the time, usually at the cost of delaying a critical project, to do things over? The reality is that taking the time to do things right the first time will virtually always, in the long run, take significantly less time and result in a higher quality product than it does to do things over. By not doing things right the first time, you will not only inconvenience yourself (and look bad in the eyes of almost everyone), but you will greatly inconvenience and severely disrupt the lives of many others as well.  

Why do people make this mistake in the first place? Clearly they don’t set out intending not to do things right.  They begin with only the very best of intentions, to do their jobs to the best of their abilities in the very best ways possible. They will even often say to themselves, “this time I’ll do it right the first time and not get caught up in downstream problems.” What changes that idealistic desire? Pressure from a variety of sources is typically the cause. Such pressure will often cause people to take “shortcuts”, or “force” them to get “something” out quickly that can be “refined” later. We will examine the sources of pressure and how you can best stand up to these pressures. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Stop Picking the Flyshit Out of the Pepper!

When I was growing up, I got a lot of guidance and knowledge from my father. I loved him dearly, but what is more I truly valued and respected him. I also go a lot of great sayings from him, many of which have stayed with me throughout my life. I’ve found most of them eminently useful to describe common situations. One of my favorites is, “Stop picking the flyshit out of the pepper!”. Not only is it a very colorful and attention getting expression, it is also illustrative of a common situation found in many companies and organizations. It is basically another form of the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, and means that you’re concentrating so much on the minutiae that you’re missing, and not working on, the big picture. 

How often have you seen this occur in your organization? You’ve got an incredibly demanding project underway with tight milestones and schedules. There are many, many elements to the project, yet you’ve got people who are spending their valuable time and effort in building the best and most perfect “mousetrap” in the world, when a perfectly acceptable “mousetrap” is available that does the job in a fully satisfactory fashion and is readily available and useable as is. What’s more, the “mousetrap” is one of the most minor elements of the project and one of the least critical to the project’s success. Yet try as you might, and despite repeated requests, demands, and threats, every time you turn around some of these people are back to polishing their “mousetrap” (also known as "polishing a turd"). These are good people, but they just can’t see the big picture. They’re picking the flyshit out of the pepper!

Here’s another example. You’ve received reports of major problems with your most popular and best selling product, and more and more customers are calling in to complain about this problem. It’s time for “all hands on deck” to find the source of the problem and get the fix back out to the field as quickly as possible. Your people are able to quickly find the major root cause of the problem and have a fix identified and ready to go. However, in the course of identifying the cause, they’ve uncovered another very minor problem that can occur in very rare circumstances, but they can’t seem to find a solid fix to this rare problem. They are unwilling to release the major fix until they fix this rare problem, and customers are getting quite angry. Again, they’re picking the flyshit out of the pepper! They can’t seem to recognize that they need to stop the bleeding now (triage) and come back later to fix the minor, non-critical nuisances.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!

A few years ago my wife and I were in the process of selling our house, and as part of that process we were required to fill out a “Seller’s Statement of Property Condition” that lists any issues that may exist with the house that the prospective buyer should be aware of. We tried to be diligent and honest in filling out this form. We still feel this is the best thing to do, but we found that items we stated on this form raised questions and concerns substantially greater than warranted by the conditions we described, and resulted in price reductions or extra work larger than were warranted for “problems” that almost certainly would not have even been noticed had we not disclosed them. We got through all of it, but it was stressful and caused us to lose money. The moral of the story: be honest and get hammered, or, more succinctly, no good deed goes unpunished!

My daughter encountered a similar situation in one of her jobs. She tries to go out of her way to help people who have critical needs or are encountering difficult problems. She puts in many extra hours so that she doesn’t fall behind on her own work, ends up with an overflowing plate of “highest priority” tasks to do with insufficient time to do them (see When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!), and then gets chastised by the same people who asked her to “do them a favor”. Again, no good deed goes unpunished!

This phenomenon happens all the time. You see a problem, report it, and you end up being called the bad guy rather than the person who caused the problem. You stop by a car disabled at the side of the road and get yelled at by the person you are trying to help, or get hit by debris from another car passing by at that time. You’re a doctor just walking on the sidewalk when a total stranger drops to the sidewalk. You administer medical aid to help the person, only to end up getting sued when problems arise that existed before you stopped and were not a consequence of your actions. No good deed goes unpunished! It’s almost enough to make you act like a turtle and withdraw into your shell and let the world pass you by.

How about at your workplace?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game

Throughout our careers we are often called upon to plan for various projects . Our bosses, of course, will want to know when the projects will be completed, so they can pass this information along to their bosses. If the project involves only you, this may be a simple matter of stating when you expect to complete the required work. More typically, however, projects involve multiple people from multiple (often geographically diverse) organizations, internal and external resources including people, equipment, logistics, and much more. A lot of effort is involved in putting together a project plan that involves complex pieces, efforts, complexities, dependencies, testing of outcomes, and much, much more. As a Project Manager or anyone else tasked with planning a a complex project, have you ever been caught up in the schedule estimate extortion game? This game works as follows:
  1. Boss asks Project Manager for project schedule estimates.
  2. Project Manager in turn asks the key parties involved for their estimates, and working jointly with them, develops what he/she believes to be aggressive yet realistic schedule estimates.
  3. Project Manager submits the schedule estimates, and Bosses at each level of the management hierarchy wince at the estimated date of product release and delivery, which they disparage as way too late.
  4. The bosses respond vigorously (“That date is simply unacceptable! You need to do significantly better to “improve” the schedule estimates!”). [Note: Of course in this case their use of the code word “improve” means to shorten the date (the bosses may actually suggest the shortened date that they feel must be met), not to increase the accuracy of the schedule estimates. Shortening the date almost always actually decreases the accuracy. What is extraordinary about the entire game is that time and energy is spent to decrease the accuracy of the schedule!]
  5. In response to coercion from the many Bosses, the Project Manager tries to “improve” the schedule estimates to eliminate the Bosses’ wincing. In presenting the “improved” schedule estimates, the Project Manager lists all of the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. that are required in order for the “improved” schedule estimates to possibly be met.
  6. The coerced and extorted “improved” schedule estimates that give the desired outcome are redefined by the many Bosses as precise commitments of schedule, costs, market share, sales targets, etc. The lists of caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. are promptly forgotten and/or ignored, and requests for help and assistance go unanswered.
  7. The real world happens (see The Best Laid Plans ... and Then Life Happens!) and these schedule estimates are missed. Few if any of the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. materialize, and other unanticipated problems develop along the way.
  8. The Project Manager and the others involved are blamed and shamed for missing their “commitments”. The fact that the caveats, assumptions, feature changes, necessary pre-conditions, etc. failed to occur is ignored (“This is your schedule, not mine!  I didn’t force you to make these commitments!”). The Project Manager and the others involved are punished for their failure to deliver.
  9. The Bosses talk about what a great job "they" did in planning a good project, missed only due to poor execution by the Project Managers and others involved.
  10. Strong sales roll in despite the delays, and the Bosses take big bonuses. The Project Managers and others involved do not because they didn’t deliver as they “committed”.
OK, so maybe the game described above is just a bit on the cynical and sarcastic side (OK, maybe more than a bit), but there is still truth (often too much truth) in that cynicism and sarcasm. Something along these lines happens all too often in planning and carrying out projects. When it does, part of the problem is certainly due to the extortion and coercion exerted by the bosses. However, a significant part of the problem also clearly lies with the Project Manager and the others involved for caving in to the extortion and coercion.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TMI - Too Much Information!

You've just joined your coworkers for lunch after successfully achieving a critical and challenging goal on a project you’re all involved in. The lunch is going well with high spirits and humorous interactions, with everyone feeling good about themselves, each other, and the job they’re doing. Then one of the people decides to launch into a personal tale unrelated to the job, which just hits most of the people as inappropriate or even borderline offensive. It gives insight into the person telling the tale, but not in a good way. You wish there was a way you could “unhear” it, but you can’t. Everyone feels a bit queasy and suddenly doesn’t want to be there any more. You have just been exposed to “too much information” or “TMI”, and it is simply uncomfortable. One bad instance of TMI can inadvertently disrupt what had been excellent working relationships.

TMI creeps into many common workplace activities. You’re attending a meeting about a critical project or issue, waiting for one or a few more people to arrive, when one person, just trying to make small talk, starts talking about something having no bearing whatsoever to the topic at hand. This veers in a direction that is not only off-topic, but off-putting; something that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable. Too much information! Or, people are standing outside of your cubicle having a too-loud but work-related conversation that is a bit disruptive to you, but harmless, when they swerve into something personal and awkward. Too much information! You get the picture.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!

Your boss comes into your office to tell you to drop everything you’re doing and start working immediately on a new project because it is the highest priority project in the company. You look at him and say, “OK, but what about these other three projects you told me were the highest priority?  I can put all of my attention on one of these, but not all four!” Your boss then reiterates that all are of the highest priority. What do you do?

The need to prioritize is a fact of life. We all must do it, every day, in virtually every aspect of our lives. Is it more important to fix a broken window before a snow storm hits, or to take out the garbage? Is it more important to get a product released that is expected to double company revenues, or to get a product released that will have virtually no impact on company revenues? Some choices, such as these, are obvious, but others can be difficult and there may not be a right or wrong choice. Still, everything cannot be high or the highest priority. Choices must be made, and priorities must be set! 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don't!

When you sit down to start planning your next project or program, you lay out the tasks that will need to be undertaken and completed, the time expected to be required for each task, the resources that will be required for each of these tasks (and the availability of those resources), the sequences in which these tasks must be done, and the dependencies these tasks have on other tasks. From this, and other considerations, a timeline can be developed, milestones can be identified, deliverable dates can be estimated, and the anticipated outcome of the project or program as a whole can be projected.  The natural approach is to base the project/program planning effort on what you know will be required. However, if you base your project/program plan solely on what you know, you may well be headed for trouble at the outset. There are other considerations that you don’t fully know that you need to take into account, and it’s best to consider them from the outset. What you don’t know can hurt you!

So how can you plan based on what you don’t know? I suggest you break your planning effort down into four categories – known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. By thinking in these terms, you can more fully account for likely situations that will arise, and build such situations into your project/program plan. I will discuss each of these categories, and how to utilize them in your planning efforts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

In any company, many “languages” are spoken, and the “language” of one group within a company is often as foreign and difficult to comprehend by other groups as if one group spoke English, another group Chinese, and yet another group Russian. The “language” of finance & accounting is very different from the “language” of marketing, which is very different from the “language” of engineering. Everyone in the company may speak English, but that is no guarantee that people will understand each other. They may understand each of the words (and sometimes even that is not the case), but they may not understand what is really being said or meant.

Among their peers, people tend to speak in their native “languages”, and there is generally a good understanding of what is being said and what is being heard. Even among peer groups, however, there are different “dialects” that are often difficult for other peer group members to understand. Let’s use Engineers as an example. For engineers, their “language” tends to be fairly technical, often jargon laden, often discussing esoteric and foreign sounding concepts often totally unrecognizable to non-engineers. Even within engineering, different “dialects” often make communication and understanding difficult for other engineers. For example, hardware engineers typically speak a different “dialect” than software engineers. There are many “sub-dialects” even within a specific “dialect”. For example, within hardware engineering, RF engineers speak a different “sub-dialect” than computer engineers. Reaching a common understanding even among different engineers can be difficult. However, when engineers meet with non-engineers, the communications chasm can be wide and deep, with a view by one group that the other group is “speaking in tongues”.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dignity, Respect, Compassion - What a Concept!

When people accept a job at a new company, they look forward with anticipation to a workplace environment where their contributions will be accepted, valued, built upon and improved, and where they will be able to work cooperatively with others with similar desires and aspirations. They anticipate a place where people work together to build something bigger than the sum of their parts, where they can become not just workmates, but friends. There are many workplaces that foster such a healthy environment, but there are also many workplaces where the workplace environment is unhealthy, and many more where it is somewhere in between. The difference between healthy, unhealthy, and in-between workplace environments is usually tied to how those organizations treat their people. Treating people uniformly with dignity (esteem, worthiness, honor), respect (regard, admiration, veneration), and compassion (empathy, sympathy, love) is often a prime differentiator.

What kind of workplace environment does your company have? Is it one where people enjoy working together and look forward to coming to work? Is it one where people happily and willingly come together to create products and services that the company’s customers want to buy? Or is it one where people drag themselves to work just to do what is necessary to earn a paycheck; one where they do only what is necessary to survive; one where they work begrudgingly with others only because they must, and do only what they are told to do? Or is it somewhere in between?

A healthy workplace environment can be a thing of beauty and something to behold (see Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!). It is one where people laugh often, as humor shows signs of comfort and joy in work. It is one where there is a free sharing of ideas, clear expectations and clear understanding of what’s expected of people and how they should behave, including following established professional values and codes of conduct. The workplace is comfortable and orderly with strong connections between coworkers. Frivolous demands and activities are minimal. Key to the workplace environment is that all people are treated with dignity, respect, and compassion; that everyone treats others as they would have others treat them, basically the golden rule for the workplace.  If you see these values honored, you are fortunate indeed.  Take a moment to savor the values that your organization has.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole

In a recent blog post, Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well, I raised the issue of Mis-Managers and the damage they can cause to not only their direct reports, but to the organization as a whole. I also discussed how such Mis-Managers typically got promoted into their positions and “reached their level of incompetence”. This blog post is the last (for now) in the Mis-Manager series (see also Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old Yeller and Mis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-Downer, Mis-Managers 4: Micromanagers - People, Design &amp: ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, and Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist), that describes some specific Mis-Manager personality types, the ways they create problems, and some suggestions as to how employees can attempt to survive, and hopefully prosper, with such Mis-Managers. The challenge of effectively dealing with Mis-Managers can be daunting, as they typically determine (or significantly influence) their employees’ futures.  As with my Herding Cats series, (see Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge WorkersHerding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist BastardHerding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social ButterflyHerding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima DonnaHerding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Chesire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole), which discuss knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, this one describes Mis-Manager characteristics, and concentrates on one specific attribute, rather than the mix of characteristics that will normally be the case. Clearly every Mis-Manager is an individual with characteristics that are unique, and most have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is also unique and should be treated in a unique fashion. The suggestions I make for approaching such people are just one person’s view – mine. Given the position of power that a Mis-Manager may occupy, think carefully about your best approach.

The Hands-Off Manager:
The Characteristics:  The Hands-Off Manager basically ignores his/her employees. He/she does his/her thing, and the employees do theirs. When an employee goes to such a manager for advice or guidance, that employee may hear bromides or clich├ęs, but won’t hear anything meaningful; his/her employees are basically on their own. The Hands-Off Manager won’t stop employees from trying things (which can be a good thing, as employees need to stretch and try new things), but won’t help them or prevent them from making known mistakes. They basically treats their employees as “latchkey kids”. The employees really have no leader or manager, no one to run interference when appropriate, and no one to back them up or support them when questions arise. For the Hands-Off Manager’s employees, it’s learn as you go, and support yourselves. This is not a healthy environment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist

Not all Managers are Mis-Managers. In my recent blog post, Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well, I raised the issue of Mis-Managers and the damage they can cause to not only their direct reports, but to the organization as a whole. I also discussed how such Mis-Managers typically got promoted into their positions and “reached their level of incompetence”. This blog post is the sixth in the Mis-Manager series (see also Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old Yeller and Mis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micromanagers - People, Design & Process, Mis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole), but this one discusses some positive Manager types, and not Mis-Managers. As with my Herding Cats series, (see Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge WorkersHerding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist BastardHerding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social ButterflyHerding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima DonnaHerding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Chesire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole) which discuss knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, this one describes Manager characteristics, and concentrates on one specific attribute, rather than the mix of characteristics that will normally be the case. Clearly every Manager (and Mis-Manager) is an individual with characteristics that are unique, and most have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is also unique and should be treated in a unique fashion. The suggestions I make for approaching such people are just one person’s view – mine. Given the position of power that a Manager or Mis-Manager may occupy, think carefully about your best approach.

The Mentor:
The Characteristics:  A Mentor is a manager who concentrates on and emphasizes the development of his/her people as a high priority. He/she provides meaningful assignments that enable his/her people to grow in technical, process, and people skills. A Mentor’s philosophy is, “Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he can eat for life.” The Mentor seeks to provide the skills and abilities for his/her people to excel and grow. He/she respects them and enables them to express their opinions freely, take chances, make mistakes, learn, and develop. He/she believes in open and honest communication, and has a real open door policy, where any topic or problem can be freely discussed without concerns of retribution or recrimination. He/she provides meaningful and actionable guidance that his/her people can really use. A Mentor leads by example, and serves as a positive role model (see Learn From Good Role Models; Learn More From Bad). He/she encourages teamwork by demonstrating the success and synergy that comes from effective team efforts (see Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!).