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The Summer Reading Assignment

Greatgatsby-cover“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

I knew my wife was right. I really needed to just hunker down and do it. At first, I gritted my teeth and stared at it from across the table. If a book could taunt a person, this one was thumbing its nose and sticking out its tongue at me. I wasn't to be bested by an inanimate object. So I grabbed it and started reading.

I have a confession to make: for the most part, I have avoided "great literature" all my life. I'm an avid reader, mind you, but my interests fall mainly with business books. I enjoy the occasional bout with fiction. However, in my almost 46 years on the planet, I had averted many of the big names unless unavoidable as curriculum in a required class. Both in high school and in college, lit instructors had a nasty reputation of "Read this and then tell me what I think it means or get a bad grade." Those who know me best know that I have never liked being told what to think. So good grade or bad, I wasn't about to "play the game." Hence, my reading stayed with business books and whatever else tripped my trigger.

That's almost unconsciable to a high school literature teacher, and through whatever twist of fate, that is the profession I married. Instead of going off to the East Coast to learn about the lives of the Transcendentalists or the writings of Ben Franklin, she decided to make ME her summer professional development project. She gave me The Great Gatsby, and the only condition she stipulated was we would discuss it when I was done.

So I picked it up. I had heard her talk about on numerous occasions as she taught it, so I had the most general of ideas of the plot and characters (the same tip of the iceberg understanding I'd developed about many of the greats I'd never read). I had never seen any of the prior movie releases either, so I couldn't cheat (nor would I).

A few nights later, around 11 PM, I closed the book.

"Well?"

I didn't let her down. I told her I thought it was rather presumptive that most people thought the eyeglass billboard of Dr. Eckleburg was the omniscient yet detached god watching over the characters, when it was clearly Nick Carroway himself playing that role - narrating, judging, positioning, observing - yet never really intervening until it was too late. I countered that Meyer Wolfsheim was his satanic counterpart,  who set up Gatsby during his lifetime in a counterfeit house of cards yet stated he didn't have use for the man after he was dead. I talked about looking up what the name Myrtle meant, and finding out it was an evergreen bough that was actually a symbol of love in mythology. Perfect for the woman who was "ever green" - vibrant among the Valley of the Ashes, yet was merely a symbol of love for both Tom and her husband. I agreed with the obvious assessment that Daisy, more than any other character, was the villainess, yet no character was really likeable.

"You should have been a lit instructor," she enthused, thrilled that I had taken so much away from my first foray in many years.

I countered: "No, I'm still not overly 'fond' of literature yet. And the only people who read Gatsby these days are English teachers who have read it a zillion times before and literature students who are generally too young to really understand human nature. I'm seeing it through the fresh eyes of a 45-year-old's life experiences."

And thus we get to the crux of this post: Who's reviewing your accomplishments? Are you giving them to the old and jaded of your own profession to look over and provide the same stale feedback from their commoditized ilk? Or are your accomplishments being judged by the young and inexperienced, performing it only as a function of duty?

Or are you seeking out that sweet spot combination of fresh eyes AND valuable outside experience?

Accomplishing great things is only part of the equation; finding the right people to give you the best feedback is the rest of the equation. A few years ago, I quit active networking with other project managers. (Don't worry, I still count some of them among my best friends.) I just decided that we all spoke the same language already. I started hanging out with marketing and branding and public relations people. I hung out with social media geeks and technologists and musicians and fitness hounds. And I learned from them. I learned about them. I learned with them. But the most valuable thing is I learned what they could teach me about what I thought I already knew.

And that was one assignment I'm glad I undertook.

The Straight Poop on Communication

Get_to_know_manure
Sometimes the junior high boy in me can't help it.  I see something, and it just makes me giggle.

A few weeks ago, The Des Moines Register ran a "You should get to know" series. Unfortunately, they ran it adjacent to the continuation of an article from the first page about manure run-off environmental issues. They are two completely unrelated stories, but put them together and ... well... oops.

Sometimes we run into that issue when we're branding our communication. We send an email to one person, and we forget that we just sent an email to somebody else that provides a conflicting view. We tell everybody they need to work hard on the project, only to have executives send out a message that layoffs will occur once efficiencies (i.e., your project) are put in place.

When we communicate a message, we need to take the time to look at the other messages going on around it. What have we communicated in the past? What we will we communicate in the coming days? What are others communicating around us? Who is sending supporting messages adjacent to ours? Who is providing messages that detract from ours?

Sound like simple questions, right? Probably more complex of a challenge than we think. If we were truly the center of the universe, any other message wouldn't matter.

So before you hit "send" on that message, ask yourself what "manure" might be next door stinking up your communication.

In The Way of Explanation

Priorities
Wow... did I really just go a whole month without blogging once?

Wild.

Of course, it's been a wild month.

In the way of explanation, I'll be brief:  my mom's cancer has returned, this time in the liver.  The past seven weeks have been a blur of doctors and driving, labs and listening, chemo and coping, numbers and numbness, coordinating and communicating, help and hurt.

And it's also been a month of saying "no" ... a lot.  No to lunch invitations.  No to inquiries about speaking engagements.  No to potential consulting.  No to book marketing.

Because saying "no" to these things means I can say "yes" to my mom and my family right now... and I wouldn't have it any other way.

That's part of the ability to seize the accomplishment. It's called prioritizing. And prioritizing isn't about just putting things in order and trying to do them all. Prioritizing is about stamping various items with a "no" (or at least a polite "not yet"). Prioritizing is telling various things/opportunities/people that they are just not as important as other things/opportunities/people. Priorities are driven by values. They're driven by experience. They're driven by identity. They're driven by relationships. They're driven by insight.

The only outstanding question about YOUR priorities is whether they're being driven by YOU.  You see, there are a lot of people out there who think they know what YOUR priorities should be better than YOU do.  That's when you have to be tough and remember how to say "no."  There are a lot of ways to say it; just find a way that works for you.

It's a new year, and I hope and pray 2011 is a happy and healthy year for all of you... and that it's well prioritized.  It is, after all, something you control.

Consistent Where [Cough] Critical; Variable Where [Achoo] Valued

My_way It's cold and flu season at the Johnson house.

We expect it.  We have two grade school children (petri dishes with legs), and a high school teacher (a clearing house for teenage germs).  Hence, it's no surprise when we start sniffling, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing.

But let's face it: who has time to be sick?  At the first sign of sniffles, I was hitting the Zycam.  When the cold became evident, I started on the Emergen-C fizzy drink packages.  Even with cold remedies, nothing is easy.  My wife and I got into a discussion about whether one should add the powder to a glass of water, or put the powder in first and pour the water over it.  She has her way of doing it; I have mine.  It wasn't a huge issue.

The bottom line is the end result:  we needed to get the contents of the packet into our bodies.  Everything else is just fluff.

We tend to lose sight of that issue in our businesses.  We all work with those people whose mantra is "my way or the highway" or "but we've always done it that way" or "you're not following proper procedure" ...AAARG!  You can even show them that another way may work equally well, if not better, but it won't matter.

When I consult with clients, I always remind them of the phrase "consistent where critical; variable where valued."  In essence, you only need the micromanaging level of consistency if different techniques will affect the outcome (adversely).  We all have our own way of doing things, so if adding some variability is valued by the end customer, then it should be considered.  I worked with a business analyst who insisted her template for an implementation plan was the one and only way it could be done, and she quit talking to me when I chose another format which communicated better with the people on the front lines.  The project was still implemented; the end result was not affected.

So, what battles are you fighting over process?  Do these squabbles fall into "consistent where critical" or are they more "variable where valued"?  By figuring this out, you may save yourselves hours of meetings and hundreds of argumentative emails.

As for us, the Zycam/Emergen-C cocktail seems to be working; our colds are subsiding... regardless of how we combine medicine with water.

Fed Up with Feedback Loops?

Dem_donkey_states Ah... those wild and wacky Democrats.

There was a great article by Robyn Goldwyn Blumenthal in Barron's last weekend about how Democrats and debt go together.  True, one could argue the Republicans have done their fair share to rack up debt in the last decade; I wouldn't argue.   However, according to the article, states that tend to vote Democrat "run average per capita deficits more that 2.5 times their Republican counterparts":

TJ Marta, chief market strategist of Marta on the Markets, has found that states that voted more heavily for Democrats in the last five presidential elections racked up average per capita debt of $1,896, versus $729 in those favoring Republicans.

"It's astounding," says Marta, who got the idea to run the numbers after seeing a story on CNN that showed a map of the U.S. color-coded by debt per capita. "It looked surprisingly similar to the political red versus blue state maps," he says.

One of the more interesting parts of systems thinking is when the feedback loop reveals itself.  In systems terms, the feedback loop represents the consequences of our actions (positive or negative).  If somebody is deliberate in designing their system, the feedback loop is rarely a surprise.  Even if the results vary from what is expected, the changes can be traced, explained, and corrected.  It's when people don't pay attention to the system that the results are a surprise.  Sometimes the results get people's attention and prompt change.  Other times, people just dismiss the results.  Why should we care about numbers as long as our political agenda is furthered (or the other side's agenda is hindered)?  Well, according to the article, these same "blue" states have worse bond ratings, translating to higher interest rates on debt, meaning the taxpayers are bearing more of a burden.  So this system feeds yet another system.  Funny how that works.

I'm not trying to politicize here; I just found it an interesting example of what I've been saying about systems (ALL systems) for many, many months.  If you are not designing your systems with a purpose, the feedback loop will reveal what you designed by accident.  What about YOUR systems... at work... at home?  Do you know what the feedback loop measurements are saying about your output?  Are you prepared for results?  Are you willing to accept the numbers and make changes accordingly?  Do you even agree that there's a correlation?

(Image source: Barron's)

Australia vs. The Time-Out Chair

Timeout chair  I was having lunch with friends the other day, and they started asking my advice on some chronically bad behavior at their company.  They were complaining that dysfunctionality was running rampant in their organization, and were wondering what they could do about it.

I asked them one simple question:  "How do your executives act?"

The response was as I expected.  Terms such as "childish" and "distrustful" and "conniving" were thrown about.  It was simple cause-and-effect.  The employees misbehave BECAUSE the executives misbehave.  A while back, I was asked to respond to a letter on Office-Politics.com where the top three executives were having affairs.  I suggested to the letter writer that he may want to consider a career change because their behaviors would eventually filter throughout the company.

It's pretty easy if one person misbehaves.  In school or at daycare or at home, you have a time-out chair to help correct the errant child.  (Some children spend more time on the chair than anywhere else.)  However, a couple of centuries ago, Britain decided they needed a whole island to deal with their less-than-stellar citizens, so Australia was colonized as a prison.  (Now people vacation there; go figure.)  So it is with some organizations.  If you have one or two bad employees, it's fairly easy to deal with them the traditional ways: coaching, counseling, corrective action.  If the whole lot are acting like a werewolf convention during a full-moon, then you have a problem with the overall culture.

The diagnosis of the systems output is simple.  However, the cure can be more challenging (but not impossible).  If enough people (namely executives), decide they want to change the culture (think Seattle's world famous fish market), then anything is possible.  With the Fish! example, the decision to change had to come from the top man himself, and then he had to make good by modeling the behaviors he wanted to see.

Where do you see yourself fitting into this organization?  Are you prepared to tackle an entire culture?  Some battles you can win, but some wars are costly.

There are no easy answers, but it certainly gives you something to think about if you're in an organization where you dread getting up in the morning.

Jest the Facts

Lalala I'm a big fan of systems thinking... and I happen to love the "thinking" part every bit as much as the "systems" part.  There's just something about the exchange and use of facts and information that fascinates me.

I've been distressed by the onslaught of poorly constructed rhetoric coming through the media in the past couple of years in the form of political campaigns.  It appears as though both parties have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction, reality from opinion.  And it doesn't matter which side we're talking about.  Both have become so entrenched that neither will consider a view the doesn't coincide with its own.  For example, here in Iowa, it's a FACT that the courts ruled that banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional.  It is OPINION that this ruling was part of a politically-fueled left-wing conspiracy.  It's a FACT that the democrats at a national level passed a health care bill.  It's OPINION that it will actually help those it is intended to help in the long run.  It is a FACT that some people are in this country without legal documentation; it is OPINION as to whether or not they should be allowed to stay.  (For the record, I could argue pro and con on either side of these arguments, so don't read anything into the above statements that is not intended.)

Facts and opinions are two of the many inputs our brain uses in its own system of making decisions about issues, news, people, and activity.  It also uses beliefs and values, as well as experiences and relationships to form decisions.  This article by Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe points out some fascinating things about us humans.  Facts don't always win.  If one's belief system is so strong, presenting said individual with facts may only backfire:

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters - the people making decisions about how the country runs - aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the mere misinformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon - known as "backfire" - is a "natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.

I think we've all run into those people who are ALWAYS right... even when they are not.  How do we deal with them?  Well, my preference is to disengage.  If somebody won't operate on logic and integrity, why bother dealing with them?  Whether or not I call them out for their behavior (directly or indirectly) depends on the individual and the culture (environment) in which I'm working.  Your main focus needs to remain on why you wanted to convince them in the first place.  If winning over the other individual is not mission critical to meeting your goals, then quit wasting energy there.  It's as silly as the rhetoric the far left and far right use to convince the other how wrong they are.  However, if you need to win the person over, but their belief systems are too strong to let facts influence them, then find other ways to penetrate through their beliefs. In some cases, you may need to appeal to their belief systems.

The key point is recognizing how the system of influence and exchange works between you and your audience before you engage.  It will save you much headache in the future.

Nailing The Dismount

Gymnast Even in a bad job market, people evidently still have their dignity.

After all, one can only put up with a bad job, bad coworkers, and/or bad boss so long before one gets really fed up and says "Screw it!!!"  I'm always bewildered by those who write into Office-Politics.com and have put up with a bad work situation for (drum roll) YEARS and wonder how they can make it better.  (It's called a "recurring pattern of behavior," Bucky... sloooowly step away from the employer.)

I've been amused by two stories that have made the news in the past couple of days.  The first is Steven Slater of Jet Blue who got fed up with a passenger's disobedience, delivered a rant via the PA, grabbed some beer, and high-tailed it down the inflatable slide.  The second is Jenny, who got fed up with her bad boss, and resigned via photos to her coworkers (in the process exposing her boss's Farmville addiction)... although I'm not sure how credible the latter story is, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

"Take this job and shove it!" never sounded so good... well, except for poor Steven who is now behind bars for his antics.  Everyone has had a bad work situation from time to time.  As I talked about yesterday, office bullies sometimes run rampant and unchecked.  Some executives are utterly clueless.  Silly rules of bureaucracy befuddle otherwise intelligent and rational individuals.

Still, your stint at a particular employer (or client, in my case) is a system.  And your departure is the final piece of output.  Losing it on the dismount is never a good thing... unless you are attempting a triple-quadruple-3/4-rotating-back-front-rotating-vertical-gravity-defying-death-cheating-Holy-Mary-mother-of-God-did-we-really-just-see-that flip.  Then a less than perfect landing might be expected.  I've had clients where I've left less than gracefully (but I've done it with my head held high for what I attempted to do while I was there), and I've dismounted some projects with a style and grace that would leave Shawn Johnson with her mouth gaping.  How you depart is up to you.  But be prepared to deal with the perceptions of others... that feedback loop can be like landing on concrete without padding if you're not careful.

What's Black and White and Read all over?

Black_white After reading this Deron Snyder article about making snap racial judgments, I was reminded of my own mis-perception on a recent business trip.  As my group pulled up to the hotel, we noticed a large African-American man and a very attractive Caucasian woman conversing at the back of the taxi.  He was somewhat unkempt, and definitely dressed very casually.  She looked like she had just stepped out of a salon, wearing a short, casual dress which complemented her figure.  They appeared to be having a conversation about the future pick-up from the hotel for the trip back to the airport a few days in the future as he pulled suitcases out of the trunk.  What happened next is what floored all of us:  he took his suitcases into the hotel to check in, and she jumped in the driver's seat of the cab and took off.  Everyone in my party completely misread the roles, whether by race, gender, or appearance (or all three), we automatically assumed he was the taxi driver and she was the customer.

If you've ever read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (truly, one of my favorite books), you learn how your mind really works.  It's an amazing computer, allowing us to generate snap decisions, often with great accuracy.  Gladwell even covers the race/perception issue with alarming clarity.  However, when you look at situations outlined in the article or even your own personal judgments as a systems thinking problem, it really brings things into clearer focus.

Whenever we look at ANY situation, what we see are not the only inputs reaching our brains.  We are also seeing our own past experiences, our judgments, our values, our prejudices, our paradigms.  Tom Vilsack saw what Fox News wanted him (and everyone else) to see.  Based on that information, and his own set of perceptual filters available to him at the time, he reacted... incorrectly.

Next time you go people watching, try something:  suspend judgment.  Just try to see what is actually there.  It's not as easy as it sounds.  You're challenging your mental system by suppressing inputs which the brain naturally wants to process.  Now... the next time you have to make a decision at your job, try the same thing.  What are the facts, and what are the filters? 

Fill-Turd

Coffee_filters One of the things I love about blogging is the ability, every once in a while, to stir up some engaging commentary from my readers.  (It seems my Facebook posts do that quite frequently.)  I generally like all blog comments, even from those who disagree with me, as long as they can disagree respectfully.

But recently, my blog has been receiving comments from the dregs of social media: spammers.  Even if they seem like legitimate comments, I really don't want to hear from ViagraGal, WorkfromHome, StudyOnline, BestGamblingSite.  Because of these low-life commenters, I've finally been forced to turn on comment moderation.  GRRRR.  These people want to fill my comment space with irrelevant advertising, so I'm now going to keep them out.

In systems thinking, we talk a lot about inputs, but how often do we discuss filtering out the unwanted inputs?  How do we keep out the crap?  In HR, they do screenings to prevent less-than-desirable hires from reaching the employment status.  In project management, we maintain controls to prevent scope creep from adding to our work.

What about in your job?  What are the undesirable work-turds filling your in-baskets?  What are the safeguards you can use to keep them out?

(And for those who use your real name to comment on my blog with relevant commentary, please be patient with me as I get used to publishing your comments as they appear in my in-box).

Making an Ash of Yourself

Iceland_volano If you were late for work this week, chances are good that it was the fault of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Let's look at this logically.  The volcano erupts, spewing tons of ash into the atmosphere.  The ash grounds planes all over Europe, stranding travelers everywhere.  One of those travelers was supposed to get home for an important meeting in another city.  Because they didn't make it, their coworkers were forced to work overtime to make up for their absence.  Those long hours caused another division located closer to you to pick up the slack.  One person on the team was already putting in long hours... the additional work causing greater sleep deprivation.  On his way into the office, he wasn't paying attention and switched lanes without looking or signaling, causing a 15-car pile-up on the busiest thoroughfare between your home and your office.  Your car was one of the hundreds backed up.  So you were late.  But it was ultimately the volcano's fault.

Systems thinking is both a blessing and a curse.  Understanding relationships among events - even those spread out by time and space - helps to understand the natural flow of information and activity, which in turn allows for problem solving and opportunity identification.  Some people can abuse these systems relationships by creating undue cause-and-effect (i.e., unaccountable blame).

It is important to learn how to trace outcomes back to inputs, and to know where those inputs come from.  However, almost every human system has some degree of autonomy... unlike automation or nature, we can choose our responses to the inputs around us.

How do you differentiate between effective system accountability and blaming circumstances on events around you?  How do you hold others accountable who try to "abuse the system"?

...Out Like A Lamb

Lion-and-the-lamb It's the end of March, and after a winter like no other, I am ready for spring.  More appropriately, I'm ready for the exit of the month that is truly worth of the phrase "out like a lamb."

As always, I think about systems.  How can you make your outputs result in "out like a lamb"?  Well, sometimes, you have to endure some difficult winter-from-hell throughput to get there.  Decisions, rework, arguments, office politics, waiting, disappointment, and detours all come with the territory.  Whenever an accomplishment is worth creating a system around, there will be challenges.  Think of them as the unmended potholes in your accomplishment commute.

Often, in our "instant gratification takes too long" society (thanks, Ellen, for making me smile with that phrase), we may tolerate the "in like a lion," but then we want to by-pass the next 29 days and short-circuit everything to arrive at "out like a lamb."  Systems... accomplishments... life... they don't work that way.

What is the accomplishment you desire as output from your current system?  Are you willing to endure some "March Madness" to help it come out like a lamb?

Remedial Systems Thinking 101

Nancy Sebring can have a free, signed copy of SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment if she wants it.

I think she could use it.

On Saturday, the Superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools was put on the defensive.  The district is forced to make some unpleasant budget cuts; however, a disproporationate number of jobs cut came from elementary music and fine arts.  (Didn't see a single athletic position take it in the jock strap, though.)

Sebring explained her position of the situation as follows (compliments of the Des Moines Register):

Superintendent Nancy Sebring expressed frustration with having to make the cuts. "Those courses are absolutely essential because they enhance learning," she said.

But, she added, the district also has a commitment to making sure students pass core subjects and meet federal requirements. This year, nine schools in the district were identified as persistently low-achieving schools.

Has Sebring perhaps overlooked the well known correlation that music and art CONTRIBUTE to higher scores at core subjects?  Simple cause and effect.

It amazes me when those in the position of decision-making power fail to see the obvious connections, the proven relationship between inputs and outputs, when they are right under their noses.  It happens in business all the time, so this one isn't surprising either.  Managers make short-sighted decisions because the almighty dollar says so.  There must be other creative solutions to allow their elementary students to continue in the arts and music so they WILL get higher scores in math, English, and science.

If you have 20 minutes, watch the following video.  You'll see what I mean.  If you have children in the Des Moines school district, perhaps you should attend tomorrow's school board meeting and let them know what you think.

(One note:  it is not wholly up to schools to educate children in the fine arts.  Those children whose parents are committed to the arts and/or can afford to supplement the school's shortfalls will do fine.  The others?  Hmmmm.)

And, Nancy, your book is waiting.

Great Minds (Systems) Think Alike

200910A (8) I've met so many amazing people on my blogospheric journey of the past four years.  Two of the smartest guys in the social media sandbox are Eric Brown and John Koetsier.  Great senses of humor AND brains AND articulation make them both amazing individuals.  I feel lucky enough just to be on their radar screen, but to have each of them blog about my latest book on the same day through sheer coincidence is JUST FLIPPIN' AWESOME.

Eric had given me a "heads up" that his review was coming, and he didn't disappoint:

I’ve read quite a few systems thinking books but nothing as entertaining as this.   While this isn’t nearly as comprehensive as Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Timothy Johnson’s put together a great little book that can help to introduce the systems thinking concepts quickly and easily.

But then John does his Olympic detox (yeah, he's been knee-deep in the Olympics the past two weeks up in his home in Vancouver) by choosing to write about my book.  How utterly cool is that?

Systems thinking is not natural for most people. In today’s complex business processes, inputs and outputs are widely separated in space and time … often by continents and months, if not years. So inefficiency and worse, ineffectiveness are hard to spot and harder to fix.... 

Since systems aren’t things and can’t easily be visualized, it helps when SWAT makes the system come alive. Embedding the information in an engaging story is something that makes the teaching transparent and the learning effortless. Plus, the book is brief and to the point: perfect for busy people.

Thanks to both of you!  You both gave my workweek the needed inputs to start on a high note!

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!

BRRRR-eaucracy

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."

Blabbermouth

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?

Sick Sigma

2818_aXX1X I love learning new things from the Wall Street Journal.  Every day, there are great articles about virtually every facet of business, just waiting to be absorbed by my eager little brain.  But some days, there's a bonus article which just validates things I had already intuitively figured out... but then somebody smarter than I goes ahead and does the research on it and writes about it.

Such is the case with today's Satya S. Chakravorty's article about "Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong."  As any reader of this blog already knows, I'm a pronounced Six Sigma Cynic, not because I don't believe in quality initiatives as a whole, but rather because Six Sigma is simply rehashed and repackaged TQM that is generally poorly implemented AND institutionalized (see Deming's 14 points) in most organizations.  And according to Chakravorty's research, 60% of all Six Sigma corporate initiatives fail to yield the desired results.  (Insert shocked face here.)

I liked how the article summed up the four major findings behind the tepid success:

First, the extended involvement of a Six Sigma or other improvement expert is required if teams are to remain motivated, continue learning and maintain gains. If the cost of assigning an improvement expert to each team on a full-time basis is prohibitive, one improvement expert could be assigned on a part-time basis to several teams for an extended period of one to two years. Later, managers could be trained to take over that role.

Second, performance appraisals need to be tied to successful implementation of improvement projects. Studies point out that raises, even in small amounts, can motivate team members to embrace new, better work practices. Without such incentives, employees often regress to their old ways of working once the initial enthusiasm for Six Sigma dies down.

Third, improvement teams should have no more than six to nine members, and the timeline for launching a project should be no longer than six to eight weeks. The bigger the team, the greater the chance members will have competing interests and the harder it will be for them to agree on goals, especially after the improvement expert has moved on to a new project. And the longer it takes to implement improvements, the greater the chance people and resources will be diverted to other efforts.

Fourth, executives need to directly participate in improvement projects, not just "support" them. Because it was in his best interests, the director in charge of the improvement projects at the aerospace company created the illusion that everything was great by communicating only about projects that were yielding excellent results. By observing the successes and failures of improvement programs firsthand, rather than relying on someone else's interpretation, executives can make more accurate assessments as to which ones are worth continuing.

While all good and valid points, I would add a fifth item to these:  Most six sigma and lean initiatives focus too much on the process and not nearly enough on the inputs and outputs which bookend the process.  It's like ooh-ing and ah-ing over power tools but never building anything or having a state of the art kitchen but always going out to eat.  People care more about the accomplishments, the outputs.  Every system allows for some degree of inefficiency; some even mandate it.  This is why I completely downplayed the role of the transformation process in SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment.  Those tools all exist, and they make sense.  But if your organization can't master Chakravorty's four points (with my one addendum), no number of master black belts will help your organization get from point A to point B (but you will wander very efficiently).

Mr. Brown Can Woo, Can You?

Scottbrowncongress Congratulations, Scott Brown, Senator-Elect for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Normally, special elections are barely a footnote in off-years, but once again, this provides an excellent lesson in systems thinking; namely, when some element of the system gets out of balance, the environment or the system itself will pull it back into alignment.  Sometimes, the realignment is a gentle nudge.  In the past decade of national politics, the pendulum swings the other way with the force of a released rubber band tanked up on Red Bull.

Consider this:  We as a nation put George W. Bush into office because we were sick of "Slick Willy."  Within eight short years, the White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats.  Simply a year ago, the world was gripped with Obama-fever as he took his Oath of Office.  Now, Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states, has elected a (GASP!) Republican senator in the midst of voter anguish.  Kennedy family members of three generations are rolling in their graves (at least the ones were weren't "voting" yesterday).

While the politicians in Washington (and Massachusetts) are making excuses about why and how this happened, I can replace their excuses with explanations:  the system corrected itself.  Democrats and Republicans alike are losing sight of one fundamental truth:  we live in a centrist society.  Solutions are not at the extremes of political ideologies; they generally reside in the middle.  Obama promised a "govern from the middle" approach and quickly violated that promise.  And the system corrected itself by removing a filibuster-proof majority from the Senate.

Now the question remains - will the Democrats recognize this event for what it is (a system correction) and make the necessary adjustments, or will they keep pushing their agenda through the system?  Only time will tell.  But November isn't too far away on the political timeline.  And systems will take one of two paths:  they will continue to fix themselves, or they will break beyond repair.  No matter how you cut it, Scott Brown recognized the system was broken, and he ran a campaign which resonated that sentiment. ("This is not Ted Kennedy's seat.  This is the PEOPLE'S seat.")

How about you and your organization?  Are your systems out of whack?  Are they screaming at you for a course correction?  Are you going to do something about it?

Another Fine Lott You've Gotten Us Into

Harry-reid It's been fascinating watching the reaction to Harry Reid this week.  He made some "inartful" comments about our President when Obama was still a senator/candidate.  People are calling for his head.  Al Sharpton and others are saying "No big deal."  Now let's think back a few years... to Trent Lott... who made racially insensitive comments about Strom Thurmond... and lost his leadership role in the Senate over it.

Why the difference in reaction?  Are they truly different?  Is it another case of liberal bias?  Perhaps.  But I'm not going to go there.  I commented about this event on Twitter and suggested that this was actually just a system breakdown.  My good friend, Ernest Phillips, shot back with the response I was hoping for:  "The system has a variable 'intent.' Offensive remarks are often about perceived intent which affects output."  (Go, Ernest!  That's why you're great at your job.)

Trent_lott In the system of communication, there are two inputs which are always present but often imperceptible to those in the system:  intent and perception.  Often we are faced with insensitive or rude or seemingly mean comments and the output of our communication is REACT.  But should we ALWAYS react?  I've been floored some times on Facebook when I'm just having fun being cheeky and somebody completely wigs out over a comment I've made.  Those who know me best, know that I generally don't set out to hurt people randomly (intent).  They also look holistically at the conversation instead of ONLY filtering it through their values and experiences (perception).  Generally, I can disagree agreeably with most people because I can look at the communication and relationship systems I have with them... and I separate out the intent and the perception.  The output of communication is generally much better when we can recognize intent and perception for what they are.

As for Harry Reid, the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News will all scurry off to a different story, a new scandal, and a scathing attention/ratings grabber.  And they will try their best to play with perceptions and intents to make us believe whatever they want.  Is your system ready?  Will you recognize it when it happens?

An Offer You Can't Refuse

Brando_godfather One thing my clients sometimes ask me to do is help them improve their processes.  I've done it for banks and for factories (and all with no Six Sigma blackbelt).  You can't improve a process, however, if you can't document the process.  I liken it to attempting to take a trip to an unknown location with no map.  (And don't ask my sister-in-law... all of her directions are subjectively obscure landmarks... "drive to the mall, then turn left until you hit the pumpkin-colored house... no, not the tangerine-colored house... anyway, then drive until you find the barn with the three pretty dogs..." Well, you get the idea.)  No, my friends, a roadmap (or GPS) will get you from Point A to Point B.

At a minimum, I like to create a deployment (or swimlane) flowchart.  Unlike a "generic" flowchart, the swimlanes show who is responsible for completing each task in the process.  If you understand the process of making a flowchart, this is very telling for either existing (as is) processes or desired future (to be) processes.  And yes, I am a big fan of documenting both your existing and future processes.  Most people don't want to "waste" time documenting the existing processes, but doing so helps you flesh out many of the potential areas for improvement.

The process for creating a flowchart is really an offer you can't refuse... and yes, the Godfather reference is intended... it will help you remember HOW to build one of these bad boys:  BRANDO

B is for Boundaries - where does your process start and end?  If your process is really big and complicated, consider breaking it down to smaller processes.  The oval is the tool to show the start and finish of each process.

R is for Roles - who are the people working on your process (not specific names, but more job titles or role definitions.  I tend to list them in the order they are introduced into the process

A is for Actions - identify the individual steps in the process.  Tasks go into rectangles and decisions to into diamond shapes

N is for Negotiate - discuss and clarify and validate the steps.  Be prepared to argue and debate and edit and change so that everyone is in agreement (and no, not everybody currently does the same process the same way)

D is for Draw - connect the lines among the rectangles and diamonds, add any supporting documentation to show paperwork or computer interactions

O is for Opportunities - look at the existing process to identify areas for improvement and then brainstorm for solutions to improve the process (or maybe decide the process isn't even needed at all)

Of course, I spell all of this out in SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment, and you get to follow along as the characters struggle with all of the "yeah, but what if" twists and turns in their quest to do it right.  In the end, though, you will see that a well-drawn flowchart really is "an offer you can't refuse."

Flowchart

Mission Impassable

Detour_sign As many of you know, I'm a big fan of Peggy Noonan.  I look forward to every Saturday's Wall Street Journal just so I can read her laser-focused and dead-on-accurate commentary on society and politics.  Today was no different.  As with many journalists, she weighed in on the new decade ahead.  While the emphasis of her essay was balancing stoicism with optimism, her supporting arguments caught my attention.  She provided example after example of organizations who had forgotten their mission, and the cost of doing so.  As she put it:

Maybe the most worrying trend the past 10 years can be found in this phrase: "They forgot the mission." So many great American institutions—institutions that every day help hold us together—acted as if they had forgotten their mission, forgotten what they were about, what their role and purpose was, what they existed to do. You, as you read, can probably think of an institution that has forgotten its reason for being. Maybe it's the one you're part of.

How true.  In systems thinking, I tend to emphasize the output (since my brand is about accomplishment, this seems only logical).  We create a lot of outputs throughout the day... the week... the year.  Most are done on purpose, but some outputs are created accidentally.  The accidental ones generally occur when we fall prey to forgetting our mission.  We create shoddy products because our companies forget their mission of quality.  We behave badly because we forget our core values.  Our projects spin out of control because they forget why the deliverable is important to the organization.

There must always be alignment between the output and the mission.  To lose that link renders the systems useless.

So what are you accomplishing?  Is it consistent with your mission?  Is your mission understood by those who are being asked to execute it?

System in Detox

Hydrocodone Recently, I had to undergo knee surgery for a torn meniscus (one of the indicators of age... sigh).  My surgeon was kind enough to give me a prescription for a pain killer, the generic version of Vicodin.  I was very careful to limit my use of the prescription meds, limiting it only to night-time.  However, a couple of days after the prescription ran out, I found myself getting jittery and anxious.  My body was coming off of a pain-killer dependence.  (And, no, I did not renew the presciption... after a couple of days the symptoms went away.)

Our systems sometimes go through detox as well.  Have you ever downsized an employee, only to realize how critical they were to your organization?  What about software or a policy that was tossed out?  When you remove a critical input (either accidentally or purposely), you run the risk of sending your system into detox.  It's become dependent on the input.

Sometimes the input is negative, but it still sends your system into detox.  Our perceptions, experiences, beliefs, and paradigms can be negative inputs into our system.  I found a great example of this over at the TiE Leadership program blog:

Sean O’Malley runs The Quarry, a business incubator at Venrock, a leading venture capital firm. In the last 18 months he has started 6 companies that have gone from blank slate, through “ideation”, execution and validation to receive Series A funding. He spent more than an hour talking with TLP Fellows about the “Idea Development Model” he uses.

It is important to take the time to do ideation right. The first thing I do when an entrepreneur comes in to The Quarry is put them through “detox”. 9 times out of 10 this is the best thing they have ever done. It is great to be able to take that step back. It should take a least three months, which may seem too long, but the idea forming stage is really the only time you'll have time!

Think about your systems.  What inputs would send them into detox?  Is that what you want?  How will you get your system back on track from the input withdrawal?

System Neglect

There's a sad irony to this post.  As the readers of this blog know, I used a tactical police approach to express the elements of systems thinking for my next book.  Beyond looking at one system, SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment also looks at the relationship AMONG systems.  SWAT also stands for "Systems Working All Together."  In the past three years, I've met so many amazing and brilliant and brave law enforcement officers.  They've demonstrated to me in numerous ways how every system's output is the input to another system.  Recognizing those interdependencies is key to understanding your business processes, your relationships, and the world around you.

So when I see a system failure cause the deaths of four police officers, it saddens and frustrates me.  What's even more frustrating is that the system failure was avoidable.  I'm not sure why then-Governor Mike Huckabee thought it wise to commute the sentence of a man with a violent past.  But in releasing Maurice Clemmons as an output of the Arkansas justice system, he created a dangerous and deadly input to the Washington justice system.  To a degree, Huckabee is correct in his statement about this tragedy being a "result of a series of failures in the justice system" but what I didn't see was anything accepting accountability for his role in setting those system failures in motion.

Now I know this sort of thing happens all the time.  Prisons are overcrowded.  Issues are complex.  Every prisoner is different (after all, Clemmons pulled off an amazing smoke screen in convincing Huckabee he was a changed man).  HOWEVER... The one output over which every executive, manager, and professional has complete control and accountability is his or her DECISIONS.  I was saddened to see Huckabee quickly shift the blame to the parole boards of Arkansas and Washington.  I don't even want to think about the feelings of the families of those four officers.  I was severely disheartened about this tragedy, and I - half a country away - merely live on the outer periphery of law enforcement.

When you're about to make a decision, ask yourself the following:

  • Why am I about to make the decision? Do the inputs I've been given support the output I'm about to create?
  • Am I willing to accept the downstream consequences of my decision? Will I be accountable, regardless of the outcome?
  • What other systems will be affected by my decision? How will my decision serve as an input to other systems?
  • What is my decision-making process?

As you can see, while good systems thinking skills are beneficial, a lack thereof can be disastrous.  We'll hope your decisions don't cost innocent people their lives.  I'm just thankful that another police officer's decision-making process ended the nightmare before other lives were lost.  To the families and colleagues and friends of the four officers, my sincerest and deepest sympathies.  You're in my thoughts and prayers.

 

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Salahis?

Salahi Party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi have everybody up in arms at the White House.  Our reality-tv-fame-seeking society appears to have prompted this pair to crash the Obamas' first State Dinner, honoring the Singhs of India.

We'll see if the ensuing publicity battle bares out whether the camera-hungry couple actually had a valid invitation for the party.  (My guess is they did not, but I'm always surprised by the depths to which Washington can sink.)  Assuming they truly are just a couple of paparazzi chasers, this leads to some fun lessons in systems thinking:  mainly, what do you do when you have uninvited inputs into your system?

In my work with the SWAT team, I learned a lot about the role of the flash-bang device (otherwise called the noise and light distraction device or NLDD).  Having experienced it firsthand, I can see why tactical law enforcement use this explosive.  Its "flash" and/or "bang" is uninvited by the bad guys and gets their attention.  The distraction allows the good guys to do their job and apprehend the bad guys more effectively.  Good guy and bad guy labels aside, it would appear as though this party crash has served as a flash-bang to the White House.

These uninvited inputs of the Salahis will lead to some serious questions at the White House:

  • How did they get in? What lapse in security allowed it to occur? Who was accountable for the failure (i.e., who will be adding to the unemployment statistics by Monday)?
  • What impacts will this breach in security have in future White House events? How will processes change to ensure safety and security?
  • How will the Obama Administration respond to the Salahis?  Will they press charges or will there be a mere slap on the wrist?  What will the feedback loop look like?
  • How will this make things more difficult for future desired inputs (i.e., invited guests)?

You may wonder how this affects you and your organization.  Have you ever wound up with an undesired input on your team?  your department?  your company?  How hard was it to get rid of them?  Or are they still crashing your party?  How many "policies and procedures" were put in place because of your Salahis?  How many additional hoops must you now jump through because somebody crashed your party?  Are you in a position to relax security

Don't Try This At Home

Turkey_bake_how_to My younger daughter was asked to share with her daycare class how to bake a turkey.  Her response is listed in the picture.  Um... I think we need some lessons on systems thinking.  There's a really simple lesson here:  If you're not sure of your inputs OR your processes, the end result could be a real turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving from Carpe Factum!

Does This Bureaucracy Make Me Look Fat?

Cog_gear I can't do it without authorization.

I'm sorry.  We have to wait for approval.

You'll need five signatures to get that moving forward.

My boss won't let me.

AAARRRG.  It's called a DECISION!

How do you sacrifice a virgin?

Trouble getting things moving in your organization?  The Wall Street Journal published an interesting article by Julian Birkinshaw and Suzanne Heywood yesterday correlating size with accomplishment (or lack thereof).

We've all understood intuitively for years that with organizational size comes greater complexity.  (DUH!)  The value of this article is how the authors break this down even further by explaining the different types of complexity within an organization:

  • Dysfunctional - as the name implies, this is the "bad" complexity that adds no value and just makes you work harder for nothing. According to the authors, this kind of complexity is built in over years. My own take is that we tend to generalize all complexity as being dysfunctional and label it with the blanket of bureaucracy. But... not necessarily so...
  • Designed - this is planned complexity created on purpose, similar to what Dell did when they created mass-customization. The authors go on to say that some designed complexity can actually lessen dysfunctionality. I personally used this philosophy when designing project change control procedures in a highly dysfunctional big box employer in town. While it added complexity, the added hoops reduced dysfunctionality.
  • Inherent - this is just the complexity that's left when you strip away dysfunctional and designed complexity... simply put, how hard is it to naturally do the job? The authors used flight controllers as an example. I'd add into that any job that is highly specialized... programmers, accountants, Olympian figure skaters.
  • Imposed - complexity which is outside the control of the company is the last category. I've mentioned before working on government regulatory projects such as HIPAA before. It's highly complex and was imposed by the outside. As a blogger, I sometimes find Typepad itself possesses some very annoying complexity. And don't even get me started about Technorati... have quit using it altogether.

The bottom line again circles back to systems thinking, folks.  Identify the inputs causing the complexity, and it becomes pretty easy to categorize whether it's a value-added complexity or just bureaucratic fodder.

When you find yourself faced with a complex process or job, ask yourself the following:

  1. What's causing the complexity?
  2. What factors do I control in the complexity?
  3. How much can I experiment with this job/process to make it less complex?
  4. How far can I push the envelope before anybody notices?
  5. Would anybody (including me) go to jail or get fired by simplifying the complexity?
  6. When did this complexity come into play? (a tell-tale sign of dysfunctional complexity)

Ultimately, it all comes down to the authors' recommendations to either reduce, channel, or accept the complexity in your system.

Why is this important?  Well, rather than just labeling something as too complex (thereby dismissing your own accountability for fixing it), this article (and this mindset) allows you to dissect the problem a little more succinctly.

And in the end, isn't that the most important aspect of accomplishment?

Blind, Deaf, and Dome

Large_dome I'm not a sports buff.  There, I've said it.  I can appreciate and coexist with sports.  I understand the basics of most sports (except curling; I still see no point in that as an Olympic sport).  I can root for teams, and I do have favorites.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I noticed a piece in this morning's Wall Street Journal asking if it was time the NFL banned domes.  The authors' claim is that indoor teams develop a dominatingly fast and precise offense because of their "weatherless" environment.  First of all, I think the authors of the piece should be sent to a statistics class (the most basic one, please).  All of their data is based on either current year selected teams or prior year outliers.  Even they acknowledge in the article that the Rams and the Lions (both indoor teams) combined have a 1-11 record this year.  They mentioned the 1999 Rams, writing up Kurt Warner's spectacular run as a quarterback to his INDOOR experience at arena football.  Maybe they were too busy writing sports briefs to actually catch a game, but the reason Kurt Warner was good was because of the fast pace of arena football.  It could have been played at Lambeau Field in January, and it still would have been fast paced.

I'm surprised they didn't recommend banning all outdoor fields south of the Mason-Dixon line while they were at it.  After all, if a team can't play in the blinding snow and/or driving rain, what's the point?  Personally, I've always assumed the opposite premise was intuitively true, since those who play outdoors in northern climates would naturally be tougher and better able to adapt to any environment.

So why am I going on a tirade about football venues?  Well, we do the same thing in business, don't we?  Very few companies get to choose their business environment.  Every system, every organization operates in an environment.  It's a key component of systems thinking.  Right now, the general economic environment stinks, but nobody chose this environment (except for the greedy brokers of Wall Street, the shoddy mortgage underwriting policies of the past 15 years, the fine upstanding credible staff at Moody's, and an accountant named O'Leary whose cow knocked over a lantern and started the whole mess).

The trick in systems thinking is to figure out how to modify your system to make the best of your business environment.  So our customer base is drying up.  Do we make less?  Modify our pricing structure?  Purchase a new company?  Undermine a competitor?  Find new products and/or new customers?  The bottom line is still the bottom line, regardless of the environment in which it operates.  Sometimes you can get lucky and modify the environment.  Other times you have to tough it out.  Like the Patriots, whose last 10 seasons (2009 included) are 106-44 or the love-em-or-hate-em Packers who have a respectable 84-60 from 2000 to 2008 (adjusting for any flaws in my math if I miscalculated the totals in my brain).

What about you?  What's in your environment that you want to blame for your business results?  How can you adjust your inputs or transformation processes to adapt in order to get the outputs and feedback loops you desire?

But what do I know?  I'm not a sports buff.

Where You Goin' Buddy?

Taxi_nyc You just have to appreciate New York taxi drivers.  Daring to a fault, a healthy dose of reckless abandon, and an air of psychosis... but all with a smile.

I sort of think more organizations could use some New York taxi drivers on their staff... especially when it comes to systems thinking.  In the game of Get-From-Point-A-to-Point-B, the average taxi driver (once the passenger communicates Point B effectively) is on a mission:  weave through the quagmire of concrete to reach Point B (preferably safely).  Very few have GPS.  Even fewer speak English.  But they all have the same goal:  Point B.

Many organizations couldn't handle a taxi driver.  There is too much ambiguity.  They know the streets of New York (all 5 boroughs) like the back of their hand.  They know where the construction is.  They know where the temporary clogs are.  Regardless of how little English they may speak, they will unabashedly tell you how much they hate that part of Broadway/Times Square has been shut down for pedestrian traffic.  Their focus is Point B.  They don't need a Six Sigma black belt to work their way through the system.  They will not call a committee meeting of other taxi drivers to figure out the best route.  You point them in the direction you want to go, and that becomes their focus.

So how much are you allowing your people to be New York taxi drivers?  Are you pointing them in the right direction and then letting them do the job they do best?  Or are you still trying to be a back seat driver?  Are you relaxed or white knuckled and pale?  Are you communicating Point B or are you leading them in circles and racking up higher charges because of it?

So many lessons from New York... wish I could have stayed longer.

Not Right Now

Stopwatch Anybody who wears the title "Mom" or "Dad" is very familiar with the phrase, "Not right now."  It's our noncommittal safety net when we don't want to give our child a "yes" or "no" answer at the moment.  It's our "Let me think about this one before I answer" contingency plan.

I personally love "not right now" because it gives me a reason to pause and catch my breath, an excuse to stave off a decision when I don't have all the facts or the mental bandwidth to process the facts that might be in front of me.

I use "not right now" whenever my system is affronted with too many demands.  I use it when I've been blind-sided or offended and I need to process my next steps.  I use it when the output decision is low priority compared to the other things in my life.

"Not right now" is not merely a stall tactic, nor is it passive aggression.  I will give an answer, and I expect to be held accountable for providing an answer.  I just can't or won't give it at this exact moment.

Our Six-Sigma-infested business world is not on good terms with "not right now."  The phrase means a lag in the system.  It creates inefficiency.  It's not "lean" enough for fast-paced processes.  We tell people we want to do a root cause analysis, but we want it yesterday and we want it accurate.

I love systems thinking guru Peter Senge's story about the "Beer Game" exercise he gave his students.  You get to see firsthand why and how fast decisions lead to wrong decisions.  And you get to see why and how those wrong decisions compound themselves further down the line.

One question I've started asking religiously whenever a demand is presented is "When do you need this by?"  Then I take some time to negotiate a response.  If I make demands of others, I try to build in their "not right now" time for them.

"Not right now" will do one thing for you if used correctly:  it will improve your over-all effectiveness.  By delaying things of lesser priority, you can now focus on the really important things in your life and bring them to fruition.

If you are shooting for an accomplishment, you'll need to learn to embrace "not right now" on occasion.  It will save you a lot of anxiety... but maybe not right now.

Shell Game

Ammo_shells As long as we're talking about law enforcement ironies, another event occurred this past week here in Des Moines.  A local man was threatening suicide, and Polk County Sheriff's deputies were called to assist in the stand-off.  Eventually, the decision was made to end the stand-off by shooting the man with a "Less-Than-Lethal" bean-bag round.  This ammunition is intended to stun and hurt an individual, allowing them to be subdued more easily.  The unfortunate part of this decision was that somebody mixed a live round in with the bean bag rounds, and the shot intended to end the suicide attempt caused the end of his life.  His funeral was Friday.

Again, even the most unfortunate of ironies can teach us a thing or two about how we operate on a day-to-day basis.  You may be trying to help out on a situation, but if you are not paying attention to HOW you are trying to help, you may end up causing even more harm.  I did a quick blog search on the phrase "unintended consequences" and yielded some interesting results:

  • Freakonomics saw problems in the networks of "secret and hidden" fiber optics cables running throughout Washington DC.  Due to our fear of terrorism, they're so secret that our own maintenance guys do damage to them because they don't know they are even there.
  • Nate Hagen had a great essay, asking whether all of our crisis blog posts are doing more harm than good if people take knee-jerk reactions to a problem, which in turn creates more problems.

  • The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette brought up problems with solar power and how it messes with other delicate balances.

  • Iran's recent election didn't go unquestioned as we consider where the power will really lie, and how will the regime fit in with the US stance.

  • James Joyner, in his attempt to show us the impacts of political finance, generated the best quote about unintended consequences:  "It is a truism that well-intentioned attempts by government to curb bad behavior often spawn unforeseen and perhaps worse behavior."  (You can substitute any other system for government and it would still be a truism.)

  • And finally, Mike Larson discusses the unintended market consequences of our government's bailout mentality on the broader economy.

Whether or not you agree with their specific assessments is not the point of this post.  Each of these people, in their own way, has just demonstrated that somebody is putting a live round in a gun where they think they are shooting something less-than-lethal.  Every situation mentioned above is a potential suicide standoff about to end in disaster.

This is why understanding systems thinking is so critical in our society right now.  There are a lot of shell games occurring (as witnessed above), yet few people are taking a step back to look at these individual systems from the 50-thousand foot view.  And this is not a specific diss on the Obama administration; these problems have been growing for decades through executive and legislative branches controlled by both parties.

The bottom line?  Pay attention!  You need to clearly understand your inputs (all of them) and the impact each one will have on the outputs of your specific system.  This is the truism of which Joyner spoke.  It applies in business, in churches, in government, in education, in families, in friendships, in phone calls, in text messages, in personal finance, in fitness, in nutrition... you name it:  it's a system.  If you're a player in the system, then you'd better PAY ATTENTION and figure out how it works.

Otherwise, your good intentions may not be less than lethal.

Regulating Corpses

 Mummy Every once in a while, a news story crosses my computer screen that makes me simultaneously cringe and chuckle.  For example, New York police ticketed an illegally parked van... numerous times... only to later discover there was a corpse inside.  Um... no wonder he wasn't motivated to move his vehicle.

That happens a lot in corporate America.  We create rules and regulations and penalties and punishments, but rarely do we look inside the van to figure out what is the root cause of the problem.  We address the outputs we observe.  We don't stop and ask WHY the van is illegally parked.  Obviously, not one single ticket issued changed the fact the driver was dead.

This is a systems thinking issue.  Instead of addressing the inputs to the system, we keep trying to change the outputs by repeating the same ill-conceived feedback which falls on deaf (or dead) ears.  I wonder how many cops even thought about LOOKING INSIDE the van.  (Can I hear a rousing chorus of "D'OH"?)

I know a lot of corporate employees who are nervous because there is not enough work to do to keep them looking busy.  I double dog dare them to go through their employee handbook and look for policies which are the equivalent of ticketing a corpse-driven van.  How do you find a corpse-targeted policy?  Here are a few pointers:

Once you find these corpse policies, create an intelligent business case for changing them, along with new solutions, and an implementation plan that will get management's attention (i.e., dollars and cents).

Outcome Predicted

Man_behind_bars Last week, I attempted my first stint with Junior Achievement.  After dealing with c-suites, dysfunctional middle managers, and passive-aggressive cubicle dwellers, you wouldn't think a group of fourth graders would have me spooked, but I have to admit a certain level of nervousness headed into Mrs. Costello's Crestview Elementary classroom.

The curriculum I was given deals with regions and resources and how they interact with our business decisions.  It's very cool, and extremely easy to teach (normally, I loathe "plug and play" lesson plans).  Toward the end of the lesson, I handed out little post-it note flags to each of my students and asked them to think of a business they wanted to start.  Then I asked them to put their initials on the their flags and place them on a map of the U.S. where they wanted their business to be located.  For the most part, it was a relatively uneventful exercise, except for two of the students, whom I will refer to as "Bart" and "Lisa" (not their real names).

As he was walking up to the map, Bart demonstrated his attention to recent current events by proudly informing me he was going to start a bank and then keep everybody's money.  Upon overhearing his plans, Lisa scoffed.  (Side note:  fourth grade girls scoff better than any other class of human beings.)  She turned to Bart, and matter-of-factedly stated, "Fine, then we'll just put your flag here at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, because you're just going to wind up in prison anyway."  I didn't have the heart to tell her that Alcatraz was no longer in business as a prison, but I was impressed with her geography skills.

What impressed me most about this exchange was that even in fourth grade, kids are already getting cause-and-effect.  I predict Lisa will go far in life, not because she's an uptight goody-two-shoes, but because she understands that one person's behavioral inputs will create a certain type of output.

Of course, there are constraints to her views on justice.  Our nation is pretty cyclical, and while the Obama administration is moving the pendulum in one direction, eventually things come full circle.  I was reading a blog post last month where the writer was criticizing the works of Ayn Rand, and how harmful they were to our country.  What really got my attention were the two comments left by the same person.  Those comments showed much more insight into cause-and-effect of human behavior.  Overlaid with our perceptions of right and wrong is a concept of balance.

Maybe instead of prematurely sentencing Bart to prison, Lisa should start focusing her energy into allowing Bart means of making the money he desires within boundaries that will keep him out of jail... or maybe not... because another fundamental truth is that fourth grade girls love to get fourth grade boys into trouble.

The System of Survival

Pfg_eddie A lot of people ask me why I chose systems thinking as the topic for my next book.  What relevance does it have in this current economic environment?  It's a very fair question.  Given what is going on in the economy - at both a macro and micro level - a lot companies are being forced to make some drastic decisions.  But are they good ideas when examined under a "systems thinking" microscope?

Let's take Des-Moines based Principal Financial Group's decision to cut salaries across the board.  To their credit, they decided to cut pay on a sliding scale, with those earning less than $40K will get a 2% cut; those earning between $40K and $100K will lose between 4-7% of their pay.  Those earning more than $100K will lose 10% of their pay.  This decision follows a few rounds of layoffs over the past several years.  On the surface, this looks like an innovative approach so more people can keep their jobs.  After all, we all have to tighten our belts during this prolonged recession, right?

I've spent the last week talking to quite a few PFG stakeholders throughout the community (employees, former employees, consultants and contractors).  While Principal's communicated output is a lower payroll expense and the supposed saving of thousands of jobs, one has to wonder if they've considered all of the unintended outputs from their decision:

  • Company loyalty - Principal's culture is based on a strong system of employee loyalty.  Their organizational culture is very paternalistic with the implied contract being "If you show your unquestioning loyalty to us, we'll take care of you."  Now that implied contract has been broken in the eyes of many, so you can expect a rather large turnover from the employees when the economy improves.
  • Productivity - One look at Herzberg's motivational model and it doesn't take a lot to figure out that - while money doesn't motivate - a perceived lack of money can actually destroy motivation and productivity.  There has been considerable grumbling from many employees over this pay cut.  Don't expect major stock rebounds if people are too busy complaining to get their work done.
  • Community angst - Principal is considered a thought leader in the community when it comes to human resources and benefits.  On the positive end, they've helped further progressive issues like casual work attire and alternate work schedules.  However, you can bet there are now other companies in town eyeing their own payroll expense because of PFG's actions.  If Des Moines goes into a recessionary tailspin (we've been relatively insulated to this point), it won't be too hard where to point the finger.
  • Future recruiting - Iowans have excruciatingly long memories.  After this gets out into the marketplace, good luck recruiting at colleges or from other companies.  People don't want to go to work where money can be taken away.
  • Mediocrity survives - Having been in Principal's culture as an employee and as a contractor, I know of many employees and executives who have willfully damaged their bottom line (some brag about it).  To my knowledge, they are still there collecting a (smaller) paycheck.  Meanwhile, the ones who do care about making a difference are left scratching their heads.

Yes, on the surace, it looks like PFG is helping to save jobs and lower costs.  Peel away the onion layers and you have something that really starts to smell bad and make people cry.

And one system's output become's another system's input.  When you look at the big picture of how systems operate, you see how potentially lethal Principal's decision becomes to the economy of Des Moines.  Principal's slogan is that they'll "give you an edge."  I think the double-entendre of this promise will be very apparent in the coming weeks.

For Sale: One Slightly Used Princess

Mattress_princess I've always been fascinated by the story of the Princess and the Pea.  Not really the story itself, per se, but that our society has allowed it to perpetuate.  Can we really label this so-called princess a heroine?  Hello!  I'm easily stirred in my sleep, too.  Of course, I'm competing with a wife who wants all the covers and a dog who wants the whole bed.  Hmmm... that must make me a super-hero.  OK, maybe not so much.

I suppose I should back up a little and give some basis for this tirade.  I was reading this story the other night, and it hit me that this lombardic lady has the same problem as many modern cubicle dwellers:  she's great at identifying problems and symptoms but sucks at finding root causes and solutions.  All she knows is that she's had a bad night's sleep.  Only the wicked queen knows the real truth and can solve the problem:  a pea placed under multiple mattresses.  (It would be great to have more wicked queens around our cubicles if they weren't the ones starting the problems in the first place.)

So how do you distinguish between a root cause and a symptom?

  • Root causes are more persistent.  Symptoms may come and go.  The process flaws plaguing your customer service may show up as lost sales, complaint spikes, etc.  The symptoms tend to come and go, but the root causes linger.

  • Root causes deplete "why" questions.  With symptoms, you can still ask "why" and get answers (assuming you're honest with yourself).  With root causes, when you can no longer as "why" you probably have a cause.

  • Root causes are objective.  Symptoms tend to be more subjective.  As I say in my next book, "because in the battle of drama vs. data, data almost always wins."  Root causes can be tracked much more consistently with better data than can symptoms.

  • Root causes and excuses are mutually exclusive.  Because of the above reason, I've rarely seen rational and responsible people make excuses when the obvious and evident is staring them in the face.  I have, however, seen people make very lame excuses to cover up symptoms.

So let's get rid of the princesses and start finding those peas under the mattresses ourselves, shall we?

DUH-livery

Newspaper I'm considering cancelling my subscription to the Des Moines Register.  It really has nothing to do with the constant shrinking in size due to cost cutting measures.  I appreciate the content of the Register.  They've been more than favorable to me as an author and speaker.  And I do like the feel of newspaper in the morning.  It really doesn't have much to do with the fact that there are other outlets available during the day where I can read the paper or get my news.  Nope, this crazy cancellation talk boils down to one thing:  carrier delivery.

Given Iowa's ever-changing climate, I've asked my carrier (MULTIPLE TIMES) to place our paper on one specific spot on our front porch so we simply have to open our door, reach out, and grab it.  She seems to think it's ok to walk half-way up our driveway and fling the paper in the general direction of the door.  Having been a newspaper carrier for almost five years in my youth, I learned the first principle of customer service before my teenage years even began:  give the customer what they want.  Their paper was always consistently placed exactly where they wanted it without fail.  So - naive me - I expect the same level of service.  When I'm up at 5 in the morning at catch her, and kindly remind her where I want the paper, I get a shrug and a week's worth of compliance before the old habits come back.

Now if you were to ask Mike Wagner about this, he'd probably tell you it's a problem with personal branding.  Ask Drew McLellan, he'd build on Mike's issue and tell you there are some marketing lapses with the customers.  Phil Gerbyshak would tag it as a gross customer service blunder.  Victor Aspengren would suggest a corporate culture flaw.  They'd all be right, albeit incomplete.  This is also a systems thinking flaw.  The Register is doing (more or less) everything right until the paper hits output stage.  The last point in the newspaper creation business is delivery, and there's a flaw.  When their output becomes my input, somebody is dropping the ball (or at least clumsily flinging it about five to ten feet out of reach in any one direction).

Let's get this crystal clear:  If the point at which your output becomes somebody' else's input is not delivered according to the precision of the INPUT's point of view, the output system has failed.  I'm sure the reporters, sales people, layout artists, photographers, and editors of the Register would be chagrined to find out that all their hard work is being undermined by one lazy delivery carrier.  They are doing their job to ensure a quality output, but the most critical point in the system - when product meets customer - is being delivered with apathetic sloppiness.  Coke learned this back in the 1980's.  Microsoft is learning it now with Vista.  The hand-off point between systems must be delivered from the perspective of the system receiving the output.

I know, I know... it's a simple concept.  But one that escapes too many businesses and individuals these days.  But if you don't understand it, your customers intuitively do.

A Cheesy Excuse

Grilled_cheese"When you're up to your ass in alligators, sometimes it's hard to remember you're supposed to be draining the swamp" - Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Last night, my church held the first annual "Ultimate Grilled Cheese Throw Down" where we had a competition to determine the best grilled cheese sandwich.  My "Hellfire Damnation" tied for second place (I'm claiming religious persecution because of the name).  After the competition, the griddles were opened up to all to create whatever combination they desired.  Who knew that brie, chocolate chips, and basil could taste good together?  Don't ask, OK?

The highlight of my evening came when I was sitting next to our pastor's wife.  She was eating her grilled cheese sandwich, laden with a mixture of condiments and meats.  She paused and commented to me that something wasn't right; something was missing.  That's right, folks:  in her desire to accessorize, she forgot to put cheese on her grilled cheese sandwich.  (And she also made the mistake of noting her error sitting next to a blogger who finds application in EVERYTHING.)

How often do we do that with our accomplishments?  We get so caught up in all of the minutiae, that we forget the main purpose of what we need to do.  Often, I will start my projects with one simple question (which could have multiple answers):  "This project will be successful when _____________."  Then I will pull this statement out when people want to throw tons of condiments on my project plan.  It keeps us focused and on track.

Think about your accomplishments.  Your projects.  Your relationships.  Your operations.  Your life.  Are you forgetting the cheese?  I hope not!

Tim's Hellfire Damnation Sandwich Recipe:

Preheat griddle or pan to 375 degrees.  Cut bread approximately 1/4" thick.  Slice pepper jack approximately 3/16" thick.  Thinly layer the salsa on one slice of bread.  Butter outsides of bread (works best if butter is room temperature).  Grill until golden brown and cheese is all gooey-melty (technical grilled cheese terminology).

Do You Like Green Eggs and Bear?

It seems a Japanese Zoo is having a hard time keeping the algae out of the polar bears' water, so even the bears have "gone green."  It's not the first time this has happened.  A Singapore zoo experienced a similar event which hit the news about four years ago.

Green_bear_apDo you like green eggs and bear?
For those things, I do not care.
I do not like green eggs and bear
I do not like them anywhere!

Do you like the in a zoo?
With green water full of goo?
Do you like green in the water
Coloring seals and an otter?

I do not like them in a zoo
I do not like them smeared with goo
I do not like green eggs and bear
I do not like them anywhere.

But what about your company?  What's covering your department or team right now and discoloring it?  Is it a bad manager?  Is it antiquated procedures?  Is it bureaucracy?  Is it unfit equipment or software?  Is it dysfunctional competition?  Any of these things can be toxic if left unchecked.

Unless you look at what is causing things to turn green (i.e., getting at the root cause), you're probably going to deal with a lot of algae-covered bears.

You Can't Get There From Here

Kmart_roadblockWe've all seen the signs from stores.  The ones that intuitively and implicitly say, "Go away, kid.  You bother me."  Often, companies, departments, and individuals do not even realize they are communicating to their customers their desire to keep them away.  Let's face it... taking out the driveway and putting in road-closed signs to force customers to find a different entrance is a little obvious.

  • What about creating policies which force customers (internal or external) to jump through nearly impossible hoops?
  • What about rewarding your call center staff for getting customers off the phone quickly rather than happily?
  • What about offering rebates instead of just putting the item on sale?
  • What about hiring a sloppy Gen-Y slacker or a prim-and-proper ice queen as your receptionist?
  • What about holding up potential job candidates in mountains of red tape instead of making a decision one way or the other so they can get on with their lives?

The first step to fixing these roadblocks is identifying them.  Ask a friend or trusted colleague to "play pretend" customer for you and give you their impressions.  Ask a head hunter to pretend to be a job seeker with your organization.  Seek out objective counsel who can tell you what is wrong when customers enter YOUR system.  How easy is it for them?

Trust me on this one:  you can't seize your accomplishments if you are preventing your customers from seizing theirs.

Renewable Synergy

Hydrogen_cellsIt's been fascinating watching the Democratic National Convention this week.  Because I like to remain objective, I switch among channels to get different views and commentary.  What is even more interesting, though, are the commercials shown on each of the stations.  A common theme running across party lines and ideologies is renewable fuel sources.  Regardless of Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, it appears that we agree as Americans that our dependence on foreign oil is at a critical tipping point.  And since wind, solar, and biofuels are all renewable sources of power, it's to our advantage to look to them for the future.

What about the renewable energy on our teams at work?  Be they project teams or departments or task forces, how do the team members feel about showing up?  Watch the body language as people file into the room for your next meeting.  Are people showing up on time, bouncing in, talking animatedly about the work they are doing?  Are they building relationships and bridges with each other and with those outside the team who can be beneficial?  Or do they come in late, complaining, and dragging each other down?  Is there sniping and back-biting and sarcasm?  Are they building walls and spiteful alliances?

Both sets of team behaviors are renewable... whether a positive or negative culture has set in on your team, the energy driving it is contageous and easily permeable to those around your team.  So, if it's a negative culture, what can you do to turn things around?

  • Last_supperBring food - I know, I know, it sounds simple.  Food is an amazing uplifter, especially if people see you have gone out of your way for them.  There's something about sharing a meal or snack that makes people open up in a positive way.  After all, there's a reason why Jesus had the Last Supper rather than the Last Board Meeting.
  • Weed out the herd - if there is somebody who is negatively toxic, see what you can do to remove them from the rest.  Chances are good their negative vibes are contributing to your downward tailspin.  If coaching would improve the behavior, try that first; however, if they are chronically negative, you're better off dumping them.
  • Code of conduct - ask the team to develop a code of behavior for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in meetings.  Allow them to define the consequence for breaking the code of conduct (a coin jar that can go for something positive like a team outing or a local charity is the most common).  It's important to let the team both define and police the behavior to prevent yourself from becoming the "bad cop" parental figure.
  • Divide and conquer - have one-on-one meetings with people to discuss issues and ideas outside of the team setting.  This allows you to begin building the relationships and connecting in a positive fashion.  It also allows you to provide an constructive feedback in private (save the praise for the public forum; most people like being praised in front of their peers).

Making a concerted effort like this should have a positive, renewable impact on your team's energy level.  Think of it as putting a solar-powered wind turbine on your team's culture and relationships... and their accomplishments.

The Geometry of Organizational Environmentalism

350pxsustainable_development_svgIt's been an interesting education recently.  In anticipation of my next project, I've been ramping up on "green" corporate issues and "sustainability."  For a systems thinker, seeing how social, environmental and economic facets interact is fascinating stuff to say the least.  Whether or not one believes in global warming or climate change, this simply points to being a good planetary steward of the resources we have to ensure they will be around for multiple generations.

What also intrigues me about many organizations' approach to being green is the philosophy of executives and managers.  In organizations, executives create strategies which they expect their underlings to execute.  Strategies generally create a mix of projects and operational process tactics.  Instead of INTEGRATING green sustainable philosophies INTO these projects and processes, most executives keep them separate, running in parallel.  OK, for those of you who endured high school geometry, what is the number one rule of parallel lines?

(No peeking.)

Yup:  PARALLEL LINES NEVER CROSS.

We've seen this "parallel lines" principle played out organizationally numerous times.  When IT was first created in the early computer days, they were "those computer people" with whom nobody could communicate.  When project management was all the rage, executives created project offices to keep the project managers out of everybody's way.  When Six Sigma and Lean were the flavor du jour, these same executives kept "business running as usual" while those process improvement people earned their blackbelts.

So now we have environmentalism and sustainability facing our organizations.  And executives are keeping these initiatives at arm's length of the other strategic activities.

Unless organizations (and the executives who run them) learn that these kinds of critical iniatives must be A PART OF of the rest of the organization instead of separate from it, they will continue to suffer.  And when these executives don't see the kind of ROI results they expect, they'll blame the initiative.  It becomes a vicious cycle of failure... all because our corporate leaders need remedial geometry.

Extra Cheese With a Side of Irritation

Pizza_hut_delivery_2Aren't we all creatures of habit to a certain degree?  The route from my house to Drake University is fairly well set.  Most of the streets have at least two lanes each direction to facilitate passing; however, there's a short stretch where there's only one lane of traffic in each direction.  Usually it's not an issue, nor is it any annoyance... until the other day.  The Pizza Hut delivery guy decided he would park his car on this residential stretch of no-passing, amusingly right under a No Parking sign, rather than pulling into the driveway.  Evidently, Pizza Hut doesn't believe in training their drivers to obey basic street signs.

Don't get me wrong:  I actually like Pizza Hut and their products.  And this delivery guy was simply trying to do his job (probably for minimum wage).  He simply wanted to serve his customers by getting them their pizza as quickly as possible.  His system was set.  The inputs were his car, a hot pizza, and the route to the customer's front door (among other things).  The output was a safely delivered pizza and a collection of funds.  The feedback loop was a satisfied customer with a happy tummy.

But part of his UNINTENDED feedback loop was an already irritable driver who was in a bit of a hurry.  And this driver had a camera and a blog.  And he's already been doing a lot of thinking about how systems all fit together, and how we can't just pay attention to our own systems - we have to look at how achieving our outputs affect others.

What about you?  The readers of this blog are mostly professionals who are striving to do great things for their customers.  But - in your quest to "seize the accomplishment" are you inadvertently hindering somebody else's system from reaching a desired output.  Let me ask you this:  how many times have you been called on the carpet "just for doing your job"?  How many times have you lived out the "no good deed goes unpunished" saying?  I'm not saying we shouldn't go above and beyond, and I'm certainly not advocating merely staying inside our comfort zones so we never get in trouble.  (For me, "in trouble" is more of a perpetual state than an occasional discrete event.)  All I'm asking you to do is to think about the systems around you, and how your quest for excellence may be adversely impacting somebody else who is trying to do the same.

Then our outputs can be delivered hot, fresh, and irritation-free.

What's The Opposite of "Not Sucking"?

Love_waltersJust when I thought I'd heard Barbara Walters ask every interview question imaginable, she proved me wrong.  A few months after husband Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide, Courtney Love was interviewed by Walters.  While the interview was very telling (drugs, sex, etc. ... all of the charming traits you'd expect from Ms. Love), Barbara FINALLY got around to asking her about her musical abilities.  "We don't suck," was Courtney's eloquent response, which prompted the follow-up question... "What's the opposite of 'not sucking'?"

Courtney Love and Barbara Walters aside, what about you and your accomplishments?  In project management and business analysis alike, we talk about success criteria; in other words, what does a successful solution look like, act like, feel like, function like?  But the opposite of "not sucking" is... well... sucking.  It's failure.  Do we take the time to define what failure looks like so we can avoid it?

Think about your current accomplishments.  What are you trying to avoid?  What are you attempting to miss?  What would make you slap your head in disbelief?  How could you drop the ball?  What will derail you?  Who wants to see you fail?  The polite term for this thinking is "risk management" or "test planning."  We try to achieve success, but do we know what failure looks like so we can avoid it?  To do so, to ask these tough questions can really keep you out of the a deep ... um... Hole.

Stymied By Timing

TimeisupI recently fired our dog groomer.  It really had nothing to do with their quality.  As a matter of fact, Zorro looked excellent every time he came out.  Their prices had stayed constant, so we continued to get the value for our money.  The problem was time... or lack thereof.  They were such a good dog groomer demand for their services grew to the point where appointments needed to be made four months in advance.  They were unwilling to add groomers or expand, so scheduling became the critical issue for deciding to use one of the big pet store chains in town.

On a related note, I was reading the blog of one of my former students.  She was venting about a visit from a neighbor which could not have been more poorly timed (at least from her perspective).  Before I give you the link to go read this post, there's one thing you need to know about Beth, which makes her biting wit all the funnier:  Beth is one of the most professional, organized, put-together, poised, articulate, pleasant, and personable people I've ever met.  So her momentary rant about being perceived as the "white trash neighbors" is all the more hilarious, given what you now know about the woman behind the blog.

What do these stories have in common?  Simple.  Bad timing.  In your work systems, inputs may be banging at the door to be processed.  If you're not ready for them, those inputs may leave (soured customer relationships) or they may throw a wrench into your system anyway (neighborly visitor's perceptions).  Either way, you need to work at getting your inputs into your system when your system is ready for them (controllable inputs) or have your system ready for the inputs on demand (visiting neighbors).  Tom Vander Well recently posted some great thoughts on this very topic on the Iowabiz blog.  Think about the inputs to your work systems.  Are you ready for them?  Do you need to be?

Sometimes a simple awareness of what/who your inputs are and how they behave and what motivates them can be a huge step forward to designing processes that help you seize the accomplishment.

A Little Green

LastchildLast night, my wife and I attended a talk by Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods."  It was a very interesting lecture on our society's nature deficit disorder.  With my generation, we had the run of the neighborhood.  Every summer day, we'd take off after breakfast, show up for lunch, and then we'd be off again.  There were woods and creeks and hedges and paths and cornfields to explore.  Sometimes, the exploration would take place in my own backyard, but more often than not, it would take place wherever my bicycle and my legs could take me.  He talked about how we hold our kids under "house arrest" and prevent them from experiencing the same level of nature we enjoyed as children.  It was a powerful talk, which made me sad that my children aren't getting the same childhood I enjoyed.

Some of you may be thinking, "Oh great, Tim's gone all environmental on us.  Next he'll be chaining himself to a tree."  (Wishful thinking on your part.)  What really impressed me about Mr. Louv's talk is how much of a systems thinker he is.  This guy gets it when it comes to looking at the results he wants and then backing into the inputs which will get him there.  Whether he's talking about social change or behavioral modification, he impressed me with his deep understanding of cause-and-effect.  For example, he said his goal was not to villify video games.  Yeah, sounds odd for a guy trying to get kids outside, doesn't it?  His reason was simple:  if you make video games the bad guy, then kids will just want to play them more.  Like I said, he understands human behavior.  But even more, he understands the system and how it works.

While his book and talk were directed at getting kids outdoors, what about us cubicle-dwelling big kids?  How often do you schedule a meeting outdoors?  When is the last time you stepped away from you desk to walk around outside and clear your head?  Where was your "special place" when you were a kid?  Can you find a new one and create a healthy second childhood?  Thanks to IowaGoGreen.com for bringing Mr. Louv to Des Moines.

Sandbagging Your Efforts

Sandbag1Last week, I needed to drop off a manuscript and some pictures with my publisher in Des Moines' East Village.  Just one little problem:  the building was two blocks from the Des Moines River, which happened to be at capacity and about to spill over its banks.  I went to the front door of the building... sandbagged shut.  I went to the side door.  Same story.  Finally, at the back door, I found an entrance that - while sandbagged - was passable.

I've been thinking a lot about systems the past year.  Our organizations are systems.  Our office politics situations are systems.  Our lives are systems.  Our projects are systems.  Our relationships are systems.  Just about everything we do can be broken down into identifiable inputs, transformations, outputs, and feedback loops.  So, if everything is a system, what are we doing to protect our systems from unwanted inputs?  And in the process, are we preventing desirable inputs from entering?

Sandbag2The Floods of 2008 have prompted my systems thinking even more.  When you look at the levees that have broken and the lives that have been devastated, you have to wonder how much was preventable.  But then again, it's a "500-year flood" (which in Iowa terms means we'll have another one around 2023).  Here's the paradox.  Is it worth it to prevent what happened?  In our efforts to prevent another flood like this, are we going to spend too much money and create other unforeseeable problems.  (Granted, that's an easy question for me to ask given that my basement never even took on a drop of water.)

OK, let's bring it back to our organizations.  One employee does something management doesn't like.  So management creates a new policy.  Everybody else who needs to be productive and get work done finds a way around the policy so they can continue to be productive and get work done.  So management creates another policy.  And employees create more work-arounds.  Vicious circle... right?  I just wonder how much our 4-inch binders containing company policies are like river levees.  Do they eventually break because what's naturally supposed to happen is going to happen anyway?  After all, employees bent on breaking the rules are going to break the rules.

Just some ponderings on a night thinking outweighs sleeping.

Save Your Own Rain Forest

Botanical_center_3A recent end-of-year second-grade field trip to the Des Moines Botanical Center yielded some interesting facts about rain forests I'd never thought about before.  (By the way, taking time to engage the volunteers at places like this can be very educational, as they are a vastly untapped wealth of knowledge.)

Each rain forest has four major layers:

  • Emergent layer - a few trees exceeding 125 feet (40 meters) in height serve as an overstory home to some winged creatures and a few monkeys.  Must be able to withstand heat and wind
  • Canopy layer - continuous foliage of trees in the in 90-125 feet (30-40 meter) range serve as home to as much as 50 percent of the species that can be found on earth (plants and animals)
  • Understory - all life between the canopy and the forest floor receiving only about 5% of sunlight but serving as home to many more types of animals
  • Forest floor - receiving only 2% of sunlight, this area serves as a sort of compost heap to feed the rest of the rain forest.

Botanical_center_1What amazed me is the amount of interdependency among the layers and among the different species within each layer.  There's so much diversity that no one species can dominate the others; in fact, they depend on each other for survival.

What about your organization?  Are you valuing those in other departments?  Are you recognizing how your outputs provide their inputs (and vice versa)?  Are your executives forming a symbiotic relationship with front-line staff?  Are support functions like IT really helping the organization or are they trying to take it over?  We give a lot of lip service to "adding value" but do we spend much time really defining what adding value looks like as the life blood of those who use our organizational outputs?

Botanical_center_2Ask yourself this:

  1. Who are YOUR customers?  What do they NEED from you to survive?  How can you provide it better?
  2. Who are YOUR suppliers (internal and external)?  What do you NEED from them?  Have you communicated this to them and helped them be successful?
  3. What relationships with other "species" and "layers" haven't you identified yet?  Who is paying attention to your processes and your outputs?

By all means, let's save the rain forests in our own companies as well... before they become an endangered species.

Do These Quarterly Measures Make Me Look Fat?

Fitting_room"Only hot guys wait for their wives in places like this."

The text message from my wife was intended to salvage my ego as she went for her THIRD trip to the Ann Taylor dressing room.  And of course, there was a line.  A long line.  She actually made me stand in this line once to save her place while she went on the hunt of an article of clothing.  The women on either side of me weren't sure what to think of this bearish-looking bald guy standing in line to the women's dressing room.  Shannon feigned apologetic just well enough to keep me in the store to do whatever bidding she deemed necessary.

Later, she explained that women's clothing sizes are so inconsistent across clothing makers that it makes it difficult to decide which size to select... hence, the multiple dressing room trips.  An eight in one shop might be a six in another and it could be a twelve somewhere else.  Hmmmmph.  Sounds like some drug-induced new math to me.  We men have it easy.  Waist:  36 inches... which means in other shops... ummm... 36 inches.  Inseam:  34 inches... which translates in other brands... to... uh... (wait, don't tell me) 34 inches.

In our quest to seize the accomplishment, we try to "sell" our ideas with numbers.  Bad numbers.  Irrelevant numbers.  Silly numbers.  But do we think about what we're trying to accomplish with these numbers.  In systems thinking, we talk about feedback loops.  What are the measures telling us about changing the inputs to get better outputs?  Franke James posted a brilliant visual essay about the "real poop on social change" which gets at the heart of this very issue.  Numbers that build awareness aren't enough; numbers have to motivate behavioral changes.  Unfortunately, I don't see the women's clothing industry taking pity on a middle-aged "shopping buddy" husband.  Darn.

My buddy Bob is actually my hero when it comes to interpreting data.  When his wife asked him if "these pants made her look fat," Bob looked her straight in the eye and responded, "No, but your thighs do."  (Bob is miraculously still breathing through both nostrils.)  Still, there may be some wisdom to this as we look at our feedback loops to make changes to our organizational systems.

You Had Me At Below

Caution_belowHave you ever had that "fight or flight" moment at the workplace?  How about that "gotcha" opportunity with a colleague, where you can nail his hide to the wall once and for all?  What about that "irrefutable argument" that nobody would dare to debate?  Or my personal favorite... the "I told you so" dance?

Well, they deserve it, don't they?

Probably (at least in our minds they do).

But...

Think about the downstream impacts of this discussion you're about to have.  You might be winning the battle just to lose the war.  Think about what's going to happen BELOW the surface of your impending conversation.  What might be going through the other person's mind?  What kind of day might they be having?  What other projects or issues are weighing on them?

A former client and current friend told me that his job as an executive forces him to constantly assess these issues when having difficult conversations.  As a matter of fact, it was a discussion we were having recently that inspired this post.  His current role puts him in the position of having challenging talks all the time.  However, he has to weigh the present with the future (i.e., those "downstream impacts" I mentioned earlier).  What kind of relationship will he need to have with that person in the future?  I was reading a story in the paper this morning about Sharon Stone.  For her 50th birthday in March, she performed some spiritual house cleaning and removed all of the relationships that she did not deem beneficial to her.  That may be a little extreme.

Remember:  The outputs from today's conversation may be unwitting inputs to tomorrow's conversation.  Let's just think about what may be working below the surface when our relationships are running as smoothly as they could be, OK?

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