Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, it gets worse.

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

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

Perhaps the neurosis has spread to cover all timepieces.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Collaboration is Believing in the Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“It’s really nice lint.”


“It’s limited edition lint.”


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

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

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

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

That is what you call a lose-lose!

Sign Here, It Absolves Me of All Blame

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

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

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

This answer was not popular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*             *             *

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the true “permission to succeed”.

*             *             *

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

Who Do You Work For?

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

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

“People are angry at Brian.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s my point?

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

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

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

Business, like politics, is all local.

How do you make decisions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they’re all tremendously happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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