Thanksgiving_HeaderEvery year, the Thanksgiving holiday serves as a laundry list of reminders to me. It reminds me that I need to get my annual woodshop project finished so that gifts can be mailed on time. It reminds me to update my company holiday card list and to get started on the annual family letter.   It prompts me to blow the dust off of my piano score of Nutcracker, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering kinfolk. Most important, it reminds me to remember to say, “Thank you.”

Those two little words – when spoken together and with sincerity – are among the most powerful in the English language.   Just last week I had cause to be reminded how important they are and how prone I am to forget them. My fifteen-year-old daughter is a pretty good sport about most things. Not least of these is helping me with the upkeep around the place. With her older brothers grown and gone, this can be a tall order sometimes. Long story short, I woke up in the wee hours of Monday morning last week with the realization that I had not said a word of thanks to her for helping rake leaves the afternoon before. The temperature was below thirty and we had been out for several hours raking up over an acre of wet, frosted leaves and hauling them back to the compost bins at the other end of the property. It was hard work and she had been a trooper. There was not much I could do about it at 2:00 in the morning, but you can bet that I made a point to thank her as I drove her in to school that day.

One might opine that words of thanks were not really necessary. After all, my daughter receives an allowance as well as food, clothing, shelter, and transportation in exchange for chores. That may be true, but words of thanks are an affirmation that her efforts have more value than a mere exchange of goods and services. The efforts of her body and mind contribute substantively to our spiritual as well as our material wellbeing as a family. It is not simply desirable to give thanks. It is beneficial.

The same is true in the business environment. Everyone there is being paid to do his or her job. Consequently, a leader, manager, or supervisor is under no obligation to thank anyone. And yet, consider the analyst who stayed late to finish a report or the two technicians who spent a weekend migrating the POS system to new servers. Each of them took time away from his or her personal life in order to provide value to the organization. Are they not deserving of sincere affirmation? How about the colleague who delivers work of consistently high quality, or the staff member who brightens up the office every day with her cheerful good humor? A heartfelt, “Thank you for what you do,” is a confirmation that an individual or a team brings value not just to the organization but to its people as well.

Meetings in particular have need for the genuine expression of gratitude. All too often, new ideas can be upsetting or even threatening to participants. A good moderator can use a well-placed thank you to deflect what could potentially be an emotional response by other participants. “Thank you, Jim, for that insightful suggestion. It’s clear that you’ve given this some thought. I know that it is a radical departure from the way we’ve done things before, but let’s take a couple of minutes as a group to point out the positive aspects of Jim’s idea before examining the challenges. Iris, can you start us off?”  Providing that Iris starts off in an affirmative way as requested, the moderator has just created another opportunity for honest gratitude. And it is infectious.

Facilitated meetings utilizing a formal structure offer even more opportunities for giving thanks on both the personal and the group level. “Does everyone understand how this exercise works? Great. Who’s ready to go first? Thanks, Bill, for taking the lead.” At the end of the exercise, it is time for acknowledgement all around. “Wow! Great job, team. You generated almost forty options in under five minutes. I know it looks messy right now, but you’ll see how important these are as we move through the next two games. Thank you for staying with me.” The use of honest gratitude at both the individual and collective level not only keeps the meeting energy high, but also brings people together.

In truth, we have reason to be thankful in all facets of our lives. I have touched on this theme before in these pages, notably in Blanket Order. We are so interconnected with our fellow human beings that we are receiving value in innumerable ways almost every moment of our existence. And so, if I have not said it before, thank you. Thank you for reading these musings. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for you. Which of course reminds me that I need to get another coat of lacquer on that woodshop project. Happy Thanksgiving.

Have you remembered to thank someone today? How can you encourage more spontaneous gratitude in your organization?


The Power of the Wave

Wave_HeaderSequim, the community in which I live, is a friendly place. For a town with a population of just around 7,000 people, we are surprisingly diverse culturally, ethnically, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, the friendliness of its inhabitants transcends this multiplicity. Strangers will start a conversation at the drop of a hat. Neighbors not only know each other, they share tools, recipes, vegetables, and more. If you step into any bank to make a deposit, all of the tellers know you by name. It is simply that sort of place.

By far the most striking manifestation of this friendliness is the Sequim hand wave. Everyone waves. Neighbors wave. Strangers wave. This is not merely a passive nod of the head and a grunt. This is a full, active wave of the hand with arm raised into the air and moving. And like as not, it is accompanied by both words and eye contact. Even where those are not possible, the wave persists. The crossing guards wave to the passing motorists. Motorists wave to folks out walking their dogs, and the dog owners wave back. Out on the tractor in the south meadow, I exchange a wave with every passing vehicle. No place else that I have lived has exhibited this phenomenon.

The Sequim hand wave is a powerful gesture that resonates unconsciously among the citizenry on many levels. It is worth considering a few of them.

  • Affirmation: A wave of the hand requires active energy to perform and is therefore a strong affirmation to the recipient that he/she deserves that effort.
  • Inclusion: A wave of the hand, particularly between strangers, is welcoming and says, “You are one of us, even if you don’t reside here.”
  • Trust: The hand wave is at least as strong as a handshake in establishing a bond of trust between people.

The hand wave as practiced in Sequim breaks down the social and cultural barriers that might otherwise separate people. It is uncanny, and I have no idea why it happens here. It is not to be found very much in neighboring communities. But beyond a purely academic curiosity, there is probably not much value in trying to discover why. Rather, consider it a fortuitous phenomenon that is one of the elements that makes this little corner of the globe so special.

What I find particularly fascinating about this cultural idiosyncrasy is that it demonstrates one of the key elements in the facilitation of meetings and planning retreats. This has to do with the power of non-verbal communication and physical involvement. Consider the following scenario.

A consultant is leading a meeting of Finance and Accounting Directors at a Fortune 500 company. The objective of the meeting is to articulate how a particular product line will aggregate in a new financial system. The consultant is at the whiteboard trying to diagram what the business people are saying. It is not going well and frustration is mounting. One Senior Manager is particularly excited, unconsciously gesturing as he speaks as if to draw a picture with his hands. It is at this point that the consultant does what he should have done in the beginning. He throws the marker to the Senior Manager. “Show us!” This transforms the meeting. The Senior Manager is able capture the essence of what he was trying to say using his own imagery from his own point of view. More important, the physical act of standing at the whiteboard and creating the diagram himself has changed his role as well as his level of participation in the meeting. Allowing others to leave their seats and add to or modify the diagram keeps both the energy in the room and the quality of the information high.

The importance of participating physically in a meeting or other interaction cannot be understated. It is why I use copious amounts of white butcher paper when I facilitate planning meetings. I want the participants on their feet, interacting directly with their information. And for longer processes such as full day retreats, I typically begin with a physical exercise to break the ice and to engage the body as well as the mind. My favorite is called “Business Cards.” It requires the participants to perform a series of physical and verbal actions with each of the other attendees in the room. The game necessitates not only coordination, but also an awareness of both the individuals and the collective body of participants. The results are energizing.

The Sequim hand wave is a powerful analog to this mutual stimulation between body and spirit. It is vitalizing – to the point of making one’s day – to be driving along and have an utter stranger wave. It is equally gratifying to return the wave. It is a simple gesture that shines a momentary light in an often-dark world. It sends the message that we may not be so far apart after all. In fact, our ideas, our backgrounds, and our beliefs may be much more easily reconcilable than we think. We simply need to say, “Hello.”

How do you engage your meeting participants? How would you harness the power of the wave?


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.”


“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.”


“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?”


“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_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 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.


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.


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?

Follow the People


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?