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.

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.

Don’t Answer That Email

Step away from the keyboard.  Switch to another window.  Whatever you do, don’t answer that email.

What email am I talking about?  The one from a Nigerian prince who needs your help recovering $43 million?  The one promising certain, ah, physical enhancements or your money back?

No, not either of those.

I could be talking about that email you read – you know the one.  The first email you see in the morning, the one that someone sent at ten o’clock last night.  The work email that asks a really moronic question that you have to treat with a certain amount of respect, even though it shouldn’t be worth the half a calorie spent to press the delete key on it.  The one that just makes you mad.

It’s probably not a good idea to answer that email right away.  Wait until you’ve cooled off a bit.

But really, I’m talking about all emails.

There are a million recommendations about how to handle your email as part of your overall time management.  Most of them suggest that you schedule a certain time every day for answering emails, and you only read email during that time.

There’s a lot to be said for that.  The chief positive is that if you respond to emails as they arrive in your inbox, it’s a constant distraction.  If you’re trying to accomplish anything else that requires more than two minutes of focused thought, every one of those emails will cost you ten minutes in trying to remember what it was you were doing.  That doesn’t even count the time you might spend actually looking for information to answer the email.

That answer is just about time management, however.  I want to talk about quality.

When I say “don’t answer the email”, I don’t mean “never”.  Well, not most of the time.  If your personal and work environments have an expectation that certain communications are handled by email, you won’t do yourself any favors by ignoring it.

What you can do is take a few actions to use it better.

First of all, let someone who actually knows the answer, answer it.  How many emails do you get where you’re not the only person on the thread?  If you see it first, you may feel compelled to answer it.  Gotta be responsive!  Gotta be a team player!  It’s like “Jeopardy”.  Gotta be the first person to hit the buzzer and give the answer.

Email is not a game show.  If someone else is in a better position to provide a quality answer, let them do that.  Don’t cloud the issue or hijack the thread with your own uncertain, incomplete, nonfactual, or inaccurate answer.

Now, if the person who really ought to know the answer doesn’t seem to be paying attention – and by that, I mean hours go by, at the very least, not just minutes – you may want to step in if you feel some responsibility to the situation.  Say you’ll check in with Answer Guy to try and get an answer.

The same thing works in meetings, too.  It can be tempting to go, “Oh!  Oh!  I know that one!” and jump in when you think you can answer a question.  But remember who you brought to the meeting.

What if you’re the only person who got the email?  Or, what if you’re the guy everyone turns to for the answer?

You’ll still want to give it some time.  Think about your answer.  Write a draft.  Sit on it for a while.  Then make sure you’re really answering the question.

Okay, it will be annoying if you do that for an email consisting entirely of, “Hey, do you wanna go grab lunch?”  But if the email really required any more thought than that, give it the time it deserves.

Then there’s the Rule of Three.  You got an email.  You answered it.  You got an email back, asking for clarification.  You answered that one.  Then you got… yes, you get the picture.  Third time around, pick up the phone.  Actually talk to a human being.  It will go much faster, and you might even make a new friend.

If you’ve gone through two exchanges and you’re still not quite clicking, it’s only going to get worse.  Email can be great for an exchange of information, but it’s lousy for persuasion or collaboration.  When you’re actually speaking with someone, the tendency is to find ways to agree.  When you’re typing an email, that tendency isn’t there, so if you aren’t on the same page, you’re not going to get there through email.

Last tip:

So you logged in at eleven o’clock at night for some reason.  You saw an email.  It would take five seconds to respond to.  Do you do it?

It’s so tempting.  A task taken care of.  An email read, responded to, and deleted.  No more brain cells occupied by that email.  And, you earn imaginary brownie points for giving someone a response at eleven o’clock at night.

Think about how quickly any email really needs an answer, though.  Could you respond to that email at nine the next morning, still getting someone the answer when they need it?  Okay, not always … but I bet you usually could, earning just as many brownie points as your eleven o’clock answer would.

The problem is that you don’t want to set an expectation that you’ll respond to emails (or texts, or voice mails, or tweets, or anything else) at absolutely any time of day or night, within two minutes of the communication being sent out.  Once you set that expectation, it’s really hard to get out of it.

On the other hand, think of those IT guys you know who never respond to emails.  It’s frustrating, it’s passive aggressive, but they’ve got you trained, haven’t they?  If you don’t really need to, you don’t try to contact them.  You have to really want their help.

Now, you probably want to be seen as a little more helpful and eager to please than that, but it still doesn’t mean you have to respond to every email in real time.

Just think before you answer that next email!

Doing Business As if You’re the Owner

On Saturday I took my dog to get her groomed.  She came back with sleek, combed fur, a nice smell, and no collar.  She has two: the prong collar so I have some control over how fast we walk, and the “dress” collar that also has her tags on it.  The dress collar got taken off in the grooming and didn’t get put back on, so I walked over to the groomer to get it back.

The owner of the grooming salon greeted me at the door as she was helping another customer, telling me, “Your collar’s inside”, and her assistant handed me the collar as soon as I walked in.  They were going to call me, too, but I got there first, and they apologized several times for not returning the collar at the same time as the dog.

This got me thinking about some of my other favorite businesses:

I used to get my hair cut at a national chain – I’m not too fussy and when it comes to my hair, I’m also pretty cheap.  But I never saw the same person twice at the same shop, and I had to explain what I wanted every time I went, even though I always got my hair cut the same way.  Now I go to a neighborhood barber shop and salon.  I get my hair cut by John the owner.  He checks with me to make sure I want it the same way as always, and away we go.  Then we talk about the Blackhawks or his club hockey team.

My favorite hot dog stand is a place called Poochie’s in Skokie.  It’s owned by Chris.  He greets me by name when I walk in, and he and all of the people working there know that my daughter and I want our burgers medium rare and with nothing on them.  We talk about the Blackhawks, how he deals with suppliers, and how he manages the menu prices.  One time I got an order of fries that wasn’t really cooked through.  When he asked me how things were, I told him about the fries.  He inspected them, agreed that they weren’t good, and took them back to the kitchen immediately to coach his team on fries.  I think he also gave me my meal for free the next time we came in, but that was nothing compared to the positive feeling of seeing him address my problem.

I’ve got several other examples, another couple of restaurants that opened when I was in college (Buffalo Joe’s and Cross Rhodes), and the dry cleaner we’ve been going to for years (even through a change of ownership).  I know the owners, they know me, and we talk about their business.

So why do I keep going to these places?  Convenience has to be a factor, as most of these places are within a couple of miles of my house.  But I drive past three other hot dog stands to get to Poochie’s.  Quality is another factor – Poochie’s and the other two places have some of my favorite burgers – but it’s not the only thing.  And I can’t detect quality in dry cleaning.  Can you?

I really keep going because the owner or managers make me welcome and take my problems personally.  If something’s not right, they fix it NOW.  I can compare that, say, to banks I’ve used where the entire mechanism of the bank was designed to keep any actual customers from speaking to a manager.

I also keep going because these small business owners made their places of business comfortable and welcoming.  These aren’t luxury outfits, either.  That comfort is all in how I’m treated when I walk in the door.

The owners of these businesses do this because that’s the way they’ve learned to run a business, and I assume they like it better that way, too.  There’s a lot of pride and responsibility going on there.

Now think about your own job.  Are you doing your job the way you would if you owned the place?  Do you greet your clients or customers by name?  Do you know what they like – how they like to get messages, what their favorite soft drink is, and how they like to run meetings?  Are you fixing problems as soon as they’re brought to your attention?  Everyone understands that problems can happen: it’s your commitment in fixing them that people will remember.

I worked with another consultant some years ago who always wore a suit to work, even though we were solidly in the era of business casual dress.  He didn’t have to wear a suit, and in a way he probably stuck out that way.  I asked him about it once, and he said it was a habit he got into when he ran his own company.  He told me that it was his way of telling his clients, “There’s nothing casual about the way I treat your business!”

I don’t know if you need to wear a suit to work every day to send that message, but your clients and customers should hear that message loud and clear, no matter what you have to do to tell them.

It’s not a coincidence that the average age of the small businesses I mentioned is over thirty years.  Treating your customers and clients they way they’d really like to be treated has got to be one of the best recipes for success you can come up with.  And, oh, yes – don’t forget to treat your colleagues and employees the same way!

Collaboration is Believing in the Impossible

Back in the 1980s there was a type of chair you saw a lot in offices: the frame was a rounded metal tube that made up the base, the legs, and the outline of the back.  There’s a picture of the style up above, although that’s the really expensive version.  A lot of office furniture stores sold a very cheap version of that (think $30 or so).  I had a programming job at a start-up when I was in college then, and my boss bought a ton of those.  Being a big fellow, 6’3″ or so and, shall we say, not athletic, he soon put his rear end through the seat of every single one of those chairs.

Ten years later, I was in a Scandinavian furniture store in Skokie.  I can’t remember what we were looking for, but while we there a couple came in with four of these chairs, all with the seats busted the way I remembered.  This couple, by the way, both looked like they would strain the capacity of even better constructed chairs.  They proceeded to confront the manager, demanding some kind of satisfaction.  They’d purchased these chairs at another store of the same company some years before; that location was now closed.  They wanted to know if the manager was going to stand behind his company’s product.

Now, I’m not sure what I would have said to them if I had been that manager.  Maybe something along the lines of, “You bought cheap chairs ten years ago from another store, and you think I’m going to do something about it?  Pull the other one, it’s got bells on!”

But that manager didn’t do that.  He engaged them in conversation, and while I left before the whole scene was over, I don’t doubt he sold them some furniture, with a small discount for the trouble with their old chairs.

Where I saw obnoxious trouble makers, he saw people who needed some new chairs.

You could look at that story and see a born salesman, but I think it’s more than that.  Indulge me for another anecdote.

Back a million years ago I was in beautiful St. Charles, Illinois, for consultant training.  One of the exercises we did was supposed to be about negotiating skills.  In it, our group split into pairs.  In each pair, participant A represented a company that wanted to buy a certain stock of apples for use in their manufacturing process.  Participant B represented a company that wanted to buy the same apples for their own peculiar needs.  Implied conflict: it’s a zero-sum game, and only one of us can have these apples.

However, in each case, the participants quickly and amicably resolved a situation with a solution whereby the apples were shared between the two companies.  It turned out that they needed different parts of the apple, so it wasn’t a zero-sum game after all.  Now, I have no idea if you could really put apples through multiple manufacturing processes and not just get apple sauce out of it, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that the negotiations were cheerful and successful because every single one of us went into the exercise assuming there was a solution.

Imagine that.  Imagine your next interaction with a crazy teammate, incompetent boss, or slacker intern.  You could go into it expecting to be disappointed, that excuses would be made, randomness would ensue, and nothing would get done.  Our you could believe that things would turn out well, and a mutually beneficial arrangement could be made.  Okay – let’s be realistic.  It won’t always turn out well.  But if you don’t look for the win-win, you’re never going to find it.

That’s collaboration.  That’s believing that any interaction has infinite possibilities.

There are still boundaries, of course.  I wouldn’t try showing up at a Tesla dealer and having this conversation:

“I’d like one of these here eighty thousand dollar cars.  I’ve got the change from under the cushions of my sofa.  I make it three dollars and forty-seven cents, and some lint.”


“It’s really nice lint.”


“It’s limited edition lint.”


What you have to be aware of in any interaction is what’s called in strategic sourcing the “least acceptable offer”.  The Tesla salesman wants to sell cars, but he wants to have a job tomorrow, too.  Selling expensive cars for pocket change and mint condition, collector’s edition lint is not a survival strategy.  Honest collaboration and negotiation accepts that the other party has some constraints, and they’re legitimate.

Another thing to watch out for is putting someone in a position where they’re negotiating on a principle.  A couple of weeks ago on a weeknight, I was playing on the Xbox.  My wife and daughter showed up in the living room, and I forget how the conversation started, but the suggestion was out there that maybe it was my daughter’s turn to play.  I was just about to go with this, even though we have a moderately strict screen policy on school nights: no TV or computer games for my daughter on school nights.  However, my daughter – usually a clever negotiator – pushed too far.  She decided to make a play for undoing the whole policy.

You see, we had a looser policy for a while, based on the completion of homework and chores.  After a couple of incidents, we decided that wasn’t working, and we went to a simple ban.

So, instead of hoping for a one-time exception, she was going for a repeal.  However, I didn’t think we had sufficient grounds for the repeal, and even though I had originally been inclined to hand over the game controller to her, now I was stuck defending the principle of the original ban.  I kept giving my wife the opening to overrule me, but she declined and eventually retired from the field.  This left me to complete a twenty-minute lecture to my daughter, which meant that NEITHER of us got to play on the Xbox.

That is what you call a lose-lose!

Sign Here, It Absolves Me of All Blame

I was in a meeting at work recently and someone raised a pertinent question: should the software development team be more focused on fixing issues that are already out there, impacting customers, or on developing new features (ostensibly their primary job)?

According to the questioner, it wasn’t possible to do both satisfactorily.

The Executive In Charge of Answering Questions Like That began his answer with, “I don’t want to give anyone permission to fail”, before basically saying that the objectives were equally important.

This answer was not popular.

From the point of view of the person asking the question, it was a reasonable request for clarity on priorities.  The resources had not been provided to deliver on both demands, so some way of making a decision – some assignment of priorities – was needed.  Instead, the answer was a classic management answer, weighing the “beauty of the and” vs. the “tyranny of the or“, and ignoring the physical constraints of resources and time.

In a case like this, however, if the request was not asking for permission to fail, it was asking for permission to put responsibility for success on someone else.  Underlying the question was an implied threat: we’ve told you we can’t do what you want, and you haven’t done anything to help us.  Therefore, we’re going to fail, and you need to tell us where you want that to happen.

I think I was the only person in the room who understood and appreciated the answer.

I learned that lesson years and years ago, in my early days as a manager, when I was on a team working in Las Vegas.  That might sound really cool, but have you ever gone to Las Vegas to actually work?  It’s really, really weird.  We had to take people off the project who had developed gambling problems.  Never had that problem in Sidney, Ohio.  Anyway, people were working long hours (my usual hours were 8 a.m. to midnight), and hoping that we could wrap up every Friday so we could fly home for the weekend.  On one occasion, people on my team had been asking about whether they could go home, and I went to talk to my boss about it.

“You can’t make that decision for them,” he said.  “If you do, then their success is your responsibility, not theirs.”  The point was that, if I said people could go home, I was implicitly accepting whatever progress they had made towards their objectives.  As a manager, it was my job to stick to the objectives, and it was their job to meet them.

That was the point of “not giving permission to fail”.

In today’s modern, high-tech, entrepreneurial times, most of us still want nice, neat boundaries around our jobs.  “Just tell me what you want,” goes the reasoning.  “Then I can do a super job at it.”  But when you give someone a well-defined box, it’s on you when they don’t step outside it to take care of something nobody expected.

So, am I giving bosses carte blanche to make unreasonable demands, putting on the worker bees to sink or swim on their own?

Not at all.  The “permission to fail” comment was fine as far as it went, but it needed to go further.  If the team felt that they were facing a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t decision, then it was up to them to come up with a different question.

It’s like that line in the movie “Speed”:

“Pop quiz, hotshot.  Airport, gunman with one hostage.  He’s using her for cover; he’s almost to a plane.  You’re a hundred feet away…”

“Shoot the hostage…. take her out of the equation.”

So how do you change the equation?  You dig into the problem and find the real issue.  You ask a different question.

In our original case here, the problem wasn’t that someone had dumped a diverse set of demands on a team and had failed to establish clear priorities.  The real issue was that the team that was supposed to fix problems in the product wasn’t doing a very good job of it.  As a result, the fix team was always going to the development team for help.  The development team then felt under the gun all the time, and being conscientious, felt like they couldn’t say “no”.

The question they needed to be asking, then, was how to help the support team.  In this particular case, that was no secret.  Everyone knew that was the real problem.  Unfortunately, the team made assumptions about responsibilities and empowerment, and concluded that actually solving a problem that lay outside their boundaries wasn’t permitted.  That’s why had they asked for permission to fail, rather than for permission to solve the problem.

Denied permission to fail, guess what happened?  To their credit, they went back, figured out a solution to the problem they really needed to solve, and involved people on the other side of the boundary.  At this writing, the solution hasn’t kicked in yet, so we don’t know how effective it will be.  But it sounds much more promising when people have permission to succeed.

*             *             *

That’s really the complete point of that, but I wanted to keep going on something here while I was thinking about it, and I’m not sure it’s an entire blog article on its own, so it goes in the appendix.

I’ve learned a lot of different models or rubrics for things.  For example, my definition of income levels is “not enough”, “enough”, and “so much you don’t have to think about income”.

Another of my favorites comes from John Le Carre’s book The Perfect Spy, in which he discusses the two vows of a spy (which I happened to discover are also applicable in more mundane careers as well).  The first vow is when you take the job and do what’s expected of you, no matter what it is or where it stands morally.  The second vow is much harder: it’s when you really believe in what you’re doing.

Anyway, I’ve so far determined two significant milestones that we can reach in our working maturity.

The first milestone is when you reach a point that you can say something both original and right about the work you’re doing.  It’s easy to come in as the fresh-faced kid from college and come up with an idea – an idea that’s been thrown around ten times before and discarded as worthless every time.  It’s something else to reach a point of knowledge and awareness that you can have an insight that no one else familiar with the situation has.

The second milestone is when you know enough to define your own job, and when you can take it to your boss or client and explain why that’s exactly what you should be doing.  (This is the connection back to idea of the permission to fail up above.)  This is a particularly challenging milestone because it requires you to deny that any obstacle is really a blocker.  You may blow up the rocks in front of you, take a different path, or kind of ooze around them, but you need to see the way to define the responsibilities and activities that together promise success.

That’s the true “permission to succeed”.

*             *             *

By the way, the Peanuts comic strip was from September 24, 1967, and I was reminded of it when I was outlining this.  It seemed perfect!

Who Do You Work For?

In early February, NBC put popular news anchor Brian Williams on suspension for lying when he said he had been in a helicopter hit by a rocket propelled grenade in Iraq.  The Chicago Tribune had an article about the reaction among the news staff at NBC.  You have to page down quite a bit to get the staff responses, but they include:

“It was … like someone telling you that your dad is not coming home.”

“People are angry at Brian.”

While the article fell a little short of really discussing how the staff felt about, it was still interesting.  It also filled in a key piece of information: as managing editor of the news program, Williams had a lot of influence over which reporters would appear in the broadcast.  While the point of the article was that it let Williams get loose without any checks and balances in the newsroom, it also points out that he was not just the visible face of the news department: he was the boss.  When Williams lied, it was a reflection on everyone there, and when he fell short of the expectations that had been set, it was personal.

It’s an old adage that soldiers in a war don’t fight for their country, its ideals, or even their moms or girlfriends.  They fight for the soldiers standing next to them.  That might seem merely like a logical position to take when you’re actually worried about getting killed, but I think there’s something more to it.  We place our loyalty, trust, and identification in the same way, even when death and injury aren’t at stake.

As E.B. White said, “It is easier for a man to be loyal to his club than to his planet; the by-laws are shorter, and he is personally acquainted with the other members.”

Put in a professional sense, we don’t work for the company with its name on the big sign outside the building.  We work for a manager.  We work for Sandy in the office over there.  To us, that manager is the face of the company.  The level of trust we place in the organization is largely the trust we have in our boss.  As a result, people don’t usually quit companies: they quit bosses.

An Inc. magazine article listed its top five deal-breakers (the items that push employees over the breaking point to quit): four of them related directly to the way people are treated by their boss, and the other is having difficult co-workers.

I remember being in the Oslo airport on vacation years ago and picking up the International Herald Tribune.  Somewhere inside was the announcement that George Shaheen, Boss of Bosses of Accenture (where I worked at the time), was leaving to go take over running Webvan.  My reaction, like a lot of others’, was one of shock and concern.  What did this mean to the company?  What did this mean to me?  What was wrong with Accenture?

In fact, nothing was wrong, and for most of us, nothing really changed after he left.  That’s because, even though Shaheen was the central figure of a minor cult of personality, the organization’s success was driven by repeatable processes and strong organization, none of which he took with him.  We were left with the same bosses we’d had before.  If we were happy with them, we were still happy.

So what’s my point?

Well, as an employee, it’s a good idea to think a little more broadly.  If you’ve come to despise your manager, maybe there’s a way out that doesn’t involve quitting.  Some companies, of course, make changing jobs within them more painful than quitting and getting rehired: if you work at one of those, you’ve probably got several reasons for quitting besides your boss.

And if you are a boss, remember what you mean to the people on your team.  You’re the one who sets the tone and shows respect.  You’re the one whom your team looks to when the demands for working outside of business hours grow too big.

If you’re the boss’s boss, it goes up to you, too.  One place I worked, the company decided that it was going to focus its rewards (i.e., bonuses) on the top 5% of performers.  The other ninety-five percent weren’t necessarily shut out, but the lack of appreciation was obvious.  As the Big Boss, you might think this is just fine: you want your star performers to feel special.  That’s great, except that – unless you plan on frequent turn-over in the other 95% – the rest of those people still work there, and some of them are managers.  You’re kidding yourself if you think your under-rewarded managers are somehow going to keep their disgruntlement entirely hidden from their employees.

Business, like politics, is all local.

How do you make decisions?

My wife works as a post-secondary counselor at an alternative high school in Chicago.  While kids show up there via many paths, for most there is the common element that they are there because they could not succeed in other schools.  This alternative school typically represents their last chance to continue their education.

Most kids seem to get that.  They may not all buckle down and turn into model students, but they generally get the idea.  They’re out of chances, and they need to make something out of the situation.

Some, however, don’t get it.  It’s rare that we get to clearly and immediately see the consequences of a decision in our life – many of the forks in the road may seem equally promising (or equally bleak).  But a student showing up at this alternative school and deliberately disposing of the opportunity is making a fatal mistake.  Sometimes literally, even.

In the little-watched movie “Sahara” (the Matthew McConaughey vehicle, not the Humphrey Bogart one), Steve Zahn says: “Do you know how it is, when you see someone that you haven’t seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they’re married to some woman who hates them, and three kids that think he’s a joke.  Isn’t there some point where he stood back and said, ‘Bob, don’t take that job!  Bob, don’t marry that harpy!’  … I was just wondering when we were going to have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm.”

So: how do you make the best decision?  How do you refine your decision-making paradigm?

I have an interesting model presented to me by my father and his two sisters, in their approaches to retirement.  My father tried retirement a little, didn’t care for not being busy, and is now swamped with church activities and the responsibilities of being on two corporate boards.  In contrast, one aunt moved to Mexico and is part of organizing an artist’s co-op promoting the work of local craftsmen, and my other aunt has followed the more conventional route of living in a retirement community in Arizona.  Totally different choices taken by all of them.

And they’re all tremendously happy.

Many choices are subjective, so the decision making also takes a variety of paths.

The general rule I’ve concluded is that making a decision in a timely manner is often better than waiting for that perfect solution to present itself.  We usually have before us alternatives that can’t be easily distinguished.  Jumping on one of them quickly and decisively gets us that much closer to the benefits, and even if they’re not as great as another choice might have provided, the speed makes up for the slight (and unpredictable) difference in value.

This all presumes, of course, that there’s some meaningful deliberation in the process.  Making a really bad decision in a real hurry isn’t decisiveness, it’s rashness.

Still, I’ve seen plenty of project teams stalled while otherwise bright people struggled to identify the perfect, invariable solution, looking for the A+ answer when presented with a selection of B+ ones.  Time ebbed away.  None of the answers ever got better, and nobody looked smarter.  Just more argumentative and unrealistic.

So, how do you make a decision?  Do you lists pros and cons?  Do you do a cost benefit analysis?  How do you know when you’ve got enough information to make a decision?  Who do you need to talk to when you’ve got a tough decision coming up?

All of those questions can have answers peculiar to your way of doing things.

Still, good decisions usually share certain attributes.  They’re realistic and achievable.  They satisfy the concerns and needs of stakeholders.  They’re complete (or reasonably so) and don’t just address a single issue or complaint.

Take that retirement example I gave.  Totally different choices, right?  Not so fast.  In each case, the choice was thorough and balanced.  A desirable geography was selected, a connection to a community was established, and activities of interest were part of the solution.  The three of them just found different scenarios that satisfied those criteria.

That’s decision making for you.  There aren’t really any rules or musts.

So far as a happy retirement is concerned, the only hard and fast rule I’ve discovered is: don’t own livestock!