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?

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?

The Art of Practice

“Steven Humphrey, you sit right back down on that piano bench and do your scales.  Practice makes perfect, you know.”  That was my mother speaking, some terribly many years ago.  Like the piano, that aphorism has stuck with me over time.  It sounds right, doesn’t it?  But if there is any truth in it, why is there so much imperfection in the business world, especially in light of how routinely the term “best practice” gets hurled about? Vendors tell us that their products conform to and promote best practice.  We consultants advertise our services as best practice.  Governance committees establish best practices for their enterprises.  It is easy to search the Internet for lists of best practices on just about any topic. The term is ubiquitous, but what does it really mean?  And how does one recognize a best practice?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a word wonk (and I promise at least one linguistic rant here soon).  In this case, I know very well that I am playing with two shades of meaning of the word “practice.”  On the one hand, practice is a routine activity used to improve a skill, like practicing scales at the piano.  On the other, it is a standard or habitual way of doing something, as in “it is our practice to begin and end meetings on time.”  So I ask again, why the imperfection?  I submit that the fault is not just in the aphorism but also in the way we think about the words.

First, I abhor the term “best practice.” I find hubris in the term “best,” as if a practice could be best at all, let alone best in all cases.  Further, there is a subtle implication that it cannot be improved upon; it is best.  It rings like an absolute that nobody should dare challenge. It is limiting and not very useful.  I prefer the term “leading practice.”  The word “leading” brings to mind something that is out in front but not yet arrived.  It leaves open the possibility of variation and seems more welcoming to debate and difference of opinion.   It is a work in process, striving for continual improvement and…well, leading somewhere, not unlike the other meaning of practice.  For the balance of this piece, therefore, “best” will be “leading.”

A leading practice is an activity or repeated action that is considered to be more effective in delivering a desired result than other activities of its kind. This is a rather broad definition and can mean a lot of things absent an understanding of the characteristics of a leading practice.  I had the opportunity some time ago to develop a group exercise to demonstrate how to recognize a leading practice.  The concept was that each organization is a unique ecosystem and an activity that is more effective in one company may not be so in another.  But with an understanding of the characteristics to look for, an organization would know how to identify, craft, and improve their leading practices.

In the first cut of the exercise, I came up with eighteen characteristics.  I stand by all of them (and I have the data to do that), but eighteen is too many for the scope of this article.  Therefore, here are what I consider to be the top eight characteristics of a leading practice.

  1. The practice promotes or enforces consistency.  This applies to consistency of data, processes, decision-making, and much more. Consistency breeds clarity and lowers the cost of maintenance.  Consistency should be distinguished patently from uniformity.
  2. The practice reveals priorities and fosters clarity of direction and alignment.  Most activities in a company should be focused on achieving strategic objectives.  Leading practices keep the collective eye on the ball.
  3. The practice reveals discrepancies and reduces error and ambiguity.  This reduces the cost of rework and troubleshooting, and improves the quality of decision-making.  It also facilitates precision across an enterprise.
  4. The practice promotes continued relevance.  What is relevant today may not be tomorrow, and conversely.  Does the activity include a continuous or periodic check to determine if the outcome or end product is still meaningful to the business?
  5. The practice reduces risk.  Life is full of risk and not all of it can be controlled.  But an activity that addresses controllable risk on a consistent basis adds tremendous value.
  6. The practice facilitates competitiveness.  Does the activity improve competitiveness in the marketplace across one of the vectors of price, quality, and value?
  7. The practice promotes awareness and accountability for results.  These activities provide appropriate measurements for results along with a means for driving improvements.
  8. The practice promotes sustainability.  This supports the ongoing health of a program or organization, not simply short-term objectives.

Clearly, these characteristics are driven by desired behaviors and results.  The behaviors are the habits and disciplines on the human side while the results represent the business outcome of the practice or activity. Any single leading practice will not possess all of these characteristics, but must embody at least several of them in order to be considered a leading practice.  This is one reason why my original list of eighteen is realistic; it provides a breadth of behaviors and outcomes against which to match the practice within a particular organizational ecosystem. I look forward to performing my exercise with other groups of people and seeing how the list might evolve over time.

Note also that while each of these characteristics is distinctly different from the others, each also overlaps with others in subtle and complex ways.  For instance, risk reduction is really an outcome of several of these characteristics.  Relevance is a function of direction and strategic alignment.  The reduction of ambiguity leads to consistency.  And so it is across the larger collection.  The characteristics of a leading practice are more like an ecosystem themselves, balancing the desired behaviors and results across the organization.

Leading characteristics are particularly useful for a governance body that is developing or refining a program’s policies and procedures.  Being able to articulate the behaviors and outcomes that are being sought is the first step in that process.  After defining what needs to be accomplished, the how becomes easier.  It is not unlike planning your menu for the week before writing the grocery list.  Employing leading practices is a key success factor in business today. Understanding them well enough to vault past the buzzword is where the value lies.

I still practice the piano, but I no longer believe that practice makes perfect.  The word “perfect,” like “best,” has little relevance in the real world, hung out as a goal but acting as an artificial barrier.  Practice promotes continual improvement, as does the use of leading practices.  Both are paths rather than destinations.  So I have abandoned the aphorism from my childhood and replaced it with another I picked up on the road.  “Never let best get in the way of better.”  Now it’s time to get back to my scales.

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In a subsequent post, I will provide detail on the exercise I discussed above that generates the list of leading practice characteristics. It is relatively easy, and the raw ingredients needed are available all over the Internet.