Take Ownership!

Ownership_HeaderThere is an old adage that says, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” My parents quoted this aphorism on ownership to me enough times while I was growing up. Many teachers probably did as well. Alas, I was but a callow punk in my youth and did not take it to heart until well into my adult years. It is a shame, that.

Earlier this month I published an essay detailing my ordeal some years ago with a tumor (A Tale of Two Surgeons). The point of the piece was how one of the surgeons in the title did take personal ownership of the issue and one did not. For the first, the solution to the issue was paramount while to the other it was inconsequential; he had performed his surgery and that was the end of it.

In the same article, I mentioned that I had chosen ownership as my keyword for 2015. This derives from a post that Dan Rockwell published on his blog “Leadership Freak” in the early part of 2014 (It Only Takes One Word). In the language of Dan’s article, ownership adopted me, and that is closer to the truth.

So now that I have this keyword – this one word focal point – what do I do with it? To me, ownership means taking personal responsibility for the results of a task or obligation. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. It is my guarantee to myself as well as to any other stakeholders of the task or obligation in question that I will stand behind every aspect of my role in the outcome. This is a fine concept, but not something easy to achieve.

Like anything else, there is a discipline that accompanies the concept. This discipline can be described by means of four interrelated practices. These are:

  • Doing the work: The most important practice is simply knuckling down and doing the work. In many cases this requires a serious commitment of time and effort in one form or another. In order to take ownership, one needs to understand what the outcome looks like and what it takes in terms of time and effort to achieve that end. In evaluating whether or not to take on the responsibility (assuming that one has a choice), there are fundamental questions to answer. Do I have the skill necessary to accomplish this outcome? Do I have sufficient time? Do I have access to the tools and information I will require?
  • Setting priorities: It is rare to have simply one deliverable on one’s plate; I typically have several. Consequently, setting priorities is a crucial aspect of ownership. Which obligation is most important? Which one will require the most time? Which has the most stakeholders? Which has the earliest deadline? Which obligation has critical path dependencies? These are but a few of the questions needed in order to schedule my days so that I can guarantee the outcome.
  • Evaluating the results: In the first bullet point I pointed out the need to understand what the final outcome should look like. Throughout the process, it is critical to be constantly evaluating against that image. Whether you are ahead of schedule or behind, it affects both your priority setting practice and your work practice.
  • Saying “No”: Individuals who take ownership of their work are usually the first to become overcommitted. I feel as if there should be a Country music ballad to that effect. Be that as it may, being able to recognize that one is fully committed (or overcommitted) is an important skill in and of itself. One must be able to say, “I’m sorry, no.” as firmly and as clearly as possible. Individuals who take ownership do not wish to disappoint others; it is part of why we take ownership. However, it is one thing to disappoint someone by saying, “No,” and quite another by saying, “Yes,” and then dropping the ball.

One of the trickiest challenges of truly taking ownership of anything is our personal tendency to set our standards too high. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how we approach those standards. My wife admonishes me about this frequently. For example, “Steven, you are applying Los Angeles Philharmonic standards to a community theater musical production.” And she is right. I am. I know what the music is supposed to sound like in a perfect (or near perfect) world. But instead of lowering those standards, I use those standards to push myself to excel and thus exceed the expectations of the cast, director, and audience. In achieving that standard, I will not have disappointed myself, and at the same time have pushed myself to achieve more than I would have with a lower standard. That, however, is the crux of the challenge. It is having the self-awareness to realize that I have achieved more than I could have, while at the same time recognizing that it still may not have met higher standard that I used for measurement and at the end of the day being okay with that (this time). It means that my workmanship will be even better next time, no matter the task.

The flip side of ownership is when you do drop the ball. Anyone who tells you that he has never dropped a ball is a liar, a fool, or a bum who has never tried to do anything. Believe me, I have dropped my share and you have but to read my “My Favorite Failures” series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) to know that I speak the truth. Taking ownership does not prevent failure. Life does not work that way. Taking ownership means that when the project goes south, you take responsibility and make it right for everyone concerned. This is advanced class material and the most difficult element of ownership. Being able to stand up and take responsibility even if it was not your fault specifically, and then doing what it takes to bring it to a successful conclusion is rarely easy or profitable in the short term. But it is the stuff of which reputations are made.

For me, having had ownership adopt me for 2015 is fortuitous because it gives me the tools to resolve several key personal dilemmas with which I have been wrestling. It affords me a set of questions to ask when evaluating new projects and prioritizing existing ones. It replaces resolutions because it touches everything I will do this year, not merely one or two aspects. A different word adopted me last year. Looking back on it as 2014 came to an end, I found astonishing the degree to which that one word truly had shaped my personal and professional development in a positive way. I had kept it at the top of my mind all year and I can articulate clearly the benefits. I look forward to performing the same exercise a year from now.

What is your keyword for 2015? What leadership qualities do you look for on your team?

#TheBIMuse

 

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?