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?

It is not your Grandma’s Quilt

Quilt

One of the blogs I follow is Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak.  Dan posts almost daily in a pithy, near bullet-point style.  It is all good stuff, although a little like trying to drink from a fire hose if you try to consume it every day.  Nevertheless, one of his articles especially resonated for me recently.  It was entitled “How Hard Work got Chris Fired.”  I will let you read it for yourself, but it started me thinking about how essential relationships are for those of us in Business Intelligence.

Consider for a moment the integrated nature of BI within an enterprise.  Even if the BI program is departmental in scope, the reach of the relationships is necessarily broader.  Not only are there executives, managers, and analysts within the department with whom you will be working, but also the managers and coders in the IT department as well.  And rarely does just one department own the requisite data, so there are executives and managers and analysts in other departments who become stakeholders and participants in the program.  They may also become your customers.  If you are a consultant, multiply this by the number of clients you have.

In any case, there is a complex fabric of relationships to be developed and maintained.  And in my experience, maintaining relationships is as difficult as developing them.  Each individual in this fabric has a different point of view, a different set of motivations, a different set of problems, a different work/life balance, and different experience upon which to draw. Some enter into relationships readily; others resist.  Some trust first and adjust later while others are skeptical until trust has been developed.  Some will never trust at all.

Trust is the foundation of building and maintaining relationships, and comes at the intersection of three vectors of personal action.  These are capability, delivery, and integrity. It is essential to foster all three if you are to engender trust.

  • Capability:  I am qualified to perform my work, and to communicate with you about it.  That includes an ability to listen to your needs.  I demonstrate competence.
  • Delivery:  I routinely deliver what I say I will deliver on time and on budget.  I communicate issues early and invoke change management in a timely manner.  I deliver quality.
  • Integrity:  My word is my bond.  I demonstrate the same honesty toward everyone that you demand from me.  I can be trusted.

Quilt2

Developing trust along these three lines is neither easy nor is it necessarily the same from person to person.  Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

  • Capability:  Capability comes first.  You are not going to get hired either as an employee or a consultant unless you can prove capability.  It is more than just a resume.  Resumes lie.  The most important tool you have is the set of relationships you have developed, in other words your references.  If others are willing to stand behind you and testify on all three vectors, it is a powerful advantage.  Nevertheless, you need to do more.  You need to speak, write, and listen well because all three telegraph capability.  If you write well, I recommend blogging. Being able to demonstrate facility on a variety of related topics in an articulate manner demonstrates capability.
  • Delivery:  It is not enough for me to say “deliver everything on time.”  For one thing, that is not always possible.  It is possible to deliver most things on time.  But there is more.  Delivery is about providing value habitually.  If it is a project proposal, it needs to be complete and clear.  If it is your weekly project report, it needs to be thorough and on time.  If it is the BI solution itself, it needs to be exhaustively tested, documented, and meet the required specifications.  Deadline management begins during project estimation, and presumes sufficient familiarity with the business requirements to draft a project plan.  Unfortunately, we are often handed arbitrary deadlines that we know to be impossible.  Articulate the risks ahead of time and manage change.
  • Integrity:  Integrity is a way of life.  You can’t turn it on and off.  You cannot appear to be honest in one situation and not in another.  You can never appear to be accepting a conflict of interest situation.  And you can never appear to be going behind someone else’s back, even if it is actually necessary. A good approach might be,  “I am coming to you because I believe you to be the person best qualified to advise me on my next steps.”

There is much to manage here, and much to lose if you don’t.  You can spend years building relationships with your clients, and destroy them in a week or a moment.  Integrity is the most volatile because you may never get a second chance.  You can have a terrific track record, but two major goofs in a row can cause a client or a boss to question your capability.  It is similar with delivery.  If you allow other factors to affect the quality or timeliness of your deliverables, you can lose a client quickly.

I referred above to the fabric of relationships.  I think that relationships should not be treated in the manner of a patchwork quilt where there is Bob and Dora and Ted and Sarah as distinct entities, but rather in the manner of an integrated single fabric.  A relationship with one person depends intrinsically on that person’s relationships with others.  My relationship with Ted may need adjustment because his boss Sarah doesn’t trust him completely.  I may need to manage my integrity vector differently with Bob and Dora because their office romance ended badly.  I may need to answer a question from my supervisor that could negatively impact a co-worker who also happens to be a close friend.  These situations all demonstrate how much of a fabric relationships are, and how important it is to remain aware of the personal nuances.

I think I have been pretty lucky over time.  I have managed the fabric of my business relationships largely by the seat of my pants (okay, right, by the seat of my kilt), but I have been able to maintain some of these connections for over twenty years.  I have drawn on some of the principles above without giving them much thought. But after reading Dan’s blog, my understanding has coalesced around the factors that have worked for me.  I believe I can credit the successes I have enjoyed to having the talents of so many terrific people working with me.

It is difficult to stay in touch with everyone, but I do try to reach out now and again.  So hey!  If you have not heard from me in awhile, feel free to poke me any time.  Good relationships are two-way.  Happy networking!

Do you have some good relationship building techniques or tactics to add to the discussion?  Have you had an “uh oh!” moment where you realized that you had damaged a relationship?  How did you repair it?