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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.

You Can't Outmaneuver Heimlich

9a979fc9f1ebf37a3bac2c4d3d27b8d8In church last week, my pastor shared the story of Henry Heimlich, now 96, who for the first time ever in an emergency situation, last week had to use on a fellow nursing home resident the very maneuver he invented. He had demonstrated the technique thousands of times throughout his life, but in his twilight years, he was able to put it to the use for which it was intended. He was no longer just a teacher; he was a practitioner. 

This story made me think of a lot of people I've met on the speaker circuit over the years. They talk a good game about project management, leadership, social media, or other business principles, but it's been years since they were in the trenches doing this kind of work. All they do now is go around and talk about it. I wonder if some of them would ever survive in a real corporation having to do the actual work they talk about.

Some people have asked me why I haven't moved into full-time teaching or speaking. I guess there are still things for me to learn about the craft of accomplishment. I always want to be the speaker/teacher who has the best stories because I've continually lived out my passion. I still sit in cubicles. I still make project plans. I still attend meetings. I still deal with difficult people. I still review requirements. I still have to ask the tough questions.

What about you? What's YOUR "maneuver"? Are you using it every day and actually accomplishing tasks around your passion, or are you simply talking about it?

Fast Pass Plus

Open-uri20150422-12561-1l7bijo_995042b1Last month, my family took a spring break trip to Orlando. We wanted to capture the Disney magic one more time before our kids were out of the house and off living lives of their own. With a high school sophomore in the house, that day is coming faster than we thought. I've always had a Love-Hate relationship with Disney. One of my favorite jokes is that EPCOT really stands for "Every Pocket Cleaned Out Thoroughly." To be fair, Disney is a money-making machine. Their mission statement (2013) says "The Walt Disney Company's objective is to be one of the world's leading producers and providers of entertainment and information, using its portfolio of brands to differentiate its content, services and consumer products." No where in there does it promise people will have a good time, or that its customers will enjoy what they consume. They just say they'll produce it.

Our experience this time at Disney was different primarily because of one thing. We've stayed on Disney property before, so that wasn't it. We enjoyed the transportation included in our package, so that wasn't it either. We purchased a park-hopper so we could move around if we wished, and that still worked equally well. So what was different? The Fast Pass. For those not indoctrinated to the Disney experience, the Fast Pass was this amazing trick to avoid long lines. It used to work that you got a Fast Pass to a popular ride when you got into the park. After a certain period of time (generally once you had used your previous Fast Pass), you could get another and another, and another throughout the entire day. A savvy customer could actually plan out their day pretty well and get to ride a lot with this technique. Great idea, right? So let's make it even better with the (drum roll, please) FAST PASS PLUS.

The Fast Pass Plus allows guests to schedule their Fast Passes several weeks in advance. However, once the rides are filled up, they're filled up, and no more Fast Passes are issued. Also, Disney advertises that you can get more Fast Passes when you get to the park. The part they don't tell you is that you can't reserve any more until you've used all the pre-scheduled Fast Passes. It seems everything about Disney - rides, food, activities - has become increasingly over-scheduled. And to be honest, a bit chaotic and stressful (especially if you're a project manager looking to get a vacation from scheduling tasks weeks in advance). At least with the old way, everybody walking into the part started on equal footing at the start of the day.

Believe it or not, this post isn't a dog-pile on Disney. My family still had an enjoyable enough time. We ended up waiting in line a bit more than we would have liked, but we bonded and more or less got to do the things we wanted.  The Disney app is a great tool to tell you wait times on lines, and we leveraged it quite a bit. The purpose of this post is to talk about efficiency vs. effectiveness. As Peter Drucker described it, "Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things." One could argue Disney is both efficient and effective. When you look at doing things right (i.e., using the fewest resources to produce a result), Disney is a master of efficiency. They pack people into their parks and keep them moving and going and riding and eating and watching and buying from park's open to close. And to Disney's credit, they are much more efficient than Universal (we also spent a day doing the Harry Potter thing). The effectiveness part is where I question Disney. Certainly they are meeting their mission, but how happy are the consumers with their experience? Really happy? How many moms and dads and grandparents left their Disney vacation thinking, "Wow, I can't wait to come back!" vs "Wow, I can't wait to get out of here!"? (Based on the number of child meltdowns observed, I'm guessing more of the latter. When my teenager pulled me aside to thank me for great parenting that prevented her from acting like THAT, I knew it was getting it her as well.) Ironically, some of the longest and crankiest lines were those at the very few Fast Pass kiosks around the park, as customers frustratedly tried to make changes.

Will Disney change? Doubtful. Tale as old as time, there will always be parents willing to fork out major dinero to create some magical experiences for their children. But what about your business? In the pursuit of efficiency, what effectiveness are you sacrificing? Have you become the Fast Pass Plus of getting customers through as quickly as possible, only to have those customers have no desire to return? Are you meeting all your project milestones, but churning your project team in the process and making them never want to work with you?

Ten Years and a Day

Tenth_birthdayBlogging isn't something I do a lot these days.

Ten years ago yesterday, I wrote my first post. I can't believe an entire decade has passed.

Ten years ago, I had a kindergartner and a toddler (today they are a high school sophomore and a fifth grader).

Ten years ago, I was not in a good place career-wise, and now I am highly content with where I am and my projects.

Ten years ago, I was an SUV driver exclusively; now I'm on my second sedan.

Ten years ago, we were living in a different house and going to a different church.

Ten years ago, the world hadn't even heard of a fictional place called Downton Abbey.

But some things haven't changed.

I still love to write.

I still own a Shih Tzu (version 2.0).

I still adjunct at my alma mater.

I'm still curious about my surroundings.

Will I keep blogging? Sure, when the Spirit moves me. My friend, Patti Digh, recently put me through my own little writing boot camp. Her feedback proved invaluable to my decision to put fingers to keyboard once again. There's a lot out there affecting accomplishment... and projects... and creativity... and office politics... and life.

Will people disagree with me? Heavens, yes! Civility has gone out the window as a certain candidate has proven again and again. Am I going to try to be civil anyway? Yes.

So a belated happy birthday to carpefactum.com

Let's see what another decade can do.


Fifty Shades of GRRR

50ShadesofGreyCoverArtLet's be clear: I've never read the book, Fifty Shades of Grey. I don't plan on seeing the movie by the same name. But the title does make excellent pun-fodder for me to post a list (in no particular order) of some of my top project management pet peeves:

  1. Indecisive decision-makers
  2. Passive-aggressive business analysts
  3. Developers who don’t follow requirements and specifications
  4. Project stakeholders who throw people under the bus
  5. The buses that keep hitting project stakeholders, thus requiring risks be written if this event happens.
  6. Status reports that read like stereo instructions
  7. Methodologies (outside of common sense and experience)
  8. Methodologists who act like Cubicle Pharisees
  9. People who drive slow in the passing lane (I’m sure there’s a project tie-in somewhere)
  10. Quality assurance analysts who refuse to log defects
  11. “Well, it’s technically done…”
  12. Micromanaging executives
  13. People who accuse without adequate fact-checking
  14. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I leave you off that distribution list on that message affecting your project?”
  15. Blatant incompetence
  16. Posers who are more interested in climbing than doing
  17. No clear scope statement… and no desire to research it either
  18. No compelling rationale for the project
  19. Passionless projects
  20. Forgetting a stakeholder
  21. Making assumptions with no valid basis
  22. Not documenting the assumptions made
  23. Those who wish to make estimating an exact science
  24. Executives who hold teams exactly to their estimates
  25. No time to plan properly
  26. Not providing the correct resources to develop the plan
  27. Not providing the correct resources to execute the plan
  28. Turning a lessons learned session into a witch hunt
  29. Inability to prioritize (especially where the triple constraint is involved)
  30. Holding a meeting only because it’s Tuesday at 9:00 AM
  31. Scheduling a meeting for Friday at 4:00 PM
  32. Leaders who can’t facilitate a meeting
  33. Blatant, unchecked dysfunctionality
  34. People who talk too much in meetings
  35. Forgetting to say “thank you”
  36. Lacking a sense of humor
  37. Fill-in-the-blank templates… where half the blanks are required but irrelevant
  38. Executive temper tantrums
  39. The genetic cross of the Peter Principle and Weebles: they’ve hit their point of incompetence but keep bouncing back
  40. “Not my job”
  41. “We can’t do that”
  42. “We’ve always done it that way”
  43. Those who equate project management with filling in blanks on a project plan
  44. Those who don’t consider project initiation and planning to be “real work”
  45. “That person” in meetings
  46. Conference callers who don’t know the difference between “on hold” and “mute”
  47. Those who have more stupid answers than intelligent questions
  48. Overabundance of ego
  49. Dog haters… I don’t mind if you love cats, but if you hate dogs, take your Gantt chart and move along
  50. Those who don’t understand project management skills are universal; you can put a seasoned project manager into any well-adjusted team in any industry/environment/organization and they will thrive

What forms of torture would you add to the list?

Who Writes This Stuff Anyway? (And Who Reads It?)

Notebook_image_368131A year.

Over a full year since my last blog post.

No excuses, but an explanation.

The past year has really been about a self-imposed experiment of sorts. I was curious if I would even miss blogging. What would happen if I just focused on the other areas of my life (and there have been many)?

A lot has happened in the past year. Our family moved to a new house. My older daughter started high school. I began a new contract project. In the world at large, we saw a Republican sweep of Congress, a massive Ebola scare, a couple of major plane crashes, visible police/racial issues as close as a state away, as well as other conflicts in multiple corners of the globe. All of these were blog-worthy, and yet my keyboard sat quietly.


  1. Well, as I mentioned before, I had a lot going on in my personal life. As I approach the 50 milestone in a couple of years, I'm finding that the mind and body do have a limited bandwidth. It's difficult to express oneself creatively (and do it justice) when the day-to-day life activities are bearing down. Obviously the house move was the big one. Now that it's over and life is getting back to "normal" (insert laugh track here), I hope to have more time and energy to devote to this craft.
  2. I forgot my audience. I remember reading an article about Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin & Hobbes) talking about the importance of creating for yourself as well as others. I forgot myself. Blogging had become a chore because I kept trying to figure out what would please all of you. The last two years of blogging prior to my hiatus were somewhat joy-less because of that. I apologize to you who read those blog posts. To me, the lack of energy was palpable.
  3. But you all take some blame as well. In the past few years, I've found those who read and respond to others' content have become far less civil. Blame it on Facebook or Twitter or on forums which allow anonymous commentary. The verbal vitriole I've observed on the topics of politics, police, celebrity, well - you name it... it's become energy-sucking. That's why I began moderating my blog comments years ago: to avoid the trolls. I love dialogue and exchange of different ideas; I loathe conflict when civility and respect are missing.
  4. Content congestion was my final reason. I love LinkedIn, and I've had much professional interaction there. Over the past couple of years, they've allowed people to start posting articles and content there. I've read some great articles, but now it seems to be a tsunami of words... a one-up-man-ship of "I know more than you" or "I'm more influential than you." Pffffft. Who needs that? I have my forum here. If what I'm writing is good enough, people will find me.

So here we are. I'm back (whatever "back" means). I will start blogging again, but it may or may not be what you want to read. And I've decided I'm fine with that. It will be what I want to write. Time to fall in love with my blog again.

Countdown to Zorro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carpet Factum

Carpet tanLast fall, an unfortunate flush of the toilet at the worst possible time created an "indoor water feature" in our newly remodeled family room beneath the aforementioned toilet. This sent us on a three month ordeal to completely gut and remodel the offending bathroom, as well as restore the family room to its prior glory. Always the project manager, I assumed most of the responsibility for selecting fixtures, dealing with the insurance company, and communicating with contractors. For the most part, the project ran smoothly with the exception of the carpet.

When we remodeled our family room the year prior, my wife went through painstaking research to find the perfect carpet, balancing texture, color, and a zillion other attributes. I even dealt with the same carpet company during the current fiasco, providing them with an exact sample of the carpet in order to match it perfectly. So imagine our surprise when the carpet laid was not the same as the carpet we already had down. When we pointed this out to the flooring company, they attempted to pull a few tricks to weasel out of their mistake, but because we had samples from the prior carpet and the carpet they laid, the differences were undeniable. When we went in to reorder, the "realization suddenly dawned" on our salesperson that our prior order might actually be in their computer system and - lo and behold - it was. (Duh! I only told her multiple times we had ordered our carpet from them just 15 months prior.)

In projects, we often ignore the "current state" of things because the project solution represents something new, something exciting, something different. The "as is" represents the old and stale status quo, so why bother with it? Our carpet salesperson didn't bother to consider what we had; she wanted to focus on what we would be getting. This mindset can be lethal for a project manager, as there are many valuable aspects to investing in understanding where you are before you define where you're going:

  1. Pain motivates. Plain and simple. If people understand the pain associated with the current state, they will have greater appreciation for the new solution. The greatest resistance I've encountered on projects is from those who do not associate the status quo with organizational pain. Doing this well will generate appreciation rather than resentment from your stakeholders.
  2. It's not all bad. Occasionally, things are being done well currently. In our rush to a new project solution, we are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Such was my experience on a recent software conversion project. I came in at a point where the commitment to the new solution was made, and my job was to execute. The former brass had not bothered doing a solid stakeholder analysis and didn't realize there were many desired features in the old system which wouldn't be in the new system. Through workarounds, communication, and change management, we were able to resolve this, but a thorough current state would have revealed features worth keeping in a new solution.
  3. A numbers game. As the old quality adage goes, "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." Helping a daughter through algebra, it's obvious that to measure a distance, one must have a starting point. Not knowing your beginning makes it really hard to figure out if you've arrived at your destination.

Virtually any process improvement model will prompt you to create a current state document. While it may seem like a waste of time up front, it's actually a sound investment to prevent wasting time at the back end.

As for our carpet, we eventually got everything figured out, and another installation later, we had our family room back to its former glory. I just wish our salesperson had known the importance and value of current state analysis before she ordered the wrong carpet. Oh well. Live and learn.

FREE VISION (Frames and Lenses Not Included)

Eyeglass FramesWith the Independence Day Holiday fast approaching, I decided to try a social experiment this morning on my Facebook page. I needed a news story from a respectable source which would cause a bit of partisan wrestling. The WSJ ran a story stating individual insurance rates for the healthy would most likely double or triple, while those in poor health would get a hike break. BINGO! Perfect.

Now you have to realize that my friends run the gamut of annoyingly liberal to frighteningly conservative. While a majority are comfortably in the middle, I know some who "fan girl" over Obama like a 12-year-old at a One Direction concert. I also know others who have their torches and pitchforks at the ready at the mention of anything Democrat. It makes my life interesting. But for this experiment, I was going to stay out of the way, except for the initial thought grenade I lobbed in their midst with minimal commentary on my part.

Over 50 comments later, they didn't disappoint. There was the usual political rancor and rhetoric. A few tried rational argument and cited sources. Some others shared personal stories. Others resorted to name-calling and generalizations. One insinuated I was elitist for having a print copy of the WSJ. Another called me out for stirring the pot first thing on a Monday (if he only knew).

Why did I do this? Fair question. It was all a question of vision, frames, and lenses. Being a glasses-wearer for the better part of my adult life, I'm used to having my optometrist prescribe the right lens strength for my eyes and then finding a pair of frames to fit my face and prevent my daughters from rolling their eyes in embarrassment. It makes a good metaphor for how we see the world. Our frames (beliefs, values, experiences) support our lenses (how we see the world now). My frame-lens combo wouldn't work for you, any more than yours would work for me. Yet we seem to do want to shove our glasses onto everybody else to make them see the way we do.

Part of the problem is we (collectively) seem to confuse fact and opinion. Like it or not, from a governmental standpoint, most issues are opinion. (They may be moral absolutes for us individually or for our religious community, but I'm not addressing those right now.) Our country was based on freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom of thought. Freedom of activity. But if we assume the only freedom is our own opinion, we undermine the very intent of those founding fathers. For example, the number of uninsured people in our country is fact; whether health insurance is a right or a consumer good is opinion. How much a procedure costs is fact; whether it is another's responsibility to pay for said procedure is opinion.

Here's where the other part of the problem arises. Because we don't differentiate between fact and opinion (note I said "don't" rather than "can't"), we assume our self-anointed facts are reality and others' opinions are... well... WRONG. We no longer even bother to assess their lenses or frames; we just assume their eye doctor should be jailed for malpractice. It's easier that way. One of the most powerful experiences in my professional career was reading the "Seek first to understand, then be understood" chapter in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

So my challenge to you this week is this: when you're celebrating the freedom of our nation, remember there are people whose frames and lenses are different from yours. Persuasion is an accomplisment. Celebrate THEIR freedom as well. Start your argument by assuming they are right and you're not. Learn about their frames and lenses. Then they'll probably be more open to learning yours. Doing so may help prevent unnecessary fireworks.

(And to my friends whom I mercilessly exploited today, thanks for playing. Don't think too harshly of me. My personal lens/frame combo means I like to play social anthropologist from time to time.)

Happy Independence Day!

Lessons from Vacation: An Open Letter to Volvo

Dear Volvo

I firmly believe you should stop claiming to be the world’s safest car company.

This spring, my wife’s 2006 XC90 needed to have the engine replaced due to bad cylinders. While a little “young” to experience this problem (around 70,000 miles), it’s understandable: these things happen (and it was still under the warranty we purchased at acquisition, so the $10,000 engine replacement was “on the house”).

After having the Volvo back for a couple of weeks, we took it on vacation out to Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. It performed fine across Nebraska and through Colorado and Wyoming, but by the time we hit the Black Hills of South Dakota, there was an obvious performance issue with the engine. We ended up renting a car to make it through the last day of our vacation plans.

That night, I took it to an AutoZone in Rapid City, SD where they diagnosed two of our ignition coils were bad. They only had one in stock and replaced it, and we were able to get home (but not without a lot of noise and vibration from under the hood). I promptly took it back to the dealer. Yesterday, I received a call from the dealership. They invited me back to the shop to look at the engine block. It turns out the root cause of the problem was your technicians had put the wrong spark plugs into our newly replaced motor. Instead of the plugs for a 2006 XC90, you installed plugs for a 2009 S60. (Just to be clear, the engine came this way from Volvo, and this error was not made at the dealership who installed it.) Regardless, an engine head replacement is in the works.

To say it’s a miracle we made it home in one piece from that vacation is an understatement. I shudder to think of the things that could have happened to the motor as well as the places where those things could have happened. The dealership is equally concerned about your lack of oversight.

This was a clumsy error at best. We purchased the Volvo XC90 because of Volvo’s stellar reputation as a safe vehicle. After experiencing the quality (or lack thereof) of our first Volvo, I firmly believe it will be our LAST Volvo as well. You have undermined your brand promise of safety. Putting a damper on the last couple of days of our family vacation is the least of my concerns; you compromised the safety and well-being of my family.

I’m guessing some corporate drone in your public relations or social media department will see this and laugh... or ignore it. It probably won’t go viral among the “mommy bloggers” or the “social media darlings”… but it will continue to make an impression in our lives. The XC90 is being fixed. Within the next few months, it will be traded (definitely for a different brand). But the memory of this experience will live on.

Respectfully Submitted

Timothy L Johnson

Lessons from Vacation: Focus

Driving_Trail_RidgeWhen vacationing out West, there's one thing virtually everyone can anticipate: driving in the mountains. My experience was no different, and we ventured over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. Outside of snow and rain, the biggest challenge to driving was the wind. Driving in a fairly solid SUV, we were able to withstand most of the cool mountain breezes 50+ MPH wind gusts, but there were points in the road where we were unprotected on both sides, leaving us vulnerable to crosswinds. Despite being in a heavy vehicle, we felt like we were being tossed around a bit.

To remedy the situation, I had both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 with a Vulcan Death Grip that would have made Spock jealous. I kept both eyes on the road at all times and kept child-induced distractions to a minimum as we lurched our way around the rugged terrain up and down the mountain.

Driving_DownhillSometimes we have the same issue on our projects and our accomplishments. We have a goal at the end of the road, but there are crosswinds trying to knock us off course. We label these crosswinds "issues" or "scope creep" but we don't give it the recognition it deserves: something is trying to keep us from reaching our accomplishments. In reality, this trip reminded me there are always techniques for dealing with them:

  1. Stay focused - when your eyes are on the road and you watch where you're going, it makes it easier to see where you're going and not worry as much about the things trying to knock you off track here and now.
  2. Keep a grip (but not too tight) - granted, it took a firm grip to keep the car on the road, and as project managers, we need to keep a firm grip on our accomplishments. That being said, we also need to know when to loosen the grip and let gravity and the car have a little room to run.
  3. Speed up a little - we were generally fine when faced with wind from one direction (i.e., having a mountain cliff on the other side of the road to protect us). There were a few places on the road where we were unprotected on both sides. It was in those places where I sped up a bit rather than slowing down. In the same way, hurrying to get to the next milestone and post an easy victory might be the best strategy when your detractors are coming at you from all directions.
  4. Downhill is not the time to relax - in mountain driving, I've almost found going downhill is more stressful than going uphill as I have to manage the speed using the brakes more than the accelerator. When nearing the finish line of our accomplishments, we have to know when to feather the brakes, when to pull off and give the car a rest, and when to coast. At all times, reading the road will help your decision-making discernment.

We made it up - and down - and enjoyed some beautiful scenery in the process. What are YOU doing to manage the mountain driving of your accomplishments?

Lessons From Vacation: Passion

It's amazing what a few days away can do to clear one's mind. A little time in Rocky Mountain National Park, followed by some time in Wyoming and South Dakota were just what the doctor ordered.

Mount_RushmoreOf course, I like to start at the end of the trip, and the last full day was spent in the Black Hills, enjoying Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. Both of these monuments astound me, not by their magnitude and beauty, but by the effort undertaken to appreciate their creation. Gutzon Borglum led the effort to create Mount Rushmore, an effort which took over a decade. Recruited from the Rushmore crew by the Lakota, Korczak Kiolkowski worked on the Crazy Horse monument for decades until his death in the 1982, and it is now carried on by his children and grandchildren (all without Federal funding, I should add).

What fascinates me about both projects is the passion of the workers. The topic of professional love has been at the front of my thinking of late. Most of the time, our projects are measured by weeks or months, for others, projects may last a few years, but many of us in the profession are time boxed because our executives are anxious to get things done and move on to something else.

Crazy_HorseAt the Rushmore Monument, there was a sign in the museum talking about the workers, who were mostly miners or lumberjacks from the area. The bottom of the description read:

For some the work was just a job, but for others it became a special calling.

"More and more we sensed that we were creating a truly great thing, and after a while all of us old hands became truly dedicated to it," Red Anderson, Mount Rushmore Carver.

There was plenty of time to become an "old hand" as the project stretched from 1927 to 1941. As for Crazy Horse, the first rock was dynamited in 1948, and the project is still underway. During the introductory video, we learned that project is measured in "tons (of rock) and decades" rather than the weeks and months and deliverables by which we measure current projects.

So what are YOU doing to instill passion in your project teams, especially when the project seems to drag on "forever"? On my last project, we tried to build in appreciation for the installation team spending several weeks on the road. They were the real heroes of the project, traveling to numerous locations across almost a dozen states. But they also knew WHY the project was important. They saw the importance of the end result. And it was that belief which drove them to success. Very similar to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, the best way to build passion for a project is to provide the workers at all levels a view of the future and what it means.

Life's A Fitch: A Lesson in the Birds and the Bees

Today, it is man against nature.

Nest_openerThis week, robins followed the number one rule of real estate (Location! Location! Location!) and believed the top of my garage door opener would be the optimal spot to go condo. The problem with their logic is I like my garage door opener in working order, and I do not want bird poop on my cars IN the garage. Hence, I shut the garage door when they were gone, checked to ensure no eggs had been laid, and promptly dismantled their home renovation project. And they came back. And I dismantled. And they came back. And I dismantled. They don't seem to be getting the fact I don't want them.

Concurrently, bees have been making a home near my daughters' swingset in the back yard. Now I'm well aware of the bee crisis, but with a swingset out of commission, my kids might do the unthinkable: stay indoors and bury their heads in electronic devices. Against my ecological best judgment, I went to Home Depot to purchase spray to evict the bees. The clerk seemed aghast I would consider doing such a thing. She suggested I contact a bee keeper to find the hive and eradicate the bees naturally.

"Do you have the name of a local bee keeper?" I asked.

"Well, no," was her response.

"If I give you my address, will you do the phone research and call around and find one and get them there tomorrow?" I countered.

"I can't do that, sir."

"I'll take the spray."

She shrugged as I grabbed two cans and skulked off toward the cash register.

To top off my week, I've been appalled by Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO Michael Jeffies' comments about marketing to skinny people only. As the father of two growing young women, I go out of my way to impress upon them that their identity is not about body image, and that beauty is more on the inside than the outside.

But then I started connecting the dots. Michael and I are both guilty of excluding a group who want to be part of our "club." The difference is, the birds and the bees operate under instinct; humans operate with feelings and emotions. And the birds and the bees don't have money to spend on rent; people have money to spend on clothing.

There will always be "target markets" in business. Conversely, there will always be "undesirable customers." We'll never be rid of the difficult client whose calls go unanswered and whose emails sit dormant because we just don't have the energy to deal with them. (Don't gasp; you know you do it, too.) The taboo "birds and bees" of business marketing is you NEVER specifically call out those you are excluding. In project management, we list our stakeholders, but we never say, "Oh, yeah, we're NOT doing this project for those bean counters and pencil pushers in Accounting." Your accomplishments will always get further in the positive. If your business is going to "reproduce," ignoring the birds and the bees will be a huge mistake. Acknowledge them. Deal with them. Give them alternatives. But (and I say this with experience of one who has now been chased by both birds and bees in one week) don't piss them off. I'm grateful Mother Nature doesn't have a Twitter account.

One solution would have been to pump that hideously toxic Abercrombie & Fitch "fragrance" all over the garage and the swingset, thereby killing the entire environment for a 50-mile radius.


The robins have now found an alternative spot on my property for their nest. They can stay there. And I'll probably call around for bee keepers next week, even though I don't have time. After all, I'd like to think I'm at least one step ahead of Michael Jeffries.

My Hero(es)

3d Earth Globe“A leader’s greatest obligation is to make possible an environment … where people can aspire to change the world.” - Carly Fiorina, Former CEO of HP

One question I field frequently - both individually and often in QA sessions with students or other audiences - is "Who are your heroes?" I need to apologize to past audiences as I've dodged the question notoriously, giving very weak answers. But that question keeps haunting me, not so much from audiences nowadays, but from the recesses of my own brain. So much so that I decided it was time to really sit down and define who some of my heroes are.

  • Amy is one of my heroes. When her uninsured friend, John, needed surgery in the face of cancer, Amy rallied her friends, his friends, and an entire network to raise over $100,000 in just 37 days.
  • Kevin and Shelley are my heroes. Ignoring logic and common sense, they followed their faith-filled hearts to adopt a little girl from half-way around the world. This little girl had a congenital heart condition, but not only did that not deter them. It only made them more determined to give this girl a loving home.
  • Rod is a hero. When his wife, Michelle, was diagnosed with cancer, Rod used his amazing data skills to track her numbers all the way through her treatment, keeping his wicked sense of humor intact the entire journey. He stayed by her side until her battle was finished. While the love story didn't have the happy ending for which he and his family and friends hoped, his unwaivering dedication inspired many.
  • Speaking of cancer warriors, Sarah is a hero. I met her through Twitter during my mom's cancer battle (amazing whom you can meet with the hashtag #cancersucks). She has championed her son's battle with cancer, while inspiring others through her blog and other charitable acts for the community.
  • Janet is another hero. A freak motorcycle accident forced a leg amputation last year. Now, if I thought Janet was one tough lady before the accident, she raised the bar freakishly high with her determination, independence and positive attitude through her amazing rehabilitation.
  • Ever think of creating a global not-for-profit WHEN YOU WERE IN 8TH GRADE??? That's what makes Jessica a hero. When she's not dedicating her time to children from other countries (or in her own community), she's willing to trek to another state to speak (dynamically) to other kids for a day about their own global impacts.

These are just a few. Most of them probably had no idea I felt this way about them (shame on me for not being more vocal before now). None of them have ever been hoisted on their team's shoulders to receive a championship trophy. They've never walked the red carpet to deliver an acceptance speech. Papparazzi have never chased them for a tabloid exclusive. They don't fly or wear capes.

Why then, are they heroes? Simple. They changed the world. Maybe not the "big W" in all cases but in changing their own world (small w), they invited us to watch their challenges, to observe their journey, to share their victories, and to learn from their setbacks. And their actions, their attitudes, and their accomplishments created a ripple effect. Those of us in the periphery caught a glimpse of greatness. Each of these people would argue with me that they only did what needed to be done. I'm sure one or two, when they read this, will scold me for putting them on a pedestal. (There's really not one tall enough or grand enough for their accomplishments, in my opinion.)

In light of all the talk of the Boston police's heroic actions from last week (law enforcement is always a default setting on my hero meter, by the way), I think it's important for us to think about it today: who are your real heroes? And why? Are they changing the world? Are you?

Flipping the Birds

Tippi and bird playgroundThe other night, I was at my older daughter's honor choir concert. While they were singing the folk song, "Risseldy Rosseldy," I felt myself getting uneasy, like I needed to look over my shoulder. Being an office politics consultant, I allow myself a healthy degree of paranoia, but this overwhelming urge at a music concert was odd. Then it hit me: this was the song the children were singing in the background during the iconic playground scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

If you've never seen the movie, shame on you. Hitchcock builds suspense like few can, and this movie is no exception. In the scene in question, Tippi Hedren's character, Melanie Daniels, is sitting outside the schoolhouse waiting to talk to the teacher and check on the well-being of the children after numerous bird attacks in the area. The children are inside singing a very repetitive song, the chorus being sung sweetly and innocently over and over again. Behind Melanie, birds are gathering on the playground equipment while she, impatient and oblivious, sits with her back to the impending danger. You, the spectator, want to scream, "WOULD YOU JUST TURN AROUND!?!?!?!"

In my career, I've seen a similar scenario played out often. I see individuals or departments who are sitting on the bench getting agitated, while doom flocks behind them just out of sight. Of course, they have the power to turn around and see the danger for what it is, but they're too absorbed in their own little "here and now." So they sit. And they wait. And they ignore.

What are some of the flocks gathering behind them?

  • Processes - Out-of-control processes seem to compound themselves. If a new input, like a novice employee or a software conversion, is introduced, it brings the flawed processes to light. However, most people tend to blame the new input for the problems rather than placing blame where it lies.
  • Toxic Employees - Amazing what one or two really toxic people can do to a workplace and how quickly their cancer can spread to others if left unchecked. Management may relegate it to a "coaching opportunity" or an "HR issue" but it doesn't make the morale improve for those who have to endure.
  • Policies and Procedures - I admire companies who have very small, finite sets of policies and procedures. They're able to hire bright, self-governing individuals who don't need a lot of direction. However, other companies weigh their otherwise high-performing employees down with ridiculous rules written to govern a select few who should just be fired.
  • Behavior - It's hard to look in the mirror sometimes and see how your own behaviors, decisions, and performance may be flocking together to undo all the good you think you've done in your career. Looking at the three above is relatively easy by comparison. It's somebody else's fault. This is one where a good self-reflection can prevent you from getting pecked to death when you least expect it.

Some people assume they are safe exactly where they are. They never feel the need to turn around. So... before it's too late, are you willing and able to turn around?

Jobs Stimulus Package

Apple-logo Today I downloaded an album onto my iPod. There's nothing unusual about it. Except today it felt different. Solemn. Reverent. (Good thing it was an album of hymns.)

It's been 24 hours since my wife texted me with the news of Steve Jobs' passing. I don't think anyone was surprised. His failing health and resignation from his own company 6 weeks ago have been the topic of news headlines for quite a while.

I've watched with interest the plethora of articles, the replay of YouTube advertisements, the references to his Stanford address, and the number of quotes... all paying homage to a man who probably changed the last quarter of a century moreso than any other.

I think back to my own initial introduction to Apple... my very first Apple IIC, which got me through four years of college typing papers for people. Even back then, Steve Jobs ignited my entrepreneurial spirit.

In the 1980's, Jobs promised us something more. His 1984 commerical was viscerally groundbreaking, and served as a foreshadowing of the Apple brand.

In the 1990's we all pretty much mocked Apple as it went through its dark era. Microsoft ruled the world. Apple was relegated to educational artsy-fartsy types and obscure applications nobody would use in the "real world" ....

Wait for it ....

The new millennium arrived and with it a regenerated Apple and a recharged Steve Jobs. Apple took the computing world to new places with smaller, faster, better-built laptops. Jobs revolutionized the music industry by allowing us to fit entire libraries ranging from classical to heavy metal into our pockets. Our phones became truly smart with apps and capabilities that once again revolutionized an industry and set the bar excruciatingly high for competitors.

But let's forget the Steve Jobs of commerce for a moment.

Let's, instead, focus on the Steve Jobs of the masses.

In his Stanford address, he encouraged to us to live original lives full of passion and meaning.

In his advertising, he challenged our concept of what was crazy vs. sane.

In his products, he blurred the lines between "what is" and "what if."

In his presentations, he was a showman who turned technology into theatre.

Steve Jobs was a master of industry, but at his core, he was a mental blacksmith. He made tools to enable others, forging minds of the strongest steel. At the risk of becoming political here, Washington wants us to think that throwing money at a problem makes a good Jobs Stimulus Package... but like everything else in his too-short life, Steve Jobs already set the bar too high. He proved the best way to stimulate someone to greatness is to provide them with the tools to THINK... and THINK DIFFERENT.

Thank you, Steve. You gave our generation the best "Jobs Stimulus Package" ever... our own imaginations.


What's That Scratching Noise?

Scratching_door I've noticed over my few years of blogging that readership tends to taper off over the summer months. That's a good thing for me, because I've been a tad busy with Mom's estate and just generally catching up on life here at home.

Spending time out at Mom's house has allowed me to see my childhood home in a new light. A lot of the furniture has left and all of the knick-knacks have departed to new homes. The house is down to bare bones in many ways, in anticipation of its next occupants (my sister and her husband). This sparse decor has revealed some reminders of my past.

When I was a young lad (yes, I was a child at one point in my life), we had a dog named Sam (short for Samantha, but that's another story). Sam was the canine version of the "wild woman of the world" (she showed up pregnant and gave birth to puppies soon after her arrival). While she liked being fed and loved, she longed for the outside world and would bolt around the neighborhood whenever possible; she always returned though.

During days of inclement weather, we would bring her inside. Because she shed her body weight in fur, Mom insisted she be kept down in the laundry room (which was actually a rather spacious room, housing the second bath). It was here in this room that I noticed scratch marks on and around the door. Sam wanted out.

Sam's been gone almost a quarter of a century, but the scratch marks remain. I wonder how many of us still have scratch marks inside of us. Dreams, ambitions, goals, true identity, potential accomplishments. Things we shut up because we didn't want them to get out and run around the neighborhood. Things we shut up because we thought we were protecting them from the harsh elements. Things we shut up because we were afraid somebody else would take them. Funny thing about dreams and goals... they don't like to be shut up any more than Sam did. So they started scratching. And they left marks deep in the basement of our souls.

Something to think about for a Friday: what left scratch marks in you? Why did you shut them up? Be honest with this next one: is it still too late to open the door and let those dreams out to run?

Carpe Factum!


Unraveled A couple of years ago, I bought a pair of Ahnu mesh shoes to knock around by the pool and the beach. I needed something that could get wet and hold up to summer wear. They took a while to break in, but last summer, I wore them all the time to the pool. I went to get them out for this summer's pool time fun only to find that the mesh had unraveled on one of them. Sigh. So much for that... guess I'll be going back to Merrell or Keen for some good summer footwear.

To be fair, I don't know how the shoe's mesh became unraveled. Was it a flaw in the fabric or the craftsmanship? Did something happen to them over the winter? Was I rougher on them than I thought? (After all, those suburban swimming pools are jungles fraught with peril.)

I've been watching a lot of unraveling going on the past several months. Charlie Sheen, Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards.

Todd Spangler had an article in this morning's paper entitled, "What were they thinking?" In it, he addresses this very thing:

Some psychologists say narcissism leads politicians to stray; others cite a personality type prone to risk taking and attention seeking. Whatever it is, the outcome is as powerful -- and as salacious -- as ever, with calls for Weiner, a U.S. Democratic congressman from New York, to resign after he acknowledged that he sent graphic photos to women he knew on social media Web sites.

"It's risk taking," said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. "We want bold leadership; we don't want a timid wallflower in these positions. The thing is, there are two sides to risk taking, and the negative side is where you do things and, in a sense, you can't stop yourself."

I might suggest something else: accomplishment deficit disorder. I find that when people are focused on an accomplishment (at least, a significant one that benefits those beyond himself or herself), doing things they shouldn't generally is rarely an issue. When the accomplishments laid before us are lackluster, boring, or insignificant, we go looking for things to fill the void.

In the past few months, I've seen some local colleagues also become unraveled, and I'd guess (ultimately) it was for the same reason.

What do you think? Is it a personal issue or did these (ahem, cough) "gentlemen" just not have enough to keep them busy on really important things? And where does personal accountability fit in with accomplishment? Just some thoughts as we start a new work week.

Cruise Conformity

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall." - Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self Reliance"

Cruise-control I had a nice visit to UWM last week to teach a 2-day class on the basics of business analysis. It's always a fun little get-away, and it allowed me to get in a visit with good friend Ellen Winters and catch up with her (and wish her a happy birthday in person).

The trip up and back is virtually all interstate, so my cruise control gets a nice workout.  It's a pretty comfortable drive, and I enjoy the opportunity for some think time.  My biggest automotive traveling pet peeve is when another driver (who either does not have cruise control or is too inept to use it) decides that s/he would like to use me as his/her personal pace car. I pass; they pass. I slow down; they slow down. I speed up... well, you get the idea. Sometimes I will slam on the brakes or otherwise slow way down to the point where following me becomes too much of a hassle; then they move on to some other conscientious driver to annoy.

In the office, I see a lot of "pace car tailgaters" trying to emulate others' accomplishments.  Instead of developing a personal brand of their own, they try to emulate those whom they admire... usually with disastrous results. Don't get me wrong: using the best practices of others is a great learning tool. I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't had some wonderful mentors who shared some of their secrets with me. If I hadn't been able to observe the good (and bad) behaviors of others, I wouldn't have learned what works and what doesn't.

Here's the catch: I watched. I listened. I observed. I learned. THEN I DECIDED. I didn't unilaterally attempt to take on the identity of those around me, mirroring their speed and driving habits exactly. I set my own pace and created my own style and technique. Sometimes things didn't work, or other things didn't feel comfortable. Then it was my decision to change.

I can honestly say that I feel comfortable in my own skin. In the classroom or on the project team, I'm the one setting cruise control. And I encourage those around me to set theirs. We'll all reach our destinations eventually... in our own time... following our own path. That's what makes our accomplishments identifiably our own.

A Head of the Game

Princess_beatrice_hat I admit it. I got up early a couple of weeks ago to watch the Royal Wedding of William and Kate. Before you make me turn in my "man card," in my defense, I live with a complete Anglophile whose mother made her get up to watch Charles and Diana 30 years ago, and who turned our London get-away into the British vacation death march. There wasn't much choice. But personally, I have an appreciation for snarky, biting British commentary, so waking up at 4 in the morning is alright.

I hear that Princess Beatrice is now auctioning for charity the artifact of the day... the one article of clothing that was talked about almost as much as the wedding gown itself: her hat. It was so fun to hear the comments about that hat, ranging from "we found the 5th Teletubby" to "is she going to set it on fire at the reception and have tiny tigers jump through it for entertainment?" Let's face it: Beatrice got noticed. And from what we heard, she WANTED to get noticed. And now she's getting noticed again for selling the beast.

Sometimes getting noticed is hard. You're jostling for position amid a sea of others who also want to get noticed. And sometimes we want to get noticed... but ONLY if getting noticed is all positive, raving praise, happy thoughts of puppies and butterflies and unicorns. Trust me, if your accomplishments get noticed, SOMEBODY will have less than favorable things to say about them as well.

Queen_elizabeth_bum And when you're jostling for position, it can be hard to accomplish what you set out to do. Take for example, my own brush with British royalty five years ago. The Queen was leaving St. James and there was a pressing crowd. My wife gave me her camera because I'm taller than she, thinking it would give us a better vantage for a shot at QE2. Well, the locals had other ideas about my goals for accomplishment. I got the shot of the Queen, but it really wasn't her best side. But I was just another face in a very big crowd, so my desire for accomplishment was compromised (unless the goal was "The Queen Bum" or "A Royal Pain in the Backside").

Bottom line: what are YOU actively doing to get your accomplishments noticed? Are you willing to have some observers NOT love you in order to do something different enough to get the important ones to love you?

I'll Take a Squeeze of History with That Tequila

Margarita Happy Cinco de Mayo.

Time for a couple of Margaritas... a Dos Equis or two (would that make it a quatro equis?). Fiesta!

But why?


You heard me, Gringo: why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Well, we needed an excuse to drink between spring break and the start of summer?

Um... yeah.

I'm sure the Mexicans who fought the Battle of Puebla and defeated the French on May 5, 1862 would be thrilled to know that their sacrifice and bravery was merely an excuse for American libation-consumption.

I had coffee this morning with a good friend and colleage who shared a recent project experience in which one of her colleagues felt slighted because he felt he was being cheated out of hours because the project went a different direction. My friend had to remind him that the REAL REASON for the project was the benefit of the client, NOT his personal gain and ego. We've all had project prima donas who forget about the others out there who benefit from the project.

What about you? Do YOU know the real reasons behind your accomplishments? Or are your projects just another reason to get drunk? (Um... don't answer that. We'll discuss the term "rhetorical question" later.)

Happy Cinco de Mayo.

What Now?

Rot_in_hell_osama_bin_laden Osama bin Laden is dead.


The focus of many nations for the better part of a decade (really, longer than that) has been accomplished.

I'm always fascinated by people and situations right after a major milestone is achieved. Granted, there's celebration over this event. But what now?

Focus on the economy?

Figure out the messes in Libya and Syria?

Deal with humanitarian needs?

Look at the environment?

Improve our nation's education system?

There are really no wrong answers. All of the above are good and noble causes. (Each will spawn new arguments between Republicans and Democrats, but that's another blog post for another time.) I would guess that the right answer is to prioritize and then do something. When you finish an accomplishment, celebrate and reflect... then move on. There will always be other accomplishments out there waiting for you... for me... for us.

Carpe Factum!

Out Like a Lion

IMG_0661 March just ended; we're now into April. In a couple of weeks, spring will be upon us at full-steam.

It's been a challenging winter, as most of you have seen from earlier posts on my blog. Those who are my friends on Facebook have seen my mother's cancer situation played out in real-time. As I write this, I'm sitting at Taylor House Hospice in Des Moines by Mom's bedside. Every breath is an accomplishment, a fight, a competition against death itself. There is no going "gentle into that good night" for this woman.

I mentioned to somebody recently that I'd put my professional life on hold for the past five months to be there for her, but in retrospect, that's not true at all. Mom has been my client. I've been forced to use all of my project management, office politics, creativity, and systems thinking skills on her and her needs. We've taken care of funeral arrangements, transitioned among levels of care, fired an obnoxiously pompous oncologist, balanced pharmaceuticals, communicated among relatives and friends. All of the same skills I've used in the past I've just retooled.

No client has been more pressing, more rewarding, more emotionally draining, or more invested. This is a project I'll take to my dying day. Mom has spent her entire life accomplishing things. She has earned "Well done, good and faithful servant" many times over. Sitting by her bedside, monitoring every breath, wondering which one is her last... it's an honor, a privilege. I've been able to watch her strength firsthand.

I'll transition back to "more traditional" clients soon enough. In the wee hours of the morning, I'm thinking of how I watched March go out like a lion. Mom's life helped shape me into who I am. For now, I'll stay focused on the positives. I'll miss her, but she will always be here... in what I do, what I say, and what I accomplish. Carpe Factum, Mom. I love you.

(Apple) Pie in the Face

IPad2-Steve-Jobs Virtually all of us want to accomplish something significant in our lifetime.  Very few will make the marks of winning a Grammy or an Oscar, becoming President, or writing a Pulitzer-worthy book.  One of the reasons the people attain such amazing accomplishments (outside of hard work and/or dumb luck) is branding, making their work stand out in a sea of sameness.

Steve Jobs is one of those who can brag (rightfully) about accomplishment, and the branding thereof.  He knows how to get his disciples excited.  People hear the names of Apple or Steve Jobs and there is no middle ground of indifference; both icons are passionately loved OR hated.

Now Jobs and Apple can add "ridiculed" to their list.  Jobs, whose evangelical fervor is touted as the benchmark of presentation skills, seems to have overstepped his bounds with the iPad 2 announcement.  Kudos to Seth Weintraub for taking Jobs to task for his misstatements.

Every term from "being first" to "shipping in volume" appeared to be subjected to an alternate reality.

This is the problem with too many accomplishment brands: they don't KEEP IT REAL.  If I had a dime for every project that promised things the team KNEW they couldn't deliver... SIGH.  I won't even go into the number of "doctored" status reports claiming completed accomplishments (which hadn't even been designed yet).  Call it what you want: spin-doctoring, selling to the masses, or ... er... um... I dunno... LYING?

I'm not going to get on a soap-box of morality with this one. From a business perspective, examine your accomplishments.  Will it deliver what you say it will deliver?  If not, is the message wrong or is the accomplishment flawed?  Your message and your accomplishment had better be in alignment; if not, branding your accomplishment will at best be tainted (at worst, failed).

We'll hope Jobs learns his lesson on fact-checking before his next big launch... the marketplace can be pretty unforgiving.

It's Hard To Be Five

Five Having had two daughters who have passed this major milestone, I enjoyed Jamie Lee Curtis' children's book about the transitional age of five.  It seems a lot happens to the average five-year-old.  In Curtis' words:

It's hard to be five.
Just yelled at my brother.
My mind says do one thing.
My mouth says another.

It's fun to be five!
Big changes are here!
My body's my car,
and I'm licensed to steer.

Well, today is another fifth birthday:  Carpe Factum Blog is now officially five years old today. It seems hard to believe I've spent five years of my life writing all of these random thoughts, and you all keep coming back to read them.

While the past few months have been challenging my blogging discipline, you can rest assured this "five year old" is cooking up new thoughts and insights. There will be plenty of posts coming soon to help you "seize the accomplishment."  And while it may be hard to be five, we're going to have a lot of fun in the next year also.

Thank you for your readership!


Nothing to Fear? Let's Find Something!

“If the instructions are not clear, if the orders are not obeyed, it is the fault of the general. But if the instructions are clear and the soldiers still do not obey, it is the fault of their officers.” – Sun Tzu

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures." - W. Edwards Deming

"We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones." - Stephen King

Sun_tzu_concubine I've come to the conclusion that fear is underrated. I'm not talking horror (a la Stephen King), nor unbridled neuroses (as a project manager, I have that one mastered, thank you very much). I'm talking good old run-of-the-mill, healthy-for-you FEAR.

I was reading the story of Sun Tzu and the King's concubines.  For those not familiar with it, Sun Tzu was a kind of consulting legend. Instead of Six Sigma, he specialized in military strategy... a sort of Machiavelli for the B.C. era. King Ho Lu was considering hiring Sun Tzu, so he asked for a demonstration (evidently, round table interviews hadn't been invented yet). Sun Tzu organized the king's 300 concubines into two battalions (allow the king's two favorites to be the heads), armed them, and gave them a clear, direct order. Giggling. He tried again. More giggling.

Here's where things get interesting. He called in the executioner and beheaded the two favorite concubines. Sun Tzu himself might have been on the chopping block had it not been for what he did next. He quickly promoted two more concubines and gave them orders. Amazingly, compliance.

A while back, I was on a contract with a client. There were some project managers who weren't cutting it, and the client manager did what needed to be done: promptly fired the project managers (be they contract or employee... didn't matter). However, there were business analysts who were also misbehaving who were allowed to continue the behavior. Why? There was no fear of reprisal. Nobody wanted to behead a concubine. Those in the project office got the message loud and clear: do your job and nobody gets hurt. In the business analyst office, that message rarely got around.

I've been curious why we don't behead more concubines. Mind you, I'm not talking about the toxic bosses who go around doing nothing BUT verbal decapitations all day. My focus here is on otherwise effective leaders who let bad behavior abound. I think the problem here is how we perceive fear. Roosevelt was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The question remains, though: isn't it just a little OK to maintain a healthy respect for being afraid? Have we become so desensitized to fear that we just don't know how to feel it any more?

If you are in a role of leading people out there among my readers, what is preventing you from beheading a concubine? Is it a desire to be liked? Is it a need for honesty (as in the Deming quote, above)? I think even Deming would have agreed that well-directed fear is a good thing. Fear of the competition. Fear of complacency. Fear of irreversible failure. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of under-performing co-workers. Fear of non-value. Those are all good fears to have. They are good fears to address head on.

So, the next time you deal with a giggling lack of response in the face of clear directives, are you prepared to behead a concubine? It might make all the difference in seizing your accomplishment.

Prescribed for Basic Discomfort

Nail_bed With the exception of Phineas and Ferb, I've grown tired of the crap that passes for television on the Disney Channel.  As a parent, I want my kids growing up with an appreciation for great writing and acting, where the adults don't look stupid, where a great plot and amusing characters can carry themselves. That's why I'm grateful for Hulu. My girls are now being introduced to The Addams' Family (the mid-1960's version starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones).

For those who grew up under a rock and unfamiliar with the Addams' family, go watch a few episodes and then come back and read the rest of this post. For the rest of you, wasn't that show a riot? The Addams clan was amusingly macabre while being extremely gracious to their visitors. They had no idea their norms made other people extremely uncomfortable.

Last weekend, I started teaching a class in Creativity at Drake. I gave my students the standard line: "I won't knock you out of your comfort zone; I'll drop-kick you." Discomfort is key for creativity. When you're uncomfortable, your mind starts racing. I see it in the face of students coming up with an excuse. I see it in project resources who failed to meet a deadline. It's evident in the faces of the guests of the Addams family as they try to extricate themselves from the spooky mansion.

My good friend, Kevin Eikenberry, had a great post about discomfort a couple of weeks ago. Among his five reasons was this gem:

Discomfort promotes creativity. Creativity is borne of necessity. People create new things, ideas, concepts and products when they have a problem – or in some way are outside their comfort zone. Often creativity is tapped to help regain comfort, which is great. The point is that when you feel or notice some discomfort or lack of satisfaction with your situation, you will likely be driven to innovate and be creative to find a remedy. If you want to be more creative, look for your discomfort.

Well said, Kevin. Now, my question is why we don't actively seek discomfort more? I'm amused by people who have a status quo fetish. They are petrified of discomfort. How can we EFFECTIVELY make others uncomfortable? Gomez and Morticia have some of the answers:

  • Assume discomfort is the norm: The Addams crew sees nothing wrong with housing a lion and an octopus, let alone a man-eating plant and an uncle who powers light bulbs with his mouth. When you go against the flow of normal on a daily basis, it takes a lot more to make you uncomfortable.
  • Be gracious in the midst of discomfort: Watching Gomez and Morticia, they make all their guests welcome and go out of their way with generosity. If you're going to make others uncomfortable, do it with a smile and an open hand.
  • Be balanced: the Addamses pursue multiple interests; they don't rely on just one technique to make others uncomfortable. Wreck a toy train or two. Learn the harpsichord. Try fencing. Just doing the same thing over and over won't make anyone uncomfortable; it will probably just make them mad.
  • It's temporary: each episode lasts 22 minutes. Yeah, television is not an accurate reflection of reality. However, discomfort doesn't have to last long either. If we embrace it, discomfort can be short-lived as well.

Just remember: discomfort doesn't have to be a bad thing. It is absolutely essential to those who really want to seize the accomplishment, as you won't carpe factum without it. So when discomfort knocks on your door, just open it and in your best Lurch voice, ask, "You rang?"

Accomplishments are a Stitch

Quilts After over 20 years in the business world, much of it in a project management and/or consulting capacity, I think I just stumbled upon the "holy grail" of business knowledge this morning.

The one question I field the most in my career is what one skill an existing or up-and-coming leader needs to have in his or her back pocket to be successful and significant.  (As many already know, it really takes an arsenal of skills to achieve this accomplishment, but humor me on this one and we'll say it can be boiled down to one skill.)

Are you ready for this?

If you encounter an executive who wants to take that ONE training class that will set him or her apart from the pack, here's what you should tell them:


Yes, you read that right: Q-U-I-L-T-I-N-G

As you've noticed, I've been spending a lot of time with my mom recently, and in her desire to "seize the accomplishment," she likes to tackle her favorite hobby: quilting.  So this morning, we cut out some pieces of fabric for a quilt she's making for my niece.

That's when it hit me.  If a leader can master the art and science of quilting, running an organization should be a cake walk.  But let's break this down a bit:

  • Process - at its core, quilting is the process of taking materials and resources, breaking them down into component parts, and reassembling them into something of value.  Isn't that what any organization with a mission and a customer base aspires to do?
  • Resources - any quilter would love the opportunity to pick out her (or his) own fabrics; however, being a very resourceful lot, they also know how to make the best of whatever scraps they have on hand. (They also know which scraps are useless and get rid of them or put them on backlog for a future project.)
  • Pattern - once the fabric is chosen (or thrust upon them), quilters pick the best pattern or set of patterns for their masterpiece.  Experienced quilters have a plethora of patterns at their disposal, and while they may have favorites, can draw from many different styles to fit what's best for the purpose and material. There is no "six sigma pattern" to solve every quilting dilemma.
  • Precision - I watched my mom cutting out squares of fabric; she was exact down to an eighth of an inch. There was no room for variation. Measure twice; cut once. I made a couple of goofs, but she was very forgiving while I picked up the fabric cutting skill to her specifications.
  • Tracking - quilters know how many blocks they'll need, and they tend to track progress block by block. They know what "done" looks like for each stage of the game.
  • Details - even when blocks are assembled individually, and then pieced together, there are still so many other things that make a great quilt.  Things like batting and backing and sashing and stitching all contribute to a wonderful finished product.  Quilters can pick out a quality product by look and feel; they just know.
  • Individuality - every quilter has a special touch, that pride of ownership that makes a quilt uniquely hers (or his). It may be a special kind of thread, or a contrast of color, or a signature move, but there is something about a quilt that makes it identifiable with its creator.
  • Appreciation - quilters know how to appreciate somebody else's handiwork. While a quilt is an individual accomplishment, quilting is a social act.  Sharing patterns, fabric ideas, etc. has been passed down from generation to generation, through sewing circles and state fairs, from friend to friend.  A true quilter knows how to appreciate the accomplishments of another without tearing down or belittlement.
  • Legacy - if done well, quilts outlive the quilter. They serve as gentle reminders that accomplishment is its own reward, that comfort is earned through hard work, and that the longest and greatest legacies are made, not bought.  Quilts are a reminder of our heritage.  They bring us joy that no corporate bottom line could ever achieve, show us wisdom that the highest priced consultant could never attain, and compel us to a creativity that intertwines simplicity with complexity.

So the next time your C-suite asks for some training on doing their job better, the next time a junior executive wants to head off to that retreat in Maui, the next time the boss wants to attend just one more workshop, hand them a needle and thread and send them to the fabric store.  We'll see if it improves their leadership skills.

And to my mother who has made and shared so many wonderful quilts, I am eternally grateful... especially for this latest lesson you didn't even know you were teaching me this morning.


Hugs05 One of the things I've learned through the years of dealing with cancer (my parents and my own) is the importance of having a strong advocate.  A cancer patient can be on considerable medications, and chemo/radiation can knock even the strongest on their tail-end for days/weeks/months.

Right now, my sister and I are serving as Mom's advocates.  There's not a day that goes by where we're not talking, comparing notes, making plans, or discussing options.  (NOTE: this sometimes irritates our mother, who is notoriously independent and strong, but we've learned to be very open and honest with her in our communications.)  Having people in your corner who can ask tough questions of an oncologist, who can fight with insurance companies, who can keep track of the number of drugs or medications - well, this is an important team to have.  Sometimes it takes having multiple pairs of ears in the room to fully absorb what the doctor is telling us.  We've often started our post-consultation debriefs with "Did you hear the same thing I heard?"  Then we pick apart the most important parts of the message and start over again with more plans and action items.

Moreover, even advocates need advocates.  I have been BEYOND blessed to have so many people in my life offer to help with all kinds of things.  We have back-ups for watching our girls.  We have people who have offered to bring us meals.  We have people with whom we can just share a good cry or a primal scream of frustration.  During a recent rough bout, when I was not having a good night dealing with the overwhelming nature of everything, my 11-year-old daughter came into our bedroom and informed me that if I ever needed a shoulder to cry on, she was pretty good at crying, too, when she was sad and would be there for me.  The best advocates can be those who have gone through it already.  I know a lot of people who have gone through the loss of a parent in the past few months.  Even the best of intentions cannot replace "I get it; I've been there."

Advocates also have to be there as constant encouragement to the patient.  We're their cheerleaders, advisors, surrogate worriers, mouthpiece, earpiece, and hand-holder.  Karen Putz, who has always been one of my favorite bloggers, tweeted me with a great article about cancer.  There are so many forms that cancer advocacy can take.

But this line of thought leads me back to my "day job" - when you are trying to seize the accomplishment, who are your advocates?  As my cop friends would say, who has your back?  And equally important, for whom are you serving as advocate?  Whom are you helping to seize their accomplishment?  In our society of "lone wolf" and "rugged individualist" mindsets, we forget that life's accomplishments (at least the ones worth accomplishing) are team sports.

In The Way of Explanation

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


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.

I Can't Hear You

Let me introduce you to someone you may not know:

Or maybe you remember this guy from 2004:


Gee, I sure hope you remembered to turn down the volume on those two videos before you listened to them.




Stark raving mad lunatic.

True accomplishment does not require an increase in volume from the person accomplishing it.  True accomplishment stands on its own.  A whisper should suffice.

What are you trying to say?  What's the message?  Who's the audience?  Do you feel the need to bellow about your "master's in communication"?  (I'm sorry... that one just makes me chuckle.)  Must you bark your intentions to take over the world?

Roaring your own accomplishments really just makes you look ridiculous (I submit Exhibits A and B for the court's consideration).  If the accomplishments need to be broadcast loudly, let others do that for you... they're called fans... but you're the one who creates them.

Think about how you communicate accomplishment (achieved or intended).  Why shout when a whisper would do?  Save the shouting for when it's really merited.

Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?

Congratulations, Republicans, on your big win yesterday.  The voters really sent a message to Washington.  But just to be clear, it's not necessarily the message you think.  Two and four years ago, a message was sent also.  Americans were weary of the Bush-Cheney Iraq fetish.  They wanted a President and a Congress who were going to fix things here at home.  Our economy tanked, and it seemed nobody cared.  So the voters let Democrats have a shot... in a big way.  Two years ago, Democrats had the White House AND a filibuster-proof Senate AND an overwhelming majority in the House.  The agenda was theirs for the taking.

Conflict_Response Unfortunately, it wasn't the agenda that a majority of voters wanted.

Health care?

Cap and trade?


Um... no.

So the voters have sent another message, but this message isn't so much about ideological or political stances.  This message is one of accomplishment... or potential accomplishment.  So let me spell it out for the 112th Congress:  Work TOGETHER and get something done.

We who fill in our voting bubbles and pull levers really don't care who gets credit.  We want to see you identify problems and solve problems.




National Security.

Come on, people.... FOCUS!

But, in all fairness, you're Washington Insiders, so maybe nobody has ever taught you how to play well in the sandbox with each other.  So here's some assistance from Frameworks 4 Learning.  This is the conflict response model.  You've all been in competition and compromise mode for so long, you may not have realized there is a different way.  It's called COLLABORATION, but it requires a different mindset than you've used before.  Instead of "me vs. you" or "Democrat vs. Republican" you'll have to at least pretend you're both on the same team, and that the PROBLEM IS THE ENEMY.

Am I naive to think that Congress can "Carpe Factum"?  Perhaps.  But somewhere tucked away, there's a little bit of idealism in me that says U.S. Government still works.  You in Congress no longer have the luxury of games.  The clock is ticking on the economy and our crushing national debt (how's your Chinese, folks?).  The clock is ticking on the environment.  The clock is ticking on educational reform. Tick-tock-tick-tock. Can you work together?  

Let's hope so... two years can go by very quickly.

Environmentalist vs. Economist

Garden I've purposely avoided most of the election topics in my blog over the past several weeks.  This has taken considerable restraint on my part, as there has been SO MUCH fodder, but I didn't want to cloud the messages of accomplishment with others' perceptual filters on candidates and issues... there are a lot of strong feelings out there from both sides.

I am, however, going to tackle one issue that's on the Iowa ballot.  On the surface, the creation of a Water and Land Legacy fund is a brilliant idea.  I've become more more engaged and interested in environmental issues, and I believe we're all called to be good stewards of our planet's resources, whether or not we believe in global warming.

But beyond the surface of this idea, things fall apart.  First, I'm not sure why this measure is a constitutional amendment.  This seems like overkill, and it makes it appear as though our governor and legislature can't do their job well enough to make this a reality through their own responsibilities.  The purpose of a constitution is to define/limit/expand rights... mostly for the individual.  When it comes to organizations, the legislature should be defining the parameters by which they operate.

The second issue with this measure is funding.  They've structured it so that a sales tax increase is necessary to fund it.  For those who have not gone through a couple of semesters of economics in college, sales tax is regressive; in other words, it hits the lower and middle classes worse, because these classes use proportionately more of their income to spend money on taxable items than do the upper class.  Maybe it's the systems thinker in me, but why not increase fines and penalties on environmental infractions to fill the coffers?  That way, the more companies and individuals are caught breaking environmental laws, the more the environment benefits (basic cause and effect).

While you can guess which way I'm voting on this measure, that's not really why I chose to write about it.  I want to challenge all of you to have these kinds of internal arguments before you go out and try to argue with someone from a different party or political mindset.  Based on the commercials and the bad arguments I've witnessed, we seem to have more absent-minded voters than we have absentee voters.  Please try to be informed and to think before you pull the lever tomorrow.


Trudgectory The final element of accomplishment branding is - at the same time - both intimately personal and intimidatingly public:  Does your brand have a DIRECTION?

We're all familiar with the term, trajectory.  We may not know the exact formulas for tracking a trajectory, but we know it's a path with a purpose.  There is a set direction for a projectile, and by golly, that projectile is headed in that direction.

But what if your accomplishments are on a "trudgectory"?  What if you're trying to accomplish things with no direction?  I've shared before about the danger of having a WUHOT on your team.  WUHOTs are not on a trajectory; they're on a trudgectory.  They're slogging through the swirly of failure and mediocrity, hoping that something happens TO them... or happens FOR them.  The term, trudgectory, was coined by a close friend of mine who was on the verge of ending his career working under a vile and venomous excuse for a human being.  Every day was a trudge from start to finish.  Now that he's out from under the weight of the waste of oxygen, he's in a different career, and I've been able to hear and see the energy return... he's a new man... his accomplishments again have direction... and HE KNOWS what that direction is.  He moved from trudgectory to trajectory.

The key for a DIRECTED accomplishment is alignment to something greater than itself.  Mission, vision, values, purpose, or (if you're in a project setting) portfolio will make the difference.  It's all about having the direction set to change the world and make it a better place... even if it's just your small corner of it.

So there you have it.  If you really want to brand your accomplishments, you have to be DRIVEN:

  • Directed
  • Real
  • Identifiable
  • Valuable
  • Engaging
  • Noticeable

And now, when it comes to branding, you can tell people that for the past week, you've been "DRIVEN" in reverse.  Now it's time for you to go VROOM, VROOM on your own accomplishments.  Are you ready?

Toddlers In Suits

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius."  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Toddler_suit I suppose I should have known better.  But it really was there for the taking.  And looking back, I wouldn't have done it any differently.

I was interviewing for a project recovery contract, and it was my second interview.  I was facing four members of the C-Suite.  After all, it was one of the top two projects in the company, and they wanted to make sure they had the right person.  One executive asked the question I was expecting:  "How do you like to communicate with executives?"  I don't think they were expecting my answer.  Sure, I could have gone all "text book" on them, but when a critical program is being recovered, you know that there will be difficult discussions with executives on the horizons... and I had to be sure my response would reveal my accomplishment brand.

My answer?  "I'll be honest with you all:  I've become much better at executive communication since I became a parent and realized executives are simply toddlers in suits.  If I give you lots of pretty pictures with nice colors and manage your ADD correctly, nobody gets hurt."  I got the job.

In the coming months, I was able to have excruciatingly frank discussions with them.  When I left the project (on my terms and in my time), I knew I had delivered the value that was necessary to get the project back on the right track.

So the next issue for your accomplishment brand:  are you keeping it REAL?  Are you being authentic, honest, and up-front about issues, status, and progress?  There are a lot of people out there who want to be someone else.  We're nearing Halloween where many will dress in costume.  But what about the other 364 days of the year?  What costumes are you wearing which prevent you from being true to your brand?

Are you able to let others see the "real you" when you're accomplishing something?  Sometimes setting the stage up front by being real will save you a lot of headaches on the back end.

Topless And/Or Faceless

Autumn_trees_barren We had a rather large wind yesterday, which did a number on many of the autumn leaves still on the trees.  Now, many trees are sitting buck naked while the ground is a colorful mural of reds, oranges, and yellows (with a smattering of greens and browns).  Not being an avid arborist, I have enough trouble identifying trees when the leaves are on them... yank off the leaves and I'm toast.  A whole season's budding, blossoming, and leafing productivity gone in a day... and now most of the trees look the same... a topless commodity.

But yesterday's windstorm is today's blog post.  If you're going to brand your accomplishments, are they IDENTIFIABLE as yours?  You've arrived when somebody can look at the output of your labors and say with confidence, "Yup, Fred did that... I can just tell."

I have that experience on a couple of fronts.  The first is on project planning.  Most people who have worked with me know when I've had my hand in a project plan because of the structure and formatting.  On the second front, I've been pushing myself recently.  Working in academia, I've become increasingly annoyed with text-heavy slides.  With that in mind, I've made a concerted effort to drastically reduce the amount of text in my presentations; instead, I show an image and tell a story to make my point.  It makes my message stand out... especially in a never-ending sea of bullet points.

Being identifiable can be negative as well.  Ask Jack the Ripper.  OK, since he's dead and gone, there is plenty of evidence of cubicle career killers lurking around our offices.  I once worked with another consultant who insisted on editing everybody else's work before it went before the client.  It would be one thing if a majority of his edits added value, but it got to the point where we referred to said edits as his having peed on the document (i.e., marked his territory so he could get credit later).

But even worse is having no identity whatsoever.  If your work, your project, your accomplishment looks EXACTLY like everybody else's, why do we bother keeping you on the payroll?  You're just a tree that's lost all of its leaves in a forest of other trees who have lost their leaves.  You're all just a bundle of topless, faceless trunks and twigs with no accomplishment to show for yourself.  Oh well, maybe next spring.

Having an accomplishment that is well branded means that you have "marked your territory" in a positive light.  People are ecstatic to see your stamp of approval.  They know you own it.  They rest assured that the accomplishment is/was/shall be in good hands.  You are the Steve Jobs of your domain.

However, a caveat to being identifiable:  Scott Ginsberg, an expert in personal branding and identity, shares some of his wisdom on this topic: "What identifies you doesn't define you. Don't walk into a room assuming people care about your nametag, when what people crave is the committed heart behind it. Are you living larger than your labels?"  But we'll get to that later.


Goldkey It's great if your accomplishments are noticed, and even better if they are engaging, but when people unwrap your accomplishments, will they find something VALUABLE at the core of your accomplishment's brand?

There are a lot of projects out there that are pure fantasy.  I recently blogged at IowaBiz about this phenomenon, how many IT departments like to drive unnecessary projects through the pipelines... just because they can.  I've observed many CIO's who have authorized projects for "really cool technology" just because of the "bells and whistles."  At one client, I referred to the CIO as "the little engine that shouldn't" because of his ability to materialize non-vetted projects... I don't think he liked the title very much.

But how do we define "value" in our accomplishments?  The dictionary calls it "having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities" or "of great use or service," but I don't think either of these really cut to the chase.  Your accomplishment has to be relevant.  In other words, the recipient/user/customer of the accomplishment has to care that you've accomplished something.  If they don't, you have New Coke... or Gap... sure, you accomplished something, but your audience did not find anything of value.  Look at the gripes every time Facebook changes something... you'll see a tremendous lack of accomplishment value.

Often, value is - as Malcolm Gladwell would put it - "thin sliced."  We can just look at an accomplishment and deem it to be valuable.  How?  Brant Fetter made a good observation on his blog:

I think we humans use any kind of cue to assess the value of something. That’s why branding works. Just as someone who has a clean appearance and speaks in an articulate fashion is going to be more trusted initially than others. We try (whether we know it or not) to use this shorthand from gut reactions all the way up to deciding multi-million dollar contracts and mates. Any human knowledge is based on those that go before us, such as science is just one body of work based on the previous.

Whether it's a snap decision or well researched, value will be vetted out over time.  So it's great if your accomplishment brand is noticeable and engaging... just make sure it is valuable as well.  People will notice.

Mastering the Art of the Flirt

Flirt Many, MANY years ago (before kids... before wife... barely into adulthood), I was shopping with my sister-in-law.  We had gone into a men's clothing store, and I was looking around.  The clerk was helping us out, and I remember her being very friendly.  As we left the store, my sister-in-law turned to me and stated: "Wow, I can't believe she didn't propose to you right then and there."

"Huh?" (The typical male response in clueless state.)

"She was completely and totally flirting with you."

"Really?  Cool."  (End of conversation.  Acknowledged with a slight puff of ego.)

If you are going to brand your accomplishments, you're going to have to ENGAGE those who will benefit from your accomplishments (or potentially benefit from them).  To engage them effectively, you're going to need to master the art of the flirt.  While flirting gets a bad reputation for being superficial or lacking serious intent, it does do the one thing you want it to do:  builds curiosity.

To be engaging, you want to draw attention.  That's where being noticeable helps.  But being noticed isn't enough.  You have to create that spark of curiosity.  That sly smile and quick wink that says, "I have something you want."

As a project manager, I encourage other PM's to master flirting in their communication.  You can't barf every piece of information you know on the page and expect people to read it, let alone want more.  If your accomplishments are going to engage others, you need to flirt with their brains to build their curiosity and draw them in.

Look at the next two paragraphs

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

Which one would you rather read in a status report?  They both essentially say the same thing.  But which one does a better job of flirting with your brain, building your curiosity, giving you just the critical facts while engaging you to ask for more?  (The first one just makes my eyes glaze over, and I'm the one who wrote it for sake of example.)

So if your accomplishments and going to be branded effectively, can you master the art of the flirt?  Can you invite your audience into your accomplishments and leave them wanting more?

Sarah Palin is a New York Yankee

Sarahpalin One of the first components of branding yourself and your accomplishments is getting NOTICED.

But what does "getting noticed" look like?  Obviously, you have to be just different enough to knock through the perceptual filters of your audience.  Let's be real here folks:  how many meetings do you attend in a week?  how many emails do you receive?  how many phone calls do you take/make?  You, my friend, are bombarded with a whole lot of stuff vying for your attention.  It's like we're surrounded by a roomfull of ADHD youngest children, jumping up and down, screaming "Hey! I'm here! Pay attention to me!"  That's why Seth Godin's Purple Cow was such a huge seller.

Yankees While I wasn't a big fan of Drake's D+ ad campaign (more due to forgotten constituencies and communication thereto), President David Maxwell did a great job of explaining the concept behind this campaign for its target audience:  high school seniors.  While every other college's brochure had a beautifully composed picture of happy students on a well landscaped lawn under a tree with their laptops, Drake slapped them in the face with a plain blue brochure with a huge white D+.  It grabbed their attention.  It was different enough to be noticeable.  And it has worked with the target audience.

Which leads me to the second aspect of getting noticed:  you have to be comfortable with being hated.  Kathy Sierra's model of strong branding says it all.  If you are loved or hated, you're getting noticed.  We don't like the "being hated" part very much.  It makes us uncomfortable.  We just want to be loved, and if that's not attainable, we want to be liked.  Being liked is not a strong brand.  Ask Sarah Palin.  If you agree or disagree with her politics, she continues to be noticed.  And people love her or hate her.  And she's pretty cool with either side of the equation.  Same with the New York Yankees.  If my Facebook and Twitter traffic is any indication, there are A LOT of people who hate the Yankees (either that, or the Rangers have generated a TON of ad hoc fans suddenly).

What about you?  Are you getting noticed?  Are your accomplishments?  Why not?  Well, are you only tackling the "popular" projects at work?  When it comes to making a decision, are you always playing it safe?  Are you comfortable with being hated for doing what is right?  Are you putting yourself out there with how your projects and accomplishments are being branded?  Are you infusing a part of yourself into your projects?  I've mentioned before the time when I was put in charge of a HIPAA training project (insert yawn here).  I went out on a limb and did the whole training video like an episode of Cops.  It was a hit with the client, because it was different enough to be noticeable.  Make your accomplishments noticeable.  It will help you be more noticeable also.

Brand Flakes

Branflakes In the world of accomplishment, there will always be perception.  It's a two-edged sword.

That's why it is so critical for every professional to own his or her personal brand.  I've been a big fan of Mike Wagner for years.  What he has done for company branding with his DIRTY model is brilliant.  It's been proven over and over:  companies with strong brands are more successful.

But what about you as an individual?  Do you have a brand?  (Psssst... the answer is "yes")

If you are going to achieve "Carpe Factum" you'll need to figure out how to brand yourself... and your accomplishments.

Unfortunately, many out there think they can accomplish great things without managing their individual brand.  Many of the letters I've answered on Office-Politics.com have been caused by individuals who have let others define their brand for them... and discovered it too late.  They've flaked out on owning their own identity.

We can create check marks to denote our accomplishments... but are we owning the story, the perception, and identity behind them?

What do you think?  Do you have a grasp on your personal brand?  When something great is accomplished, do those around you say, "I could tell that was YOUR work. Congratulations!"?  Branding yourself and your accomplishments applies to everyone from superstar CEO's to custodial staff.

Over the next few posts, let's figure out what it takes to brand ourselves... and our accomplishments.

Mine! Mine! All Mine!

Chilean-miners Congratulations to the Chilean government and to the 33 brave miners who survived 69 days underground after their mine caved in on August 5th, keeping them trapped 2300 feet underground.

Following the story, there are some definite lessons about accomplishment to be learned:

  1. When disaster strikes, it does not necessarily mean certain doom and gloom.  Having that many guys trapped that deep for that long was not exactly the most positive news... but a solution was found.
  2. Sometimes you have to dig deep - really deep - to find the accomplishment buried in the rubble.  But taking the time for the dig is always worth it in the end, especially if it leads to your accomplishment's survival.
  3. It may be depressing to wait... but there are ways around it.  For the miners, it mean government-supplied clothing and games and anti-depressants.  For us above ground, it may mean a little vacation (even a 5-minute mental vacation) or some other change of scenery or something inspirational.
  4. Keep communication open.  One of the things that helped the miners (and their families) was the ability to communicate with each other.  In project management, communication is 90% of the game.
  5. Slow and steady wins the race.  I talked about this in my first book.  There's ALWAYS a race against time in any accomplishment, but rushing just for rushing's sake generally leads to stupid mistakes.  Taking 69 days meant all 33 miners made it back to the surface safely.
  6. Set expectations wisely.  Nobody made false promises to the miners.  They knew it could take months to be rescued.  Knowing that helped make the endurance test a little more bearable.
  7. Know your role.  Many of the miners underground served specific roles to keep up morale and health, as well as stay organized.  Leverage those around you for their strengths to keep your accomplishment alive.
  8. Determine ownership of the accomplishment.  Poor Yonni Barrios.  To have his wife and his mistress "discover" each other while he's trapped had to be... well... um... AWKWARD!  He's probably the only one who wishes he could have stayed underground.  When your accomplishment makes it to the surface, make sure it's clear who really owns it (and hopefully it's you)

So, again, congratulations to the miners and to the many people who helped them survive and make it safely to the surface once again.

I Was Told "No"

No Last week, I was told "no."

I didn't think my request was unreasonable.

Nor did it come as a surprise to the requested party, as the other person has known for the better part of a year what was on my mind, and that the question was on the table for that length of time.

There was really no argument about it, since the other party and have a strong friendship and lots of mutual respect for each other.

Was I disappointed?  Yes.

Was it permanent.  No.

Both he and I knew that he wasn't really telling me "no."  While it was the answer to the question on the table, that "no" was actually a much more empowering "yes" to pursue the same problem from a different angle.  As a matter of fact, his "no" was more of an invitation for me to find a slightly different "yes."

Sometimes we take "no" as a final answer.  When dealing with questions of legality, morality, or ethics, the "no as a final answer" is a pretty good thing.

But for everything else?  Well...

At a former client, we had a running joke of being told "no" up to five times before an idea took root.

"No" is actually the seed of the "Yes" plant.  If you plant a "no" and the soil is fertile enough and well watered, you can't help but grow a "Yes" eventually.  If the "no" is planted in the desolate soil of defeatism, then "no" stays just that, just like a seed shrivels and dies rather than producing a plant.  And all you get is a frustrated farmer.

My "no" seed is currently germinating quite nicely into a "yes" ... a future accomplishment in the making.

What about yours?

None of the Above

None_of_the_above A lot of my friends and colleagues have been asking my opinion about the rise of the Tea Party movement this fall.

To be honest, I'm not sure what I think of it.

I am, however, sure of WHY I think of it.

The Democrats (for almost 235 years) and the Republicans (for about 150 years) have managed to polarize Washington to the point where accomplishment is almost an impossibility.  No longer do our law-makers go to Washington with the intent of representing us and our needs (Note: I did not say "wants"; I said "needs").  They go with a combative defiance against the other guys.

And quite frankly, America has become rather tired of the lack of accomplishment.

Say what you want about the members of the Tea Party being radicals who have watched too much Fox News; most people will agree that Washington is irreparably broken.  Heaven forbid we ever have a serious crisis where we need to pull together as a nation to accomplish something quickly.  Oh... wait... environmental stewardship (again, NOTE: I did not say ANYTHING about global warming), massive financial debt to China, etc. etc. ... so much for that need to pull together quickly thing.

Would I personally vote for a Tea Party candidate?  It would depend on the candidate.  I know that when Peggy Noonan starts giving credibility to the rise of the Tea Party, then maybe it's time to sit up and take notice of the bigger picture of what's going on.

As professionals, we like to weigh viable alternatives.  Often, if we don't see anything we like, we will go with "none of the above" and send people back to the drawing board.  By doing so, we ensure that eventually a solution will be implemented which will feel like a real accomplishment, rather than a series of weakened compromises.

Really, that's all the Tea Party is:  people are voting "none of the above" to the status quo.  However, if one is going to shoot down all of the alternatives, then a viable solution had better be forthcoming.  Will the Tea Party be a sustainable movement?  Only time - and accomplishment - will tell.


Coffin_lgLast month, I got to visit a friend and relative who's a county coroner.  (Lesson learned: never eat BBQ with an engaging story-telling coroner.)  I saw more than my fair share of dead bodies over the weekend, most of which were still intact.  However, a coroner's job is take bodies apart so they can find out why they died.  I saw one such body, dissected on the table like a 3D jigsaw puzzle.  What was more disturbing than the scene was the smell.  Dead, taken-part bodies stink.  Regardless, it was a highly educational weekend in many ways.

To take something else apart, we in Iowa recently held our election primaries.  As I predicted many months ago (in spite of the fact that our current governor has lost a lot of political capital from both parties), Bob Vander Plaats could have saved himself a lot of time and effort by not even entering the race.  He lost soundly to 4-term-Governor-turned-candidate, Terry Branstad.  Then he was shot down again at the convention when he tried to challenge the bid for Lieutenant Governor.  But what has amazed me is the reaction of his followers.  The social conservatives have spent so much energy over the past few months painting Branstad as a liberal-lover or a RINO (Republican In Name Only) because they claim he ignores their desires.

I recently debated this point with a far-right-conservative, and I tried to impress upon him that social issues were still important... just NOT AS important as economic issues at the moment.  Once the party got the economy back on track, then other issues may come to the forefront.  It's called PRIORITIES.  No candidate can take on everything and do it successfully (just ask Obama).  Suffice it to say, he didn't believe me.  It was a very black-and-white mentality of all-or-nothing, my-way-or-the-highway with him.  (To be fair, I see the same behavior in the far left too... that's why I only talk politics with logical moderates and independents... way more productive and far less annoying.)

But I didn't write this post to bash the political players.  In seeking to seize the accomplishment, one must learn to prioritize.  What task needs my attention today?  What relationship should I focus on?  Which project should I do first?  What OUGHT you do first? then second? then third?  What OUGHT your focus be?  What OUGHT to be your priorities?  When you learn to dissect what you OUGHT to do, then you get through things a lot faster.

To avoid prioritizing, whether in politics or in life or in business, means your accomplishment will die a questionable death, and somebody will end up dissecting it.

The Summer Soul-Stice

Summer_sun_sets  Been thinking about soul and passion a lot the past few weeks.  I'm a big fan of being passionate... about at least a couple things anyway.  On the longest day (i.e., most sunlight) of the year, it seems we have even more waking hours to be passionate... about something.

But are you letting the sun shine on your passion?  Can people tell what really gets you excited?  Me?  Well, let's put it this way, I could never play poker.  People tend to know exactly how I feel (positively or negatively).  If I'm talking about my kids or my writing or working with the SWAT team, you can barely keep my feet on the ground.  Life is too much of a guessing game as it is.  Why not shed some light on what makes you tick?  Many people, when they know this, are willing to help you out on your journey.

So as the sun sets on the "longest day" make it a point to share your passion with at least one other person.  Who knows where it might lead?  After all, if passion is silent, is it really all that passionate?

Think Like a (Real) Blackbelt

Jimbouchard I love meeting new people on my journey through social media.  Many of them have the same drive for accomplishment I do, but they have a slightly different take on it.  One such individual is Jim Bouchard.

Jim's brand is about learning to "think like a Black Belt" - and no, I'm not talking the wimpy little Six Sigma type, either.  Jim is a real, honest-to-goodness martial arts stud, semi-pro-football player, and all-around leadership sherpa.  He applies his passions to business and helps other leaders learn to apply the principals of martial arts to their careers and organizations.

Jim and I had a chance to converse on his PowerPod - we talked about his book and about our philosophies of life and accomplishment.  Check it out.  But more importantly, check Jim out.  You won't be disappointed in the least.

By the way, Jim has a new book coming out soon.  I highly recommend you keep your radar up for it... promises to be every bit as amazing as Jim himself is.

...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?

Street Cred

WorkerWithHammer It's been a little quiet from me the past couple of weeks.  (Well, many of you were on spring break, so I doubt you missed me all that much... after all - tequila shots and warm breezes were calling.)

The past month has been fun for me.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm now contracting full time as a project manager.  Yes, it is fun... this is the kind of stuff that gets my adrenaline going.

While the schedule has been an adjustment, the activity is just like riding a bicycle.  Project plans, status reports, meeting minutes, issues logs, risk management.  You never forget.

Some have asked me why I took a detour from the speaking and writing to go back to a full-time cubicle-dwelling contract for a few months.  (The reality is that it isn't much of a detour as I still have a speaking schedule, and I'm in talks about my next book, but I digress.)  The biggest reason I agreed to take on this contract can be summed up in two words:  "street cred."

It's the same reason a successful actor agrees to do an independent film at a reduced rate, or why an athlete will join in a pick-up game of ball.  As a project manager, I never want to get too far away from my roots.  I don't want my expertise to be academic.  As a Chief Accomplishment Officer, I'm wired to DO, to PERFORM, and to ACCOMPLISH.

So for a few months (as long as my client and I agree that I'm adding value to the project and to the organization), I'll stick around.  I'll share some knowledge.  I'll learn a few new tricks myself.  And more importantly, I'll maintain my street cred.

What are YOU doing to maintain your credibility in your field?

The Downhill

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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."

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