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Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!

Yes, it's that time of year again.  The Drake University College of Business and Public Administration's graduate level elective in Creativity for Business is alive and well.  And, as in past years, I made the students come in costume this weekend.  And, as in past years, they didn't disappoint me with their creativity.

First place this year was an amazing impersonation of Elvis, complete with original song score.  We had Barbie, chefs, Joan of Arc, referees, and a host of others.  For a first in this class, we had Daphne and a LIVE Scooby Doo (who was generally better behaved than many of the students).

I love the reaction I get from outsiders when I tell them I'm able to get 35 graduate students to show up to class in costume.  Why?  How?  Well, yes, they are graded on this assignment.  But the real kicker is this allows them to internalize creativity.  Since we spend the bulk of the class centered on Roger von Oech's four roles of creativity (explorer, artist, judge, warrior), this assignment encourages each student to focus on the role which speaks most to him or her.  And because they have to present to their rationale to the rest of the class, they'd better be prepared to articulate (and they always are).  Dare I say that they have fun?  It gives them a chance to laugh at themselves while they solidify their creative identity.

Me?  I took a page fromChris Brogan's playbook this year and opted for a pirate (as did two of my students).  Although I learned a creative lesson myself through this choice:  make sure your eye patch is sized for the adult head, lest you cut off the circulation.

Now I'm already looking forward to 2011.

The Downhill

Vonn_mancuso It's been interesting to watch thegrowing tension between Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso.  It came to a head today when Vonn's crash interrupted Mancuso's first run.  But you could tell from the very first medal ceremony that the relationship between the two ran as cold as the wind on top of Whistler Mountain.  And now Mancuso claims the "popularity contest" is affecting performance.




I know athletes are a quirky bunch and - while amazingly focused - can be thrown off kilter by even the smallest of things.

But here are two grown women who are creating an Olympic-sized controversy.

Nice fodder for the cameras... the news media... and, well, bloggers like me.

But I'd like to go a different route with this.  This blog is about accomplishment, and here I'd like to focus on the lack of accomplishment.  Have you ever noticed among people who chronically have trouble achieving their goals (not that a few gold and silver medals constitute a lack of accomplishment) tend to blame external forces for their failures?

Vonn seemed surprised by the accusation.  No shock there.  When people are accused of undermining the accomplishments of others, the first reaction generally is "Huh?"

Things can go in a few directions, but often it's all downhill from there.  And not just any downhill - the Combined-Super-G-Giant-Slalom of gravitational pull.  Why?  Because the other side gives credence to the accusation instead of blowing it off or ignoring it.

It will be interesting to see where this one goes.  Office politics on the slopes?  Maybe.  Kiss and make up.  Doubtful.

The next time somebody tries to pull you into their lack of accomplishment, take a step back, a deep breath, and give yourself time to consider the source and analyze the situation.  Because if you don't... trust me, that first turn-and-drop is a nasty one.

Marsha! Marsha! Marsha! Hits the Mark

Legends It's been an interesting week watching a news story evolve over a customer service gaffe turned ugly here in Des Moines.  You can read the long version if you wish, but here is the shortened version:

A group of teachers are on lunch-break during an inservice day last Monday.  They decided to go to a local establishment downtown, where one of the teachers found a hair in her salad.  She pointed it out to her server, who responded sardonically, "Don't blame me. I didn't put it there." The manager was too busy to talk to her.  On the way out, she and the owner had a confrontation, which ended with the owner gesturing and screaming at her and her colleagues that he never wanted to see another teacher in his restaurant.  She sent an email that night to a few of her friends and colleagues detailing her ordeal.  Within 24 hours, the story had spread across Des Moines faster than a corndog virus at the State Fair.  The owner apologized, and the Operations Manager released a written statement providing reasons (excuses) why the owner behaved the way he did.

It's been a week since this happened.  The Facebook page boycotting Legends continues to grow.  People have taken sides.  Being married to a teacher, I heard in no uncertain terms about the solidarity of the profession.  To offend one teacher is to offend them all.  I've also heard the other side, which basically implies the teacher was being whiny and demanding.

However, a few important observations have been lacking in this battle.  Both sides have accomplished a lot.  Mark Rogers has alienated many in this town against him, but he's also galvanized a few of his supporters.  Marsha has galvanized even more supporters, but has also drawn some fire.

But here's what's missing:

  1. What about the server? If you're going to hire a restaurant server, it seems that customer service 101 should be: "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Let me get you a new salad right away." I would hope that server (who has conveniently remained nameless) is now jobless and looking for a position which does not require interaction with other living humans. The "middle man" who fired the first shot was allowed to slink into the shadows while two major forces arose in battle.  And in office politics conflicts, we see the instigator escape to wreak havoc another day. 
  2. It boils down to communication. Mark Rogers claimed he tried to make Marsha Richards happy, but she wouldn't hear of it. She claimed in her email that she tried to keep him focused on the server's behavior but he just grew more belligerent. To quote Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." When learning the basics of male/female communication (anyone who's been through couples sessions knows this one), you learn that SOMETIMES women do not want problems solved as much as they want to be heard, validated, and affirmed first and foremost. My guess (based on the sides of both parties) is that Mark tried to short-circuit this part of the communication loop and just wanted to solve the problem to make her go away WITHOUT LISTENING to her. And he learned it didn't work very well, got frustrated, and blew a gasket

In our quest to accomplish great things for ourselves and our organizations, sometimes the little details get lost.  We forget what the real issue is.  And we then go to battle.  And both sides are ill-prepared to win, because it becomes more about ego than engagement.  And no Facebook boycott page or press release from an operations manager will solve the root cause of what's really wrong.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Legends to begin with, so I doubt the teacher boycott will affect my dining decisions one way or another.  But as far as entertainment goes here in Des Moines, it's been a great week.

SWAT All Over The Place!

200805 SWAT Training (0086) It's been a fun month since the book release!

For those of you who own a Kindle (use a Kindle, and embrace a Kindle), I have great news!  SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment is now available on Kindle.  Now you can use Amazon's handy-dandy little e-reader to peruse the pages of your favorite business fiction about accomplishment and flash-bangs!

Delaney Kirk, former professor extraordinaire, wrote a nice piece about my book (and me).  It's great to have such a great friend and mentor, and she certainly created the model for the relationship I try to forge with my students.

Oh, Canada!  Reg Nordman of Vancouver (you know, that place where this thing called the Olympics is going on), gave a happy nod toward SWAT!  Sure beats curling.

On the opposite end of the continent, the little brother I never had, Stephen Smith, gave SWAT its first video blog review.  It's no wonder that Mom likes him best!

And a little closer to home, Mr. PM Student himself, Josh Nankivel, wrote a stellar review of my latest book, creating the case beyond a reasonable doubt why EVERYBODY needs systems thinking to accomplish something great.

Thanks for all the wonderful press... the most rewarding thing about writing a book is when readers find it useful AND entertaining.

Carpe Factum!

Past The Romance

Hairy_Valentine Any blogger can write a gushy post on Valentine's Day.

It takes a "real man" to write about the day after.

Seriously, folks, we can talk about loving our jobs, our projects, and our accomplishments when "love is in the air" and everyone holds hands and sings at the end of the day.

But how do we feel the love when the romance is dead and all the happy gushy feelings are on the 75% off clearance shelf?

What do you do when the love is dead in our workplace?  Well, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask why and how - what path did your work environment take to get here? Was it one toxic co-worker? Is it a bad policy? Did the project not make sense? Can you isolate the root cause(s) of the dissatisfaction?
  • How long - has the current environment always existed? If not, how long did it take to go downhill? Was it overnight (it rarely is)? Can you still reverse the trend? (If so, see the bullet point above.)
  • Control freak - do you and your colleagues have control over the culture and environment? Can you call a "come to Jesus" meeting, or is it the elephant in the room of which everyone is aware but nobody wants to discuss? If you can't fix it all, what steps are in your control? Will it take baby steps or a quantum leap?
  • Feet to the fire - ally yourself with others who want change and hold each other accountable for the behavior shifts that need to occur. Set timelines and goals. Touch base and figure out where you're slipping.
  • What have you done for me lately - there may be some who don't want you to succeed or who feel threatened. If you can demonstrate you are moving in the right direction, you can champion your own changes.
  • Keep the romance alive - workplace changes are like marriage.  If you only wait until special occasions like retreats and appraisals (or anniversaries and birthdays), you will be in trouble.  Culture is a day-to-day personal branding decision.

Start feeling the love again... at least for the next 364 days.


Red-tape With the snow falling all around us, I've decided to do something productive to pass the entombment of winter time:  I've accepted a position as a program manager for a compliance project.  When it comes to traditional consulting gigs, more often than not, I subcontract to other companies, as I have an inherent allergy to salespeople.  Over the past decade, it's been a fairly easy process since I am a corporation and those with whom I deal are corporations.  The general corp-to-corp agreement is to fill out a W-9.

Not so this time.  They've asked for articles of incorporation, statement of good standing with the state, 941 payroll forms, proof of insurance, and parents' drivers' licenses from 1957 (OK, so I made that last one up).  My first instinct reaction was irritation.  First of all, most of these artifacts do nothing to prove my prowess as a project manager.  Second, they automatically create an air of mistrust between the two parties.  And third, I just don't have time to hunt down documents, copy documents, and fax documents.  I was quite confident that their corporate lawyers aren't busy enough.

But then I looked a layer beneath the surface... and was still annoyed.  But five layers further, it dawned on me:  This company probably got burned by ONE subcontractor.  And so a policy needed to be created to prevent them from being burned again.  And so all subsequent subcontractors are now required to "cough up" or not be allowed to play.  And thus bureaucracy is born.

Those who know me well know how I feel about bureacracy.  Now, mind you, I'm a huge fan of structure, just not bureaucracy.  What's the difference?  Well, look at your policies, standard operating procedures, etc. and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Whom do these benefit/punish? If you are trying to limit the actions of a few outliers, then chances are, this is a bureaucracy. If everybody working together and consistently will help you accomplish your goals, then it's probably a beneficial structure.
  2. How does it impact freedom? If you are providing parameters which channel energy, then you are giving structure. If you are removing all thought from an activity and draining energy, then you are imposing bureaucracy.  Another way to look at this is whether the policy freezes the system and the process (bureaucracy) or if it thaws things out and keeps the process limber (structure). 
  3. Whom does it protect? If this is purely CYA to keep somebody from being yelled at, you're betting on bureaucracy. If you are protecting individual accountability to make decisions and succeed and fail accordingly, you're offering structure.
  4. Where is the focus? If you are looking at the end result as you make decisions, you care about structure. If you are trying to manage the means to the end, then your desire is bureaucracy.  In other words, is there a MEANINGFUL BUSINESS PURPOSE behind the creation of the rule or policy?

Another good example of structure (versus bureaucracy) is improv comedy.  There are actually a lot of rules to good improv (and Kat Koppett has an amazing book on the subject of using improv for business setttings), but the rules actually generate a lot more freedom for the actors.  Good improv does not constrain in the least; it flies.  But it only does so when people follow the structure of improv; break the rules and things come to a grinding halt quickly.

As for me, I'll provide the paperwork the company wants.  Sometimes you just have to "play by the rules."

It's Everybody's Iowabiz

Applause Three years ago, Drew McLellan approached me about writing a project management post a couple of times a month.  About a year after it started, the Iowabiz blog moved under the ownership of The Business Record, and Todd Razor.

Last week, the Iowa Newspaper Association named Iowabiz the best newspaper blog in the state of Iowa.  I've been honored that I get to play in their sandbox.

Congratulations to Iowabiz, Todd, and my fellow contributors on creating and maintaining an awesome community to improve the state of business in Iowa.

Carpe Factum!


Megaphone I got my new laptop this week... which meant a quick trip to Ed Snuffin at Iowa Computer Repair to do all the set-up and security work before I start to use it.  Now I can rest assured that my "sidekick" is optimized and will run smoothly for years.

I had a few clothes that needed mending, so a trip to Frederick's Tailors in Clive.  They always make all of my clothes look like new when they're done.

Next was a trip to the dry cleaners, Executive Cleaners in Urbandale, who get my clothes looking excellent every time.  Never a quality issue, unlike many other cleaners in town.

Hungry for Italian, I always make an effort to stop at A Taste of Italy on University Avenue.  The guys behind the counter frequently introduce me to new meats and cheeses (much to the chagrin of my wife).

But for the taste of the day, it was a chance to catch up with a friend over the best onion rings in Des Moines at Maxie's Restaurant.

And when it came time to pick up my prescription, John Forbes' Medicap on Douglas Avenue is a no-brainer for me.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Is it just a shameless plug for some of my favorite service providers?

Well, yes and no.

Our accomplishments are a living testament.  The outputs we as service providers produce are the inputs for somebody else (customers).  Ang guess what?  They are the feedback loop for our outputs.  If we produce great outputs, they will tell lots of people how great we are.  If we produce poor outputs, they will tell even more people how bad we are.

For me, I always try to provide my clients, my students, and my audiences with the best value possible.  I want them to come away saying "Wow - I got more than I bargained for!"  My accomplishments, my outputs exist to make their inputs (and therefore, their accomplishments) better.

So what are your outputs?  Who is using them as inputs?  Are they excited enough to tell everybody?

Now it's time to assemble my financial records to pass off to the world's best accountant, Lambert Blank.

(Disclaimer:  None of these service providers knew I was writing about them, and I received no compensation for my telling you about them.)

Seize His Shadow

Groundhog It's Groundhog Day - a day proliferating the myth that a rodent can predict the weather six weeks out.  Personally, the day means nothing to Iowans.  There will almost always be foul winter weather during the high school basketball tournaments in March.  And spring doesn't really arrive until my neighbor, Ann, and I come out of our mutual hibernations and have our first prolonged driveway chat.

But for a moment, let's assume this myth about seeing the shadow thing is true.  We then have another example of how systems ignorance (the opposite of systems thinking) can mess up decision-making.

Dissect this with me.  The groundhog makes a decision to leave his home and go outside.  If he DOES NOT see his shadow, he decides everything is okay, and he can stick around for a while (thereby ushering in spring).  If he DOES see his shadow, however, he freaks out, decides outside is unsafe, and scurries back into the safety of his abode.

Pretty absurd, eh?

A manager (or executive, or any other form of so-called leader) pokes his head out of his organization into the world at large.  Seeing nothing threatening out there, he (or she, to be fair) decides that the environment is non-threateningly great and that he and his organizational can flourish.  However, if the rodent manager sees that his actions (shadow) have had an impact on the outside environment, he becomes freaked out and retreats back into his cubicle, hoping a prolonged status quo will prevail.

OK, that's a little tongue-in-cheek.  As organizational groundhogs, we need to seize the shadow.  We need to recognize our role that our outputs are having on the environment around us.  If we do see those impacts (positive or negative), we need to be accountable for them, embrace them, seize them, and own them.  And if that means fixing them, so be it.

Will you simply see your shadow today?  Or will you also seize your shadow as well?

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