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Tastes Like Check-In

Fried_chickenI spent a great summer away from consulting work this year. After wrapping up an almost two-year project, I decided to take time for myself. There were home organization projects to do, books to read, and calories to burn, so the project deliverable of the summer was... well... me. It felt great to invest time in myself. As Christine Kane once said, "I'm always impressed with anyone who can stop their life when their life starts speaking to you, when things start falling down around you. You know, most of us, we just think it means that instead of ordering a grande at Starbucks, we should order a venti and go a little harder." Not this boy. After all I've been through in the past five years, it was time to take that "self-imposed vision quest."

Anyway, I'm now back on the hunt for speaking engagements and/or contract projects. One lesson I've learned consistently over the years (and am reminded of constantly the past few weeks) is to pay attention to how people treat me during the initial contact and interview process. The "check-in" process is a great indicator of how things will go. If people are combative and caustic during the interview process, they will act that way during the project. If people are hospitable and friendly during onboarding, that's how they generally act throughout the duration of the contract. Indecision and waffling in hiring leads to indecision and waffling when work needs to move forward. Micromanagement breeds micromanagement. Openness breeds openness. You get the picture.

I had a phone interview a couple of weeks ago for something that seemed like an interesting project. I was very up-front with the person about my skills and abilities over our half-hour conversation. The following week, I found out the person came away with a completely different perception of our conversation and what I could/couldn't do than I remember telling him. I withdrew my name from consideration within the day, figuring if a simple half-hour conversation (and a couple of subsequent emails) yielded such disparity, I could only imagine what a multi-month project would do to my blood pressure.

So it has been a fun trip for my inner anthropologist to observe these people. I'm able to get a fairly accurate reading of their corporate culture before I even step foot in the door. And it gives me the opportunity to say "no" before I ever have to say "yes." There's a lot to be said for first impressions. One of my favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and I've shared with a lot of people the importance of "thin slicing," or taking that first impression to draw conclusions. Our brain's experiences coupled with our gut's intuition is generally spot on.

So what can you do to make the check-in process reflect the type of organization you really are? How can you as an individual align first impressions with reality? Because people are watching you, and they're drawing conclusions about you as well.

Countdown to Zorro

ZorroAs this blog post is being published, my dog, Zorro, is breathing his last. We came to the conclusion this week that his quality of life had diminished, and it was time to put him down. (Our last dog did us a favor and came to this conclusion on her own, saving us this agony.)

It's been a rough week at the Johnson house. A lot of hugs and cuddling with the dog. A lot of tears. But also a lot of laughter and story-telling. We talked about Zorro's quirks. We talked about how his command for "Speak" was "Zorro, use your words." We laughed about how odd he looked when he was on the extremes of his grooming cycle. We reminisced about the first time I met him and brought him home, how he bolted into my car, jumped over to the passenger side, put his paws on the dashboard and looked at me as if to say, "OK, you're my human now. Let's get this show started." His comedic timing was always epic, adding a bark or a snort at just the right point in the conversation. He was a smart, special, affectionate, loving dog.

Continuing from my last two blog posts, the final components of the Heath brothers book, Made to Stick, are Emotions and Stories. If your accomplishment or your message tells a story that resonates with its listeners, and if it inspires something deep within them to motivate them to act, then you probably are set. I started a new project management class last week, and the things that the students seem to remember years after the class are the stories I shared.

Stories are universal. They are impactful. They are powerful. We relate to stories (and to their characters); we empathize with their plight. Stories live long after the accomplishment, event, or person has expired. I'd like to share with you one of my favorites: a very short story about story-telling from the book, Kidgets: And Other Insightful Stories about Quality in Education:

A friend of ours is a minister. Years ago, when he was first starting out in the ministering business, he was the pastor of a small congregation in the hills of western Tennessee. He saw himself as a theologian, in the process of getting his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, yet working with simple folks, many of whom could not read or write.

One Sunday, Matty Lou Bird came out of our friend's church, smiling as she always did. She was even smiling when she said, "Brother Rick, we just loves you to death. We just loves you to death. But we don't understand a word you say."

He took it well. He called a meeting of the church elders, determined to get to the bottom of the problem: "This is what Matty Lou Bird told me, and I'm real worried about it. What does it mean?" Joe Stanton, a long-standing elder, didn't beat around the bush - "Well, she's right, preacher. We don't understand what you're saying. We're simple folks. Just tell us a story."

Brother Rick was spending all this money and years of his life to get a great education, a PhD in theology, and all they wanted him to do was tell stories?

For the next six months he did some of the most intense listening he had ever done in his life. He would sit on the porch of the general store every Saturday, in the heat and humidity, and just listen.... Brother Rick learned that if he was going to be an effective preacher, he had better become a story-teller, too. And, in time, he did - PhD from Vanderbilt notwithstanding.

To this day, people in his former congregation come up to him and remind him of a story he once told - a story that touched them, that made them nod and say "amen." They can't repeat the title of the sermon or discuss now it relates to a particular passage from the Bible, but they remember the story. They got the point. (Cotter & Seymour, pp. 19-20)

Zorro now belongs to the ages. We'll miss him (a lot), but we'll remember him through stories. What about you? What stories can you tell to inspire others and help them get the point?

(Note: I wrote this post three days ago while I could actually muster the emotional strength to do it).

Science Is Not Boring

Science_center_iowaA friend of mine, Pete Jones, runs a popular and useful blog here in the metro entitled Des Moines Is Not Boring. He has done a lot for the community by highlighting overlooked restaurants, events, and attractions to help negate the perception that Des Moines, Iowa is boring. (It's really not boring, by the way; there's always SOMETHING going on.)

However, there's one unfortunate blight on an otherwise not-boring town. Last week, I took my girls to the Science Center of Iowa. We always get a season family pass to the Science Center, the Zoo, and Living History Farms. It's been a few months since I've been to the Science Center, and I hate to say it but I was grossly underwhelmed. Virtually nothing had changed since my last visit. Realistically, little has changed in the eight years it's been open. As a friend of mine put it: "They seem to care more about charging money for IMAX productions and hosting cocktail events than they do promoting science." Another parent recently wrote a blantantly honest assessment of their experience at the Science Center. It seems I'm not alone.

Science is about discovery. It's about not quite knowing what to expect. It's about curiosity. It's about exploration. What message is conveyed to children when they see the same old "attractions" sitting there visit after visit? In total we spent less than hour there. It's a shame. I've been to many children's museums and science museums throughout the country (on multiple occasions). Like science experiments, these other museums evolve. They change the variables. They keep the curiosity alive. It's how they maintain their credibility. By maintaining a stagnant status quo, our own Science Center undermines its own credibility as an institution promoting science.

In my last post, I referred to the Heath Brothers' book, Made to Stick, and we covered how your project scope needs to be simple and concrete. A couple of other attributes to memorable accomplishments are being UNEXPECTED and being CREDIBLE. Are you purposely upsetting people's expectations to get (and keep) their attention? And are you a trusted source of expertise? Your project is competing with every other email, meeting, project, Facebook post, Tweet, and interruption. As a project manager, it is imperitive that you keep your stakeholders from getting bored with you. It is critical they trust you to have the answers (or know where to get them).

One of my more memorable projects was (drum roll) a HIPAA compliance project (crickets... yawn). When it came time to create the training video, we did something unexpected: we created the entire video like an episode of COPS. We demonstrated our credibility by portraying the important messages to the employees. At the same time, we violated their paradigms of what a HIPAA training video should look like. Balancing credibility and unexpectedness, you keep your project valuable and engaging. It means you have people noticing you (for the right reasons). They're curious about you. They're interested in you.

And it doesn't take a lot of effort to do incredibly unexpected things to make your project unexpectedly credible. Find an excruciatingly long 2-hour meeting and figure out how to shave it down to 15 minutes (and still get the same result). You'll be a hero. Take a 10-page hyper-wordy status report and turn it into a 3-page PowerPoint that says the same thing. That will get executives' attention. Adding credible value in unexpected ways is simpler than you might think.

As for the Science Center of Iowa, I hope they can find their mojo again. My kids and I are looking forward to being curious, and engaged, and interested, and...

Take a Flying Leap

It's "Leap Day," folks!

That one day that appears every four years to extend February even longer than this month deserves. I'm not sure why Leap Day couldn't appear in nicer month, like June when it's warm but not too hot. Or how about October, when the fall foliage is so pleasant? But NO, it's in February. When the weather is cold and slushy at worst; indecisive, at best.

Tavern_Parking_SignSometimes, like the month of February, we really do want some people to just go away, to take a flying leap, as it were. Sometimes, we create rules and procedures or post signs to keep those people away. I found such an instance the other morning when I was going to get my morning bagle. The Tavern is a restaurant here in town that makes one of the best "slider" pizzas anywhere. They're located in a busy strip mall near a very popular deli (not to mention my favorite bagel/muffin spot). I can understand why they posted this sign. The parking over the lunch hour can be downright attrocious. I've had to play parking lot vulture more than once, and I'm sure some of the parking angst has spilled over to their lot.

However...

I've heard a lot of grousing about their sign, and I can understand why. The tone pretty much has all the charm of a porcupine in a barbed wire coat. In trying to accomplish something, they're creating some undesirable consequences; namely, people who might be otherwise be customers do not wish to eat there.

I've talked on this blog before about being engaging with our accomplishments. We want to create the conversation and curiosity to draw others in, not push them away. Granted, there will always be those undesirables we wish to keep away from our accomplishments (or I wouldn't have a job as an office politics consultant). Still, in our efforts to keep away the "undesirables," are we creating messages (rules, policies, etc.) which send the desirable stakeholders away as well? Do we just consider them collateral damage?

Just some thoughts as we wrap up the month.

Communication? Elementary, My Dear Watson

Ears_plugged I just finished having lunch with each of my daughters at their elementary school.  The lunch conversations for each were... um... fascinating experiences. The first lunch was with my daughter, Abby, a kindergartner. Surrounded by diminutive talkers, lunch chat went something like this:

"My brother picks his nose."

"So does mine. It's always green and gross."

"Hey, Abby's dad brought Oreos! Can I have an Oreo?"

"Me too! Can I have one?"

"We fed Oreos to our dog once. He threw up in the minivan."

"We can't bring our dog in the car. My dad won't allow it."

"My mom won't either. She keeps her car shiny."

"Hey, Abby's dad, your head is shiny. Do you use the same stuff my mom uses on her car?"

It was the conversational equivalent of staring into the sun. Or logging onto Twitter. Now contrast that with Lauren's class. Conversation with 5th grade girls goes something like:

"Nuh-Uh"

"Uh-Huh"

"TUH!" (which is more of an exasperated gasp, hard to capture phonetically)

"Like... like... "

"No way"

(Insert numerous eye rolls.)

Very little was actually communicated that a 44-year-old man could follow... but they seemed to understand each other. I doubt Jane Goodall would have done any better.

I was talking with a colleague this morning about communication and how important story-telling is in the art of conveying what you want to say. There's an art to sharing just the RIGHT AMOUNT of communication. Your goal is to be engaging enough that people will WANT to know more about your accomplishments.

Let's take the next three potential bullet points for status reports... all of which are meant to convey information about exactly the same task on the same project:

  • We're late.
  • The testing report was not completed yet again this week because Fred forgot to talk to the IT team lead, who had most of the detail surrounding the report since December, but refuses to discuss it with any of our team because of office politics.  Anyway, after our project sponsor forced the IT team to comply, he called Fred to set up a meeting last Tuesday at 3:30 PM in Room 702 of the East Campus Building.  Fred was called away by his wife to attend their son’s school program (which Fred had also forgotten to make note of), and when he left to go to the program, he neglected to mention anything about the meeting.  So it is now three months since the requirements were completed by IT, and our team still does not have the testing report complete.  Our sponsor will be discussing Fred’s dropped balls with him next week, and this will probably appear in his performance evaluation (at least it had better)
  • The testing report is not complete.  We are now three months behind schedule on this deliverable (originally due 12-28).  Fred is accountable for this deliverable.

The first bullet? Totally fifth grade girl. The second one? Kindgarten all over again. The final bullet gives you just enough information and engages your curiousity to ask intelligent questions.

So what grade is your communication? Are you branding your accomplishments with the right amount of information?

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