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.


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.

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!

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.