My Inner Gandalf

Wizard_HeadingI knew from the looks on the other committee member’s faces that I had done it again. I had thrown my idea out on the table – whole cloth – without considering for a moment the effect on my audience. It was a terrible first impression, but the damage was done. Driving home, I turned over in my mind how I could have handled it better. My car nearly left the road when a voice in my head said, “Steve, channel your inner Gandalf.”

The chapter “Queer Lodgings” from The Hobbit had popped into my head. In it, the wizard Gandalf convinces Beorn – a reclusive character – to accept a wizard, a hobbit, and no fewer than thirteen dwarves as unexpected dinner and lodging guests. He does so gradually, by telling Beorn the story of their adventures up to that point, while gradually increasing the number of characters and introducing them in pairs. It has the added effect of making their host more intrigued by their story.

It is a clever literary device and great fun to read. In real life, of course, it requires a “wizardly” presence of mind in order to pull it off. That fact notwithstanding, the concept holds value. At the same time that it introduced the change initially as a rather minor detail, it gradually wrapped the entire request in context so that agreement was all but guaranteed to a reasonable mind. The gambit had both subtlety and framing, and divided the aspects of change into “easy-to-chew” sizes.

I will in no way try to cast myself as a writer of any merit, much less one as gifted as J.R.R. Tolkien. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to attempt an illustration of this idea within the context of a real world business problem. What follows is an entirely fictional conversation between a consultant (our wizard), and a CIO (the bear in our story).   The consultant has discovered why the CEO’s daily sales flash reports are routinely late, but he knows that the cost of mitigation is going to cause extreme heartburn on the executive floor.

“Mr. Bruins, thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”

“Ben. Please call me Ben. And tell me your name again?”

“Dan. Dan Galf. I’m a consultant with Bertram, Thomas, and William. Our firm has the contract to develop S.M.A.U.G, the data warehouse feed from your new global costing tool.

“Nice to meet you, Dan. What can I do for you?”

“Well, perhaps it’s what I can do for you. As you know, your global costing system generates tons of data every day and we’re worried about processing time. Consequently, we’ve been looking at some of your existing procedures in order to squeeze out the best performance possible.”

“Sounds reasonable. What have you found?”

“Something curious. It’s a program that runs as part of your daily overnight processing. All it does is attribute some of your store-level general ledger data, but it runs on average for five hours per night.”

“Why is it so slow?”

“That’s the curious part. It updates the records one store and one attribute at a time.”

“I’m not technical, Dan, so I don’t understand why that is bad.”

“Consider this analogy, Ben. Suppose you have a large pile of treasure dumped at one end of a football field and every night you need to move a specific cubic foot of that treasure to the other end of the field. Rather than selecting the cubic foot you need and carrying it to the other end in a bucket, you choose to move the entire pile in order to guarantee that you deliver the part that you need. Moreover, instead of using a bucket you use a teaspoon. That’s thousands of trips across the field, and most of what you’re moving is unnecessary.”

“That does seem extraordinary. What’s the reason for it?”

“None that we can figure out. We’ve even met with some of your business folks and they can think of no earthly reason for it.”

“Have you spent much time on this quest?”

“We’ve logged about thirty hours. Several of us have looked at it because we thought we were missing something at first.”

“Well, don’t waste any more time on it Dan. But thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

“Before you dismiss it, Ben, you may want to be aware that this is the reason your CEO’s daily flash reports are late.”

“It is? Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. That report suite depends on this daily re-attribution process.”

“Oh. I see. That’s different. Madeline has been beating me up about it for weeks and she can be a real dragon. My people have been telling me that it’s a hardware performance problem.”

“We can help you fix the problem, you know.”

“Really?”

“First, we need to understand the existing procedure. There are places where it just doesn’t make any sense and your business people can’t explain the business rules.”

“How long will that take?”

“It could take as few as eight hours if the business can provide answers readily. If not, it could take substantially longer.”

“I see. But once you figure that out you can fix the problem?”

“We will need to do some design work first.”

“Why?”

“The current design forces you to scan all of the records multiple times, even though you only care about 8% of them. And of that 8%, you rarely need to change more than 11% on a given day. A more efficient approach is to partition the data based on relevance. Performance will be significantly better provided that the technical challenges of breaking the data up are addressed, hence the need for good design. That’s probably between twelve and sixteen hours of effort.”

“Okay, design. And then you do the fix?”

“Yes. Writing the new code will only take a couple of days, maybe twenty hours at most. We will need to spend at least as much time testing, though.”

“Why so much?”

“This is a key procedure driving, among other things, your daily flash, right?”

“Yes.”

“And the business makes key decisions based on those reports, right?”

“I get it, Dan. So altogether you’re saying this procedure will require…let’s see…, uh ninety-four hours to fix, including time already spent.”

“Don’t forget about coding and testing the deployment code. Figure another eight hours there.”

“So, one hundred and two hours.”

“And filling out and submitting the change management forms. Another couple of hours there.”

“Anything else?”

“Another two hours to document what we did so that whoever comes after us doesn’t need to spend so much time on discovery. Maybe add another four in case we hit a goblin along the way.”

“Well, it makes sense the way you’ve laid this out, but one hundred ten hours is a lot of time to fix one procedure don’t you think?”

“It’s a complex data set and we don’t want to buy performance at the cost of accuracy. Bear in mind also the cost associated with bandwidth trolls like this.”

“Well, I’ll probably have to green light this although it exceeds my monthly maintenance budget. Let me get approval and I’ll get back to you.”

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if the world were a reasonable and rational place where a conversation such as the one above could possibly take place? It is not, of course, so it must remain a fictional example of how to break an idea out into its constituent elements, laying it out in pieces so that it can be assimilated gradually. Also note that in today’s world the effort would probably have been absorbed into two Agile sprints instead of being cast as a linear “waterfall” effort. Bottom line, though, if Dan had thrown the 110 hours on the table at the beginning, Ben would probably have stopped listening.

Not being wizards, it will work much better for us if we direct the process as a series of questions that lead others toward a proposed solution. Here are the five steps to the process.

  • Step 1: Begin by pointing out a factual condition and then ask one or more clarifying questions. For instance, “I was looking at the third bullet point in the selection criteria. Does anyone feel that it might be worded too broadly?”
  • Step 2: Ask some more specific questions to illuminate the nature of the potential problem. “The wording stipulates that our selections express the memory, values, traditions, customs or aspirations of the community. Does this mean that each of us is to apply our own understanding of what those might be or do we need a more concrete set of examples?”
  • Step 3: Only after the group begins to acknowledge that an improvement might be desired can the next step be taken. Instead of proposing a solution outright, ask instead for characteristics of a solution. For instance, “What might those examples look like?”
  • Step 4: Close the circle. “Where might we find that information?”
  • Step 5: Finally, if your idea has not yet been suggested, make your suggestion in the form of a question. “Do you think a town hall meeting might be an appropriate venue for gathering that information?”

 

I am looking forward to the practical application of this refinement in my personal style. Never again do I wish to see the looks of confusion and fear on the faces of my colleagues and clients. I may even try practicing this at home when I need to introduce a new idea into our routine. Of course, my wife proofreads these musings ahead of publication so she will be on to me right away.

At this point, my readers may be wondering why I am offering advice on something I have never tried, practiced, or been successful with before. I am not offering advice. I am offering a way of thinking about our lives when we find ourselves yanked from our comfortable mental hobbit holes to face unpleasantness in the form of our own weaknesses (I mean, opportunities for improvement). So follow along. The truth and the growth – as well as the adventure – is in the journey, not the destination. Just ask Bilbo.

 

What techniques do you use for creating buy-in for new ideas? Do you think self-awareness is overrated?

Commitment

Commitment_HeaderI do a lot of work with teams. Teams and working groups are an important part of my personal as well as my professional life. I work on project teams as part of my consulting and I participate on boards and commissions as part of my community service. For me, the quality of the team determines the quality of the result no matter the context. A strong team is a joy to be a part of; a weak team means misery. I have had cause of late to reflect on the characteristics of a strong team and how they enable success.

Six Characteristics of a Strong Team
There are six essential characteristics that I look for in a robust and successful team. While it is not reasonable to expect that all team members will have these attributes in equal measure, recognizing how individuals and their personalities align with these aspects makes assembling a high quality team more likely.

  • Diversity: There is nothing worse than being on a team where everyone thinks alike. The greater the diversity of background and viewpoint the healthier the team. Not only does diversity expand the available idea pool, it also increases the likelihood that some arcane aspect or lurking issue won’t be overlooked.
  • Skill: Having the appropriate skills on your team is a no-brainer. More important is having team members with the capacity to pick up new skills quickly. Situations arise frequently where unforeseen circumstances demand new or enhanced skills. This also has the benefit of creating cross-trained teams.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility allows a team to adapt to change, which is at the heart of every endeavor we undertake. Flexibility makes it possible for teams to harness their egos and consider alternative or conflicting perspectives. It enables a team to adapt templates to fit new and unique situations. It empowers teams to improve and mature.
  • Integrity: A good team has integrity on both the personal and group level. Personal integrity assures the team that each member will put forward his/her highest quality effort for the team and the project. The collective integrity is the team’s bond with the stakeholders.
  • Motivation: Hand in hand with integrity is motivation. The members of a strong team are motivated to do the best possible job, whatever it takes. This might mean long hours or extra effort, but the shared objectives of the team are paramount.
  • Respect: Respect builds trust both within the team and without. Respect for fellow team members fosters strong and trusting relationships. Similarly, respect for stakeholders fosters rapport between team and customer. Disrespect is a disease in any team.

In many ways, these characteristics are interrelated. There is overlap between them and the boundaries are indistinct. Nevertheless, all six are necessary for a team to be successful whether it is a project team, a civic commission, or a nonprofit board. There is, however, one essential element without which none of these characteristics really matter. That element is commitment. Team members must have skin in the game.

Commitment
Commitment is the spark that ignites the six characteristics. It is the catalyst that brings the team together in action. Team members without commitment drag the team down. Team members without commitment can seldom be counted on when the going gets tough. Commitment is more than a mere promise. Commitment is doing. Commitment requires management.

Commitment requires management because very few of us – that is, very few who truly commit – commit to merely one interest or pursuit. Because of the deep commitment, they rapidly find themselves a commodity; someone sought after by teams and enterprises. All too soon if they are not careful, they become overcommitted.

I wish to differentiate commitment from a mere promise or agreement. Agreement without commitment is just the occupation of space (and not always even that). Commitment (or the lack of it) drives the quality of the actions we take.

  • Preparation: committed team members come to meetings prepared. They have read any pre-read materials and are ready for scheduled discussions.
  • Follow-through: committed team members complete their assigned tasks on time and follow through on action items they have taken.
  • Ownership: committed team members take ownership of their ideas. It is not enough to raise the problem or offer a solution during a meeting. The team member is not committed if he/she expects someone else to pick the idea up and run with it.
  • Respect: committed team members respect the time and effort of the others. By way of example, if there is important business to be transacted at a scheduled meeting and one of the team has a conflict, the committed team member calls this out in time to change the meeting to accommodate everyone’s availability.
  • Engagement: committed team members are engaged. They work continually to achieve the purpose and objectives of the team/board/commission. Their membership in that body is not passive.

Individuals with multiple commitments will invariably encounter conflicts that can affect their engagement in one or another commitment. Of course they will need to set priorities. But if it is the case that they cease to add value to one or more of their lower priority commitments, it is best that they should step down and help the group find a replacement who can meet the commitment. Otherwise, they should do what they must to remain engaged and involved.

Skin in the Game
Commitment, understandably, is difficult. Sometimes we don’t know how much work a commitment will require. We do not know how our personal priorities may change or need to change in the future. We certainly never know in advance what new challenges life may set in our path. At most, we must be ready to assess whether or not we have the bandwidth to truly commit each time we are faced with a new opportunity to make the world a better place. Sometimes it is difficult to say “No.”

I mentioned earlier about having “skin in the game.” Strictly speaking, the phrase refers to having a financial stake in an enterprise, which means that we have something to lose if the enterprise should fail. This represents an incentive to do everything possible to ensure success. It has also come to mean having a strong commitment in an endeavor even if a financial stake is not specifically involved. Personally, I do not like to see the original meaning of a good word or phrase diluted. So what is the “stake” in this usage if it is not monetary? It is personal integrity. One’s integrity is one’s gold. Personal integrity is our stake in commitment.

What are other characteristics of a strong team? How do you and your teams manage commitment?

Sharpen My Game

Sharpen_HeaderWe all have bad days. I had a doozy not long ago. I found myself standing in front of a room full of people, enduring some very angry and very personal criticism. It was only a few of the people in that meeting, but that did not make it any easier. It was necessary for me to stand alone, remain calm, listen carefully, offer no defense, and attempt to interject a clarifying question when I was able. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

The aspect that was most challenging was that the actions of which I was being accused were the very things I had worked for a year to prevent. I had worked hard to eliminate divisiveness and to raise the quality of conversation within the community by encouraging respect for those with whom we disagree. To be accused of being divisive, disrespectful, and of having “dissed everyone” was devastating. Most of the others who were present during the tirades remained, thankfully, silent. I learned later that many were too stunned to react. Whatever the reason, allowing one person to take the brunt of the attack diffused the anger much more quickly than an open brawl would have allowed.

I went through several stages of emotion in the days following. Initially, I was in shock– “gob struck” as a colleague of mine would say. Then followed several days of anger. This surprised me. What happened to the detached composure that served me so well during the meeting? Upon reflection, of course, anger was perfectly natural. The attacks had been personal and had gone to the core of my integrity. At last, anger gave way to sober self-reflection.

 

Sober Self-reflection
Many of my friends advised me not to dwell on the incident. “It was a small faction who spoke out,” my supporters reminded me, “and they certainly did not represent the preponderance of opinion.” While this is true, I could not let it rest there. There were certainly many things that I had gotten right, but clearly I had also gotten something terribly wrong. This was evidenced by the nature of the anger I observed in those individuals . Yes it was personal and in many ways inappropriate. But the key is that it was genuine. What did I get so wrong?

That question, “What did I get wrong?” is a fundamental leadership question. It demands continual improvement in our interpersonal relationships. Such improvement is critical because, as I have written in the past, each phase of our lives prepares us for the next (e.g., Learning from the Big Push). Each thing we learn becomes another tool to be used to improve the world (e.g., Blanket Order). Everything is in some way or another connected (e.g., Fugue). And at the end of the day, we always tend to learn more from our failures than our successes (e.g., My Favorite Failures). Bottom line, there are always more dots to be connected that will make us more perceptive and therefore more effective leaders.

In addition to being a key leadership question, “What did I get wrong?” is also an advanced class question. It is advanced class because it is a question one can rarely answer alone. At the same time, it is also rarely a question another person can answer for us. It requires a combination of personal root cause analysis combined with active listening (or, in this case, reading). It requires a high level of both self-awareness and humility. The latter, in particular, is not a quality that I have in abundance.

In my case, I did not have much opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example of that?” or “How could I have better included you in this process?” Even after the fact, those opportunities were not readily available. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down and make a list of events – some of them seemingly trivial in a reasonable, rational world – in which I might have caused offense without being consciously aware of it. A pattern was beginning to emerge but I was as yet unable to bring the pattern into focus, even as a partial picture.

 

Context
The turning point for me came some weeks later as I was enjoying my morning cup o’ joe while reading that day’s helping of sagacity from my leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s blog.   I knew that I was about to strike gold as soon as I began reading the article. As I continued, the picture emerged quickly until…bam! There it was in black and white. What did I get wrong? I had spent most of a year spanking the gorilla.

Before explaining what that means, let me provide some background into the situation that precipitated the attack. Some nine months earlier, I had found myself in a leadership role in a small public institution. This organization has been in existence for only about fifteen years and many of its early staff members remain heavily involved. It is a close-knit community united behind a deep, common philosophy. It is a valid philosophy, but its practice has failed to align with changing government regulations. It has also caused a deep rift with the parent organization.

My team came in with three specific charges. We needed to heal the communication disconnect with the parent organization, bring a professional level of structure to the institution, and increase program funding. Our team was ideal from the standpoint of skills; we brought broad business and life experience coupled with the will to roll up our sleeves and get to work. By and large, we were successful in achieving these three goals. But success required change. Change was what most of our stakeholders desired. Not everyone shared that desire.

In this case, some individuals who had been with the institution the longest perceived change as criticism. For instance, the mere observation that a decline in attendance by one stakeholder group at a particular meeting – even though no speculation was given as to cause – was perceived as a reproof of that group. On the one hand, someone might say, “Well, that’s not reasonable.” My reply would be, “Perhaps it isn’t reasonable, but it is real.” This was a classic case of a failure to practice good organizational change management. Enter the gorilla.

 

Whetstones
Imagine my thrill as I read Dan’s post “Don’t Spank the Gorilla” and watched my own “pachinko balls” finally drop into place. He brought the full picture into focus for me near the end of the piece. “Don’t spank the gorilla. Give him what he wants. Appeal to his inner motivations. Make him feel safe.”

Make him feel safe. With those words, I saw my error. I had not recognized that even the slightest change might be threatening to someone who had pursued a labor of love in relative isolation for so many years. As a team, we did not seek a way to validate the effort and achievement that had come before us, much less manage acceptance of the need for change. Time was against us, but that is no excuse.

Dan wrote another paragraph in his piece that is one of my game-sharpening whetstones. “Start with others. Leaders who begin with themselves come off as arrogant and pressuring. That’s because they are. But leaders who start with others come off as humble and inviting.” It wasn’t that I had avoided this advice. It was that I failed to recognize that not everyone has needs and perceptions that can be addressed in the same tempo. Some people will become secure in a relationship and ready to accept change reasonably easily. For a variety of reasons, others may require more personal contact across a longer span of time before they might, if ever, be ready. It may have been tacit arrogance, but it was arrogance nevertheless. It is a difficult trait to admit, but it explains why the anger was so personal.

 

Connect the Dots
While there is much wisdom in this world, I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on that commodity. I certainly do not. Dan Rockwell would be the first to admit that he does not either. But there is something in the way Dan looks at people and relationships (and writes about them) that helps me to connect my own dots. At the same time, I am convinced that the man has my office under surveillance. The morning after I had completed the first draft of this post, Dan published “10 Statements that Eliminate Misconceptions.” This short piece, too, is worth your time to read. One paragraph in particular drives my point home. “You interpret your heart. Others interpret your behavior.”

As with most bad days, something good came from it in the end. I sharpened my game by honing it on a combination of new whetstones. Restated, “What did I get wrong?” became not just a crucial question, but one that is best asked and answered in the context of honest self-reflection in conjunction with an awareness of how others perceive our actions. Lest I repeat this error, I have hung the photograph of a gorilla across from my desk. I trust that she will be a sufficient reminder.

What strategies do you use to sharpen your game? How do you help your organization manage change?

Memory is Expensive

Memory_Header

Now and again, one needs to step away from the practicalities of work, consulting, travel and running a business to celebrate something utterly wonderful and unexpected.  What I am going to tell you about is a living, breathing organism that moves along the road of life in the direction of the Twilight Zone, but not in the manner in which Rod Serling wrote. It is a source of awe and of good, of amusement and surprise.  It returns value in a myriad of ways.  And while I doubt that it is unique, I suspect that it takes a unique set of factors for something like this to flourish. Those factors are in evidence here.

As many of you know, I now hail from a small community on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington.  And while my wife and I have been coming here off and on for nearly thirty-five years, we only settled here fourteen months ago.  In a small community, that makes us newcomers and to a great extent, still outsiders.  That does not mean that folks are not cordial.   Quite the contrary is true.  If I am out walking the dog, I need to be prepared to wave to every passing vehicle because the folks inside will be waving to me.  If I step into the bank to make a deposit, I need to allow time not for a line of people ahead of me, but for a line of conversations.  The pace here is different, some would say slower.  But it is also more personal and it takes time to really build those personal relationships.  Does that sound like one of my main themes?

As part of my local networking, I joined the Sequim and Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce.  After all, while there may not be much Business Intelligence work here right now, I pay a business tax like everyone else and there will eventually be local clients.  Besides, it is always good to be networking, right?  Not long after joining, I was perusing the membership directory and came across the Sequim PC Users Group (SPCUG).  I went to the web site and it looked pretty interesting so I parted with twenty-five dollars for the membership fee and signed up.  The next day, Tom (the President of SPCUG) called me to welcome me to the group and tell me about what they do.  That evening, I had a call from Steve, another one of their members.  Like I said, this is a small community.  Folks talk.

Essentially, SPCUG is a not for profit organization that collects and refurbishes old computers, which they then donate to a variety of places including senior centers, disadvantaged families, low income seniors, and the like.  They also help out at the Sequim Senior Center with computer training and equipment maintenance, and offer a series of Saturday classes at Sequim High School.  In the past, they’ve helped agencies like the Boys & Girls Club, Sequim School District, North Olympic Foster Parents Association and more.  These folks do a lot for the community.

The most astounding aspect of SPCUG is the bi-weekly Monday morning breakfast meeting at Ely’s Café.  The meeting officially begins at 9:00 but if you want a seat at the table, you need to be there by 8:30.  The meetings I have attended so far have exceeded capacity.  The PC Outlaws (officially the planning committee but it seems to encompass everyone) consists of the most amazing confabulation of retired folks I have ever come across.  It is mostly men, but there is at least one intrepid retired businesswoman who is a regular.  And while I myself am pushing sixty, I am the youth in knickers at that gathering.  The mean age seems to be mid to late seventies.  But hold on to your hats and glasses, folks, this is where the magic really happens.

The agenda opens with reports from what they call the Tech Shop, where the computer refurbishments take place. This is followed by reports from the Special Projects Teams.  Then the fun really begins.  Steve (who moderates the meetings) sends out an advanced copy of the agenda with links for us to pre-read.  Here is a sample of topics from a couple of past meetings (with the links).

This is just a sampling.  Where the discussions go from these raw agenda points is even more extraordinary.  These folks are all tech savvy; most are much more so than I.  The privacy search engine topic meandered into a discussion of the Tor network.  (I now have DuckDuckGo as my default search engine on my Linux Mint VM, along with a Tor network connection.)  The XP retirement agenda point evolved into a discussion of the relative merits of Ubuntu versus Mint, with excellent points being made on both sides. During the course of the BitTorrent discussion, Vuze (a BitTorrent client) came up.  At that point, Dick chimed in with a completely lucid technical description of how Vuze works.  “Are you saying that you are a BitTorrent user, Dick?” asked Steve.  “No, I’m saying that I’m a Vuze user,” responded Dick.  By the way, Dick was born in 1920.  You do the math.

During one of the discussions, someone asserted that “memory is expensive.” And while this was not his intended meaning, it struck me at the time what a fitting tag line it is for this group and the value it delivers on so many levels.  Memory is expensive, both to attain and to retain.  It requires deliberate effort.  Consider the following:

  • Memory retained:  These are people who clearly remember their own roots and are now remembering to give back to the community. They devote many hours of their time each week to these pursuits.
  • Memory created:  It takes effort to create memories, so ponder the impact on the children at the Boys and Girls Club and in the Sequim School District of the computer equipment and training that they receive as a result of SPCUG. The club’s efforts make it possible for another generation of children to have its own seminal experiences, hopefully to be thankfully recalled later in life.
  • Memory nurtured:  Most important, SPCUG activities are keeping its members own memories sharp, slowing immeasurably their passage on the twilight road.  They are not just doing, they are learning and applying new things every day. That is what is most impressive of all.

I mentioned earlier that SPCUG might be the product of a unique set of factors.  Sequim is a small community making it easy to find others with shared interests. There is also a higher than average proportion of retirees here, many of whom chose to move from other parts of the country to share the high quality of life (the mountains, the ocean, the light, and the clean air).  And they are generally well educated, have been successful in life, and have a strong sense of value.  Somehow, the group seems eminently bespoke for Sequim.

It strikes me that the habit of staying engaged in both activity and learning are not new to the members of SPCUG. Rather, it seems to be the extension of a habit already ingrained that keeps them out ahead of the pack.  They are certainly out ahead of me in so many ways.  While I blogged about Internet security (Here’s Looking at You, Kid) on June 3, coincidentally just before the NSA data collection began making headlines, I had no knowledge of privacy search engines or Tor.  Nor had I concerned myself with data encryption.  And what about BitTorrent?  I think I may have used it once about five years ago. More than a couple sets of eyebrows went up when I confessed that I did not use it.

I used to think that the best way to stay sharp was to hang out with younger people who are working on the “bleeding” edge.  SPCUG has turned that thinking on its head.  What they have taught me is that I need to be on, and stay on, the bleeding edge myself.  That is the high price of memory:  memory retained, memory created, and memory nurtured.

So my hat is off to SPCUG.  You have inspired me, motivated me, and invigorated me.  You have also written this blog post for me.  And for any of my readers who should happen to get out this way, I hope you will join me for breakfast at Ely’s some alternate Monday morning.  I guarantee it will do you a world of good.

So what inspirational story do you wish to celebrate?  What do you do to keep your memory sharp?

Follow the People

Footprint_PB

Life reminded me recently how important it is as BI practitioners to keep the paradigm of program design at the forefront of our thinking and planning. Many of you know it: people before policy before procedure before technology.  The interesting thing is that the reminder came not from my professional life but my personal one.  Those of you who follow this blog already know how the line between those two sides blurs for me, and how one seems to be continually informing the other.

My readers also know how I like to spin a story in order to illustrate a point.  Consider this one.  Our family moved to a small community on the Olympic Peninsula in Western Washington last year and enrolled our daughter in a rather inspired alternative public school.  Late in the school year a small controversy involving a teacher mobilized nearly every parent in the school.  My wife became one of the spokespeople for the parents in our communication with the district leadership. Long story short, clear heads and a little bit of listening resolved the issue quickly.  In the aftermath, though, someone nominated my wife and me as co-presidents of the PTO for next year.  It is a small town; there is no getting out of it.

In preparing for a follow-up meeting with the school district superintendent, a group of us were assembling the agenda.  What should have been a relatively easy task was uncomfortably difficult until I realized that we were jumping right to procedures without having established requisite relationships.  The program paradigm, which I had learned years ago, popped back into my head and helped us bend our thinking back toward establishing the people part of the program – the relationships – first. Time enough for procedures later.

And of course that got me to thinking.  It got me to thinking not only about how best to shape that meeting, but also about the criticality of people in shaping and managing BI programs and governance.  My first challenge was a semantic one, the definition of a program.  The concept is largely unknown in the education world and I needed to be able to articulate it for my colleagues.  It is also not always understood clearly in the business world.  Awhile back I blogged about BI programs, suggesting a definition for the concept.  I went back to the article and was hugely disappointed.  While the definition worked just fine for that one specific business technology discipline, it was too wrapped up in the jargon of business and technology to be useful anywhere else.   That was a big “Aha!” moment.  Our definitions for these important concepts need to be pan-applicable if they are to capture the key nuances that make them work.  So here is my latest draft of a definition for program, crafted for a public school PTO.  Not surprisingly, it works even better for a BI program.

 A program is a set of activities, projects, and initiatives undertaken by multiple stakeholder groups and constituencies to achieve and maintain a shared vision or need.

 This will not be my last revision of that definition, I suspect, but now it captures the starting point for the program paradigm nicely.   And the flow of the paradigm has a rigorous logic to it that can keep us from wandering astray in developing any sort of program.

  • People:  We must always put people first.  People are what work, business, income, school, life, and everything else is all about.  In establishing and maintaining a program of any kind, the stakeholder groups and the constituencies are at the center. What are their visions, desires, needs, and fears?  How do we establish alignment across these groups?  Even within a stakeholder group there is rarely alignment.  My public school situation is a perfect example.  There is not, nor will there ever be agreement across the parent stakeholders.  But by working together to understand the collective visions, desires, needs, and fears of this group we build trust, which is the foundation of relationships.  These relationships will enable us to come together in a shared vision that is three-dimensional, meaning that while we have achieved general alignment and buy-in, there is still broad variation in point of view behind it.  Diversity with alignment is essential to good policy making.
  • Policies:   Policies are the rules used to guide the stakeholders in their journey to establish and maintain these envisioned goals.  Good policies shape behaviors that result in desired outcomes. The body of policies defines the environment in which the identified end state will exist, and how it will be maintained.  Going back to the public school example, a good communication policy would enable the stakeholder groups (i.e., parents, teachers, and administrators) to have the information they require to be effective in their roles and not to be blindsided (resulting in loss of trust) by actions or decisions that affect other groups except in cases where legal or ethical circumstances prohibit.  Policies drive procedures.
  • Procedures:  Procedures are the specific processes we use to implement policies, achieve goals, and perform our work.  Procedures can be formal or informal, but they form the structure of what specifically is to be done, along with when and how.  The procedures driven by the communication policy would articulate the topics to be communicated, the people responsible for communicating them, the individuals to whom they should be communicated, and the appropriate media for doing so.
  • Technology:  Technology comes last because while it is potentially very powerful, it is only an enabler.   If the program has not attended to the requirements of the stakeholders, the policies are hardly likely to meet those requirements. Consequently, the supporting procedures are likely to be poor. Leveraging technology in such a situation only exacerbates the already spurious results.  Applying this to the school example, no amount of email is going to result in role effectiveness and optimal trust if the appropriate individuals are not sharing the appropriate information with the appropriate people at the appropriate time.  Instead, the resulting worm fight of email can spin out of control in minutes, returning quite the converse.

All too often in BI we are tempted to jump right into the technology.  Some of the time, I think this is because the technology is the fun part.  Mostly, though, it is because the value of the first three steps is not clearly understood.  There is often the perception that if I am not writing code, then I am not doing my job.  Certainly in building a detailed project plan or laying out a statement of work, the technology aspects are the last to come under fire.  “Do you really need all this time for requirements analysis?”  “Process design?  There’s nothing wrong with our processes.”  “What do we need data policies for?”  Sound familiar?

So, what is the answer?  The answer is to start at the beginning with the people.  Each new project, each new client, each new program is an opportunity to establish and nurture relationships.  Even with established clients, it is an ongoing process as roles change or as individual lives change.  As part of those relationships, we continue to establish their individual and collective importance by enlisting those relationships in nurturing others.  In other words, lead by example.  If I don’t have a good relationship with CFO Bob – one in which we have achieved some alignment on goals and vision – Bob is not likely to see the value in spending money for the two of us to establish relationships with CIO Gretta, even though Gretta’s active participation in the new BI program is critical.  Gretta is not necessarily going to jump onto Bob’s bandwagon just because she is paid to.  It is about her vision, desires, needs, and fears as well.  And at the end of the day, it is all about trust.

I have written quite a bit about trust both in this article and my last.  Trust does not mean blindness or inattention.  More than once in my life someone I trusted has shafted me unexpectedly, and I think most people have experienced this.  While trust is essential for successful working relationships, we must proceed with our eyes and ears open, and our intellects engaged.

Bottom line, following the people is really more fun even than coding.  What I learn every day from the people with whom I work is far more valuable and stimulating than what I learn from a block of code no matter how abstruse.  And while finding solutions for people problems is scarier, riskier, and more difficult than solving a technology puzzle, it is far more rewarding when we succeed.  But oh, look at the time.  I need to finish this code before end of day.

What are your top strategies for building trust in working relationships?  Do you actively develop and nurture relationships in both your professional and personal lives?

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?