An Affliction of Inspiration

I’ve written over 40 books, but curiously, I have never actually written any about what I actually do for a living.  I did write one novel, “Best Judgment”, which was about business and used many stories and jokes I have picked up over the years, but I’ve never sat down and actually written about the day to day work I do.

I’ve had ideas for it, but nothing ever came from those.

However, a couple of weeks ago I was stricken with an affliction of inspiration.  An idea completely clicked in my head, and a book outline fell into place in mere minutes.

The idea comes from something I’ve been playing around with at work lately.  Technically, I’m a project manager.  However, in many circumstances, a project manager is a very administrative person.  They create and manage work plans, manage lists of risk and issues, and act (as I call it) as a professional nag.  Get that done yet?  When will you have it done?  How’s it going?

Over the last few months, I’d really reformed the notion of project management into the idea of project leadership.  That label isn’t new: my last company used it to group project and program management together, although I’m not sure anything more was meant by it.

My contribution to it was to define project leadership as something more than project management.  If you just want an administrator for your project, you probably don’t want (or need) someone with the experience of myself or most of my colleagues.  If you want someone who will own the activities to deliver a project, and actually care about what the project outcome, then you want a project leader.

I’ve written some slideware on the topic for a couple of presentations, but I’ve still been noodling over what else to do with it.  I’d like to develop the concept within the firm I work with, defining the work we do as project leadership.  That should help drive the model of how we hire people and how we approach our work.  Still, this was not yet an inspiration.

Then the inspiration hit.  I’d write it as a book (not a PowerPoint deck), and I could encompass a lot of my own experiences and theories into it.  I’ve since leapt into that and have written roughly half of it so far (5 out of 12 chapters drafted, about 22000 words).

Of course, this will fall very much in the zone of a business self-help book, a category about which I am notably snarky.  Hopefully I’m being realistic about my snark when I write this.  That will also be the big test.  I’m planning to give draft copies of this to some colleagues, and that’s when you ask the big question: I’ve just spent all this time to write a book; now, is it going to be interesting to anyone?

In my dreams, this helps launch a new phase of my career.  I’m not quite ready to set off as a Stephen Covey-like career as a public speaker.  Maybe I could do it in a small way.

My day dreams quickly founder on the rocks of a sad reality in the business self-help industry.  I need a catchy name.  Something inspirational, something pithy.  Something that gets right to the point.

My wife pointed out that I also need a self-assessment questionnaire.  All the best books have those.  I’m still thinking about that.

Back to the name.  The working title of my book has been “Old Wombat’s Guide to Project Leadership”, which is boring and distractingly quirky at the same time.  I’ve put together several other books under my personal brand of Old Wombat’s (“Old Wombat’s Concise History of the World” and “Old Wombat’s Law for Junior Wombats”) but I wasn’t necessarily putting my professional identity behind those books.  Another name is absolutely critical.

Luckily, on Friday night I went to a rock concert.  We saw Guster at the Riviera Theater.  I can’t even remember what song they were playing, but one word suddenly jumped out at me: believe.

I reached my catchy name in a moment: Project Believer.  It fits completely.  A major part of my ideas around project leadership is essentially a matter of positive attitude, constructive contributions, and so on.  You have the believe in the project you’re working on.

I haven’t decided how to completely work this in, yet.  I’m not sure I want to replace “project leader” everywhere it appears in the 100 pages I’ve written so far.  I might just talk about project leadership as a step towards being a Project Believer.

Anyway, there it is – the affliction of inspiration leading to “Project Leader to Project Believer”!  Coming to online bookstores and project management seminars soon!


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!

A Little Humor With Your Dubious Facts

Wikipedia is listed as the 6th or 7th most visited website on the internet.  It has become the go-to location for quick, free information, and it is frequently pointed to as being the ultimate in the “sharing” economy, as all of its articles were written or edited by volunteers and the site itself subsists on donations.  Its quality, as a consequence, is all over the map.

One of my favorite things to find in Wikipedia is humorous articles.  If you do a search, you will quickly find that there is actually an index page for Wikipedia humor.  Most of these relate to either semi-humorous editor profiles and April Fool’s Day articles.  This isn’t quite what I mean.

There’s another index page on humorous Wikipedia essays but those are almost entirely having to do with the use of Wikipedia itself.  Those aren’t what I mean, either.

What I really enjoy is the articles slyly inserted into the rest of the content, with not even a nod or a wink to say that humor is intended.  One I’ve run across is the article on the Principle of Evil Marksmanship.  This is the idea that, in movies, bad guys are only effective at harming people who aren’t actually important to the plot; Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert frequently used the expression in his reviews, hence its popularity.  My favorite sub-point to this is the “Inverse Ninja Law”, explaining how a lone ninja is an undetectable, unstoppable, killing machine, lots of ninjas together are helpless orcs to be slaughtered.

Another of my favorites is the article on the buttered cat paradox.  This describes what happens when you pit one folk saying (“cats always land on their feet”) against another (“toast always lands butter side down”).  So what happens when you attached a piece of buttered toast to the back of a cat and drop it?  Conjectures suggest that the cat and toast will spin endlessly above the ground.  The concept itself has humor, but check out this line:

“In reality, cats possess the ability to turn themselves right side up in mid-air should they fall upside-down… Toast, being an inanimate object, obviously lacks both the ability and the desire to right itself.”

Can you call it dry humor if the toast is buttered?

Anyhow, clearly Silicon Valley should be dedicating itself to improving the processing ability of America’s toast.

The problem with these gems is one of the “features” of Wikipedia.  It changes.  Things go away.  You think you’ve got the best site bookmarked, and when you go back to it, it’s gone.  Sometimes this is a good thing: I recently read the Wikipedia article on Loyalists in the American Revolution (or as some of us were taught in grade school, Tories).  Not only was the article hideously biased, it was semi-literate.  I went back to it for examples to cite here, but it was all cleaned up.  Crowd sourcing wins again!

But, on the other hand, sometimes it takes a moment of humor away from us, never to be restored.  Another site I enjoyed was for the so-called avalanche model of software development, which described what happened when you try to merge aspects of the classic waterfall software development approach with Agile or scrum development.  This is not typically fertile ground for humor, but trust me: it was hilarious.  Unfortunately, editor Ben MacDui deleted it on January 11, 2015, stating that it was a “Non-notable neologism for a fringe theory, no citations, no reliable sources exist”.

I feel that that’s some sort of metaphor.  Do you ever feel like a non-notable neologism?  Hmm.  Maybe not.

Anyway, I leave you with two other sources here.  First, there’s an entire page acting as an index to unusual articles in Wikipedia.  There: that just blew two hours of your morning.

And second, there is the article on the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts (the image above comes from MOBA, the artist is unknown).  This article is more of a magazine article than an encyclopedia entry, but it, too, will draw you in for minutes of entertainment.

There are days when it seems the internet seems to exist largely for and cat videos, but it’s good to know there’s something more out there than that.

It’s a Collector Thing – I Think

There are several books of which I own multiple copies, and each of them has a story behind it.

Tea With the Black Dragon, by R.A. MacAvoy, has the simplest story: I love the book, it hasn’t always stayed in print, and when I saw a copy at a used book store, I grabbed it so I’d have a spare, or one to give away.  Desolation Road by Ian McDonald has a similar story.

I have three copies of The Arabian Nights.  I am a bit of a fan of e-books: they can keep books available long after they would have gone out of print, and they don’t require bookshelf space.  But e-books will never be as interesting as my copies of The Arabian Nights.  First of all, unless you buy an old hard cover edition of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s complete set of the stories (which I saw a set of a long time ago), no two editions have the same set of stories.  Second, my set is just weird.  One copy is a standard Signet Classic paperback using Burton’s translations.  Another is an Everyman’s Library edition with a printing error: it has an entire quarto extra, so when you open the book, the very first page is page 397, “The Two Hundred and Forty-third Night”.  It runs to its conclusion on page 428, followed then by the frontispiece, publishing information, and the proper text.  My other copy is even cooler.  It’s a Modern Library printing of Burton’s translations, edited by the deity himself, Bennett Cerf, and published in 1932.  But what my copy of this has that no other has is four leaf clovers!

Yes, pressed between the pages in multiple spots in the book are actual four leaf clovers.  Figure out how to put those in your e-book!

Funny sidelight on publishing errors such as in that copy of The Arabian Nights: I once had a copy of Time and Again by Jack Finney with a similar error.  I was reading it for the first time and somewhere around page 108 I got this feeling of deja vu.  I also felt like there had been a really strange transition in the middle of the paragraph.  I kept reading, and then I became absolutely certain that I’d read exactly the same material before.  Now, as I had recently been reading a lot of Robert Sheckley and Philip K. Dick, where this sort of thing happens often, I dismissed it with, “Oh, it’s a time travel book.  The author’s just messing with my head by repeating part of the story.”  Finally I bothered to compare page numbers, where I discovered that, in fact, pages had been duplicated.  Unfortunately, the copied pages replaced the proper pages, so I was missing 32 entire pages of text.  Kind of ruined the story.  I don’t know if it would have been worth anything because of the error, but I eventually dumped it and bought a new copy.

Certain books multiply because they are common books to give as gifts.  I have received and disposed of multiple copies of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, for instance.  Another one, less common, that I recently confirmed we have three copies of is Gnomes, by Huygen and Poortvliet.  This book, originally published in Dutch in 1976, was a drily humorous natural history of gnomes, and strangely became a popular hit, much in the same manner as pet rocks.  Anyhow, once I became known for owning garden gnomes, this became a common gift, and we now have three copies.

The book that has the record for most copies in the house (excluding ones I wrote myself and may have over-purchased) is Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart.  This book is sort of a secret classic.  It’s a phenomenal book, beautifully well written, and it’s sold a moderate number of copies over the years.  Pretty much anybody who’s read it, loves it.  Rumor has it that it was pretty much killed by the publishing industry: it was kind of a fantasy book, kind of literature, and nobody had any idea how to market it or where to put it in a bookstore.  If you’ve never heard of it, that’s why.  You may soon hear more about it, because Wikipedia articles mention that a movie version is in the works.  Anyway, I own my original paperback copy of the book, a second-hand version of the same edition (but later printing), a British paperback version, and two copies of the omnibus edition (containing BoB and its two sequels) published by The Stars Our Destination, a science fiction bookstore once existing in Chicago and later Evanston.  I’m saving one of the omnibus books for my daughter: I originally bought five or six of these and just started giving them away.

So, what’s the thing about owning multiple copies of a book?  With the odd exception of The Arabian Nights and similar classics, one copy of the book contains the same words as another.  The book doesn’t get better because you have multiple copies.  It doesn’t get more valuable.  Maybe it’s a sort of collector thing, and there’s some parallel in other forms of collecting.

If there’s any explanation, it’s a form of security.  I never want to lose the ability to pick up Bridge of Birds or The Hobbit, so I own multiple copies in case of disaster or theft.  It’s a way, however feeble, of making the literature timeless.

A Life-Changing Moment That Passes Unnoticed

A long, long time ago I was doing consultant boot camp with a very large consulting firm.  This primarily meant working from 8 in the morning until 10 at night Monday through Friday, plus nine to five on Saturday, and I think half a day on Sunday, writing COBOL code by hand on coding sheets.  (I said it was a long, long time ago.  I’m also fairly positive we had to hike uphill in the snow both ways to get to the classroom.)  The real purpose of this seems to have been to test our ability to withstand an abusive work environment, rather than to teach us anything of note.

The amount of time we were working gave us a plenty of time to get to know the people we shared a table with.  It feels like there should have been rules against talking, but if there were, they’ve faded from memory.  Anyway, I was at the same table as a fellow named Andrew Black, from Minneapolis, and as I recall it, although we might not have had similar interests, at least we had a similar sense of humor and curiosity, so three weeks writing COBOL all day passed fairly satisfactorily.

Among other things, Andrew told me about the books of Edward Abbey, especially The Monkey Wrench Gang; I’ve read many of Abbey’s books since and enjoyed them immensely.

Another book we talked about was The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, which has become a favorite of mine.  The story is long and involved, following the molding experiences several people go through, but what is so captivating about it is the depth of the characters and their place in their particular setting and time (which is mostly 1920s and 1930s Paris).  I’ve also enjoyed the movies made of the book – the Tyrone Power version and even the Bill Murray version, which I suspect I am the only person in the world to possess the DVD of.  In reference to this story, Andrew mentioned the rubric of: “Read it, think it, be it, burn it”.

The idea is that when you learn something that become words you live by, you go through a process with it.  You read it, acquiring the basic knowledge of it.  You think about it, coming to an intellectual understanding of it.  Next you internalize the message and make it part of your nature.  Finally, you burn the book the idea came in (metaphorically, at least) so that you don’t make an idol out of the book, focusing on its words, endlessly parsing it, and losing sight of the message.

This specific process doesn’t appear in the book or either of the movies, and I’ve never figured out where Andrew got it from, but the words and the process have stuck with me all these years.

Some years later, I was working in Minneapolis for a few days and happened to run into Andrew in the skywalk system there.  We talked pleasantly but briefly, as he was heading to lunch with some of his co-workers, and then moved on.

While I’ve gotten book recommendations from plenty of other people over the years, it’s only with “read it, think it, be it, burn it” and The Razor’s Edge that I so clearly remember the time, place, and person of a recommendation.

You never can tell when or where you’ll find some sort of meaningful nugget.

You can also never tell when you can have that sort of impact on someone else.  In fact, you may never know when or if you’ve already had it.  Some truism, war story, or quip that you repeat regularly – so much that it’s a part of your nature – may suddenly give someone a fresh perspective, a completely new look at the world.

So, here are my thanks – many years later – to Andrew Black for his book recommendations!

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!

Writing Out of the Box

I’ve written plenty of novels, novellas, and short stories.  I’ve got a hard drive full of them.  While those forms have their own conventions and structure, they’re pretty similar.  In fact, to even a dedicated reader, there may not seem to be any difference at all as an art form.  As a lay person, we can be impressed with the fundamental differences of sculptor working with clay instead of metal, or a musician playing classical instead of folk.  But how different is the authoring process depending on the end-structure of the written form?

Maybe I’m a bit of a geek on the subject, hence my enthusiastic re-blog of another blogger’s article on the creation of graphic novels.  I’m just fascinated by the craft and skills that an expert uses to handle different problems.

A couple of years ago I had the idea of turning one of my personal favorite books of those I’ve written, A Tall Tale of Two Short Animals, into an animated movie.  Progress on this idea was made in two areas: I bought some cheap animation software, and I turned my novel into a screenplay.

I’ve been told I write very visually, which I have always taken to mean that I tend to focus on describing the scenes and action taking place, rather than intense internal thoughts or philosophical exposition.  In the writing process, this means I actually visualize scenes as movies.  However, it’s quite a different thing from actually putting it together as a screenplay.

Think about how a movie opens.  How do we learn who a character is, even something as basic as their name?  Excepting the approach of using a voice-over, which is viewed as being the clumsy way out, you start with the main character interacting with another character.  Somebody uses their name, and early scenes start to give us an idea of the nature of the character.  Sometimes a subtitle can be used to amusing effect: I’m thinking the TV show “Burn Notice”, which will show something like “Pancho – Assistant Crime Boss” to make sure we know who we’re looking at.  But usually, the idea is to introduce the characters and the story as naturally as possible.

The problem with the story I’d chosen to adapt was that it’s about a talking dog and rabbit who live in a place called the Magic Land.  Yes, go ahead and roll your eyes at that: it sounds cheesy.  However, it worked great in writing stories for my daughter when she was younger, and I still think it’s fun.  Anyway, since the story didn’t take place in this Magic Land, I had to somehow set the stage so the audience would accept a talking dog and rabbit showing up in Montana and doing crazy things.  This involved writing an entirely different introductory scene than the book had.

A lot of the rest of the story was easy enough to adapt, and a considerable amount of text was removed.  Actions were changed into stage directions which were usually more plain and direct: a screen direction isn’t supposed to develop narrative tension the way descriptive prose would.  In a movie, the director and the editor do that.

Anyway, I’d say I learned a lot from the experience, and you can go here to see the result.  In the end, I ran aground with the animation software, since I can’t draw and I didn’t have six months to spare to make the movie.  I was rather hoping there was an “Easy” button included.

Another idea I’d had bouncing around for years was graphic novels and comic book.  I actually considered turning the same novel into a graphic novel, where I hit the same snag regarding artistic talent.  Still, I was intrigued by the notion of serializing stories and creating a periodical out of it.  This used to be quite common – most of Charles Dickens’ novels were published as serials – but it’s rare now.

What I decided to do was to take the starting point of a pulp publication in the 1920s.  The main content, then, is four parallel stories set in that period.  This has already led to some interesting twists as characters run into each other like character cross-overs on TV shows.  It also leads to one of the tricky things about doing a serial: knowing what happens next.  When Dickens writing his incredibly long novels back in the 1840s and 1850s, he was setting up mysteries that he didn’t necessarily know how he was going to write his way out of.  Now, there’s an obvious solution – outlining the story some distance in advance – but it’s been kind of fun to write just a chapter at a time and see where things go, making sure to end with a cliff-hanger or plot twist.

I’ve also filled in the periodical with chapters from novellas that I have never published on their own, and then recently I decided to include out-of-copyright stories by other authors.

The other real challenge with this sort of structure – and the one I’d give to any aspiring writer – is that when you get into it, it forces you to just keep writing.  Got a deadline!  Gotta keep things going!

The end products are all linked from Old Wombat’s Monthly, and I’m hoping they’re as much fun to read as they are to write!

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”.

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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!