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?

Learning from the Big Push

Stables_Header

“No pain, no gain,” is the way the saying goes.  Indeed, there is wisdom in the aphorism.  It is true in our workouts, true in our personal lives, and true at work.  Sustained effort that stretches us helps us to grow in a myriad of ways.  But do we actively recognize and manage these benefits?

As IT professionals, we have all had those projects where hard work, crazy hours, and intense focus over a long period of time were required.  We rise early and work from the hotel room or our home office.  Then we spend the day in a cube or meeting room.  After a bite of supper we’re back at it.  Frequently we are solving some new set of problems or having to incorporate new skills.  The harder we work, the more tired we get.  Mistakes begin to creep in.  As the deadline for deployment looms, we push even more, stealing hours from our families and our sleep.  Finally the project ends and we experience the inevitable letdown.  All too soon, the cycle begins again.  Sound familiar?

What did we gain from it besides a paycheck?  Allow me to expand the discussion to include all big pushes, not just those projects that occur at work.  This brings balance to the inquiry because personal pushes inform the professional ones and vice versa.  Over the past three years, I have had a succession of such projects that have stretched me in essential ways. Looking back, I see how the challenges of each have enabled the success of subsequent ones.  They came in a variety of sizes – from two weeks to more than a year in scope – and each was intense and exhausting.  Each overlapped with other projects.  Here are the five key endeavors.

  • Major client project away from home (14 months)
  • Relocate family from California to Washington (13 months)
  • Major client project away from home (6 weeks)
  • Building project at new home (2 weeks)
  • Clean out and prepare for sale the home of ailing relative who “collects” things (in process)

The first project taught me a number of new professional skills that I have employed since.  Most important, though, it taught me patience.  This was not just because of its longevity but also because of inherent people challenges.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not by nature a patient person.  I am easily frustrated and quick to snap.  These are not productive behaviors anywhere, but on this project they could not be in evidence at all.  I must confess that I was not 100% successful, but the stretch paid off.

Patience was essential for the moving project.  Over the course of thirteen months we had to refinance the old house, find and buy the new house, divest ourselves of 60% of our belongings, pack and move the remainder (including two full-sized grand pianos), prepare and sell the old house, and settle in the new one.  I thought we would never get here.  In the course of that time we had to deal with bankers, real estate agents, buyers, contractors, movers, and a host of other personalities.  In addition to the stamina gained from the sheer physicality of packing and carrying all this stuff (we moved everything but the pianos ourselves), I learned to play the doglegs.  In golf, that is where the fairway angles away in the middle. In life, that is when you are presented with direction-changing setbacks.  Playing the doglegs will be the topic of a subsequent article.

The next client project was rife with doglegs in spite of a compressed time line.  I could not have coped as well with the stress of so many setbacks if I had not already learned that another way would be found, and that it would probably be a better way in the long run.  I learned several new skills on that gig, not the least of which was how to delegate effort.  Maybe sometime soon I will learn to manage effectively what I have delegated. That is what we call an “opportunity.”

My home building project (the construction of a pair of large compost bins) drew upon both patience and the physical benefits of the move.  I constructed them in a corner of the property where everything had been completely overgrown with weeds and ivy.  Not only did this have to be cleared, the roots removed, and the ground flattened, the supports had to be both plumb and level for the design to work.  This part took more time than the actual construction, and of course it was the least fun.  But patience served me well and the results exemplified the lesson.  The project also brought me back to a state of a Zen with my tools that had been absent for some time.

The current project seems to be drawing on most of the strengths I have acquired in the past three years.  Patience – both for the enormity of the task and the personality challenges – tops the list.  I draw on the ability to play the doglegs almost daily.  I am tapping the physicality of the move and the compost bin projects.  I am delegating key aspects of the project in a way I would not have been able to a year ago.  The project is in process now, and its conclusion is not even on the horizon.  Consequently, I am not yet ready to assess what benefits I might take away from this one.

I am convinced that success in life is based on self-awareness.  I am not a big believer in (nor do I necessarily discount either) fate, karma, or divine plan. But when we take on challenges that stretch us and the resultant paybacks occur, do we stop to take stock of them?  What did I gain from the pain that I just endured?  What new tools have I added to my life toolbox?  How do I apply them to the next big challenge?  How has the experience sharpened my game?  Here are my thoughts on how to take advantage of the big push projects.

  • While engaged in a big push project, take note of what is working and what is not.  For me, it is more of a mental note than an entry in a diary, but either is fine.  If you are not getting the results you expect, can you draw on something from a past project to change the game?
  • When you get to the end of the project and before the post project letdown sets in, make a list of those areas where you learned something new, gained a specific skill, or improved on some personal or spiritual level.
  • Over time, see if you can connect the dots from project to project.  If you are being aware and honest, you should begin to see how the personal capital is accumulating.  But beware; this will also reveal your shortcomings.  Those are your opportunities.

This form of self-awareness is new to me.  At least, I think it is.  I first noticed it during that initial client project.  It surfaced again during the move and while I had not begun to connect the dots yet, I became aware of how the doglegs were working.  It was not until the compost bin project that I saw the picture emerging.  Since then, it has been enormously helpful to me both in looking for and also accepting new challenges.  More important, it helps me to retain both perspective and balance between my professional and personal lives, in spite of the fact that the line between them is no longer distinct.

In the end, it is this perspective that changes our big push projects from the labors of Sisyphus to that of Hercules at the Augean Stables.  In the end, of course, the stable gig didn’t count as one of his “labors,” but he did get paid for it.  And boy oh boy was old Hercules good at playing the doglegs.  As for us mortals, it makes us better employees, consultants, spouses, parents, people.  Coffee break is over.  Get back to work.

Do you have a big push payoff to share?  How do you manage that line between your personal and professional lives?