Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Are We There Yet?

When you’re working on a project with high visibility and a short time-frame  you’ll often receive “help” from many others looking to see whether you’re done.  How can it possibly take so long, they’ll think? It wouldn't take nearly so long if they were doing it, they’ll think (see No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn't Have To Do It!). Some will stop by every day (or every hour) to ask whether you’re done yet, or to demand to know why you’re not done yet. Some help! You spend as much or more time defending your efforts as it would take to finish the job. Others will offer to “roll up their sleeves and jump in to help you to get things done”, despite the fact that they may know little about the details of what you’re doing and would take valuable time away from doing the job just to get them up to speed in ways they might actually be able to help (see Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth!). All of these people are a bit like kids at the beginning, middle, and end of a long trip continually asking (yelping at) their parents, “Are we there yet?”

Bowing to pressure to get something out before it is ready can lead to disaster, and pressure to get something out can often backfire (see The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game and If Your Want It Bad, You’ll Get It … Bad!). Sure, the customer may be happy to see something on time, but that happiness will quickly turn to disappointment and even anger when they see that what they get doesn't work properly or is of poor quality. There are hundreds of project management proverbs that hit at different aspects of this situation (see Project Management Proverbs). [Proverb: “The bitterness of poor quality lasts long after the sweetness of making the date is forgotten.”] Regardless of how you couch the specifics of what you’re delivering, if it isn't right (to them), the caveats you raise about what is being delivered will be instantly forgotten. [Proverb: “The conditions attached to a promise are forgotten; only the promise is remembered.”] And you only get one chance to make a good first impression! (see You Only Get One Chance To Make A Good First Impression!).  

The reality is that it takes time to bake a cake, and it similarly takes time to properly complete a project, whether large or small. And adding people to a late project almost always makes it later. [Proverb: “It takes one woman nine months to have a baby. It cannot be done in one month by impregnating nine women!”]. Or, [Proverb: “Any project can be estimated accurately, once it’s done.”]. Or, [Proverb: “Too few people on a project can’t solve the problems; too many create more problems than they solve.”].

So what do you do when the powers that be are standing over you saying, “Are we there yet?”

The best approach is to notify people in advance of the time you expect it to take to get the job done right. Don’t set unrealistic expectations that the project can be completed properly by taking “shortcuts” (see Unrealistic Expectations), or base your schedule on sunny day scenarios that have little likelihood of coming true (see Sunny Day Scenarios). And let them know that constant checking or poking or prodding will only distract from completing the job. Show them your project plan in advance and make it clear what needs to be done by whom and in what order and with what dependencies (see Plan Based On What You Know, and On What You Don’t!). As long as you are following the plan, they should stay clear and let you and your team do your jobs. Assure them that you will provide them with frequent and honest updates of status, issues, resolutions, and outlooks, and then follow through on that commitment.

When you move off of the plan they will have valid reasons for questioning you, as long as they have not been the reason you are off the plan. Be forthright about what has happened.  

Sometimes, it is indeed the result of poor planning on your part and you need to fully accept responsibility and do whatever can be done to get the project back on track. Accept the responsibility, and the blame, when it is your fault. Then identify what needs to be done to complete the project in the best ways, whether you will retain the responsibility or hand it off to someone else. Do everything in your power to make that happen.

Sometimes, however, external circumstances or totally unforeseen circumstances come into play and nothing you could have done can compensate or correct the source of such problems (see When Bad Things Happen to Good Projects, and The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). In such cases, analyze the impact of the unforeseen circumstances and devise a plan to work around or through them to reach the goal in the best possible way.

Whatever the causes, when your project goes off course, or preferably when you can see in advance that it is about to head off course, seek help in places where help can really be useful.

There is a clear need to be on top of the project and anything that will prevent reaching the goal of completing it on time and with high quality. Your role is to make that happen, despite the many obstacles. The better you can stay on top of all the issues, foreseen and unforeseen, the higher the probability of reaching that goal, and the lower the likelihood that you will be pestered with questions like, “Are we there yet?”

Copyright 2012 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Leadership Is Not Just for "Leaders"

Leadership in any organization is critical. We normally think of leadership as originating from the designated “leaders” in management in a company, with high level leadership coming from higher levels of management and more specific and detailed leadership associated with specific group activities coming from the appropriate down-the-line management levels. It is important for management at any level to demonstrate leadership, but the reality is that leadership is not just for “leaders”. Leadership actually comes at every level in every organization from official “leaders” all the way down to entry-level employees. Don’t look only to your “leaders” for leadership. When you identify something that needs to be done, deal with the problem directly and show leadership yourself. Somebody has to show leadership; why not you?

So what is leadership? Here are a few quotes that may be useful:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

“Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.” 
– Stephen Covey

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” 
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”
– Jim Rohn

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do Jobs Right – Assign the Right People!

How many times have you observed a situation where, when a job needed to get done, the manager checked to see who was available, and simply assigned the job the first available person, whether such a job assignment to that particular person made sense or not? [See Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well]  Sad to say, this is an all too common occurrence, and the result is often predictable and disappointing, if not downright disastrous. While such behavior may be somewhat understandable in the case where a new need suddenly arises, there are still better ways to address such circumstances. In cases where planning for a new project is being undertaken, such behavior is inexcusable.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by the “wrong person” or the “right person”. The “wrong person” is not meant as a pejorative term for a specific individual. It only has meaning in the context of a specific assignment. The “wrong person” means that the knowledge, background, and experience of that specific person are not a match to the requirements and needs of a particular assignment. You wouldn’t want a road worker to perform brain surgery (or at least I wouldn’t want a road worker to perform surgery on my brain, no matter how nice a guy that road worker is), or ask a brain surgeon to do road work with a jackhammer (where he could damage his highly trained hands and fingers, the “instruments” of his profession). You want to match, to the degree possible, the skills, talents, and capabilities of the individual to the requirements and needs of the assignment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

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 the project is not understood, but everyone, including you, is energized about the prospects of what this new product/program can bring to the company. Senior management says they really have to have this product/program by a certain date in order to have the impact they would like. They ask you, as a manager or team member, if this can be achieved. Optimist that you are, not knowing all the details, and making some assumptions, you indicate that it may be possible. 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 products/programs and projects 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. Team members are pressured to estimate what it will take to develop a product/program that is not fully (or even mostly) defined. When that estimate, for a still mostly unknown product/program, 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 realized that the 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 your team leader tries to adjust the date, he will then hear from his leaders, "I didn't set the date, you did!" Many other departments become dependent on that date, and when you 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, July 11, 2012

Is Anybody There? Does Anybody Care?

Have you ever felt that yours is a lone voice in the wilderness, crying out but not being heard, or if heard, not being listened to? As humans, we have a need to interact with others, to speak and be heard and listened to, and to listen and understand what is being said and to respond. Without such interactions, we feel alone and isolated, and this can be terribly frustrating and demoralizing. In the workplace we usually work as part of a team, but sometimes it is a team in name only, and meaningful interaction among the team members is minimal or non-existent. Such a situation should not be allowed to start or grow, for it can have negative consequences to the work of the team, and to the success of the company.

The title of this blog post comes from the musical play “1776”, which tells the story of the founding fathers leading to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Most of the founding fathers are in Philadelphia discussing the situation with England. George Washington, however, is the General in the field sending back dispatches and urgent requests for help in manpower, supplies, and more, most of which have been unanswered or not acted upon. Washington perseveres, but in one of his messages he asks, “Is anybody there?  Does anybody care?” He feels alone and isolated from his ‘team’ and seeks their help, but gets no real acknowledgement or assistance.

Unfortunately, all too often, employees in the workplace feel the same way – that no-one hears them or listens, and no feedback is provided.  This is a dysfunctional situation that must be remedied (see Dysfunctional Families). Everyone contributes to make such a bad situation exist, and there are roles for everyone to play to reverse such a situation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dysfunctional Families

Families are a wonderful institution. Typical characteristics of families include unconditional love, trust, understanding, support, care when a family member is ill, empathy, forgiveness, and much more. However, family members can sometimes love each other, but not like each other very much. Family members know how to hit each other’s hot buttons and annoy, anger, and really tick each other off. When carried too far, this can lead to dysfunctional families.  We all know what dysfunctional families are. We see them all of the time on TV.  Many TV sitcoms are about them. Many reality shows parade them, particularly those showing families with children out of control and parents unable to control them (i.e. unable to act as parents). We often see them in our neighborhoods. Perhaps your family itself may be dysfunctional. They are often caused by clashes of personalities, by real or imagined slights, by one family member getting too involved or not involved enough in another family member’s interests, by insufficient or too much control, by being too rigid or not rigid enough.

All well and good, but what can this possibly have to do with the workplace? Well, companies are “families” too. In fact, most people spend more time with their company “family” than with their own personal family. Company “families” have many more “family” members, so the opportunities for tension or conflict are magnified many-fold, in fact probably exponentially. If personal families of 3 to 6 can become dysfunctional, it should be no surprise that company “families” of tens or hundreds or even thousands of people become dysfunctional. When things do become dysfunctional, the effectiveness of the company as a whole, not only your specific organization, is adversely affected, to the detriment of the company. So “family” relations are critical to the success, or possibly even the existence, of the company.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Everyone Does NOT Deserve a Trophy!

There is a very troubling trend in place today. It is a tendency to couch everything that happens in life in terms of its impact on ‘self-esteem’ (a phrase I have grown to despise). [See also Blunt Talk and Black & White Reasoning] The view of those supporting this trend is that if anything can damage people’s self-esteem, it is bad and must be avoided at all cost; only things that protect and nourish self-esteem should be pursued. Self-esteem, by this view, is apparently such a critical treasure that nothing can be said or done that might damage the fragile self-esteem of anyone, lest they descend into depression and a life of despair. The poor dears!

This philosophy has led to the phenomenon of “Everyone gets a trophy” in childhood sports, where every member of a team gets a trophy, whether they’ve won or lost, or whether they’ve earned it or not. By this view the superstar is no more deserving of recognition, or a trophy, than the kid who can do nothing right. As those who grew up with this philosophy have entered the workplace, some carry with them this false view of life. In my opinion, this “Everyone gets a trophy” philosophy leads to dysfunction in the workplace. The reality is that everyone does NOT deserve a trophy!

Since the “Everyone gets a trophy” philosophy is based on a sports metaphor, let’s look at that philosophy in terms of one sport, a swim team. When a new swim team is formed, it generally consists of three classes of people in its ranks: Swimmers, Treaders, and Drowners. Let’s look at the characteristics of each.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For!

We’ve all heard the fairy tales where a person finds a magic lantern, rubs it, and a magic genie comes out and grants that person three wishes. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they come out horribly wrong. In the movie Bedazzled, the hero is offered seven wishes by the Devil in exchange for his soul. This was a classic and hilarious example of how one’s wishes can come true, but in horribly wrong ways.  When the hero wishes to be rich and powerful, he wakes up a Columbian drug lord, rich and powerful, but beset by troubles on every side. When he wishes to be sympathetic and sensitive, he wakes up a sniveling, spineless wimp. And so it continues through all of his wishes. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!

Life in the corporate world can operate in a similar fashion where unintended consequences of getting what you wish for frequently occur, despite or as a result of the good intentions you may have had. The road to hell is paved with good intentions (and the unintended consequences of those good intentions)!

Long ago, during my days at Bell Labs, I was involved in a project that was in deep trouble. My management, trying to help, decided to add a lot more people to the project. This was their wish, not mine, and was meant to “help” me. My plaintive wail to them at the time was that I felt like a drowning man who had just been thrown … an anchor! All of those new people had to be educated on the product and project and brought up to speed, and had to communicate frequently with those already on the project. The people who had to provide the education and communicate frequently with them were the people currently involved in developing the product, preventing them from effectively continuing the development. The natural, but unintended, consequence was that the project was delayed significantly further than it would have been if we had not received the added “help”. It fit perfectly into Brooks Law [from The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., © 1975 by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., page 25], which states, “Adding manpower to a late software project will make it later.”] Ultimately and happily, the product we released (late) was a strong success, but this experience was a great illustration of the unintended consequences of good intentions! The result could have easily gone badly. [See also Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth!].  

How else can wishing for something “good” become your worst nightmare?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Take the Time to Plan

Your boss has just drafted you into a project already underway. You’re told that this is an important project and it just needs a bit of extra help to get it back on track. You meet with the others involved to learn more about the project and your intended role in it. As they begin to explain, you ask about the project plan, and where things stand in that plan. What you hear raises concern when they tell you they don’t really have a formal plan, as they believe the project to be straightforward and that, with your additional help, they should be in good shape. 

You ask, if that’s the case, why they suddenly need the extra help, and why they believe they don’t need a plan. You ask if they’ve thought through all of the various aspects of the project, how the parts will come together, what the timing will be, and who will do what when. Again, they just slough off your questions, saying it’s not that complicated, and you just need to start doing what they ask, and things will come together (see Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts! and Own Your Job! All of It!). 

Of course, that doesn’t happen, and soon they’re asking your boss again for ‘just one more person’ to be added to the project to get everything back on track (see Excuses, Excuses!). Whenever you raise concerns or make suggestions to your boss or to the team to better develop their plan of attack, you’re put off and put down. You soon realize that you’re on a path to disaster, and everyone involved in this ‘project without a plan’ will soon be tarred as a poor performer and a loser, including you (see Does Everyone Really Understand?). What can you do?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

When It's "Us" versus "Them", Nobody Wins!

How many times have you found yourself in a situation where it comes down to “Us” versus “Them”, where “Us” are, naturally, "the good guys”, and “Them” are "the bad guys”? Where it’s unquestionably clear that unless “Us” wins the current battle, “Them” will win and that will mean the end of life as we know it.

In situations like this, “Us” and “Them” can be any two sets of people or groups  “Us” versus “Them” can be “The Troops” versus Senior Management, or Sales versus Finance, or Engineering versus Product Management, or Software Development versus Software QA, or any other pairing of two parties. “Us” versus “Them” seems to be human nature, but the only thing you can really be sure of is that when resolution of any problem comes down to “Us” versus “Them”, the company as a whole will be the loser. Such behavior most certainly does not show true professionalism (see Show True Professionalism!).

How, then, can you overcome the tendency of different groups to exhibit “Us” versus “Them” behavior? 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are You Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?

Life in many organizations generally consists of developing plans, implementing those plans, and confronting and overcoming a seemingly never-ending series of problems by developing and implementing creative solutions. When a team is really clicking, implementing these solutions to problems can provide a real sense of accomplishment. Everyone is working closely together to achieve a common goal. Creative solutions arise from the interactions of ideas, and one idea often becomes the springboard for an even better idea, and so on (see Multiply Ideas by Sharing). The final solution is generally far better than any of the individual ideas because of the give and take and camaraderie that comes from working well together as a team. The people involved in such efforts truly are part of the solution. They leave their egos outside the door, and put aside their individual concerns and frustrations to work with their teammates to find the best way to get something done to solve a pressing problem. It can be a true joy to behold.  It takes a lot of effort for such a team to come together, but when it does, the team becomes virtually unstoppable (see Pigasus - When Pigs Fly!).

While this is clearly the most desirable outcome, all too often “teams” far fall short of this result. Some typical team killers include:
  • Whiners (Constant Complainers): Many “teams” contain whiners (would you like some cheese with that whine?). These are people who always see what’s wrong and seldom see what’s right, and seem to delight in both pointing out what’s wrong and why the problems are insurmountable. They seldom find anything nice to say about anything or anybody. They are always pointing out why someone else’s suggested approach can’t work, but never have their own suggestions on how to solve the problem. They often actively campaign against others’ suggestions or solutions, and fight success. It is often their negative attitude that actually becomes one of the key reasons that effective solutions are not found, and they certainly act as significant demoralizers to the team. Whiners excel at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • Jellyfish (Meek Followers): Another frequent “team” member is the jellyfish. Jellyfish quiver with concern whenever any problems arises, never seem to have their own ideas on how to solve problems, and seize upon the first idea that another team member suggests, until another team member suggests another idea, when they will drop support of the first and claim support of the second. While they may have good skills in implementing what they are told to work on, they are basically useless in solving unforeseen problems. In fact, they often become an impediment to an effective solution because they are always uncertain about what direction to move or what to do. Jellyfish consume time, requiring repeated explanations, and are constantly exclaiming, “the sky is falling” (see The Sky is Falling!).
  • Blowhards (Overbearing False Experts): Heaven help the team with the blowhard. Blowhards know absolutely what needs to be done, with no ifs, ands, or buts. Their way is the only way because they are the experts and you and the other team members are mere peons who don’t really understand the complexities of the situation in the way they do. They will seldom even entertain others’ ideas, and will quickly put them down as silly, misdirected, and wrong. If you don’t do it their way, they will often go off and sulk in the corner and refuse to have anything to do with the team. Often, they don’t even recognize the impact of their behavior, as they are so damn certain that they are right and everyone else is wrong. Blowhards suck the air out of brainstorming discussions or attempts to think creatively.
  • Assassins (Underminers): Assassins come to the party with their own agenda, and generally their agenda is to advance themselves regardless of what it does to the group or to the success of the organization. They only want to make themselves look good, and all too often they feel they can do this only by making others look bad. If an assassin feels you have slighted them in any way, watch out. The knives are out, and you are the target. The goals of the group become entirely secondary to getting revenge. Assassins can be truly dangerous, sometimes even beyond the workplace (see Stolen Credit - It's Not Just About Credit Cards!).
  • Others: We can all identify other characteristics of people that destroy teamwork. Learn to recognize other team killers. A variety of other personality types, positive and negative, and in employees and managers can be found in the Herding Cats blog posts (see Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge WorkersHerding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist BastardHerding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social ButterflyHerding Cats 4: The "Wally" & The 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$$hole ) and the Mis-Managers blog posts (see Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old Yeller and Mis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-DownerMis-Managers 4: Micromanagers - People, Design &amp: ProcessMis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist and  Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fornicatum non Humoratum!

Have you ever had a time when something out of your control is alleged to be due to your irresponsible actions? Back in days of yore, when I was a Department Head at Bell Labs, I had a strong manager who worked for me, Rich Mondello, who had an expression for those times when people made such claims against us. He even made up a scroll for me that still hangs on the wall in my office (see the attached photo, and yes I recognize that Rich can't spell! J). That expression is, "Fornicatum non Humoratum!", which people look at with puzzlement when they see it, saying, “What does that mean?”  Well, it is a Latin(ish) and somewhat more socially acceptable expression for “F--- ‘em if they can’t take a joke!” (look at it, you’ll see it), and it can be an apt expression for the right circumstances. It is probably a bit more appropriate being said with those on your side of the issue rather than to those invoking the, to you, unreasonable complaint.

What can lead to such a response becoming “apt”, and what can be done to avoid it?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Logic versus Office Politics

Things that make you go, “Huh?” You’re one of the key people behind the concept for a potentially important new product (or program). You’ve gone through the preliminary investigation and presented a proposal to management, and they’ve just given the green light to proceed. Yea! The relevant managers meet to decide who should be on the team, and when you hear some of the names, you fall back in bewilderment. It just makes no logical sense! There are people included in critical roles who simply have no clue of what they’re doing, much less the remotest understanding of what the product should be or what’s involved in further defining and then developing it. Some are simply the favored lackeys, kiss-ups, and bootlickers of some of the managers, who will dutifully report back to their bosses, but who will get in the way of making real progress on the efforts to turn the product concept into reality. In short, you’ve just been slapped upside the head with the reality of office politics superseding logic, and in ways that may endanger product and project success. You continue your participation, hoping for the best, but your excitement is diminished and uncertainty and doubt now tamp down your prior unbridled enthusiasm, but you find yourself powerless to change anything.

What’s described above is but one example of office politics in the workplace, but office politics impacts thinking and decision making in myriad ways across virtually all workplaces. We’d all like to think that decisions made in the workplace are driven primarily by logical and thoughtful analysis (see Pound the Facts, Not the Table), but the reality is that office politics, egos, “feelings”, and organizational inertia often have a strong, even outsized, influence on decision making (see Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts!). 

In an ideal world, the best solutions should win, but too often, we end up with design by committee, where sub-optimal solutions win in order to satisfy the political needs of various, often warring, parties. Ideally, you want to involve people who know what’s what, who actually do things, while understanding operational concepts; people who can meaningfully plan, implement, and accomplish things. But when management gets involved, they want their favored players involved, whether they know anything or not, and you end up with an outcome more like an ungainly camel than a sleek racehorse.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Show True Professionalism!

Have you ever been around someone who shows true professionalism? You may find it difficult to fully describe the characteristics of such a person, but you know them when you see them. Such a person typically exudes intelligence and competence, treats you with dignity and respect, and instills high levels of confidence.

I think we’ve all also had numerous instances where we’ve run into a person who is clearly an expert in his/her field and who has often risen to heights in his/her profession, who is clearly intelligent and talented, but who demonstrates very little in the way of professionalism. This may be a doctor who is haughty and dismissive with little patience for his/her patients, a lawyer who is curt and often abusive and who talks down to all around him/her, or an engineer who can’t be bothered to waste his/her valuable time with mere mortals. These are professionals who do not show true professionalism.

Professionals are people who enter careers such as medicine, law, business, engineering, and many other areas, who have typically undergone rigorous and demanding training (educational and other). They are Knowledge Workers (see Knowledge Is Power!), where the value they bring to the company or organization they work for comes primarily from their brains and their knowledge and not from their brawn. However, being a professional is not the same as performing in a professional manner. It doesn’t take a professional to show professionalism. Showing professionalism means a lot more than bringing the requisite intellectual capacity to the job. Showing true professionalism requires competence and proper behavior in many other areas. The following illustrates some of the characteristics of people who show true professionalism.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Blunt Talk and Black & White Reasoning

In response to two of my recent articles, Promises & Delivery and Excuses, Excuses!, I heard back from a friend of mine, Jim Bleck. Jim is the owner and President of Bleck Design Group, a great industrial design and engineering company I have worked with in the past at a number of companies. Jim sent comments indicating, “I think the world has way too much hope and opinion, when what it needs is action and facts. … The world is ready for blunt talk and more black and white reasoning.  I wholeheartedly agree, and I will expand on his comments and add mine.

Here are some of Jim’s right on the money comments:

  • I always remind our staff that our client’s expectations are already very high (on the ceiling). Don’t increase the expectations – just deliver! There is always a fine line between aggressive goals and too-low expectations. 
  • I see too many problems develop from a lack of deep understanding or even desire to have a deep understanding.
  • I’m seeing too many engineers, business managers, salesmen, and designers ‘assume’ information acquired from past experience, data sheets, and hearsay was correct, or all of the story.
  • We apply the blunt and black and white standard to weed out weak information or opinions that are not backed by provable facts. When we get a problem developing, we start mining the history of information and we get back to assumptions made based upon over-simplification, or industry specifications that may not apply, or on published information that is old. You can’t question everything, but you can at least be curious and keep your knowledge base growing.
  • Many of the problems get started because, due to time and budget, intuition and experience must take over, and then little problems creep up that experience and intuition can’t solve. That’s when you need to get very blunt and honest about the issues. “Should work” needs to be followed by “but it fails, so it does not work!” Something is obviously amiss. As companies push innovation and get beyond experience, this really starts to be an issue, but that is also where value gets created. Intellectual Property (IP) is discovered, sizes are reduced, and functions not thought possible are discovered. For managers who don’t understand the technology, they can easily get baffled by it. Only simple, blunt talk gets past the haze of geek speak and endless nuances.
  • Lastly, there is blunt talk when evaluating features. There are times where, using the examples of Steve Jobs, it is necessary to tell people, “this is shit”, and make them defend their work and make it better. 
  • There is always a fine line between perfection and never getting done (see The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good), so you manage it. Managing conflict turns out to be a huge issue, and especially when everyone gets a thin skin and can’t just state the facts. I want my staff to tell me my estimate is crazy and define why we can get the job done for the price I quoted. Or, explain why the budget is so large when the problem seems small. I want to be able to look at work in progress and ask critical questions without a flinch. 
  • Anyway, you want to make people think. The older I get, the more I know the world is all about change, so deal with it and love it!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good"

When you begin work on a new project it is usually an exciting time when anything seems possible. Everyone is brimming with new ideas and a strong desire to do everything right. The initial optimistic view is that this time we’ll develop the perfect product following the perfect plan using the perfect team. It would be truly wonderful if that would be the case, but typically life intervenes to throw you some curves (see The Best Laid Plans … and Then Life Happens!). Aiming for perfection may be a noble objective, but achieving perfection is another thing entirely  There is a quote from Voltaire from 1764 that literally translated is, “The best is the enemy of the good.”, but this is more commonly cited as, “The perfect is the enemy of the good. What this means is that pursuing the “best” or the “perfect” solution may end up doing less actual good than accepting a solution that, while not perfect, is effective. As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, my blog posts, newsletters, and my consulting practice are all about effective solutions. George Patton may have said it a bit better for more modern times: “A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.” The reality in virtually every case is that perfection is never realized. People often use the promise of perfection (or the expectation of perfection) as a rationale for doing nothing, rejecting actions that would achieve beneficial but not perfect results.

Here’s a fairly simplistic example from my distant past where a “good” solution enabled a design to move forward quickly, where a “perfect” solution would have taken significantly longer with no real impact on the outcome. Way back when, in the days before microprocessors (I’m clearly showing my age J), I was tasked with implementing an iterative algorithm using gate-level logic that theoretically required a number to be divided by 18. Well, dividing by 18 in those days was difficult, to say the least. However, dividing by 16 was trivial, consisting of shifting the binary number 4 positions to the right. Since the algorithm was iterative, part of a tracking loop, it homed in on the same result whether dividing by 18 or 16. So a “good” approach took almost no time at virtually no additional cost, where a “perfect” approach would have taken far longer, at significantly higher cost, and would have yielded the exact same result.

A good way to think about “good” versus “perfect” can be found in the 80-20 rule that applies broadly to most things in life; that is that 80% of the benefit typically comes from 20% of the work. [In my specific example above it was more like 99-1; that is 99% of the benefit came from 1% of the work.] The 80% of the benefit is the “good” solution. The last 20% of the benefit, achieving the “perfect” solution, most often requires four or considerably more times the work. People who believe that perfection (100% benefit) is only slightly more expensive/difficult than good (80% benefit) are deluding themselves; it simply isn’t true! Perfection is a mirage. You can’t reach it, and the more you try to get to it, the more time you waste. More often than not, the time and cost required to achieve perfection results in a product not being released or a service not being performed at all. In most situations it is far better to know when good enough is enough and not to worry about making the perfect choice. It is better to get something done imperfectly than to get nothing done perfectly!  

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Excuses, Excuses!

You’re a manager and you’ve asked a member of your team to do a job. You’ve told him what the job involves, and you’ve given him the timeframe it needs to be done in. He agrees to do the job, says he understands what the job entails, and promises to deliver it in the required timeframe. You walk away confident that this job is in good hands, and will be done well and on time. You feel comfortable that you can move on to other critical people and items you are responsible for within and outside of your team. 

You hear nothing from this person, and assume all is going well (Your first mistake! Never assume!). You periodically check in with the owner of this job, and he tells you that while the job is going well, he is seeing problems in one area, but that you don’t need to worry about it; everything is under control (another warning sign!). Then you hear from others about some other problems this person has mentioned to them that make you question what you heard directly from him. So you go back to him and check again. Now he starts to tell you about more problems and gives excuses about why it’s not his fault, or about how he’s not getting what he needs from someone else, or myriad other excuses. The excuses start to grow, but you hear about them only when you approach this person (not the other way around).

Then he misses a critical milestone, and when you ask why, he gives you excuses and more excuses. Some sound reasonable; others do not. When you dig deeper, you learn that he has been having problems all along and seems to be in way over his head. When you confront him, the number of excuses rapidly cascade even more, with blame placed on everything and everyone but himself. He admits he’s in deep trouble, but that it isn’t his fault! (Waa!) So much for promises, and say goodbye to delivery! [See Promises and Delivery] If you were aware of the problems from the outset, corrective action would have been possible (e.g. involving others with more direct experience). However, since the problems were hidden from your view (were they really?), the situation has now reached a critical point. His actions are disruptive to your organization, likely to other organizations, to the point where the overall project may now be in jeopardy! 

What can you do to prevent such situations?