Four Reasons Not to Read “Go Set a Watchman”

The big deal lately is the release of “Go Set a Watchman”, by Harper Lee.  Described in various ways as a prequel, sequel, or something else, I haven’t read it yet.  But I have read a number of articles about it.  I can’t (and won’t judge) the novel from the reviews, but I have a recommendation on reading it: don’t.

Yes, this is the most anticipated new book since forever.  At least, that’s what the articles say, although if it beats out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on pre-sales, I’d be surprised.  Still, for Harper Lee’s sake, don’t read it.

How come?

Well, the story of how the novel came to light is a bit murky, and her lawyer seems to be making up the story as she goes along.  Maybe there’s even a third book by Lee hiding out there (or in that incredibly large but strangely unexamined safety deposit box).  Maybe even a fourth.  However, there seems to be no question that Lee wrote the book (at least not yet), so I’m going to proceed with the assumption that she did.  Still – don’t read it.

It all comes down to this.  The author did not present “Go Set a Watchman” to the world as a work of art.  If I’ve got the story right, she presented it to a publishing house, got some feedback, and ended up producing “To Kill a Mockingbird” instead.  The original book was buried, and despite the phenomenal long-term popularity of the book and considerable pressure to produce another one, Lee never dusted off the original and sent it back to a publisher.  Lee is still alive, but from what I’ve read, she’s mentally not all there.  There’s no indication that she’s given any kind of informed approval to the release of this book.

To me, this says the author knew it wasn’t what she wanted to give the public.  I’m not saying she knew it was no good – it just wasn’t what she wanted to be known for.

When an artist in any media holds back something from the public – especially in this media-satiated epoch – I say bravo.  I say they had good reason and they’re entitled to keep it buried.

J.D. Salinger, one of my favorite writers, is also considered by some to be another one-hit wonder novelist (although his three books of short stories and novellas give us more of a canon to work with).  For years he was pressured to permit his complete backlog of short stories to be collected and published.  For years there were rumors that he had two, three, or a whole shelf full of novels ready to dump on the drooling public.  He refused to let his stories be collected, and years after his death, no posthumous novels have been scaling the best-seller lists.  Salinger was clearly satisfied with the body of work he was known for.  He even sued a biographer publishing a book with a number of his letters in it (and he won, too).

Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t at least take a peek at any new Salinger works that came to light.  I probably couldn’t help myself.  But I rather suspect that was all just wishful thinking.

And those uncollected stories?  I found a bootleg publication in the Special Collections at Northwestern’s library when I was a student there.  All of Salinger’s early fiction neatly assembled in a couple of volumes in a box.  I read them all.  You know what?  One or two were amusing, but nothing was up to the standard his audience came to know him for.  I think Salinger knew that.

It’s always possible that Salinger wanted to write more – or more precisely, to publish more.  Maybe he didn’t because he had far more fame than he wanted from what he’d written, and didn’t want to make it any worse.

Who knows – maybe Harper Lee felt the same way.  She was said to be as private a person as Salinger, and maybe it was the fear of fame that kept her from putting out anything else.

On the other hand, I say she hit a home run at her first at bat, and decided to go out a winner.  Let’s let her do that.  Don’t read “Go Set a Watchman”.


Baby, Won’t You Drive My Car?

So, would you buy a self-driving car?

How about a car that can park itself, stays in its lane, makes sure you stop safely, and makes sure you don’t accelerate too fast?

I’m not sure how a car that can do all that would not be a self-driving car, but apparently it isn’t.

It has been interesting to me to watch the developments as self-driving cars improve.  There was a race some years ago where cars were competing to drive a hundred miles without a driver.  I think one made it six hundred yards.  (Don’t quote me on that – I didn’t bother to do any research on that.)  The next thing we know, Google has self-driving cars licensed to operate in multiple states, and political positions have been staked out.

Google has been developing self-driving cars: you get in them, they take you where you want to go.  Other car companies have been incrementally developing computer assistance to human driven cars.  Honda, for example, had a recent TV ad showing off how all of its cars now come with automated parking assist.

The distinction made was that Google’s model had a car driving, a human around in case something went wrong, while other car companies had humans driving but with the car able to take over.

Neither version is even market-ready, and the distinction has nearly vanished.

Except, apparently in the world of marketing.  Check out this article.  Apparently people do want self-driving cars.  They just don’t want anyone to say it out loud.

By the way, I was particularly amused by Ford making a car that will stick to the speed limit, but they’re afraid to sell it in the US.  I recall a story – which I will present only as urban legend – that when Japanese cars were first sold here back in the 1960s, the speedometers only went up to the speed limit, and broke if you went any faster.  Allegedly the conformist, rule-following Japanese could not fathom an American’s need / desire to defy the speed limit.  Anyway, it has Ford worried.

So: car companies make a product that has, for four or five generations now, been sold based on freedom, excitement, and personal power.  How do you promote it when it’s become so built up with safety features that there is arguably little of any of those things?  If my car is just going to go the speed limit anyway, why should I buy something with 265 horsepower?

I was posing the question of self-driving cars a few years ago to a friend of mine.  He said no way – he’s written too much software to trust a car run by a computer.

Other people raise the insurance question: if a computer-driven car runs into something, who pays?  Google – recognizing the blocking issue represented there – stepped up to say it would be the responsible party for its cars.

For my part, I’m not very interested in the incremental features.  I already know how to parallel park, but I also do so little of it, I don’t need that to be something else that can break.  But everyone’s got their thing.  Mine is navigation: I trust that they’ll be able to build a car that won’t crash and kill me, but I just don’t trust that the car will actually get where I want to go using a route that won’t drive me insane.

Everyone has their own pet peeve.

So, while I’m not particularly interested in the bells and whistles, if you want to sell me a car that I can sleep in while it drives me, I’m interested.  Don’t sell me a car anymore: sell me transportation.  The experience of rail travel, without coach class.

Some people think that the destiny here is shared cars.  After all, if the car can drive on its own, it can go do something else after it drops you off at work.  It could deliver packages for Amazon or pizza for Domino’s.  And if all the cars are going to follow the same rules, there’s no point in getting a fancy sports car, as we’re all going to be in the same line of expressway traffic going 54 miles an hour.

I rather like the idea of shared cars.  I absolutely love the idea that we could revolutionize car design if a human doesn’t have to drive it.  Who needs a windshield?  Or a steering wheel?  Why do the seats all have to face forward?  Okay, there’s actually a decent reason for that last one (it’s called motion sickness), but think of what you could do with car design.

It’s possible that some science fiction movies have given us some insight there.  In “Total Recall” (the Arnold Schwarzenegger version), the cabs are automatically driven, but their layout is basically the same as if they had a driver.  With the addition of an annoying robot, however.  In “The Demolition Man”, the cars have exactly the same configuration, only you can’t actually do anything to influence how the car drives.  This turns out to be a plot point when Sylvester Stallone has to break into a museum to steal a car he can drive himself in order to chase the bad guys.

So, were the movie-makers lazy here, creating a fascinating, multi-level futuristic society, but not bothering to redesign the car?  Maybe, but I suspect something else.  It might just be a reluctance to accept something new.  More likely, we’ll want to believe we’re in control, even while we’re handing all the important work over to a computer.  Make it do everything, just give us a steering wheel so we can pretend we’re driving.  Just like a kiddie ride at an old amusement park: you’re in a car, it’s got a steering wheel, but it happens to be on tracks.  But it sure is fun to turn the steering wheel!

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

If I were to pick five words to describe myself, one of them would be “decisive”.  Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be in the top five.  Top ten for certain.  You need a decision?  I’m your man.  Weigh the options, take your choice, move on.

Possibly outranking “decisive” is “opinionated”, a close cousin psychologically.  I’ve got opinions out the wazoo.  On anything.  I write a blog, after all.

And somewhere up there has to be “time-driven”, or a synonym for it I can’t think of right now.

So why do you suppose I can’t pick an alarm clock to buy?

I had my last alarm clock for over ten years.  My wife gave it to me – I remember that, and now it seems rather significant.  Significant in that apparently I couldn’t pick out an alarm clock ten years ago, either.  A few weeks ago I was going to bed and knocked the clock on to the floor, and that was the end of it.

Since then I’ve waffled between browsing alarm clocks on-line, not finding anything I like, or pretending that there’s no problem.  It’s amazing how little you can think about your alarm clock when it’s not making a noise at you.

So I’ve looked at hundreds of alarm clocks on-line.  Some of them seem too cheap.  Some get bad reviews.  Some lose time too quickly.  Some have features I don’t need: I don’t need a clock radio, for instance.  Some of them are just boring.  I’d like there to be some style to it.  Something distinctive.  Maybe something retro, maybe steampunk, or maybe something really futuristic.  The leading contender at this point is the Crazy Clucking Chicken Alarm Clock (really!) but somehow I think it only has to go off once before it’s going to be rendered into small plastic pieces parts by my wife.  Besides, it’s not a steampunk chicken.

The rational reader might be tempted to suggest that I simply buy the same alarm clock I used to have before.  Naturally, the exact model is no longer manufactured (this is the closest thing to it).  But here’s my real problem: while I am notorious for selecting a product and resolutely continuing to use it (or its successors) for decades, being adamantly against anything new, I’m not even sure I’d want to buy an exact replacement of my old clock.  I’m that frozen in analysis here.

Wait, it gets worse.

Lest you suspect that there’s some simple psychological issue here regarding having to wake up at a scheduled time every morning, I should point out that my watch is also well over ten years old.  And I keep looking for a replacement for it, and nothing is ever satisfactory.

It’s a fine watch.  It looks great.  It runs great.  Somehow, however, I’m unsettled by it, as if I feel compelled to replace it, but am unable to do so.  I’m frozen in place on my watch, also.

Perhaps the neurosis has spread to cover all timepieces.

In considering the alarm clock, it occurs to me that the simple solution is to ask my wife to buy me a new one.  She bought the last one, after all.

Then again, she also bought me my last watch.  Oh, not the one I’m wearing.  Another one.  That watch was taken away and we do not speak of it.

All I can figure from this is that – like many people – I have some compulsion to express my personality through material possessions.  I usually don’t have a problem with that.  After all, I’ve had four cars in the lifespan of my watch, and I felt every one of them adequately represented me to the world.  Somehow, though, time pieces simply defeat me.

I could probably do without a watch, but I need an alarm clock.  I’m not happy at all using my phone in that role.

Perhaps I need to see this as some sort of critical test of my personality.  I am facing a challenge here, and must rise to the occasion!  I will not be defeated by something as humble, trivial, and generally unimportant as an alarm clock.  I am bigger than this!  Bwahaha!

Then again, maybe I should just start with therapy.  That might be easier than picking out an alarm clock.

Is There Life for People Not on Social Media?

So, I was going to call this “The Social History of the Cell Phone”, but decided that the title above was catchier and would grab more eyeballs.  But I’m going to start with the social history of the cell phone anyway, and you can see how we get to the end.

The history of the cell phone goes back to the 1970s, when it was invented by Motorola, right?  Not actually – the idea of mobility with a phone goes back much earlier.  Certainly it appeared in science fiction and the comics (Dick Tracy wrist radio, anyone?), but in the 1954 film “Sabrina”, starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden, Bogart’s character uses a radio which links into the phone network while he’s being driven to the office.  So even as far back as that we have the image of mobile communication being the province of the extremely rich.

Also the extremely busy: couldn’t he just wait until he got to the office to give all those instructions to his secretary?

Car phones became more common in 1980s, but still with the trademark of the high-powered executive (or the drug dealer – see “Running Scared”, 1986, starring Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, and Jimmy Smits).  The funny thing then was that the phones needed power from the car, so you’d get executives sitting in parking lots at their destination, but they had to keep the car running so they could finish the call.

With the development of battery technology, phones got cheaper and smaller, so the relative power of the executives armed with cell phones gradually lessened.  I remember being out of town and being the only showing up for a meeting without a cell phone – the others were wondering where I was and were surprised I didn’t have one.  Me, I was thinking, “I just don’t need to be that connected all the time.”

Eventually, somewhere near the late 1990s, we hit the point where just about anyone could afford a cell phone, but they were still considered luxury items.  Anyone remember doing a caravan road trip and using walkie talkies to talk to people in the other car about where to stop?

In the 2000s, two critical things happened together.  First, there was 9/11.  Overnight, cell phones went from a luxury / convenience item to a security necessity.  You had to have a phone, and you had to have it with you all the time.  Schools used to prohibit kids from bringing pagers or phones, partly because of the distractions but also because of the lingering association with the retail illegal drug industry, but these bans evaporated now.  We all needed to be able to reach anyone, at any time.

The cultural casualties of this era included the car phone and the personal digital assistant (or PDA, which was now completely overtaken by the phone itself).  We also stopped remembering phone numbers.  Rolodexes and day timers began to vanish also, although this was also due to the internet: many business phone numbers simply needed to be looked up online, and many communications were now done via email rather than phone.

Oh, yes, the phone book also started to decline in value at this point.  I got to the point where I just recycled mine as soon it as showed up.  However, something happened that led me to keep at least one of them around.  Some years ago I came home one day to find myself besieged by helpful neighbors telling me that there was a cable hanging off my house.  A cable (which turned out to be the phone line) had come loose from where it was attached to the wall of my house, and now it was sagging across the alley and blocking traffic.  I called the non-emergency police number, but got a fire truck showing up instead.  The firefighters got the cable temporarily out of the way (this made sense because it could have been a power line) and suggested that I call the phone company to get the cable properly taken care of.

So I went to look for a number for the phone company.  Online, everything for contacting AT&T wanted me to enter my home phone number or customer number, but – having cancelled our home phone service – I had neither.  The value of the phone book, it turns out, is that it’s the only place you can find the number of the phone company!  Somewhere deep in the AT&T’s website I managed to find a real phone number, and they sent somebody out to fix things, even though I wasn’t even their customer anymore, so that all ended well.  But now I keep a phone directory just in case.

Next, now that everyone was carrying a phone, just having the phone wasn’t cool enough  Now we had to be able to personalize the phone.  Having a cooler phone was good, and having a colorful protective case was almost as good.  Having the newest, most powerful phone was the best.  Several cell phone companies broke up on the rocks of believing that one popular phone model meant that they had a great brand.  Not so fast, Nokia and Motorola!  You had one cool model, but now the next hip thing was out there.  And it wasn’t yours.  Apple, leveraging the hipness factor of the Mac, became the first company to really leverage their phone into being a lifestyle accessory.

Then, since we were all carrying phones around all the time, what was the point of having a home phone?  It didn’t follow us around, and it was inconveniently listed in phone book and accessible to autodialers for telemarketers.  You may not know that it’s still technically illegal for telemarketers to call your cell phone.  This came about because, back when we got charged for cell minutes even when you answered a call, Congress concluded that it was unfair to charge people for getting annoying calls.  It doesn’t stop all the telemarketers nowadays, but it probably helps.  Anyhow, a lot of us started cutting the cord and getting rid of our home phones.

The next cultural step in cell phones was the smart phone.  The typical person is now carrying around in their pocket or purse more computing power than it took to get men to the moon or fly the space shuttle.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” according to Spider-man.  Huh.  Not when it comes to smart phones.  What do we do with all that power?  We play Words with Friends, watch cat videos, and take pictures of ourselves (just in case we should forget what we looked like).

The biggest thing we use our smart phones for is social media.  Where are we, what are we doing, what do we like, and what’s on our mind right now.

I’ve got an old science fiction book by Jessica Amanda Salmonson called A Silver Thread of Madness (1989).  It’s a collection of short stories, and in one of the stories a young woman stays up late to watch old movies on television a lot.  Her father was an actor in B-movies, and now that he has passed away, she watches the movies to see him again.

“Is there a heaven for people who weren’t in the movies?” she asks.

So connecting that to social media: have you ever gone to Google and done a search on an old friend, wondering where they were and if you could reconnect?  And then you didn’t find anything – nothing at all – and you wondered what happened to them.  No Facebook page, no LinkedIn account, no reviews on Amazon, nothing.  Are they still alive?  Ever wonder if it’s even possible to be alive today and be invisible on social media?

Is there life for people not on social media?

But that’s not the end of the social history of the cell phone.  Anyone remember Tamagotchis?  Yeah, I see you – put your hand down, you’re just pretending.

Tamagotchis were small electronic games invented in Japan in 1996.  The idea was that they contained a small alien critter, and that by pressing various buttons on the game you fed, trained, and cared for your alien.  The more attention you gave it, the healthier it was.  If you ignored it long enough, it died (you didn’t have to buy a new one, though, you just had to reset it to start over).  This became a huge craze in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and something of a fad in the US.

You know what?  Cell phones have become the Tamagotchi of our current decade.  Only, I suspect that the situation has become subtly reversed.  I think now it’s people who will wither away without the constant presence of their phone, the white noise of social media, and the encapsulation of their life and knowledge in a pocket-sized device.

Think about that when you see someone take their cell phone into the bathroom.  Come on – you couldn’t go to the bathroom without having your phone?

So, asking the question again, but with a twist:

Is there life for people not on social media?

Five Tips For Working With a Company’s Personality

There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about company culture, core values, and mission statements.  While there can be a cynical tendency to treat these as checklist items of a management fad, I think there’s really something there.  Companies do have personalities, and if you can read them correctly, you can predict how a company will make decisions or respond to challenges, and at the very least instruct you on the sort of questions they will ask.

It’s not always so simple, however.  Understanding a company’s personality and adjusting to it for project success is a continuous effort of analysis and interaction.

At one client of mine, the project’s objective was (in my words) attempting to make Microsoft SharePoint work like Facebook.  I thought I was doing a great job to question this immediately, as it sounded like a really bad idea.  Why do this? I asked.  Why not call up Facebook and try to buy a private instance?

I was told that the client had a strong bias towards building things themselves – this was the company’s personality.  As a consequence, I was told to simply drop the question.  So we built a prototype that tried to twist SharePoint into uncomfortable shapes, and given that it was the sort of project that should never have been attempted, I think we did a pretty good job.  The client?  The client was ultimately dissatisfied and proceeded to look for a product to buy.

So what happened?  We thought we understood the company’s personality, and maybe we were right.  In the end, though, they did exactly what we thought they wouldn’t do.  What could we have done differently?

I think there were several factors at play here.

First, we may have simply been wrong about the company’s personality.  That assessment was handed to me by someone else on my second day with the company, and I had no information to make that assessment myself.

Second, right or wrong about their personality, I shouldn’t have let myself be warned off when I asked the question initially.  I should have taken that up with the project stakeholders to hear their thoughts on it.

Third, it’s always possible that the only way the company was going to realize the need to purchase a solution was to see how difficult it was to build something custom.  From that perspective, our prototype was valuable: we helped them get to a conclusion they would not have reached on their own.

In short, having been alerted to the company’s personality, I should have confronted it and talked about it.  Leaving it unspoken – and assuming that we understood the personality and its consequences for the project – simply led to frustration.

So what are the steps to engaging with a company with full recognition of its personality and culture?

  1. Be aware of the company’s personality, but constantly test your assumptions to improve your understanding.
  2. Be open with your client about the tendencies you see. Ask questions about how to modify your project’s approach and communications to fit the client.
  3. Understand when your project will be in conflict with the company culture and prepare for it. Sometimes you’ll have to challenge it, and the case you make will have to be extra strong.
  4. Work to the strong suits of the company culture. A company’s personality will have positive attributes you can leverage to your project’s advantage.
  5. Be respectful of the company’s culture and personality. You may have to challenge it for your project, but you don’t have to be adversarial when you do.  And you’re definitely not going to be able to change it.

This recognition, respect, and collaboration can all lead to a more positive project experience and build to project success.

This is an edited excerpt from my book, Project Leader to Project Believer.

The Mail Must Go Through

We talk a lot these days about corporate cultures.  Mostly it’s because we focus on how, as a person and employee, we fit into the company, and whether we share its values.  This is certainly important, but there’s another dimension to this: how does a company culture impact its projects?

Some years ago I was working a for a major international overnight delivery service.  When I worked there I learned that they had gone through different cultural phases, such as one where information technology was valued, for example.  The dominant theme in my time there was successful delivery at any cost.

Remember the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks, and how his character is fixated on time and keeps himself sane by keeping a package safe until he can deliver it himself?  Those were certainly the values of my client.  I heard many times about how they made a special flight to deliver medicine to a sick little girl.  Regional managers had to have complete discretion in order to ensure that deliveries were made.  Nobody wanted to be the guy who stopped medicine from getting to that sick little girl.

Those values came into play on my project.  We were planning the implementation of a procurement system, but we were taking a holistic view of it: people, process, and technology all had to be aligned.

In the process area, we spent a lot of time assessing process best practices in procurement and how they could assist the client.

A significant case in point was spending limits: how much money could somebody spend before a manager or someone else had to approve it?  I forget exactly what the spending limit was when we got there, but was on the order of thousands of dollars each, regardless of who the employee was.  This meant that, any given time, the collective employees could commit the company to hundreds of millions of dollars of expense with no approval by anyone.  Naturally, we put together a standard signing limit table: the average employee could to spend up to $250 without approval, a supervisor could spent $1500 or so, and so on.

When we presented these ideas, however, we got no response.  Eventually we were able to extract an explanation.  If that spending limit meant a part couldn’t get purchased to fix the truck to make a delivery on time, it wouldn’t be acceptable.  No one was willing to take any part of that risk.

The technical side of the equation was equally frustrating.  Part of the planned system implementation was PeopleSoft, which was especially noted at the time for its vast configurability.  Any business rule, any business function, could be configured to suit the company’s needs.

We explained this to our client, but kept getting the same confusing response.  How does it work? they would ask.  How does the system say it has to work?

You can configure it, we kept saying.  How do you want it to work?

Eventually we figured out what was going on.  Our team members weren’t dumb.  They were well aware that no limitations could be put into the business process that would conflict with the power of a regional manager.  If the system could be configured, it could be configured with any parameters desired.  They would have to go ask people what those parameters should be.  The explanation would reveal the broad capabilities of configuration that were available, and then all hell would break loose.  The loosest possible business rules would be demanded.  Anything to provide ultimate flexibility when a package needed to be delivered.

To solve that, our team wanted to tell everyone that it wasn’t configurable at all.  They wanted the system to dictate all the process best practices we were discussing, so they would never have to deal with the demands for flexibility, which they knew would ultimately undermine the whole project.

There’s more to the story of that project, but in the end, the big, high-impact vision we had for the project was simply unattainable.  All because of a company’s culture.

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet

A rabbit has dug a nest in the middle of our not very big backyard.  The death watch has now begun.

Yes, as far as natural history is concerned, Eastern cottontail rabbits do not dig graves.  Especially their own.  They do, however, create nests for their bunnies (separate from the warrens they live in).  In our yard, this is the same thing.

This is the fourth time in the seven years we have lived in our current house that a rabbit nest has been established in our yard.  I don’t think I knew what I was looking at the first time.  At least, I didn’t until the day I was working from home and let our two dogs out (Annie, the lab mix, and Cody, the corgi).  I came up from the basement while they were out and saw a rabbit still in the yard.

I wondered: what makes a rabbit sit still in a yard occupied by dogs?

I was drawn outside to investigate after hearing some weird screaming noise.  I was worried that it was one of the dogs, somehow having injured themselves.  But no, they were fine.  Couldn’t say the same thing for three bunnies in the nest who were busy playing the role of chew toys for Annie.  By the time everything settled down, you wouldn’t have thought the bunnies actually had any injuries: I think they might have just died of shock.

Six months later, here we go again.  Annie got to this batch earlier: they didn’t even have fur.  They also couldn’t really make noise, so while the dog was curious about the smell, she wasn’t getting enough reaction to really spur her predatory instincts.  Unfortunately, if I didn’t do anything, she was going to dig up the entire yard to get to the damned critters.  I waved her off and went to work scooping bunnies out of their nest with a hockey stick.  It’s a perfect tool for the job, I might add, but I still felt pretty awful doing it.  Nevertheless, the rabbits were dead in a Schrodinger’s cat sense at this point anyway: mother rabbits leave their babies in their nest after they’re born, just visiting them until the bunnies are ready to move around more independently.  There was no way these bunnies were going to survive their exposed position, and that was even presuming the mother would come back for them.

So scratch another litter of baby rabbits.

I think there’s a special place in Hell for people who have scooped baby rabbits out of a nest with a hockey stick.

Cody the corgi passed away before the next nest appeared.  He had never been worth much as far as rabbits went.  He was far more concerned about keeping everyone from doing anything dangerous or letting us know that our daughter needed attention.  One time Annie flushed the rabbit out of the bushes in one corner of the yard, driving it beautifully towards the front gate where Cody was standing guard.  The rabbit ran right past Cody, within a foot of him, and he never moved a hair.  Or a hare.

Annie stepped up patrols when the next nest appeared in our yard.  I can’t be sure, but I think she scared the mother rabbit on the very day the next litter was due and the mother chose another location to have her babies.

Anyway, that’s all proof that rabbits are not the smartest of creatures on God’ green earth: our yard might be an inviting sanctuary, perfectly sculpted for the purposes of a rabbit.  Right up until the point where you add in the 70-pound dog with a taste for varmint.

About a week ago, a new nest appeared.  It’s a nice little hole, unless you’re the owner of the yard, in which case it is a gaping chasm.  Dead grass and leaves have already been stuffed into it to keep the bunnies warm.  As yet, however, no bunnies.

My daughter is hoping we can find some way to save the bunnies, but the only solution is to turn our yard into a rabbit nature preserve, which I am just not willing to do.  Maybe the mother rabbit will come to her senses before it’s too late.  It’s happened before.

This morning I was out with Annie and I said, “Where are the baby rabbits?”  She instantly went into alert mode, ready to go all Watership Down on a bunch of cottontail bunnies.  I forgot that I shouldn’t use the “R” word, since she knows what that word means.  Did I say she was a lab mix?  Yes, and she’s probably also part border collie.  She’s got a 10th grade vocabulary.

We have way too many rabbits.  Evanston was the epicenter of a West Nile Virus outbreak a few years, and it wiped out our crows.  Crows, it turns out, are major consumers of baby rabbits, and with them out of the picture, our rabbit population has exploded.  So I’m not feeling bad about winnowing the bunny demographic.  I think the poster child for Conservation Status “Least Concern” is the Eastern cottontail rabbit.  I’d just rather not be the person at the other end of the hockey stick.

So we wait.  We watch and we wait.

They’re coming.  Then they’re going to die.

Are You a Project Manager, or a Project Leader?

Project management is big business.  Every day, there are thousands of companies around the world trying to get things done.  When they want to do something differently, they create a project to do it.  And once they have a project, they need to manage it.

The Project Management Institute is just one of the many authorities advising would-be project managers on what to do and how to do it.  You could fill a library and a good part of a warehouse with guides, manuals, and methodologies for project management.

Virtually all of them will tell you that a project needs to have a project charter, a project schedule, an issue log, a risk log, a project governance structure, and so on and so forth.  Furthermore, there’s metadata about the project.  What methodology is it using?  What tool will be used for documenting the project schedule?  How will progress be tracked and reported?

Driving all of these tasks – managing them, if you will – is the job of the project manager.

What is commonly not the job of the project manager?  Surprisingly to some – but not to others – the project manager is often not responsible for the actual delivery of the project objectives.

In many organizations, the project manager is an administrator.  Better ones will be proactive and vocal, asking for status on deliverables before the day they’re due, discussing issues before they’ve turned into burning oil platforms.  But, as I often call them, they are professional nags.  Everyone else is busy actually getting something done, and they’re making sure their PowerPoint slides look good for the Steering Committee.

No wonder that in some organizations, project managers get very little respect.

And no wonder that in many organizations, they also get very little accomplished.

I worked with someone whose project management mantra was “Projects get behind a minute at a time, a day at a time.”  His point was that a project manager has to be on top of things every single moment, because once you’ve let something slip, the time’s gone.  You’ll never get back the half a day that you lost because someone’s computer went down or a key business contact was out sick.

I’ll concede that there’s a basic point there.  You almost never make up time on a project.  If you’re late getting to your first milestone, you can safely push them all back.

I found this mantra tremendously annoying, however.  First, it demanded an intensified experience as a project nag.  Simply thinking in terms of human communication, there’s a limit to how often and how rigorously you can ask people to provide updates on what they’re doing.  Ask enough times, you can be sure you’re going to get evasions, estimates, and outright lies.  Anything to get rid of you.

Second of all, it oversimplifies why projects are late, and suggests that every problem is either avoidable with proper foresight or fixable within its original timeframe.

Project management is about planning, predictions, and mitigations.  I may sound critical of it, but there is no question that sound project management is key to project success.

Project leadership, on the other hand, is about owning the outcome and working with everyone involved to deliver it.

A project can be well run, knock off all its project management artifacts, produce its deliverables, come in on time and under budget, and still be a failure.  That’s what happens – best case scenario – when there is no leadership.

Here are some more specific ways in which a project leader differs from a project manager:

  • A project manager accepts resources as provided. A project leader constantly reviews project resources needed for project success.
  • A project manager accepts the project structure provided. A project leader constantly reviews the project structure for project success.
  • A project manager drives administrative completion of standard project management tasks. A project leader selects standard project management tasks as tools to enable delivery success.
  • A project manager focuses on project management deliverables. A project leader focuses on the delivery of the business outcome, regardless of the source of issues or solutions.
  • A project manager supports team delivery of a business outcome. A project leader collaborates on achievement of a business outcome.

In short, a project leader:

  • Is engaged with the team
  • Is engaged with the project sponsor and shares ownership of project outcomes
  • Takes personal responsibility for project success

Nine Communication Tips for Project Leaders

As a project leader, communication is a tool, an objective, and a key determiner of success.  Here are some tips for leadership-oriented communication.

*             360 degrees communication.  It’s as important to communicate downward as upwards; and don’t forget laterally, either.  Some companies very much have a personality where people only want to communicate upwards so they can impress their boss.  If that’s what your team sees you do, it sends a message that they’re not very important to you.

*             Make communication important – schedule it.  Communication within a team, or between team members, is always important.  Prove it by putting it on the schedule.  Set up time to meet one on one with your team members so you can hear their concerns and ideas.  Not only do people like to be heard, you may see a number of other benefits from this less formal communication.

*             Make respectful choices.  How often have you had a meeting planned with your boss or your client, and had them cancel your discussion in order to have another one?  How did that make you feel?  While you might have accepted it happening once or twice, by the third time that happened, you probably felt like you weren’t very important.  That’s not a trust-building event.

As a project leader, you won’t always be able to avoid scheduling conflicts.  It’s what you do next that’s important.  Apologize.  Don’t assume this had no impact on your the person you were supposed to meet with.  Make it up to them by letting them set the time for the replacement.  Show that you consider their time to be as valuable as yours.

*             Make up your own mind; don’t use somebody else’s.  Quite often you’ll get advance warning about somebody you’ll be working with.  Maybe it’s a team member who isn’t a good performer.  Maybe it’s a thoughtless boss or a confused client.  It might seem wise to use any intelligence like that to prepare yourself for a rough time of it.

I’d agree with preparing yourself, but in a different way.  Try to put yourself in their shoes.  Think about how you can communicate with them to establish your own relationship with this person, rather than re-living someone else’s.

*             Don’t avoid communication.  The fact of the matter is, you don’t get to be choosy about who you communicate with.  If someone’s connected to your project and its success, you’re going to have to work with them.  When you avoid someone, you lose all the benefits of communication.  What’s worse, they may notice that you’re not talking to them.  Are you hiding something?  Does your avoidance mean something?  Maybe they’ll decide they shouldn’t like you, either.

As a project leader, you should push yourself to seek out communication in a case like this.  Try to learn more about the person.  Make sure you listen to them.  Make sure the lines of communication are open.

*             Set expectations on communications.  When you join a project, you should establish expectations around communication.

For example, every time I start a project I discuss communications with my boss or primary stakeholder.  Should we have a regular time to meet?  How often do they want to receive communications from me?  What form should our communications or interactions take?  I’m not only trying to make it as clear as possible that communication is important to me.  Every part of the message is that I will communicate in the way they meets their preferences.  I want them to consciously set their expectations of our communications.

You can do that within a team, too.  Do you expect team leads to meet with each of their team members regularly?  How about with their whole team?  How about the team leads together?  Set expectations on communications and follow up to see how it’s working for your team.

*             Watch the non-verbal communication.  Things such as tone and posture are known issues with communications.  Your words say one thing, your body says another.  This is difficult to observe in yourself, but worth paying attention to.  You might ask for feedback on this from someone you trust.

Suppose you go to someone’s desk to talk to them.  You’ve asked them if they have a moment to talk, and they said yes.  Now you’re talking, but they’re still looking at a computer screen or their phone.  What message are you getting from that?

Sometimes the sentence you say means one thing, but your words sent a different message.  For example, you can say, “I really need that report on my desk by noon; is there anything you need to help make that happen?”  Or you can say, “Get that report on my desk by noon.  I don’t care what you have to do.”

Another sub-message lies in courtesy words.  Does a person say “please” and “thank you”?  It may sound unimportant, and often it is – right up until the moment you notice that a person never thanks you for anything.  It’s not just me.  Say “please”, “thank you”, and “how are you” – and mean it – and watch how positively people respond to you.

*             Don’t draw attention to something by ignoring it.  Remember what I was saying about how much context people have to filter your communications?  Here’s a classic: people notice when you’re not saying something.

Imagine you’ve got a situation on your project.  Someone’s not being a good performer and there’s been a lot of drama.  It’s starting to impact the team, as the gossip is overwhelming productive work.  Will the person quit?  Will they be fired or reassigned?  You have a meeting to discuss project plans and you completely avoid the topic.  You probably thought that you’d rather not distract the team with a topic that you really can’t discuss with them, but now you’ve got even more questions to answer.

*             The medium is the message.  Learn what tools people like to communicate with, and use them.  Your stakeholders may use email, your teammates use the instant messaging tool which came installed on the company laptops, and your incredibly hip development team uses an esoteric web forum full of macros and in-jokes.  You may want to set a project standard for some kinds of communication, if only to make sure that not every sub-team has its own and you can never find anybody online, but you need to recognize that the tools people use are part of their personal identity.

As with every other part of project leadership, you need to make communication a conscious action and demonstrate its value by example.  Everything you say or do can have meaning to your team, and you want them to get the best message every time.

(This is an edited excerpt from a draft of a book I’m currently writing about project leadership.)

For He is the Kwisatz Haderach

Twice I’ve tried to write a blog article about Steve Jobs.  I was trying to artfully connect an appreciation for his legitimate business and technological contributions to my disdain for how he (and Apple) are objects of veneration.  I just couldn’t find the right tone for it.

Actually, the article didn’t start out to be about Steve Jobs.  It was going to be about Edward Tufte.

Quick show of hands: who knows who Edward Tufte is?  I see you, you there with your hand straight up, doing the Horshack “ooh, ooh, ooh!” thing.  You must have gone to one of his seminars.

Edward Tufte is widely considered (among those who consider such things) as the godfather of data visualization.  His magnum opus is “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, which he self-published in 1982.  He advocated a number of principles in how to display information, with the primary one being the presentation information that works at multiple levels all in one display.  A classic chart that he presents as an example (and has distributed at his seminars) is the Carte Figurative (1869), which shows the size of Napoleon’s army on its ill-fated expedition to Moscow in 1812, and then on its ignominious retreat.  The army’s size is shown in line thickness, its progress against distance and landmarks (usually rivers).  The part that really jazzes Tufte is that it’s mapped against the temperature, to show how that worked against Napoleon.

So what does Tufte have to do with Steve Jobs?

Well, when people listen to Tufte, they become converts to the religion of rich data visualization.  They put the Napoleon map on their cube walls and try to apply Tufte’s lessons on mundane data that doesn’t have the six dimensions of the Carte Figurative.

Same thing with Steve Jobs.  Sure, he co-founded Apple, invented the Mac (with interface ideas liberally lifted from Xerox PARC), founded NeXT Computer, launched Pixar, and resuscitated Apple upon his return.  He also impressed people with his monochromatic wardrobe, his pseudo-spiritualism, and his magnetic public speaking.  He managed to convince millions of people that not only are Apple products great, they speak to how different and creative and special you are.  You, and the millions of other people who bought an Apple computer or an iPhone.  You’re all different and special.  He represented perfection in brand creation.

What makes people want to dress like him, though?  Or imitate his speech or physical mannerisms?  He’s got a pretty remarkable resume, but why the idolization?

I think it’s because Jobs was so comprehensively successful.  He not only visualized the products, he could get a team to work to the same vision.  Then he could speak to it and sell it.  What’s more, he was seen as being deeper.  He wasn’t just a tech geek inventing a cool box.  He himself believed that he was changing the world.  That sort of confidence (and arrogance) can be pretty impressive.  A lot of people would like to emulate that.  They won’t all be in the right place at the right time (Apple, 1981) or have the money to revolutionize movie animation.  So they dress in black mock turtlenecks and buy Apple products.

Jobs was hardly the first in this mold.  I’d say there are some strong parallels to Thomas Edison.  There’s the engagement in multiple fields (electricity and light bulbs as well as movies, for example).  But largely there’s the establishment as an icon of American innovation and technology-is-cool.  How many early 20th century engineers do you think got their start by reading about Edison and wanting to imitate him?  I even had a classmate in college who was a great admirer of Edison.

Personally, I was always more impressed with Tesla than Edison, and preferred Gates over Jobs, but these men were icons in their own right.  The common thread of them all was that they not only pushed their field as far as they could, but they served to inspire the rest of us.  No matter what operating system we use.