Gouge or Skew?

Gouge_or_Skew_Header“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The quote above has come back to me several times over the past few weeks as I write the lecture notes for a class on business analysis that I will soon be teaching. This is Heinlein’s definition of the “competent man” as articulated by his character Lazarus Long. That name alone conjures competence and longevity to the fertile mind, don’t you think? Say it out loud: Lazarus Long. At any rate, the reason that this particular passage has come to the front of my mind is because as I prepare for this class, I have come to realize what a model of generalization business analysis really is.

The program director recruited me to teach the class about five months ago on the basis of my background both in business analysis and meeting facilitation. It was perhaps more the latter qualification that mattered because that is the focus of this class, the final one in the certificate series of three. In addition to my facilitation and group management knowhow, however, is the need to bring together the tools and techniques taught in the prior two classes into a final pretty package and tie it with a bow. Ignorance is bliss; I agreed to the gig.

Reality is a brutal teacher. Having been a reasonably competent practitioner of these skills for twenty years is one thing. Teaching about them is quite another. First, there is a professional framework that must be observed (IIBA or the International Institute of Business Analysis). Second, there is a variety of tools and techniques with which I need to be at least modestly conversant but have neither heard of much less used. Third, one picks up habits both good and bad along the way without giving them much thought. Given these impediments, the challenge of sitting down and crafting course content might be enough to dissuade one from teaching altogether if it were not for all the new knowledge.

But what really comes out of the process that harkens back to Heinlein is the variety of skills and tool sets available to the business analyst, along with the variety of different skills to master. There are modeling techniques for both business processes and systems. There are business architecture frameworks. The successful business analyst must be articulate both verbally and in writing, and must be both intensely logical and highly intuitive. He/she must be able not just to lead a meeting, but also to facilitate a dysfunctional group toward agreement. How much like the competent man this begins to sound.

But here is where the true rejection of specialization comes in. In the Heinlein passage there are several examples of stated opposites, for instance, “cooperate” and “act alone,” or “take orders” and “give orders.” The implication is that one must be prepared for most situations and be capable of both extremes. In other words, just because there is a plethora of modeling languages available does not mean that one necessarily needs to be expert in all of them. Rather, one needs to know enough about them to be able to choose the one that is appropriate for the situation. And even then, any of several might work so one needs to be able to choose the one that will work best for oneself. For instance, in twenty years of performing business analysis for a variety of organizations, I have never needed to use UML (Universal Modeling Language) or IDEF0 (never mind, it is an acronym within an acronym). I have found Business Process Model Notation (BPMN), Context Modeling, Fact Qualifiers, and Entity Relationship Diagramming to be a completely sufficient toolset. Had I ever worked for a defense contractor, such might not have been the case. By the way, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the terms and acronyms, don’t worry. I do not give tests.

A wood turning video I watched recently demonstrated the same truth in sharp relief. The craftsman filmed it as a training guide for wood turning beginners (such as myself) to learn how to hollow out the inside of a cup or bowl on the lathe. Rather than assert that “this is the tool” and “this is how to do it,” he acknowledged that there are many ways to go about it and many different tools that could accomplish the same end depending on individual skill level and comfort. Within the framework of key facts about the nature of a block of hardwood spinning at 1000rpm or more on a lathe, either a gouge or a skew chisel could work equally well in hollowing the vessel. An “outside in” or an “inside out” approach is equally acceptable as well. The secret is to practice with the tools that you do use until you are competent with them, gradually adding new instruments and techniques as you progress in ability and knowledge. The expert wood turner is competent with many techniques. Our discipline is no different.

There is yet another aspect of business analysis that resonates with the Heinlein quotation. This is the fallacy that the business analyst must be a business expert – that is, a specialist. I would expect a good business analyst to be experienced and knowledgeable in business, but not necessarily at the level of an MBA. On the contrary, I would expect an outstanding business analyst to be broadly educated and widely skilled because the role calls for active listening and profoundly acute pattern recognition. The tools and techniques help us, but they are no replacement for the analyst’s perceptions and experience. It is the same skill (or art) that comprehends an analog between a skew chisel and UML, that is able to perceive that the goose one man sees and the beaver another man sees are in reality the opposite ends of the same platypus. Add to that the ability to help each man adjust his point of reference sufficiently to recognize the fact and you have the competent business analyst. Rather than an expertise in one area, the role requires competence in many.

While I have taught many one-day classes over the years, they have all been on focused topics for individual clients. This is my first time teaching a full-length course in a University classroom which means that I am newer to it than even my wood turning. Ten classes of three hours in length translate to a tremendous amount of material to prepare and organize.   And while I have been reading and studying and writing for months, I have as yet to “turn out” a single product. That will come in a few weeks. In all events, I look forward to the new ideas and insights that will come from working closely with twenty other active minds for thirty hours (600 mind-hours!). I have no idea as to what shape might emerge from this virgin block of wood stock, but I do know that it will add additional dimension for any competent man. Stay tuned.

What qualities does your organization look for in a business analyst? Do your practitioners employ a range of tools and skills?


Talk is Cheap

Cheap_HeadingIn their best-selling book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. described eight themes or behaviors practiced by successful or excellent companies. At the top of the list was “a bias for action.” The authors saw the importance of driving to rapid yet well-informed decisions that allowed the business to move forward without becoming stalled in bureaucracy or endless talk. Thirty-three years later, this bias for action is as relevant as ever. It is relevant not only for businesses, but also for organizations of all types. Frankly, it is even relevant for individuals.

All too often, though, organizations demonstrate a debilitating penchant for inaction. As a result, it takes longer to identify and solve problems, makes responding to the marketplace slow, and generally renders any form of improvement close to impossible. This inclination toward non-action typically takes one of two forms. The first is the practice of endless talk. The second is the diaphanous decision.

I imagine that nearly everyone reading this has experienced a situation where an organization you were involved in was facing a challenge but progress toward a solution had stalled. You attended meeting after meeting with lots of talk and no decision. Perhaps the meetings were just far enough apart that everyone felt they had to begin over again. Perhaps there were new participants and for whatever reason they had to be caught up on the topic by rehashing it all from the beginning. And all too often, the same people dominated the meetings time after time. Moreover, phrases such as “We’ve tried that!” and “That doesn’t work” abounded. Sooner or later, the people in the room who are ready and willing to act drift out of the picture only to be replaced by new folks who will need to be “brought up to speed.”

Of course, a facilitated session would end the talk once and for all, but recognizing the need for one requires capable and aware leadership. On the other hand, if leadership is sucking up all of the available air in the room at meetings, then the self-awareness needed to make a change is not in evidence. Such organizations are destined to wallow on until they either fold or disaster causes a true shakeup.

The cult of the diaphanous decision is even more deadly because it is generally a cultural part of the organization in question. Consider a group of people who come together and eventually make a decision. The participants can even document the decision, but anyone who did not participate in the meeting is allowed to reopen the debate and delay any action that might be a consequence of the decision. I have even seen situations where one of the participants in the original decision has challenged the decision in a subsequent meeting. Not even facilitation can help in this situation, because an agreement by the participants to abide by the decision has no validity. Such organizations can eventually move forward, but progress is glacial and the cost is high.

In both cases, there is an almost pathological resistance to action. There are many reasons for this including control, incompetence, and fear. Fear may be the biggest factor and can derive from the fear of change, fear of the unknown, or fear of failure. In any case, the perceived need to talk and analyze and reanalyze leads to a form of institutional paralysis. Such paralysis can rarely be overcome except by a wholesale change in management, a cataclysmic event, or both.

The bias for action does not ignore any of these factors. Action requires forethought, a measure of control, and competence. The reality is that no one can be 100% assured of any outcome no matter how much planning goes into the action. But with that knowledge, one can be prepared to adapt in process when the need arises.

I have found that preparing deliberately but then taking action quickly can help to facilitate success. The secret is not to try boiling the ocean in the early stages. Rather, beginning with small successes or failures can help to uncover facets of a problem or situation that months of talk and analysis might never have uncovered. It is one of the reasons that Agile works so well as a software development approach.

I have also found prolonged talk or preparation to be creatively stifling, while action frees the mind to creative possibilities. I often apply this when learning a new skill. After reading just enough to know how to get started, I will jump in with both feet and try it myself. I will experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. When I encounter things that do not work, I will go seek out the answer from a book, an online article, or an expert. Action gives me more and better questions to ask. Experimentation leads me to possibilities that were not “addressed in the book.” And doing leads me closer to a solution more rapidly whether I am leading a team or pursuing an independent project.

As for those situations where the endless cycle of talking or rethinking of decisions has ground progress to a halt, I have little in the way of advice to offer. If you are in a position to bring change to the organizational culture, then by all means do not waste another day. If not, the best you can do is ask the question, “What will it take to agree to action by the end of this meeting?” You can sweeten the pot by offering to lead the way if the team is agreeable, but that also means taking responsibility if events do not turn out well.

Peters and Waterman had it right back in 1982. And as I mentioned above, there is a cost in time and dollars when organizations cannot move from talk to action. The meetings themselves cost money, while the issues and challenges that remain unaddressed have a cost of their own. When allowed to continue unresolved, that cost can mount quickly. Looking at it in this way, I realize that I acted too quickly in naming this article. Perhaps I should have entitled it “Talk is Pricey?”

How do you move from talk to action in your organization? How would you break the cycle of unproductive talk?


Whose Role is it Anyway?

Role_Clarity_HeaderA community theatre production is an excellent example of role clarity in action. Having well-defined roles is as important there as it is in meeting facilitation, business, and life. And for the likes of me, role clarity is an essential life skill because I am a jack-of-many-trades and a master of none.

The thespian analogy is particularly sharp right now because of a community theatre production in which I am the onstage pianist. It is a four-person show: two men (Man 1 and Man 2) and two women (Woman 1 and Woman 2). Over the course of two hours, each actor plays upwards of a dozen distinct roles, each of which must be unique and clearly defined. In addition, the actors have the overall role of “actor” as distinct from the band, the stage crew, the lighting board operator, or the dressers. Each participant must focus on his/her role while remaining cognizant of and tapped into the whole in order for theatre magic to happen.

Meeting magic is similar. In good meetings there must be distinct and clearly defined roles. The same role focus coupled with general awareness is essential. Here are the six key roles.

  • Facilitator: The facilitator is a disinterested party whose role is to manage the mechanics of the meeting. Having no vested interest in any decision made during the meeting, the facilitator can plan and direct the process that gets the participants to the desired meeting outcome. The facilitator may not participate in the meeting content nor comment on it in any way.
  • Recorder: Like the facilitator, the recorder is an impartial role. The recorder is responsible for capturing the precise words of the participants during the main discussions and structured activities. Often, this involves writing ideas on flip charts or butcher paper in front of the meeting. The recorder does not revise or interpret anything that is said, but may ask for clarification.
  • Scribe: The scribe is responsible for all other note taking at a meeting. It is best for the scribe to also be disinterested, but not necessarily a requirement. The scribe captures other issues, sidebar conversations, and anything else that the recorder does not capture.
  • Participant: The participants are the people in a meeting who generate the ideas and make the decisions depending on the circumstances. In theory, they are directly interested in and affected by the meeting outcome.
  • Organizer: The organizer is the individual who arranges for the meeting to occur and contracts the facilitator and recorder. The organizer may be a participant and may also be the meeting owner. In general, the facilitator performs most of the planning in conjunction with the meeting organizer.
  • Owner: The owner is the individual (or individuals) who called the meeting in the first place. The owner may or may not participate, and the owner may or may not be the organizer. The owner may allow the participants to make decisions or may make his/her own decisions based on the meeting outcome.


As you can see, each of the roles is distinct and bounded by limitations. Nevertheless, some may remain unique within a situation while others overlap. In the latter case, clarity as to how they overlap is important in every situation. For instance, the executive who has gathered his line managers in order to set direction for the year needs to make clear to the participants whether or not they are setting the directions with the executive’s equal input, or whether they are there merely to provide the decision maker with information. Similarly, the Executive Director who organizes the annual planning retreat for a non-profit board of directors needs to understand clearly his role in the meeting. Is he an equal participant or is he there only to provide clarifications?   Ideally, the facilitator acts in facilitator role only, but in smaller meetings may also function as both facilitator and recorder.

Role clarity is really about articulating boundaries for the actions one will take within a given circumstance. Those boundaries define what the person will and will not do within the given role. Even where the boundaries are not sharp, where they start and end is important for everyone to understand. Boundaries become a form of contract between the participants in an activity. Even in role-playing games, there are clearly defined roles such as gamemaster to provide structure to the activity.

The reason these boundaries are so important is because each role has different requirements. That is, in order to fulfill a given role successfully, certain conditions need to exist or certain actions must be taken. When these conditions or actions come into conflict with one another, one or more of the roles cannot be fulfilled effectively. The role of facilitation requires neutrality while that of the meeting participant requires the opposite. Since the requirements conflict, one individual cannot fulfill these two roles within the same meeting. Similarly, a pianist accompanying a dance concert must focus on the mental and physical requirements of playing the instrument. The stage manager needs to be concerned with all of the technical details in every aspect of the production and cannot focus on those specific mental and physical needs. The requirements conflict, so the two roles must be separate.

This is not to say that the pianist cannot be a good stage manager or vice versa. In fact, one person may be able to assume a variety of roles successfully depending on the situation. The facilitator is also trained as a recorder and might have that role at one meeting and facilitator at another. In some companies, the facilitator might be a participant in meetings within his own department but act as facilitator for meetings in other departments. This is not unlike the theatre where an individual might be director for one production and an actor in another and perhaps a member of the stage crew in yet another.

Blended roles still require clarity and delineation. In the theatre, a production might require the actors to perform the scene changes as part of the choreographed action. In this case, the focus remains the characters and the onstage picture created for the audience. If an actor were to depart from this focus and take it upon herself to rearrange the stage left prop table between scenes, she is likely to miss an entrance as well as mess things up for the other cast members. Similarly, the facilitator who steps out of his neutral role and comments on the meeting content – no matter how correct or pertinent his observation – has violated his trust with the participants and may no longer be able to prevent meeting dysfunction.

Role clarity is a particular challenge for the jack-of-many-trades. It seems that we are born with a low threshold of boredom and thrive on new knowledge and skills. We delight in acquiring new competencies but more often than not move on to something new before achieving mastery. Consequently, we frequently find ourselves in situations where we could advise on a number of topics and this is where the danger lies. Doing so results in two consequences. First, we run the risk of not fulfilling our own role adequately because we have allowed our focus to wander or the role requirements conflict. Second, we tread upon the roles of others, which causes stress and confusion that erodes team cohesion.

In no case is role clarity a mandate for tunnel vision. Each individual needs to be fully aware of everyone else involved in whatever the circumstances. In a meeting, the participants need to be as aware of the signals the facilitator is sending as he is of the changing needs in the room. Similarly, actors and stage crew in the theatre troupe should be aware of their surroundings enough to recognize when something has gone wrong and be able to make a correction for it. Role clarity and environmental awareness work hand in hand. It is the integration of the diverse roles working together that makes the magic happen.

Are the roles in your organization clearly defined? Where in life do we need to apply these principles the most?




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?



A Tale of Two Surgeons

2Surgeons_HeaderI believe enough time has passed that I may tell the following story with impunity. Nevertheless, I will disguise the names so that no reputations will suffer in the telling. And while certainly there were more than two surgeons involved in this saga, the focus is on two in particular, along with the very different manner in which each took ownership of the doctor/patient relationship.

During the summer of 2001, I noticed a lump in the roof of my mouth, directly in the center where the hard palate and soft palate come together. I had not been aware of it before and was uncertain whether or not it had always been there. I was marginally aware of it for the next two years, and finally asked my dentist to look at it when I was in for a cleaning. Dr. K did not like the look of it, but it not being his area of expertise he referred me to an oral surgeon who performed a biopsy on the mass. When the pathology report came back, we were all delighted to learn that the tumor was not malignant.

Regarding the biopsy, I have found over the years that I possess a reasonably high tolerance for pain. Still, nothing prepared me for the agony and inconvenience of having a chunk of flesh removed from the roof of my mouth. No dressing could be applied so the wound was horribly in the way while I ate, and the ache for much of the first week of healing made dining an excruciatingly unpleasant activity. Further, a rank pong pervaded during the first days of healing that diminished any olfactory or gustatory pleasure I might have experienced despite the pain. In subsequent paragraphs, I will refer to this special combination of pain and olfactory foulness as “The Sandwich Horror,” with apologies to H.P. Lovecraft.

The oral surgeon advised me to share the pathology report with my primary care physician at KP, which I did. He, in turn, referred me to Dr. T in the ENT department downtown. I liked Dr. T. In addition to being personable and easy on the eyes, she felt that because the tumor was benign and did not appear to be growing, surgery was not warranted. Instead, I should visit annually and we would watch it over time to verify that the condition was not changing. I wholeheartedly approved of this approach. Alas, Dr. T wanted to confirm the original pathology report and performed a biopsy, triggering my second dread encounter with “The Sandwich Horror.”

That was the spring of 2004, and all went well until early 2007 when I tried to schedule my annual checkup appointment with Dr. T. She had recently married (and was now Dr. something else) and transferred to another medical center. My case had been given to Dr. L, the first of our two title surgeons. Dr. L. was in almost every respect the absolute antithesis of Dr. T. Aside from any bedside (or aesthetic) qualities they failed to share, Dr. L.’s plan was to jump immediately to surgery. In much the same way that to a hammer everything looks like a nail, his philosophy seem to be that surgery was the sole solution. “Benign or malignant, a tumor is a foreign object that does not belong there and consequently should be removed.” There were no other considerations. In the end, Dr. L. possessed one and only one quality that mirrored Dr. T. He did not wish to proceed without a biopsy, resulting in a third visitation from “The Sandwich Horror.”

The procedure to remove a tumor such as this is performed routinely as outpatient surgery. KP does an outstanding job of preparing patients for surgery from the standpoint of explaining about what to expect and helping to understand any risks. I arrived early on the morning and everything went pretty much as expected until I awoke from the anesthetic. The nurse was tapping my hand and calling my name, and as I regained consciousness, she handed me a glass of water to drink. Thirsty from the anesthetic, I took a large sip. The water never made it to my throat. Instead, it gushed from my nose. The look on the RN’s face must have reflected my own. Dr. L. had had to cut so deeply to remove the tumor that it had left a hole in the roof of my mouth about the size of a dime.

Dr. L. was still in surgery and could not be consulted, so the nurse suggested a couple of techniques to get fluid past the hole but to no avail. She also had me try some solid food – blueberry yogurt, to be specific – which also ended badly. Anatomically, we use our tongue to move food from our lips to our throat. With the tongue being on the bottom of the mouth, it works against the roof in this process. If there is a hole in the way, the tongue pushes it right through. Ergo, blueberry yogurt went into my mouth on a spoon but then right out through the hole into my nose. It was not pretty.

At a loss for any other course of action, the nurse sent me home with the promise to have the surgeon call as soon as he was out of surgery around noon. When we had heard nothing by 2:00 PM, my wife started calling KP. Dr. L. was nowhere to be found. It had already been six hours since the surgery and I still couldn’t get anything past the hole in my mouth. I was frantic. I was in pain, hungry, and my thirst was extreme. The extremity of my wife’s frustration exceeded my own. Someone finally took pity on us and gave us Dr. L.’s cell phone number. My wife reached him on the golf course. I will not repeat the angry exchange of words that ensued, but Dr. L.’s dismissive response was to plug the hole with chewing gum. Then he hung up.

I thought my wife’s head was going to separate from her body, but she busted a mission to the corner drug store for a load of sugarless gum. I had to admit that the solution worked. It took a little practice to get a piece of gum into the right shape and pushed with my tongue into the hole in a way that would form a dependable seal, but I was finally able to take a drink and eat something.

At this point, the story branches into two paths. One path was to set up the follow-up appointment with Dr. L. This was supposed to take place six weeks following the surgery. I was not looking forward to what would likely be an ugly confrontation, but I dutifully called KP to make the appointment. Oddly, Dr. L.’s calendar was not yet open to accept appointments for that time. I called again a couple of weeks later and his calendar was still not open. It was around the eighth week – well past when I should have had my follow-up – that an appointment agent informed me Dr. L. was no longer working for KP. It took several months for my case to be referred to another surgeon.

The second path was my personal journey with chewing gum. As I mentioned, the solution worked initially. But chewing gum is a digestible substance and a wad would only work effectively for a short period of time before it would begin to dissolve. In the beginning, I could squeeze a day to a day and a half from a plug. As soon as it began to show signs of failing, I would replace it. But the human body is a marvelous thing and mine quickly realized that a persistent foreign object was sitting in this hole. My body began producing new enzymes for dissolving chewing gum that worked faster and faster. Within two weeks, I would have no warning of imminent plug failure. If I was in the process of eating or drinking, whatever was in my mouth was at risk of being transported summarily to my nasal cavity. Beets, broccoli, borscht, and bourbon have all been there. I distinctly remember one business meeting in a Szechwan restaurant when a particularly spicy dish abruptly made the passage. I had neglected to put a spare pack of gum in my pocket and with pepper-induced tears running down my face had had to face the embarrassment of asking the waitress (who spoke minimal English) for some chewing gum, while explaining to my client my peculiar predicament. Their mixed expressions of horror, disgust, and hilarity pretty much said it all.

Oh, I tried pretty much everything. I tried rotating brands, which worked for almost a week. Then I tried randomly swapping brands. It was no better. The digestive enzymes just kept improving. The only redeeming factor during this time was my celebrity in the eyes of my daughter’s second grade friends. The image of an adult with broccoli in his nose is side-splittingly funny to a seven-year old, but as they gradually turned eight and approached the pending maturity of third grade, such merriment turned to “Eeeuwww, ick!” revulsion. Celebrity is fickle and fleeting.

Five months had passed by the time I was able to meet with the new surgeon, Dr. S., who enjoyed a more substantial celebrity. Well known in his field and head of the maxillofacial department at KP, he would sweep into the examination room with no fewer than two interns in tow. Unlike his predecessor, he was appalled at the shoddy work and even shoddier care I had received. He took immediate ownership of the situation, taking a mold of the top of my mouth and instructing one of his interns to have a plate fabricated in the lab at UCLA. He also looked at options for closing the hole. While it would be a couple of months before he could operate, he would need to perform a biopsy to determine whether or not any of the tumorous mass remained. Thus “The Sandwich Horror” descended upon me for the fifth and penultimate time.

Long story short, Dr. S. was able to close the hole successfully. The biopsy had revealed that microscopic elements of the mass had been missed during the first surgery, and these he removed as well. This final visit of “The Sandwich Horror” was the worst of all of them. The surgery was more extensive in order to take a slice of material from the roof of my mouth, fold it over the hole, and suture it in place. The result was considerably more painful and the recovery period longer. Also, this time there had to be a dressing and the cloud of putrid stench that emanated when removed was profound. Nevertheless, it was worth it to finally be able to put away the chewing gum for good and all.

I returned to Dr. S. annually for five years. Each year he would send a camera into my nose – a surrogate broccoli reunion? – to examine the graft site. Each year he would have a new entourage of interns. Each year he would take copious pictures. According to the pathology reports, the tumor itself was unusual and Dr. S.’s surgery was a masterpiece (in my mind and probably his as well) of using the body’s own healing ability to repair the damage. I have no doubt that Dr. S. has written this up in some medical journal somewhere. For me, that is perfectly fine. I consider it a win/win situation. Dr. S.’s ownership of the problem benefited me, it benefited him, and it will benefit other doctors and patients.

Ownership is the key. It is what turned this tale into a success story. During the process of writing this piece, I came to realize that ownership is my keyword for 2015. Unlike a set of resolutions, a keyword is a focal point against which I test my strategies and actions both immediate and long-term. I will undoubtedly muse on this concept in more depth in a subsequent post.

I have suffered no more visitations from “The Sandwich Horror.” In fact, I am living on a principle of total abstinence in that respect. On my final visit to Dr. S. in 2012, he declared me cured and that is good enough for me. The entire incident, apart from its lesson, is reduced now to an insane and revolting, but nevertheless outrageously entertaining party story. Would that all lessons ended so well.

How do you inspire personal ownership on your team? How might you apply this lesson to your customer service organization?