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You Gotta Know When To Fold In

Congratulations to Catherine O'Hara on her Golden Globes win for her role as Moira on Schitts Creek. I've been a fan since her movie career peaked in the 80's and 90's, and I will still watch any Christopher Guest mockumentary where she and Eugene Levy are playing opposite each other. One particular scene from SC demonstrated why I love her performance on this show so much, as she's trying to demonstrate a recipe to her son, David.

Hilarious, right? I've worked with a Moira before, although mine didn't suffer from a case of incompetence; just the opposite, my Moira was very analytically and mathematically smart. The problem was that my Moira couldn't translate that intelligence into meaningful communication. It was a classic case of the curse of knowledge; my Moira assumed that everyone around them knew as much as they did and quickly shut down communication (instead of ramping it up) when that assumption was violated. When I would ask questions to gain understanding, my Moira would shut things down further by saying, "Well, you should know that by now" or "You obviously don't understand our business." After multiple attempts to coach my Moira into better communication, I pulled a David and we parted company. I never bothered to follow up on how the project went for Moira, but I'm guessing their communication skills never improved.

In our attempts to communicate, we often take for granted simple phrases that can be interpreted multiple ways. As a communicator, it's helpful to put yourself into the mindset of the receiver of the communication. Ask yourself, "How MIGHT this be interpreted?" or better yet, "How MIGHT this be MISinterpreted?" Following a class lecture on this vein, one of my students sent me the following video on misinterpreting instructions: 

Equally hilarious, it really drives home how easily our simple messages can be misinterpreted. Of course, it takes a level of humility to admit we may not be communicating clearly and a level of curiosity to ask our communication receivers where the breakdowns are and where we might improve. As an instructor, I go over each semester at the end and look at where students ask the most questions for clarity; those lectures become my highest priority for upgrades the following semester. As a project manager, I look at where my team and I may not be on the same page, and I make inquiries to determine how we might make it better.

How is your communication? Where are you finding people misunderstanding you? Where are you getting frustrated? Now, how can you step back, break down your message into its simplest components, hone the clarifying points, and "fold them into" your conversations? By doing so, you can better brand your messaging (and yourself).

Can You Describe The Pain?

Pain_chart
It seems hard to believe it's been 10 years since my mom's final cancer battle. Facebook has been (ahem) "kind enough" to remind me of some of the milestones of our journey. One thing I remember very vividly are the many medical appointments and meetings. And one of the common questions nurses asked was always, "Can you describe the pain?" Caveat: this was usually accompanied by a chart as shown above with a number scale of 0-10 and a series of faces on it, zero being no pain and ten being unbearable pain. You would think this would be an apt descriptor for a medical professional to understand a patient's pain level. However, these medical professionals had never met somebody as strong as my mom was. "Oh, a 3-4 I guess" would be her stoic reply to these questions. Having been around her almost 24/7 in her final months, I finally had to pull the nurses aside. "Look, my mom has an insanely high pain tolerance." The nurse or tech would look at me inquisitively. I decided to put it into very clear terms for them, "If she's admitting to a 4, it would probably kill the average Marine." The light bulb went on.

Recently, I've been covering the importance of the business case with my project management students. This is the document used to shepherd an idea to an approved project. In the model I use, the second component is rationale. This is where the author of the document (presumably also the originator of the idea) has to sell people on the concept of why a project is even necessary. Too often, I find people using the terms "we need" or "we have a lack of" in their rationale; I invariably send them back to the drawing board. Why? Because terms like "need" and "lack" describe a solution, not a problem. I've even gone so far as to quit using the term, "problem statement," instead preferring to call it the "pain of the status quo." Of course, to describe the pain of the status quo, you need to know the status quo (i.e., have you done a thorough current state analysis?). 

There's even more pain to describe. What happens if nothing gets done, if we don't pursue this project at all? Often times they gasp as though this thought is... well... unthinkable. Then I start asking them more direct questions:

  • Will somebody die or become seriously injured in the near future?
  • Will somebody wind up in jail or heavily fined due to a compliance failure?
  • Will employees just doing their job suddenly be unemployed?
  • Insert your own doomsday scenario here.

Urgency is another key motivator in describing pain, but too often, people can't put the urgency in the context of "probably kill the average Marine." Hence, mediocre ideas become bad projects. 

What happens in your organization? Do you have a gatekeeping function to prevent projects that address non-existent pain/urgency from moving forward? Do you have that person who is excellent at speaking truth to power? Can you prevent ideas that are, at best, the brain farts of mental indigestion?

Idea Thief Prevention

BikelockI was recently talking with a colleague whose coworker had stolen an idea, and their coworker presented it as their own. As we discussed the details of what happened, the theft happened because my colleague had shared their idea in casual conversation with the thief, but before they could act on it themselves, their coworker emailed the boss with one of those, "Hey! I just had an idea! What do you think?" emails. There was really no way to refute it without it turning into a "my word against yours" situation.

I've seen this play out before, and it's unfortunate when it does, but there are ways to prevent idea theft in the workplace. Here are a few common practices I've followed:

  1. Keep it to yourself until it's ready to be presented: We all like to bounce ideas off of our colleagues and feel that we can collaborate without this happening. But allow yourself some time with YOUR idea. Noodle it. Challenge yourself. Shoot holes in it. Retool it. And "ready to be presented" doesn't mean it has to be perfect; it simply has to have passed the first harsh judge: you.
  2. Think of ALL the stakeholders who MIGHT have a vested interest in your idea. Who will be the decision-makers? Who might be impacted if it becomes a project? Who will be impacted if it is implemented? Who are your naysayers who might want to sabotage your idea (don't overlook this group or deny their existence)?
  3. Document your idea using a business case template. I have a template I've used and included in my book on project management. But at a minimum, make sure you have adequately documented the problem or opportunity and your proposed solution(s). Quantify what you can. Provide a clear path forward. Again, perfection is not the goal here; documentation of your idea is.
  4. Brand your idea so it is noticeable and identifiable as yours. 
  5. On your first draft of your business case, make sure your name is clearly attached to it and save it as a non-editable PDF. Also, ensure that both the document and your email are adequately date and time stamped. 
  6. Send it to everyone on your stakeholders list. Set the expectation that this is just an idea and you are seeking initial reactions and feedback. Based on the office dynamics, you decide how wide of a net you wish to cast. You may want to just start with those people you know will be friendly to the idea. Ensure that your audience that it was sent to the others on your list. Possibly send it to a couple of people outside your department. Bottom line: do NOT send this to just one person. This is the protection I discussed earlier. You now have witnesses that this was your idea.
  7. Provide your reading audience with clear next steps. Ask them to send you their feedback by a specific date. Request suggestions for additional stakeholders who may want to read it. Invite them to send their responses as a "reply all" (or use a collaborative editing tool for transparency).

Ideas need not be stolen. There are always ways to protect your intellectual capital. Good luck with your idea security system.

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.

Images

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.

mEmail

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.

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