My Inner Gandalf

Wizard_HeadingI knew from the looks on the other committee member’s faces that I had done it again. I had thrown my idea out on the table – whole cloth – without considering for a moment the effect on my audience. It was a terrible first impression, but the damage was done. Driving home, I turned over in my mind how I could have handled it better. My car nearly left the road when a voice in my head said, “Steve, channel your inner Gandalf.”

The chapter “Queer Lodgings” from The Hobbit had popped into my head. In it, the wizard Gandalf convinces Beorn – a reclusive character – to accept a wizard, a hobbit, and no fewer than thirteen dwarves as unexpected dinner and lodging guests. He does so gradually, by telling Beorn the story of their adventures up to that point, while gradually increasing the number of characters and introducing them in pairs. It has the added effect of making their host more intrigued by their story.

It is a clever literary device and great fun to read. In real life, of course, it requires a “wizardly” presence of mind in order to pull it off. That fact notwithstanding, the concept holds value. At the same time that it introduced the change initially as a rather minor detail, it gradually wrapped the entire request in context so that agreement was all but guaranteed to a reasonable mind. The gambit had both subtlety and framing, and divided the aspects of change into “easy-to-chew” sizes.

I will in no way try to cast myself as a writer of any merit, much less one as gifted as J.R.R. Tolkien. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to attempt an illustration of this idea within the context of a real world business problem. What follows is an entirely fictional conversation between a consultant (our wizard), and a CIO (the bear in our story).   The consultant has discovered why the CEO’s daily sales flash reports are routinely late, but he knows that the cost of mitigation is going to cause extreme heartburn on the executive floor.

“Mr. Bruins, thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

“Ben. Please call me Ben. And tell me your name again?”

“Dan. Dan Galf. I’m a consultant with Bertram, Thomas, and William. Our firm has the contract to develop S.M.A.U.G, the data warehouse feed from your new global costing tool.

“Nice to meet you, Dan. What can I do for you?”

“Well, perhaps it’s what I can do for you. As you know, your global costing system generates tons of data every day and we’re worried about processing time. Consequently, we’ve been looking at some of your existing procedures in order to squeeze out the best performance possible.”

“Sounds reasonable. What have you found?”

“Something curious. It’s a program that runs as part of your daily overnight processing. All it does is attribute some of your store-level general ledger data, but it runs on average for five hours per night.”

“Why is it so slow?”

“That’s the curious part. It updates the records one store and one attribute at a time.”

“I’m not technical, Dan, so I don’t understand why that is bad.”

“Consider this analogy, Ben. Suppose you have a large pile of treasure dumped at one end of a football field and every night you need to move a specific cubic foot of that treasure to the other end of the field. Rather than selecting the cubic foot you need and carrying it to the other end in a bucket, you choose to move the entire pile in order to guarantee that you deliver the part that you need. Moreover, instead of using a bucket you use a teaspoon. That’s thousands of trips across the field, and most of what you’re moving is unnecessary.”

“That does seem extraordinary. What’s the reason for it?”

“None that we can figure out. We’ve even met with some of your business folks and they can think of no earthly reason for it.”

“Have you spent much time on this quest?”

“We’ve logged about thirty hours. Several of us have looked at it because we thought we were missing something at first.”

“Well, don’t waste any more time on it Dan. But thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

“Before you dismiss it, Ben, you may want to be aware that this is the reason your CEO’s daily flash reports are late.”

“It is? Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. That report suite depends on this daily re-attribution process.”

“Oh. I see. That’s different. Madeline has been beating me up about it for weeks and she can be a real dragon. My people have been telling me that it’s a hardware performance problem.”

“We can help you fix the problem, you know.”

“Really?”

“First, we need to understand the existing procedure. There are places where it just doesn’t make any sense and your business people can’t explain the business rules.”

“How long will that take?”

“It could take as few as eight hours if the business can provide answers readily. If not, it could take substantially longer.”

“I see. But once you figure that out you can fix the problem?”

“We will need to do some design work first.”

“Why?”

“The current design forces you to scan all of the records multiple times, even though you only care about 8% of them. And of that 8%, you rarely need to change more than 11% on a given day. A more efficient approach is to partition the data based on relevance. Performance will be significantly better provided that the technical challenges of breaking the data up are addressed, hence the need for good design. That’s probably between twelve and sixteen hours of effort.”

“Okay, design. And then you do the fix?”

“Yes. Writing the new code will only take a couple of days, maybe twenty hours at most. We will need to spend at least as much time testing, though.”

“Why so much?”

“This is a key procedure driving, among other things, your daily flash, right?”

“Yes.”

“And the business makes key decisions based on those reports, right?”

“I get it, Dan. So altogether you’re saying this procedure will require…let’s see…, uh ninety-four hours to fix, including time already spent.”

“Don’t forget about coding and testing the deployment code. Figure another eight hours there.”

“So, one hundred and two hours.”

“And filling out and submitting the change management forms. Another couple of hours there.”

“Anything else?”

“Another two hours to document what we did so that whoever comes after us doesn’t need to spend so much time on discovery. Maybe add another four in case we hit a goblin along the way.”

“Well, it makes sense the way you’ve laid this out, but one hundred ten hours is a lot of time to fix one procedure don’t you think?”

“It’s a complex data set and we don’t want to buy performance at the cost of accuracy. Bear in mind also the cost associated with bandwidth trolls like this.”

“Well, I’ll probably have to green light this although it exceeds my monthly maintenance budget. Let me get approval and I’ll get back to you.”

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if the world were a reasonable and rational place where a conversation such as the one above could possibly take place? It is not, of course, so it must remain a fictional example of how to break an idea out into its constituent elements, laying it out in pieces so that it can be assimilated gradually. Also note that in today’s world the effort would probably have been absorbed into two Agile sprints instead of being cast as a linear “waterfall” effort. Bottom line, though, if Dan had thrown the 110 hours on the table at the beginning, Ben would probably have stopped listening.

Not being wizards, it will work much better for us if we direct the process as a series of questions that lead others toward a proposed solution. Here are the five steps to the process.

  • Step 1: Begin by pointing out a factual condition and then ask one or more clarifying questions. For instance, “I was looking at the third bullet point in the selection criteria. Does anyone feel that it might be worded too broadly?”
  • Step 2: Ask some more specific questions to illuminate the nature of the potential problem. “The wording stipulates that our selections express the memory, values, traditions, customs or aspirations of the community. Does this mean that each of us is to apply our own understanding of what those might be or do we need a more concrete set of examples?”
  • Step 3: Only after the group begins to acknowledge that an improvement might be desired can the next step be taken. Instead of proposing a solution outright, ask instead for characteristics of a solution. For instance, “What might those examples look like?”
  • Step 4: Close the circle. “Where might we find that information?”
  • Step 5: Finally, if your idea has not yet been suggested, make your suggestion in the form of a question. “Do you think a town hall meeting might be an appropriate venue for gathering that information?”

 

I am looking forward to the practical application of this refinement in my personal style. Never again do I wish to see the looks of confusion and fear on the faces of my colleagues and clients. I may even try practicing this at home when I need to introduce a new idea into our routine. Of course, my wife proofreads these musings ahead of publication so she will be on to me right away.

At this point, my readers may be wondering why I am offering advice on something I have never tried, practiced, or been successful with before. I am not offering advice. I am offering a way of thinking about our lives when we find ourselves yanked from our comfortable mental hobbit holes to face unpleasantness in the form of our own weaknesses (I mean, opportunities for improvement). So follow along. The truth and the growth – as well as the adventure – is in the journey, not the destination. Just ask Bilbo.

 

What techniques do you use for creating buy-in for new ideas? Do you think self-awareness is overrated?

Commitment

Commitment_HeaderI do a lot of work with teams. Teams and working groups are an important part of my personal as well as my professional life. I work on project teams as part of my consulting and I participate on boards and commissions as part of my community service. For me, the quality of the team determines the quality of the result no matter the context. A strong team is a joy to be a part of; a weak team means misery. I have had cause of late to reflect on the characteristics of a strong team and how they enable success.

Six Characteristics of a Strong Team
There are six essential characteristics that I look for in a robust and successful team. While it is not reasonable to expect that all team members will have these attributes in equal measure, recognizing how individuals and their personalities align with these aspects makes assembling a high quality team more likely.

  • Diversity: There is nothing worse than being on a team where everyone thinks alike. The greater the diversity of background and viewpoint the healthier the team. Not only does diversity expand the available idea pool, it also increases the likelihood that some arcane aspect or lurking issue won’t be overlooked.
  • Skill: Having the appropriate skills on your team is a no-brainer. More important is having team members with the capacity to pick up new skills quickly. Situations arise frequently where unforeseen circumstances demand new or enhanced skills. This also has the benefit of creating cross-trained teams.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility allows a team to adapt to change, which is at the heart of every endeavor we undertake. Flexibility makes it possible for teams to harness their egos and consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. It enables a team to adapt templates to fit new and unique situations. It empowers teams to improve and mature.
  • Integrity: A good team has integrity on both the personal and group level. Personal integrity assures the team that each member will put forward his/her highest quality effort for the team and the project. The collective integrity is the team’s bond with the stakeholders.
  • Motivation: Hand in hand with integrity is motivation. The members of a strong team are motivated to do the best possible job, whatever it takes. This might mean long hours or extra effort, but the shared objectives of the team are paramount.
  • Respect: Respect builds trust both within the team and without. Respect for fellow team members fosters strong and trusting relationships. Similarly, respect for stakeholders fosters rapport between team and customer. Disrespect is a disease in any team.

In many ways, these characteristics are interrelated. There is overlap between them and the boundaries are indistinct. Nevertheless, all six are necessary for a team to be successful whether it is a project team, a civic commission, or a nonprofit board. There is, however, one essential element without which none of these characteristics really matter. That element is commitment. Team members must have skin in the game.

Commitment
Commitment is the spark that ignites the six characteristics. It is the catalyst that brings the team together in action. Team members without commitment drag the team down. Team members without commitment can seldom be counted on when the going gets tough. Commitment is more than a mere promise. Commitment is doing. Commitment requires management.

Commitment requires management because very few of us – that is, very few who truly commit – commit to merely one interest or pursuit. Because of the deep commitment, they rapidly find themselves a commodity; someone sought after by teams and enterprises. All too soon if they are not careful, they become overcommitted.

I wish to differentiate commitment from a mere promise or agreement. Agreement without commitment is just the occupation of space (and not always even that). Commitment (or the lack of it) drives the quality of the actions we take.

  • Preparation: committed team members come to meetings prepared. They have read any pre-read materials and are ready for scheduled discussions.
  • Follow-through: committed team members complete their assigned tasks on time and follow through on action items they have taken.
  • Ownership: committed team members take ownership of their ideas. It is not enough to raise the problem or offer a solution during a meeting. The team member is not committed if he/she expects someone else to pick the idea up and run with it.
  • Respect: committed team members respect the time and effort of the others. By way of example, if there is important business to be transacted at a scheduled meeting and one of the team has a conflict, the committed team member calls this out in time to change the meeting to accommodate everyone’s availability.
  • Engagement: committed team members are engaged. They work continually to achieve the purpose and objectives of the team/board/commission. Their membership in that body is not passive.

Individuals with multiple commitments will invariably encounter conflicts that can affect their engagement in one or another commitment. Of course they will need to set priorities. But if it is the case that they cease to add value to one or more of their lower priority commitments, it is best that they should step down and help the group find a replacement who can meet the commitment. Otherwise, they should do what they must to remain engaged and involved.

Skin in the Game
Commitment, understandably, is difficult. Sometimes we don’t know how much work a commitment will require. We do not know how our personal priorities may change or need to change in the future. We certainly never know in advance what new challenges life may set in our path. At most, we must be ready to assess whether or not we have the bandwidth to truly commit each time we are faced with a new opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it is difficult to say “No.”

I mentioned earlier about having “skin in the game.” Strictly speaking, the phrase refers to having a financial stake in an enterprise, which means that we have something to lose if the enterprise should fail. This represents an incentive to do everything possible to ensure success. It has also come to mean having a strong commitment in an endeavor even if a financial stake is not specifically involved. Personally, I do not like to see the original meaning of a good word or phrase diluted. So what is the “stake” in this usage if it is not monetary? It is personal integrity. One’s integrity is one’s gold. Personal integrity is our stake in commitment.

What are other characteristics of a strong team? How do you and your teams manage commitment?

Sharpen My Game

Sharpen_HeaderWe all have bad days. I had a doozy not long ago. I found myself standing in front of a room full of people, enduring some very angry and very personal criticism. It was only a few of the people in that meeting, but that did not make it any easier. It was necessary for me to stand alone, remain calm, listen carefully, offer no defense, and attempt to interject a clarifying question when I was able. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

The aspect that was most challenging was that the actions of which I was being accused were the very things I had worked for a year to prevent. I had worked hard to eliminate divisiveness and to raise the quality of conversation within the community by encouraging respect for those with whom we disagree. To be accused of being divisive, disrespectful, and of having “dissed everyone” was devastating. Most of the others who were present during the tirades remained, thankfully, silent. I learned later that many were too stunned to react. Whatever the reason, allowing one person to take the brunt of the attack diffused the anger much more quickly than an open brawl would have allowed.

I went through several stages of emotion in the days following. Initially, I was in shock– “gob struck” as a colleague of mine would say. Then followed several days of anger. This surprised me. What happened to the detached composure that served me so well during the meeting? Upon reflection, of course, anger was perfectly natural. The attacks had been personal and had gone to the core of my integrity. At last, anger gave way to sober self-reflection.

 

Sober Self-reflection
Many of my friends advised me not to dwell on the incident. “It was a small faction who spoke out,” my supporters reminded me, “and they certainly did not represent the preponderance of opinion.” While this is true, I could not let it rest there. There were certainly many things that I had gotten right, but clearly I had also gotten something terribly wrong. This was evidenced by the nature of the anger I observed in those individuals . Yes it was personal and in many ways inappropriate. But the key is that it was genuine. What did I get so wrong?

That question, “What did I get wrong?” is a fundamental leadership question. It demands continual improvement in our interpersonal relationships. Such improvement is critical because, as I have written in the past, each phase of our lives prepares us for the next (e.g., Learning from the Big Push). Each thing we learn becomes another tool to be used to improve the world (e.g., Blanket Order). Everything is in some way or another connected (e.g., Fugue). And at the end of the day, we always tend to learn more from our failures than our successes (e.g., My Favorite Failures). Bottom line, there are always more dots to be connected that will make us more perceptive and therefore more effective leaders.

In addition to being a key leadership question, “What did I get wrong?” is also an advanced class question. It is advanced class because it is a question one can rarely answer alone. At the same time, it is also rarely a question another person can answer for us. It requires a combination of personal root cause analysis combined with active listening (or, in this case, reading). It requires a high level of both self-awareness and humility. The latter, in particular, is not a quality that I have in abundance.

In my case, I did not have much opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example of that?” or “How could I have better included you in this process?” Even after the fact, those opportunities were not readily available. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down and make a list of events – some of them seemingly trivial in a reasonable, rational world – in which I might have caused offense without being consciously aware of it. A pattern was beginning to emerge but I was as yet unable to bring the pattern into focus, even as a partial picture.

 

Context
The turning point for me came some weeks later as I was enjoying my morning cup o’ joe while reading that day’s helping of sagacity from my leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s blog.   I knew that I was about to strike gold as soon as I began reading the article. As I continued, the picture emerged quickly until…bam! There it was in black and white. What did I get wrong? I had spent most of a year spanking the gorilla.

Before explaining what that means, let me provide some background into the situation that precipitated the attack. Some nine months earlier, I had found myself in a leadership role in a small public institution. This organization has been in existence for only about fifteen years and many of its early staff members remain heavily involved. It is a close-knit community united behind a deep, common philosophy. It is a valid philosophy, but its practice has failed to align with changing government regulations. It has also caused a deep rift with the parent organization.

My team came in with three specific charges. We needed to heal the communication disconnect with the parent organization, bring a professional level of structure to the institution, and increase program funding. Our team was ideal from the standpoint of skills; we brought broad business and life experience coupled with the will to roll up our sleeves and get to work. By and large, we were successful in achieving these three goals. But success required change. Change was what most of our stakeholders desired. Not everyone shared that desire.

In this case, some individuals who had been with the institution the longest perceived change as criticism. For instance, the mere observation that a decline in attendance by one stakeholder group at a particular meeting – even though no speculation was given as to cause – was perceived as a reproof of that group. On the one hand, someone might say, “Well, that’s not reasonable.” My reply would be, “Perhaps it isn’t reasonable, but it is real.” This was a classic case of a failure to practice good organizational change management. Enter the gorilla.

 

Whetstones
Imagine my thrill as I read Dan’s post “Don’t Spank the Gorilla” and watched my own “pachinko balls” finally drop into place. He brought the full picture into focus for me near the end of the piece. “Don’t spank the gorilla. Give him what he wants. Appeal to his inner motivations. Make him feel safe.”

Make him feel safe. With those words, I saw my error. I had not recognized that even the slightest change might be threatening to someone who had pursued a labor of love in relative isolation for so many years. As a team, we did not seek a way to validate the effort and achievement that had come before us, much less manage acceptance of the need for change. Time was against us, but that is no excuse.

Dan wrote another paragraph in his piece that is one of my game-sharpening whetstones. “Start with others. Leaders who begin with themselves come off as arrogant and pressuring. That’s because they are. But leaders who start with others come off as humble and inviting.” It wasn’t that I had avoided this advice. It was that I failed to recognize that not everyone has needs and perceptions that can be addressed in the same tempo. Some people will become secure in a relationship and ready to accept change reasonably easily. For a variety of reasons, others may require more personal contact across a longer span of time before they might, if ever, be ready. It may have been tacit arrogance, but it was arrogance nevertheless. It is a difficult trait to admit, but it explains why the anger was so personal.

 

Connect the Dots
While there is much wisdom in this world, I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on that commodity. I certainly do not. Dan Rockwell would be the first to admit that he does not either. But there is something in the way Dan looks at people and relationships (and writes about them) that helps me to connect my own dots. At the same time, I am convinced that the man has my office under surveillance. The morning after I had completed the first draft of this post, Dan published “10 Statements that Eliminate Misconceptions.” This short piece, too, is worth your time to read. One paragraph in particular drives my point home. “You interpret your heart. Others interpret your behavior.”

As with most bad days, something good came from it in the end. I sharpened my game by honing it on a combination of new whetstones. Restated, “What did I get wrong?” became not just a crucial question, but one that is best asked and answered in the context of honest self-reflection in conjunction with an awareness of how others perceive our actions. Lest I repeat this error, I have hung the photograph of a gorilla across from my desk. I trust that she will be a sufficient reminder.

What strategies do you use to sharpen your game? How do you help your organization manage change?

The League of the Pimpernel

Pimpernel_HeaderI have often wondered what it was like to be one of those human beings who through the sheer force of character, perseverance, and vision change the world.   You know whom I mean.  I am talking about those rare captains of industry who revolutionize our lives by delivering tools we never knew we needed.  I am talking about the statesmen, all too few in any age, who can galvanize a country or culture to lead it through desperate times.  I am talking about those truly saintly individuals who bring hope and succor amidst adversity, and thereby sow the seeds of gradual improvement in the world. I have never aspired to be one of them, but I have long sought to understand them because they all have one important characteristic in common. They all embrace change.  It seems to be built into their DNA.

I will return to the visionaries, statesmen, and saints (the VSSs) in a moment.  Allow me to transport to the opposite pole and quote from Dan Rockwell.  “Dairy cows walk the same path, following each other. The grass wears away. The ground grows hard. They know where to go.  Every morning and night, when I was a kid, I opened the gate in the electric fence to let them into the barnyard and then into the barn. When they left, after being milked, I closed the gate.  Everything runs smoothly for cows, as long as gates stay in the same place. But, move the gate and the lead cow will walk to the place where the old gate was. Drive her to the new gate and she’ll dig in, fearful to step through. Cows run from new gates. There’s no path. It’s unfamiliar.”

The difference between members of the VSS Club and the cows, of course, is that the former really get change while the latter do not.  The rest of us are scattered throughout the vast interstice of those extremes. Some of us embrace change better than others, but most of us still fear it at some instinctive level.  Clearly, most of us still have some bovine DNA.  But why should that be so?  Why do we hesitate to go through that new gate?

Change represents the unknown, and is thus destabilizing for people.  This is an important concept in organizational change management and why the discipline is integral to large-scale BI projects.  In fact, unless we are routinely used to working outside our comfort zones, change (or the anticipation of change) causes intense emotional responses.  Here are some of the typical feelings about change.

  • I might fail.
  • I will lose power or authority.
  • This is all that I know.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
  • I might be wrong.
  • I cannot handle stress.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.

These are all valid emotional responses to every kind of change that we experience.  In other words, whether the changes are imposed upon us (either by other human beings or mere circumstance), or whether we initiate change ourselves, these are the fears that may hound us.  I say, “may” because there is a broad range in the degree to which these fears impede our progress.  It is one of the reasons I am so intrigued by the VSSs. They seem more immune to fright impedance than most folks.  Or are they?  Perhaps it is just a matter of having a life perspective that gives them better coping mechanisms.  Consider the following responses to the above fears, representing both poles of thinking.

  • I might fail.
    • The Cow: People will think I’m a failure, and so will I.
    • The VSS: So what if I do? I will learn from it and try again.
  • I will lose power or authority.
    • The Cow:  I will no longer be in control.
    • The VSS:  Do I really need power or authority in order to succeed?
  • This is all that I know.
    • The Cow:  I will be left behind
    • The VSS:  Here is an opportunity to learn something new.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
    • The Cow:  I had better stop.
    • The VSS:  There is no path down which I have gone so far that I cannot change course.
  • I might be wrong.
    • The Cow:  People will think I am stupid.
    • The VSS:  I might gain a new perspective.
  • I cannot handle the stress.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Perhaps I will take a walk.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Confrontation only exists when it is two-way.

Until now I have discussed change from the standpoint of why people fear change and why some are better at managing change than others.  But this was not at all the point I set out to make.  Rather, my goal is to evangelize for change. By that I don’t mean change for change’s sake, but genuine change that makes something better.  I mean change for my client, my family, or my community that makes the world a better place.  How do we benefit?

  • Change introduces new challenges that in turn generate new ideas.  These new ideas find their way into new products, services, viewpoints, and opportunities.
  • When well managed, change stimulates growth even if it might not appear so at first.  Atrophy leads to stagnation and extinction.
  • Change forces us to see the world differently (unless, of course, we are in denial). We may not always agree with it, but we can see what is working and what is not and then strive to improve the latter.

So you may be wondering about the title of this piece.  In the language of flowers, the pimpernel often represents change.  Consequently, as an evangelist of change I propose the League of the Pimpernel, a league of change.  This is germane to Business Intelligence because the benefits of BI are essentially the same as the three points articulated above.  The fact that BI is a microcosm for the world at large is just the creamy nougat center of the confection.

Membership in the League of the Pimpernel is not de facto.  On the contrary, it is a practice like any other undertaking; it is like BI. This brings me back once more to my initial ponder about the VSSs.  Why are the VSSs so good at it and what can we learn from them to improve our own resistance to fear impedance?  I actively follow some of the people alive in the world today whom I consider to be members of the VSS Club.  I have also read about many that are no longer with us.  I have extrapolated the following set of practices that these folks clearly make a part of their lives in varying proportions.  These are now my personal challenges.

  • I will think about something every day that connects people and their ideas with other people and their ideas and then act on it.
  • I will volunteer in my church, school, or community – somewhere that will change me as well as others.
  • I will make it a point to engage regularly with people with whom I disagree.
  • I will do something each week that takes me out of my comfort zone.

At the end of the day, the important thing to remember is that the only thing that separates the members of the VSS Club from those of us in the League of the Pimpernel is the scope of change for which we are recognized individually.  Membership in the VSS Club is reserved for those responsible for epic change.  The League is for those of us who make incremental changes and improvements at work, at home, and in our communities every day.  The effect of the League is as great as that of the Club even though it is measured as the aggregated effect of countless smaller changes.

So leave the cows behind and join the League of the Pimpernel. It is up to each of us to make a difference somewhere.  Improve that process.  Revolutionize that product.  Create that new opportunity that could, in turn, generate new jobs.  Share those skills with colleagues and neighbors. Connect the dots.  Engage, give, and do.  Abandon the status quo and become an evangelist for change.

In what other practices can we engage in order to embrace change?  How has change improved your life?

Learn to Play the Doglegs

River_HeaderIt is essential to understand that I have never played a hole of golf in my life.  Not one.  That does not mean that I have not been close to a golf course.  In fact, I generated bid packages for the irrigation systems for almost all of the major Jack Nicklaus golf courses in Southeast Asia during my years at RainBird International.  I even walked some of those courses.  Nevertheless, I have never swung a golf club.

Those of you who play golf know what a dogleg is.  It is a bend in a fairway that makes a hole more difficult to play.  In life, a dogleg is when something occurs that causes a major setback to a plan or initiative.  Doglegs present serious impediments that threaten success.  (Dan Rockwell on Leadership Freak calls them zigzags.)  Professional and personal, these setbacks can seem devastating.  They can be expensive, they may be emotionally charged, and they are often personally humiliating.  Learning to manage these events is essential for success and survival.

I come to my appreciation of doglegs through personal experience. Several years ago, my wife and I developed a tactical plan to move from Southern California to the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  It was a complicated plan, insofar as we knew that we wanted to find and purchase the property six to eight months before moving and we did not have a lot of capital with which to work.  We knew the acreage we wanted and what the basic characteristics of the structures needed to be.  We also had in mind our long-term goal of one day opening a bed and breakfast as a retreat for classical musicians.

We began by engaging a real estate agent in Sequim to coordinate the search.  We also launched the refinance of our California home to cover a down payment and eight months of double mortgage.  We were barely started when we saw the dream property advertised.  We scrambled a trip to Sequim and it was absolutely bespoke except for one thing.  The main house was utterly soulless and unlivable, so we had to walk away from it.  Two weeks later, the appraisal in California came back so far below expectations that the bank literally would not speak with us.  Talk about getting smacked down at the get go.  We were completely demoralized and toyed with the idea of throwing in the towel.  But our real estate agent in California hooked us up with another banker and we started the process again.  And while the second appraisal was much more in line with reality, the payout was going to be substantially lower than the plan called for.  By that time we were already on our way back up to Washington to actively house hunt, albeit with reduced expectations as to what we could afford.  Unsure if the loan would close in time for a down payment, we pulled money from an IRA just in case.  On the ground in Sequim, we looked at many properties until we found it.  It had our family and our long-term vision written all over it, the price had just been dropped into our range, and we were first in line for the deal.  We were even able to get the money back into the IRA without penalty.

It was right about then that I had my epiphany about “playing the doglegs.”  If we had quit when the first disappointments happened or decided to wait until a more propitious time, we would probably never have made the move.  In fact, both of those early setbacks turned out to be critical to our success.  The “dream” property would never have worked, but it sharpened the specification for what we really wanted.  More important, the refinance obstacle forced us into a lower price range that in turn allowed us to find the right property.  It would never have been on our radar if we had remained on the original financial plan.  And believe me, before the saga was over there were to be several more doglegs to play.

That epiphany has coalesced into a core concept for me, one that has helped me since then through challenging projects both at work and at home.  It has caused me to think about the specific mindset that enables us to play the doglegs, along with some of the techniques that have worked for me.

Have a vision for the destination.

Before starting any initiative, it is especially important to understand the characteristics of the end state.  This is as true in life as it is in BI.  What are those essential qualities that will embody success?  What are the non-negotiable items?  By understanding those, you will understand what can be left by the wayside when the course takes an unexpected turn.  In our case, this meant understanding that the end state needed to support the B&B, be wheelchair friendly, and accommodate both grand pianos.  These were the non-negotiable requirements.  We were able to let go of the requirements for the extra acreage and a barn when we had to reduce the purchase price.

Work through your emotions quickly.

Particularly on important personal projects, emotional responses are inevitable when life takes a change of course.  These include anger, disappointment, frustration, and fear.  These feelings are real and valid, but they become our worst enemies if we dwell on them.  The best way to work through our emotions is to remember that the goal or end state is more important than the specific path we take to get there.  It is likely that there are many paths to that end, not just the first one we chose to take.  It is why having a vision is so important.  Emotions will make us afraid to act and cloud our knowledge that it might take several tries – several tacks – before being able to move forward again.  So first, focus on the vision.  Then breathe in, breathe out, and sit back down to rework the plan.  Do not wait.

Have a Plan B. 

Even when one does not expect difficulties, one should always have a Plan B, sometimes even a Plan C.  This provides an instant fallback when the dogleg springs.  In fact, a Plan B can help avoid the emotion stage altogether.  Having a fallback allows an individual or a team to react quickly when time is short.  Our Plan B in the story above was to have the IRA money available if the refinance did not close in time.  In either case, I would have funds for the down payment and funds to pay back the IRA before the end of sixty days.

Accept and embrace change.

Change is inevitable, but we tend to fear it because it is destabilizing. What if I lose my job?  What if we lose our retirement savings?  We need to be flexible in the face of change, recognizing again that there are many ways to get to our destination, each path offering different challenges and different opportunities.  Moreover, the destination may not be where we believe it to be at all.  In our example, giving up some of the things we wanted not only brought us to the right place, but also resulted in a better overall financial plan. Change turned out to be good, even though we could not see it at first.

Have a network in place.

Having a strong support network in place is crucial to any major undertaking.  I am not talking about the project team.  I am referring to your network of advisors and colleagues to whom you can go when you wind up in the hazard.  On a BI project, I need to know that I have a database expert or a program management colleague to whom I can go when I get stuck.  For the move, having access to three top-flight real estate agents, a banker, and several dependable contractors facilitated our success.  By nurturing those relationships ahead of time, we were able to count on them at the doglegs.

Bank what you learn right away.

Never wait for the end of the project to profit by what you learned from the last dogleg.  The same one could double back on you again.  Get your next Plan B ready.  Re-examine your vision.  Check your network.  Recognize where it could go wrong again and be prepared.

There is a certain Zen to this, and it took me awhile to get the hang of it. Practicing these skills over time delivers important benefits.  These include:

  • A more robust solution:  Because you have addressed the doglegs in a thoughtful and consistent manner, you will have discovered a way to a better solution.  It won’t be haphazard or patched over.
  • Increased trust from your colleagues:  Because you did not fall apart at the doglegs but led the team through the change, you will have demonstrated that you are cool under fire and not afraid to recognize when the plan was wrong.
  • A sharpened personal craft:  It is not the adversity that makes us stronger, but how we address it and what we learn from it.

I have not seen my last dogleg.  In fact, I am in the midst of a Big Billy Goat dogleg as I write this article.  But every day I find a new way to adjust the plan and move in the direction I need to, taking Dan Rockwell’s zigzag course toward a successful conclusion.  I think Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne) said it best. “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

Do you have a dogleg success story to share?  What techniques do you use to play your doglegs?