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Thinking the Undoable

My project management class at Drake University is currently going through a major overhaul. What was an elective is now migrating a required course. And the university is moving us to more of a blended learning environment, meaning a smaller amount of time is spent in the classroom and more time passing content through videos and web chats. This morning, I'm giving my mind a break from critical path networks to write this blog post. (Okay, I'm giving my mind a break from critical path networks because they are HARD -- not to understand, I'm a project manager who's been doing this stuff for decades -- but to EXPLAIN to a group of students who will NOT be in the classroom with me when they absorb this information.) For the past sixteen years, I've been able to see the puzzled looks on students' faces and break down any component of the lesson in real time as we cover the material in class. Now I have to take this information to its lowest common denominator, assuming that this is new information for all of my students. And I have to approach the curriculum in such a way that will minimize questions without offending the math-minded in the room for whom this will be review.


I am reminded of what the Heath Brothers shared in their book, Made to Stick, about the curse of knowledge. Often, we assume that because we understand all the nuances of a topic, that those to whom we are speaking also share those same understandings. The Heath Brothers cited a study where people were paired off into "tappers" and "listeners." The tappers then were given a common song and were asked to tap out the rhythm on the table while the listener had to guess what the song was. The telling part of this study is that tappers estimated the listeners would guess correctly about half the time. The actual success rate was closer to two percent. Why the disparity? Because the tappers had the melody and the lyrics in their head as they were tapping and ASSUMED that the listener would be able to guess. The listeners only had a series of random tap frequencies.

How often are people confused by your instructions? Are you tapping something out without sharing the full background of what you know and how you arrived at your knowledge? Do your listeners know why the tapping is important? Just some thoughts as I slowly, excruciatingly go step-by-step through a critical path network and explain via video what could be explained in class with a FRACTION of the class prep effort. My solution? I'll probably show the videos to my wife and children to see if they can understand what I'm trying to get across. How about you? The next time you need to explain something, will you just "tap it out," or will you approach it from the learner's viewpoint?

Back to my lesson plans!

Over My Dad Body

MewithgirlsFather's Day is fast approaching, as evidenced by the explosion of ads in my email and social media feeds, everything from power tools to clothing, from beer to sporting goods. I've been at this whole "dad thing" for the better part of two decades now, but I'm still learning. It's an "on the job" training kind of gig.

Now that I'm 50 (how did THAT happen?!?!), I've noticed myself becoming more reflective and observational, appreciating and noting the little things in life that keep it all interesting and lively. So today, indulge me as I do a bit of a brain dump on thoughts about being a dad and watching other dads:

  • Role play - when moms watch their kids alone, nobody refers to them as babysitting. So why do people assume that when a dad is left alone with kids that he's doing exactly that? It's called PARENTING, folks, regardless of which parent is doing it. (But for the record, when most dads are left alone with the kids, the probability of the scene resembling something from Animal House is much more probable.)
  • Single parenting - when either my wife or I have to go from a man-to-man defense to a zone defense with our two daughters, things can get interesting. I can't imagine a life of having to get kids all over creation without support. I've become far more appreciative of the life single parents lead, and I'm much more willing to cut them a lot of slack in helping them reach their goals.
  • Special needs - I've had the privilege of getting to know people whose kids have special needs and I'm pretty sure that's where the phrase "I can't even..." originated, at least from the parents whose kids are seemingly normal (what does "normal" even mean anymore???). What amazing people. Some friends of ours have a bumper sticker that reads "Autism isn't for wimps." A hearty AMEN is due. And they take it all in stride, sometimes even making me feel like a parenting slacker. My biggest challenge? Teenage angst. That's hard enough for this middle-aged dude to navigate, thank you. Regardless, parents of special needs children are superhero status in my book.
  • Aging - some people wait to have children when they are older, and I applaud them. A close friend who is near my age is adopting a newborn, and that baby is going to have a wonderful life. But for me, as I've grown older, I have noticed gratitude in the small things - getting up, walking, bending over, breathing, eating foods I enjoy, independence - that have been robbed from others my age or younger. I'm not taking much for granted these days.
  • Priorities - for the most part, my children ARE my priority. I've made countless career decisions in their favor over the years. I've dealt with pompous and sexist bosses who have asked, "Can't your wife just handle that?" But there are times I've learned that telling myself yes and my children no is actually healthy for them and their development. And I'm learning to shift that balance as they grow older and need to discover their own independence.
  • Legacy - I really don't want my daughters just to be little versions of me. I've had a good life, and I have nothing to prove through my children's successes or personalities. That being said, I don't want my children to grow up to be sociopaths or sycophants either. I'm fortunate: both of my girls have strengths and talents and intelligence and beauty (inside and out). They will change the world, and I'll know (when my time is up) that I had a role in helping them do so, and their legacy will pass on to their children.

Oh sure, there are many other parenting ponderings to pontificate, but you get the idea. When it comes to being a dad, do your best, accept the shortcomings (yours and theirs), and then try a little harder tomorrow. Happy Father's Day to my special brotherhood.


Email-inbox-menu"How do you handle email?"

My student's question was sincere enough, if not overly broad. We were in a class on office politics and the student had taken me aside to ask how I manage email. They confessed they had been burned more than once due to this medium, and they asked how they might be more successful.

My first response was to quit trying to make themselves more successful and start trying to make the recipients of their email more successful.

Again came the question: "HOW?!?!?"

So I gave them my top 10 rules of emailing:

  1. START with WHY: I rarely send an email unless I can answer why an email is warranted. Will it result in a recipient's being informed, in their ability to make a decision, or prompt them to take action. In other words, if my sending an email interrupts them and results in their reading it, I want them to get value out of the experience.
  2. SUBJECT LINE: I start EVERY project-related email subject line with the project number and the project name, followed by a brief description of what the email is about. Example: "1234 Claims Renewal: Due data approaching for requirements." This allows my email recipients to sort by subject line and find the emails they need faster.
  3. TO vs CC: I train my teams early on that I will read emails differently depending on whether I am on the TO line or the CC line, and I train my recipients to expect the same from me. If a recipient is on the TO line, there is generally more at stake, whereas CC recipients are generally there for FYI purposes.
  4. Avoid BCC: Yes, I know it exists and people use it; however, I find it just as effective to forward the same message from my Sent box. The last thing you need is your BCC recipient hitting "reply all" and having the identifiable recipients know that you BCC-ed somebody... which leads us to...
  5. Reply All: Use sparingly, especially if the conversation is going on for a long time, adding bits of information with each new email. If a meeting is necessary, schedule one.
  6. Cast member changes: If using "reply all" frequently, I will tell people if I have added or subtracted anybody from the list and why I chose to do so.
  7. High Priority: Same "use sparingly" admonition here. If people think everything is high priority, then soon nothing is high priority (borrowing a line from The Incredibles). I only use this function when there is a dire consequence if not read and acted upon.
  8. Action Items: If an email has an action item, I will highlight it on a separate line and use bold and italics (Example: Action Item: Fred Flintstone to contact vendor with issues by 5 PM CDT on Friday, 16-June-17). This leads to an important point...
  9. Ambiguity vs Clarity: avoid terms like "as soon as possible" or "by end of day" and be as specific as possible about the who, the what, and the when. This also includes who is ultimately accountable for something to happen. (Example: The IT Team will provide ideas for system features. Barney Rubble will consolidate the list.
  10. Forward: Always assume your email will be forwarded to the person who hates you the most, because sometimes they are.

My student looked grateful for the words of advice, and they admitted that more than one of these was the cause of their angst. Rather than keep the conversation between the two of us, I hope these help you out as well.

What Was It Like Back Then?

One of my daughters recently asked me what work was like "back then" (meaning when I started my career).

Enter: one of those dreamy flashback expressions.

Thursday, June 1st... of 1989.

That was the day I started my post-undergraduate career at a "big box" financial services company here in Des Moines. Fresh out of college with a degree in Business Management and minors in Math/Computer Science and in Accounting, I was optimistic and idealistic as I entered the corporate world. I had been hired as a COBOL programmer in their IT department. I was going to change the world in the land of beige fabric cubicles.

(Changing the world may have taken a few years after that... still working on that one... but I know I've made a positive dent here and there.)

I quickly learned that the kind, nurturing bosses we learned about in my management classes were spotty (my first so-called leadership would have made Satan blush). I learned how to pick my friends and alliances. I learned how much voices carry in the land of cubicles. I learned how to play a variety of office politics. I learned how to adapt... quickly. I learned how to spot opportunities (e.g., if your company is paying for 75% of your tuition, you take advantage of it and get your MBA). I learned how to manage personal setbacks (cancer still sucks). I learned that corporate Karma comes back to bite those who deserve it. I learned how to advocate for myself and what hills are (and aren't) worth dying on.

But mostly I learned how to learn. I learned how to listen. I learned how to read people and situations. I learned how to take points A and B and extrapolate to Z. I learned to hone my BS-o-meter. I learned how to say no. I learned to brand and diversify my career. I learned the world is A LOT larger than that young college grad could have ever imagined. I learned that things come full circle (like having many of my first coworkers at my current client, or having my daughter dating the son of another coworker).

The work environment has changed tremendously in the past three decades. Have all the lessons I've learned been easy? Heavens, no. Have they been worth it? Yes, and then some.

To all of you fresh college grads entering the workforce, I hope you have a great time adjusting your world view. I hope you learn some of these same lessons. I hope some of the lessons come easily, and I hope you have to learn some of them the hard way. I hope you remember what it was like at the beginning of your journey. It's fun to look back. 

A Loyal Pain

LoyaltyThere's been a lot in the news recently about our current president's authoritarian command desire for loyalty. But given everything else that's been in the news recently about him, this one is just another log on the fire. It has, however, started me thinking about the topic of loyalty, especially in comparison to other levels of commitment.

As an independent contractor, I have the choice whether I contract directly with a client or whether I subcontract through another firm. Currently, I am subcontracting through a great firm named Paragon IT Professionals, and I have no qualms about touting the relationship. This morning when I arrived at my client site, I was greeted with a small gift in conjunction with their 20th anniversary in business. The account reps, the recruiters, and the office staff go out of their way to engage the consultants individually and collectively. In turn, we provide great service to our clients. In other words, Paragon has EARNED my loyalty as a consultant.

I was reflecting on other firms through whom I've contracted who operated closer to the current POTUS as far as making loyalty a requirement. They didn't want to go through the steps of earning it, and often times masked the lack of day-to-day engagement with grander yet less frequent gestures, which by the end just came off as disingenuous. Most now have gone out of business or have been devoured by other consulting firms. A childhood teacher always used to spout the adage, "Nobody is completely worthless; they can always serve as a bad example." And that's what these firms and their agents have become to me... prime examples of what not to do. And as a result of their actions, my loyalty looked something more like hesitant compliance.

My friend and mentor, Steve Farber, lives and breathes the phrase, "Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do." This one sentence is both extremely simple yet dizzyingly complex. I try daily to integrate it as a key aspect in how I operate in many of my roles from project manager to college instructor, from friend to dad. I do what I love: I accomplish things (projects, solutions, relationships, learning). There's another part to that phrase which many seem to forget: I do what I love IN THE SERVICE OF PEOPLE. Call it servant leadership or just being a vulnerable human, but if we aren't putting ourselves out there to serve, what good is it? Finally, those people whom we serve love what we do. That's not about seeking kudos or praise; it's about finding the sweet spot in life. It's about the reciprocity that they appreciate what I bring to the table while I'm serving them. I've brought my best to people who have no appreciation for project management or for good instruction, and my efforts become mere acts which fall into the category of "no good deed goes unpunished."

What about you? To whom are you loyal? Why? Who is loyal to you? Have you commanded it or earned it?

Flat Out Tired

Tire_Pressure_AmberAfter a long weekend with my daughter at a soccer tournament in Minnesota (she was the one playing, in case there is any confusion on the matter), I was ready to have a relatively easy week of catching up. So you can imagine my irritation when I noticed my tire indicator light was on yesterday on my car dashboard. Not wanting to drive around on a potentially flat tire, I called the dealership immediately to get my car in. The receptionist (who normally just schedules me without question), asked me "Well, have you checked the spare?"

"The spare?"

"Yes, the indicator light can also go on if the spare is flat; there's a sensor in your spare."

After checking the spare, I determined the pressure was indeed low and filled the tire. But to no avail as the light was still on. So, I called again, and they told me to come right into the dealership. My favorite service advisor noticed me and came right over to see what the trouble was. I told him, and he asked me if the indicator button under the glove compartment had been pushed?"

"The huh-what?" (I can sound really intelligent... unless I'm talking about cars or sports.)

He reached under my glove compartment and showed me there was a small button, that when depressed, would make the tire indicator light come on.

Chart001Here's where my imagination kicked in, and I envisioned two design engineers having a discussion.

"Hey, Bob..." (Engineers never have exciting names in my imagination)

"Yeah, Gary?" (See what I mean?)

"Why don't we put a button under the glove compartment that nobody can see, but that can be easily bumped by somebody's knee?"

"What would it do?"

"I dunno... maybe make it trigger the tire indicator light...."

"For no reason at all?"

"We need a reason?"

"I like how you think, Gary!"

Small_dataAnd so it happened. Okay, maybe not quite like that, but somewhere along the way, someone approved an irrelevant button on my car that cost me time and energy this week.

I started thinking about the old Standish Group statistic that I share with my students about how frequently features and functions are actually used. Depending on which of their research studies you cite, it can range from half to almost 2/3 of features and functions designed are rarely, if ever, used. Just look at our tire indicator light. Triggered by the spare... REALLY? Triggered by a button pushed by a rogue knee under the glove compartment... What the Fan-Belt were they thinking?

What is the biggest combatant of this? Well, as I discussed last week, empathy for the end user goes a long way to preventing unnecessary features and functions. Spend time with them. Live with them. Talk to them. Engage them. Observe them. And learn from them.

Which brings me to another book recommendation from recent reading: Small Data by Martin Lindstrom. It's a refreshing, engaging, and entertaining indictment of big data, which sometimes removes the human element from our decisions about features and functions. Certainly worth a read.

Bottom Line: Don't add any unnecessary indicators to your solution's dashboard. Your end users will thank you.

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