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Can You Describe The Pain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking the Undoable

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


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

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

Back to my lesson plans!


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

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

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

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

So I gave them my top 10 rules of emailing:

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

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

Volvo is on FYRE

"So whatever happened with your Volvo incident from a few years ago?"

The question from an acquaintance who followed my blog struck me as rather out-of-the-blue, so I responded with the prolific and insightful response, "Huh?"

"The engine trouble you had on vacation. Did you ever get reimbursed for the rental and the auto parts? Did they ever follow up with the dealer?"

The incident in question was documented on my blog in the summer of 2013, but I never did blog about the follow-through (or lack thereof). The truth is Volvo did reach out to me and my wife via phone call right after the blog post was published. When I explained what had happened, they promised me they would reimburse me for the $180-190 in unexpected expenses and follow up with the dealer about what had occurred. Even though I sent them the receipts, I never received a check. And in talking with the Volvo service manager a few weeks later, he had never received a call from them. I had written the whole ordeal off as a learning experience, and we are now a Volvo-free family.

I was actually thinking about the Volvo incident again this past week as I watched the news unfold about the disastrous Fyre Festival, the music event in the Bahamas targeting money-plagued millennials. Seems Billy McFarland could use some classes in project management, especially those in setting and communicating expectations. My guess is that his clientele have as much chance of getting their money back from McFarland as I have of getting my reimbursement from Volvo.

Follow-through is such a simple concept, yet one that is so hard for professionals these days. As a project manager, I live or die on that hill with every email sent and every meeting held. For me, it's ALL about follow-through. And I've learned to practice the Tom Peters/Disney mantra of "under promise, over deliver." Some other things that have helped me over the years with my own follow-through:

  1. Be very clear about what "done" looks like. I had the pleasure of hearing magician Andrew Bennett speak a few years ago, and he shared that the word "Abracadabra" is Aramaic for "What I speak is what I create." If you're going to create magic for your clients, you'd better be prepared to create what you speak. Set parameters around the deliverable, but be clear about what they will get (and not get). 
  2. Be very clear about dates and times. "I'll get to this as soon as possible" is fraught with danger. "You will have the first draft in your in-box by 5 PM CDT on Friday, May 5, 2017" leaves very little ambiguity.
  3. Document any assumptions. One of my early mentors used to drill into my head that "assumptions not documented now become excuses later." If there are things out of your control, then say so as well as what the impact of those things are, should they go south quickly.
  4. Don't be afraid of a well-timed "NO!" In my interactions with students and clients alike, I impress on them that "Why" and "No" are the best friends of their vocabulary. In the case of the Fyre Festival, it sounds like there was way too much "yes" that could never ever be delivered.
  5. Acknowledge and apologize when you can't deliver as promised, and reset expectations about what can be delivered and when. When it's your credibility on the line, this one simple act can be huge.

In Semi-Total Somewhat Moderate Disagreement

A series of recent events on my own Facebook experience has forced me out of blogospheric semi-retirement. I want to talk about how social media etiquette, specifically in this day and age of political and ideological posturing.

First and foremost, when you are on somebody else's wall, act as you would if you were on their front lawn or in their living room. Your Facebook page/wall is yours; their Facebook wall is theirs. Period. Do not pick fights or misbehave on another person's wall. There are, however, ways to express your views on another's wall. To do so, we need to differentiate between agreement/disagreement and respect/disrespect. These are not the same, and they should be treated as two different axes on the graph:


You'll notice by the tone of each statement or question on this graph, you're showing how you feel about the person's ideas as well as the person.

Another thing to consider is the audience on their wall. When you engage a person on their wall, all of their friends can see it. While that person may agree with you, their friends may not, so you need to be aware of a much broader audience. I recently had to unfriend and block a person from my Facebook wall (I'd like to think of him as a friend due to our shared history, but after seeing his true colors, I realized quickly that he was not the type of person I wanted to subject my other friends to, let alone myself) because he attacked one of my other friends over a rather trivial topic (not even related to politics) that I'd posted on my wall. What he didn't realize is how many people saw that, and what that did to his overall brand and reputation. I deleted his thread just to save him from himself.

Also, consider your assumptions BEFORE you comment. We all have personal filters that cloud how we see things. Do an assumption check on YOURSELF to see if you have your perceptions in the right place. This can best be done through messenger out of the public eye.

Finally, just play nice. Here are some basic rules of engagement. You don't have to compromise your own core beliefs to recognize that somebody may have different from your own.

Corporate Culture: Live it or Leave it

I-Love-(Heart)-My-Awesome-Company-T-ShirtsCompany culture.

It's one of those fascinating terms that conjures different meanings for different people. We all filter it through the cultures in which we've worked. For some people, it's a wonderful term equated with teamwork and comradery and accomplishment. For others, it may mean drudgery and distrust. 

I've always been fascinated by culture, especially being a consultant. I've been exposed to numerous cultures inside and outside my home town. I've watched cultures shift over the years... some for the better, others for the worse. My current client has an amazing culture, and much of the credit is due to the fact they make their employees aware of the culture and their individual impact on it.

I think awareness is a key aspect of any organizational culture. I recently sent copies of my books to a friend. He's been reading my book, GUST, about office politics. Before he started, he offhandedly remarked that his organization was free of politics. Now that's he's halfway through the book, he's aware of the some of the signs of office politics he never noticed before. Sometimes, you need to be able to look at your own culture through an outsider's eyes.

I've also written before about toxic cultures, where people are blindsided by sneak attacks. If you're not paying attention, you miss a lot. The signs of your culture are there for you to read and interpret.

What is your corporate culture telling you? If you were to look at your coworkers, your furniture layout, your dress code, your meetings, your policies and procedures, and your general vibe through fresh eyes, what would you see?

Just some thoughts to start out your work week.


It's a Shame

ShameI was catching up on news the other day online and ran across the story of Adam Smith, the former CFO who was fired after his vitriolic Chick-Fil-A video went viral. He went from making $200K a year with a million more in stock options to being on food stamps. He had managed to get a job elsewhere, but when his new employer found out about the video, they also fired him.

About the same time as seeing the news story, as I was cleaning my shed (have to love post-move spring cleaning)I ran across Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide. It reminded me of the plagiarism and fabrication scandal involving this book and his newer one, Imagine.

It's interesting how things of such short proximity collide in my brain. A couple of months back, I read a thought-provoking piece by Jon Ronson in the New York Times entitled, "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life." In this piece, he dissects numerous incidents of public shaming. In this day and age of social media, it's pretty easy to pick a metaphorical skeleton clean in a matter of seconds and retweets. A couple of paragraphs struck me, though:

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So for the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized. (NYT 2/15/15, Ronson)

I know I've felt the self-righteous twinge of vengeance when I've perceived a wrong, whether against me or somebody else. In the early days of social media, Ronson nailed it: there was a leveling of social justice. But now it all seems so swift, so severe. And in this day of social media and mobile phones with video cameras, anybody and everybody seems to be fair game.

My bottom line is this: yes, there are people on this planet who do stupid, careless, thoughtless, and rude things. Their reasons are as vast as the stupidity of their actions. (Guess what? We all fall into that category; most of us are just fortunate enough that our actions weren't captured on camera or on social media.) Perhaps it's this Easter season and the thought of forgiveness is forefront on my brain, but maybe - just maybe - afford people a little leniency (or at least a meaningful dialogue) before passing judgment.

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?

Nationwide is on your (Blind) side

Wow. Just wow.

Sitting there. Watching the Super Bowl. Loathing the Seahawks. Bemoaning the already mediocre set of commericals. And then the Nationwide commercial came on.


Now I'm not going to go down the road of how much of a downer it was. I'm not going to dog-pile on Nationwide for their insensitivity. They claim their goal was to start a dialogue about safety in the home. Very noble. Very necessary. As a parent, I've spent the last 15 years being neurotic about my children.

Two words: audience and setting

Whenever we try to communicate ANYTHING - from commercials on the Super Bowl to telling our kids to take out the trash, from a sales pitch to win a multi-million dollar account to an uncomfortable meeting with your project sponsor when things aren't going so well - one should always consider, beside the content of the message itself, the audience and the setting.

With the audience, to whom are you speaking? (Yeah, duh, but stick with me here.) Is it one person or many? What do they care about? What are their hot buttons? Why should they listen to you? Why are they in YOUR audience? Why should they listen to YOU? What's your past relationship with them? How much credibility do you have?

With the setting, you're looking at the broader context of the message delivery. Are people in the right mindset to hear what you have to say? Are they stressed about other things? Are you using the right channel? The right words? The right tone?

Nationwide failed on both of these tests. When watching the Super Bowl, we expect to see commercials about the misuse of Doritos, about puppies and horses making us want to buy beer (okay, I still struggle with that connection), and about what happens when a Viagra drops into the gas tank of a Fiat (my personal favorite of the evening). We want to laugh, to be amused, to be entertained, and (maybe) to be informed about the actual product.

I can't say whether heads will roll at Nationwide, but the decision-makers need to do a better job of explaining how they dropped the ball on both audience AND setting. They certainly seemed to be blind to both.

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).

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

Underlying Assumptions

Brain_lockRecently, a former student posted on Facebook, asking that her friends share our pet peeves. As a moderate Republican, I commented that my pet peeve was "when people assume that ALL Republicans are anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed." I was surprised when another of her friends responded by saying that his pet peeve was "When Republicans lie and say they aren't anti-environment, anti-education, anti-people, pro-Christian-right, and pro-greed."

I have to admit, I was fairly incensed. After all, this individual didn't know me as a person, didn't bother to learn anything about me. He had it in his mind that ALL Republicans were just one way. Evidently, it's still politically correct to stereotype and bash Republicans. I was even more irritated this was an employee at the university where I teach... and he probably didn't realize he'd just defamed a faculty member online. My final point of irritation was he was a person of color who had, I'm guessing, probably been the victim of stereotyping himself at some point in his life; evidently embracing diversity only went one way in his mind.

But, like all who stereotype and label, he was operating on a foundation of very strong underlying assumptions. First, every Republican he's encountered in his life must have fallen into his preconceived framework. Second, anyone who did not fall into those underlying assumptions must be lying.

Underlying assumptions are tricky things. They really do affect our behaviors in so many of our daily transactions. If you assume somebody on your team is lazy or incompetent, you may be inclined to go behind their back, second-guess their work, or start micromanaging them. If you assume somebody is out to get you, you may start to build walls. If you assume somebody has supported you on issues in the past, they will support you on upcoming issues.

How do you over come a severe case of underlying assumptions?

  1. For starters, call them out. When somebody makes a strong statement like "Bob couldn't handle that assignment," simply note that seems like a very strong statement to have made about Bob.
  2. Next, get at the assumptions themselves. What do you believe to be true about Bob that makes you think he can't handle the assignment? (Note, this is best done in a one-on-one format rather than in a meeting forum.)
  3. How did you arrive at those assumptions? What behaviors did Bob display? (Focus on tangible behaviors or statements, not hearsay or innuendo.) Did the offending party read the behaviors correctly? Was there a pattern of behavior or simply a one-time activity? Did you provide Bob with feedback regarding the behaviors when you saw them?
  4. Can you refute the assumptions if they are not valid? Can you give the assignment to Bob, make him aware of the assumptions, and then set him up for success?

Another element in this discussion is trust. If trust is absent in the relationship, assumptions can run rampant much more easily. Since I have no personal or business relationship with this Republican-bashing friend-of-a-friend, I'll probably just let him wallow in his ignorance.

So... what assumptions are you carrying about others? What underlying assumptions have others made about you?

Another great resource on this topic is the book, Leadership and Self-Deception, by the Arbinger Institute. This quick read does a great job of demonstrating how and why we put boxes around other people (and ourselves) and arrive at the assumptions we do.

Oh, You Better Watch Out

Thomas-nast-santaWhat does Santa Claus look like?

Well, no "good" boys or girls really know for certain since they're in bed asleep when jolly ol' St. Nick leaves toys under the tree. Worldwide, there are numerous images of Kris Kringle, but here in the USA, we have adopted the image of the rubenesque elf in red. And for this, we have Thomas Nast to thank.


Who is Thomas Nast?

Those not familiar with American History may not recognize the name, but he was a 19th Century editorial cartoonist famous for exposing some of the worst political corruption of the late 1800's. He is also the one responsible for our image of the GOP as an elephant and the democrats as a donkey.

But we're talking about Santa Claus here. Mr. Nast drew upon his European roots to create his version of Santa. And it stuck. So the image that we now have is thanks to his keen imagery.

How often do we let others' define our perceptions of reality? Be it political beliefs, religious beliefs, organizational culture beliefs, relational beliefs, or accomplishment beliefs, are YOU in control of what you believe to be true, or have you blindly accepted what OTHERS have told you is reality?

We've let Thomas Nast define our reality of Santa for 150 years. My guess is there are many who think Santa has ALWAYS looked that way since his inception. And we've done the same for our other perceptions of reality as well. Unless you turn off Fox News/MSNBC, open your own Bible, review company your policies, read and review current literature, read opposing viewpoints, etc., you will ALWAYS see things the way you've always seen them.

I was talking with someone recently who did not want to work with another person because they "had heard" they were difficult. I happened to know the other person rather well and knew how the perception had been perpetuated. Hence, I began peppering my conversation-mate with questions about HOW they arrived at this perception. They had heard it from one other person... one, mind you... but had never worked or even met the "offending party" themselves. No research. Pretty sad that they were willing to discount someone based on one other's commentary.

So the best gift you can give yourself this Christmas season is the gift of an open mind. Learn to challenge your own perceptions of reality and define your own Santa.

'Twas the Month Before Caucus

BloommouseIt's such a charming, age-old story: right before a major holiday event, the little know-it-all mousy man writes an editorial that does not represent the masses well but certainly infuriates and discourages them. Parental figure gently chastises little mousy man, chiding him that he thinks he knows everything but he doesn't. Audience waits for happy ending when the holiday event is restored and all is forgiven. (OK, that last part only occurs on television.)

Straight out of a Rankin-Bass cartoon, I've been enjoying the drama that's unfolded over "professor" Stephen Bloom recently. His recent article in the Atlantic paints Iowans in a most unfavorable light of broad strokes of stereotyping and bad research, most unbecoming a so-called "intellectual" of his presumed caliber. (So glad he's an employee of our "dismally crime-infested" state.)

University of Iowa President Sally Mason (in the role of Father Mouse) tries to save Christmas... er... caucus... (um... the reputation of her university) through some damage control. The local tshirt shop has had a field day with the ridicule (Merry Christmas, Raygun... little Stevie figured your Romney "corporations are people, too" sales were growing thin, so he gave you a gift for the holidays).

After 45 years here, I can say with certainty that Iowa is a quirky place full of contradiction and paradox. I both love it passionately and blame it for my hair loss. It and its people amuse and befuddle me. But unlike Bloom, I see the potential and beauty and brilliance of this state and its people. I consider myself fairly well traveled, and I think it says a lot for the state of Iowa that I always look forward to returning home. Also, unlike Bloom, when I make a comment about another person or group of people, I can take responsibility and ownership for my actions and words and not act suprised if others are offended, hurt, or angry. Methinks that somebody has spent too much time in his own little ivory tower. We'll see if "Father Mouse" (President Mason) suggests an early retirement as a way to "fix the clock."

Bottom Line: Communication is not a hard concept... unless you're a certain journalism professor at the University of Iowa.

Communication? Elementary, My Dear Watson

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

"My brother picks his nose."

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

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

"Me too! Can I have one?"

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

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

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

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

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



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

"Like... like... "

"No way"

(Insert numerous eye rolls.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Straight Poop on Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

And I Approve This Message

I_approve_this_message The political ads are in full swing... fast and furious.  At the end of every campaign commercial, you hear the same droning candidate voice-over: "I'm so-and-so, and I approve this message."  Some of the commercials represent such poor logic that I wonder how a rational, ethical human being could possibly approve of this poor substitute for sound rhetoric... if they REALLY knew what was being said.

But let's pull it back to you.  You're trying to accomplish a "win" and you're communicating a lot of things to people, both implicitly and explicitly.  So, if you had to stop and think about what the real message is, do you really approve it?

Are you managing those who are trying to carry your message forward to others to ensure that what people are hearing is what you intended them to hear?  Are you paying as close attention to the medium or channel of the message, so that an email blast doesn't replace a one-on-one face-to-face meeting.

We're all bombarded with messages... so much so that we're filtering out those we don't want to handle.  Are your messages making it past the "crap filter"?  I was reading Ed Decker's blog post on political ads; he's one of many who are just tired/angry of the current establishment.  Is that how people feel about you in the office?  Do you feel that way about somebody else?  What can you do about those messages that are being inadvertently shared?

How can you get your personal branding back to the point of "I approve this message"?  Doing so may make the difference between success or failure on your accomplishments.

Gazing Into McChrystal Ball

(Alternatively titled: "A Rolling Stone gathers no boss" OR "Flat Stanley travels to Washington") General-stanley-mcchrystal  

General Stanley McChrystal learned a hard lesson about workplace behavior.  No matter how incompetent you think your boss is, you don't vent your ill will to a public source.  Recently, there was an article in the Des Moines Register about some locals who had lost their job because of Facebook.  I've had situations before where clients thought I was writing about them in my blog.  I assured them that while they may see themselves in the pages, I have a policy about not writing anything critical about an active client (besides, I have MANY past clients who provide me with ample fodder).

Sometimes, people think they are justified in bad-mouthing the boss.  In this soft-economy era, there are more and more stories about employers who have abused the relationship with their employees.  I know of one recently dismissed individual who could easily and justifiably go to the media to blow the whistle on his boss' inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, but he refuses... bad-mouthing the boss just comes back to haunt you.

Granted, I've broken this rule myself throughout my career.  And I've paid for it.  And I've learned from it.  I'm fortunate now that I can be selective in my project choices, and I've learned to tell good client managers from bad client managers through the interview process.

So if you think YOUR boss is a complete schmoe, just remember what poor ol' Stanley is going through this week.  Then watch yourself before you let your inside voice play outside.

You! With the Thoughts! Slooowly Step Away From the Blog!

Step_away  My computer has been on the blink for the past couple of weeks.  Technical mumbo-jumbo.  At first I thought it was malware.  Then we thought the 2/3 of the RAM was kaputz.  Finally we figured out it was a hard drive problem.  Lenovo gave a startlingly fast turnaround time once the problem was diagnosed.

It's back in full working order now, and I'm very grateful for that.  It's hard being away from someone you love.  To be honest, blogging on another computer almost feels like cheating, so I've given myself a bit of a sabbatical.  Instead of writing, I've been doing more "listening" in the blogosphere.  No commenting... I just felt like lurking in the shadows of other people's thoughts.  And it's been really intriguing.

I learned about Patti Digh's friend, Celeste, who passed away recently, and how cool of a woman she was and the legacy she left on a lifetime of friends.

From Drew McLellan, I found out about Dawn dishsoap and how their brand message has a powerful impact on the disastrous BP oil spill.

Chuck Raasch of Gannett News told me that - rather than Republicans or Democrats - women were the big winners in last Tuesday's primaries... and why.

Because my colleagues and I recently discussed this issue, I read with interest Glen Alleman's short post about status reporting frequency and the one question we project managers should ask.

Canyon Girl caught my attention with Henry David Thoreau and the importance of paying deliberate attention to my surroundings and not taking things for granted.

My good friend, Pete Jones, shares my philosophy about avoiding chain restaurants.  I'll be eating at Pagliai's Pizza soon because of his recommendation.

Central College Professor Jann Freed gave a fitting tribute to coach John Wooden.  Jann totally nailed it, and her words inspired me.  I hope some day I can leave that kind of legacy.

There were some other blogs and posts and news stories I read on various sites whenever I could oust my wife or child from their computers, but I just wanted to share with you that some times it's OK to put down your own blog and take a little thought-romp in others' blogospheric back lots.

Loud Nuns, Ford Pintos, and Murdering Presidents

It's rumored that President Franklin D Roosevelt was a stickler on listening.  It distressed him when he found people who chose not to listen, so during one state dinner (so urban legend has it), he greeted every guest with the phrase "I murdered my grandmother this morning."  It both amused and dismayed the president that his comment was met with an endless sea of smiles and senseless gushing... until a foreign diplomat came along and responded, "I'm sure she had it coming, Mr. President."


Paying attention.


All are a critical part of accomplishment.  We often let our perceptual filters take over, and when that happens we all get in trouble.  Often, we listen attentively at the beginning of a relationship (or even a conversation), but then we JUST KNOW what's coming next and so we tune it out.  When I was an undergrad at Central College, my ethics professor was dangerously close to retirement.  I was carrying a solid A in the class and had already surmised that he was no longer even reading my assignments, so I decided to test the theory.  When the case study arose about the infamous Ford Pinto and the exploding gas tanks (due to an inexpensive valve Ford decided to leave off), we were asked to use the utilitarian theory (greatest good for the greatest number) to argue whether Ford's decision to risk the lives of millions for economic gain was ethical.  My response went something like this (keep in mind, I was a young, cocky know-it-all in my early 20's):  "Ford was ethical for producing the Pinto without the valve, and it could be easily justified using the utilitarian point of view.  If you think about the type of person most likely to drive a Ford Pinto, it is a benefit to society as a whole that they be most likely to die in a fiery crash."  Soon thereafter, my paper came back with a solid 'A' and the professor feedback, "It's about time somebody took the Ford position and argued it well."


Are YOU listening?  Are you hearing?  Are you paying attention?  Are you staying focused?  Are you holding your perceptual filters in check?  I love this scene from Sister Act.  There are so many lessons on listening from this one little scene:

If you're like I am, and listening is a constant struggle to fight for focus among many competing inputs, you may need to follow Sister Mary Clarence's advice:  "Alma! (stomp, stomp) Check your battery!"

Your "battery" may include your feelings about the speaker, your own health, what you're having for lunch, the usefulness of the conversation, perceptions about the topic, what you're going to say next, why the speaker is wrong... well, the list goes on.  Whatever is preventing you from listening, check it at the door.  Your conversations and your accomplishments will get a lot farther.

Marsha! Marsha! Marsha! Hits the Mark

Legends It's been an interesting week watching a news story evolve over a customer service gaffe turned ugly here in Des Moines.  You can read the long version if you wish, but here is the shortened version:

A group of teachers are on lunch-break during an inservice day last Monday.  They decided to go to a local establishment downtown, where one of the teachers found a hair in her salad.  She pointed it out to her server, who responded sardonically, "Don't blame me. I didn't put it there." The manager was too busy to talk to her.  On the way out, she and the owner had a confrontation, which ended with the owner gesturing and screaming at her and her colleagues that he never wanted to see another teacher in his restaurant.  She sent an email that night to a few of her friends and colleagues detailing her ordeal.  Within 24 hours, the story had spread across Des Moines faster than a corndog virus at the State Fair.  The owner apologized, and the Operations Manager released a written statement providing reasons (excuses) why the owner behaved the way he did.

It's been a week since this happened.  The Facebook page boycotting Legends continues to grow.  People have taken sides.  Being married to a teacher, I heard in no uncertain terms about the solidarity of the profession.  To offend one teacher is to offend them all.  I've also heard the other side, which basically implies the teacher was being whiny and demanding.

However, a few important observations have been lacking in this battle.  Both sides have accomplished a lot.  Mark Rogers has alienated many in this town against him, but he's also galvanized a few of his supporters.  Marsha has galvanized even more supporters, but has also drawn some fire.

But here's what's missing:

  1. What about the server? If you're going to hire a restaurant server, it seems that customer service 101 should be: "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. Let me get you a new salad right away." I would hope that server (who has conveniently remained nameless) is now jobless and looking for a position which does not require interaction with other living humans. The "middle man" who fired the first shot was allowed to slink into the shadows while two major forces arose in battle.  And in office politics conflicts, we see the instigator escape to wreak havoc another day. 
  2. It boils down to communication. Mark Rogers claimed he tried to make Marsha Richards happy, but she wouldn't hear of it. She claimed in her email that she tried to keep him focused on the server's behavior but he just grew more belligerent. To quote Cool Hand Luke, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." When learning the basics of male/female communication (anyone who's been through couples sessions knows this one), you learn that SOMETIMES women do not want problems solved as much as they want to be heard, validated, and affirmed first and foremost. My guess (based on the sides of both parties) is that Mark tried to short-circuit this part of the communication loop and just wanted to solve the problem to make her go away WITHOUT LISTENING to her. And he learned it didn't work very well, got frustrated, and blew a gasket

In our quest to accomplish great things for ourselves and our organizations, sometimes the little details get lost.  We forget what the real issue is.  And we then go to battle.  And both sides are ill-prepared to win, because it becomes more about ego than engagement.  And no Facebook boycott page or press release from an operations manager will solve the root cause of what's really wrong.

Personally, I was never a big fan of Legends to begin with, so I doubt the teacher boycott will affect my dining decisions one way or another.  But as far as entertainment goes here in Des Moines, it's been a great week.

Another Fine Lott You've Gotten Us Into

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

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

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

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

PURRRRR-pose Driven Life

Feline I knew it

I knew it

I knew it

I told ya so!

Seems scientists have just proven that cats use a special purr when they want to manipulate humans.  It's called a solicitation purr.  (I'm a dog person, and they're not maniuplative as much as they're just bossy and demanding.)

I just finished a weekend of working with my graduate students on office politics.  We spent a fair amount of time talking about communication in its various forms.  There's a lot to be said for HOW we communicate things to get our way.  And cats - all of their other obvious flaws notwithstanding - have figured this out.

As far as cats go, I don't have a lot of love.  (My daughter thinks we can't get a cat because they taste like chicken.)  Kudos to the scientists who reinforced what we already suspected: when any living being wants something, they'll figure out how to get it.

We do this a lot in business.  Some of the names are nicer-sounding than manipulation; others, not so much.  We call it sucking up, art of gentle persuasion, sales and marketing, networking, or intimidation.  Others wish they could do it better.  So how does one go about PURRRR-fecting the CAT-aclysmic impacts of communication?  Here are a few tips to help you get your next back-scratching:

  • Coaching - either professional or from a friend, ask somebody to watch how you communicate others and offer suggestions or things you might do to improve.
  • Practice - try role playing an upcoming conversation with you to see where the weak spots in your argument may be.
  • Anticipate - the best way to persuade somebody is to figure out their potential points of resistance.  It is said that truly great lawyers learn to argue the other side's case first.
  • Non-verbals - watch yourself in the mirror or (if possible) videotape yourself.  See firsthand what you do that could undermine your entire message.
  • Debrief - if you don't win your argument, ask the other person what you might have done differently to better persuade them.  If you do win it, ask them what it was that put you over the top.

Communication is key to seizing the accomplishment.  Try a little word of MEOWth and see what you can do to improve your persuasion skills.

(No puns were hurt in the writing of this blog post.)

Decision Incision

Decision_Diamond I so thoroughly enjoy Rosa Say.  Not just her blog, but her whole persona.  Her book, Managing with Aloha, is packed with sage wisdom derived from seemingly simple island philosophies, yet each chapter is a new nugget to be slowly savored and digested.

In true "Rosa Say fashion" she has crafted another thought-provoking blog post about decision-making, which just compelled me to comment.  (Time prevents me from commenting on a lot of blogs these days, so when I do, it's a big deal for me.)  This small paragraph is so telling I'm thinking of framing it above my desk:

For instance, is it a very solitary process for you, concentrating most deliberately on what you think, and what you then realize you believe, or is it important to you to bounce your gut instincts off others too? Do you write yourself through it (I do... my morning pages is a BIG part of my process) or do you talk your way through it? Do you bother documenting it at all, or visually mind-mapping it?

Decisions are important.  They drive us forward in business, whether they are publicly documented or privately derived.  But I'd like to take a step back from Rosa's decision-making process.  As I admitted in her comments, I'm a systems-thinking addict, and the input to any decision is ultimately a question.  So while she has beautifully dissected decision-making, I want to pick apart the questions which create the need for a decision.

In short, are we asking the right questions?

If the answer to that is "NO" then no decision-making matrix will cure the issue at hand.  In my current creativity class, I've been challenging my students to rethink how they think.  Are they looking in the right places?  Are they asking the right questions?  Are they framing the world around them in the right context?  Deep questions, eh?  Not necessarily?

I tend to categorize questions in three ways:

  1. Question_Diamond Verb-led questions:  Some people call these close-ended questions because the answer can generally be a yes or a no.  But often, people don't realize they are asking a close-ended question.  Being a bit of a grammar geek (marriage to an English teach only exacerbates the problem), I prefer to use the term "verb-led" because close-ended questions always start with a verb:  Can I...?  Did you...?  Will he...?  Should she...?  Have you...?  Are they...?  Not a lot of information comes out of one of these questions.  I use them when the decision needs a quick yes or no (which is never as often as I'd like).

  2. Project-manager questions:  Who, when, where, what?  Better than a verb-led question, these will prompt you for more information... factual information.  Data-driven information.  I call these project manager questions because these are the questions most often asked by project managers.  They live in the concrete world.  Give them a date and a deliverable and they're generally a happy bunch.  Show them a resource chart to say who is working on what and they're downright giddy.  Again, there's a time and a place for this kind of question, but the decisions derived from them are still rather finite in nature.

  3. Thinker-Tinker questions:  Why and how?  I ABSOLUTELY LOVE these kinds of questions!  Or throw an "if" statement or two on one of the above categories, and you've just moved into the category of really digging down deep into something.  It's the thought-process equivalent of rolling up your sleeves and getting all gooey up to your elbows.  But I don't ask these questions simply to pontificate.  I generally don't care if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it whether or not it made a sound.  (Gimme a chainsaw and I'll show you a sound, buddy).  These cannot be driven by a simple decision-diamond, nor should they.  Give some time to explore and discussion and argue and backtrack and query and quandry... these kinds of questions yield gold.  They help you solve and diagnose, examine and dissect, combine and contract  They help you THINK.

We all need to make decisions, but the pre-cursor is whether we can make an incision in the decision to find the inquisition.  Think about that one for a while.  Then take two questions and call me in the morning.

Noise: 1 - Voice: 0

200901 SERT Training (131) The other day, the local SWAT team was out in force, doing some training on entries and apprehending suspects.  (Yes, I'm still volunteering as their photographer, and yes, the book is still on target for a 2009 release... but more on that later.)  A couple of challenging aspects of this particular training were the temperature and the facilities.  For point of reference, an all brick/concrete building in the middle of an Iowa winter is COLD.

The SWAT team brought along a portable generator and some very high-powered heaters to mitigate the frigid temps, but they were EXTREMELY LOUD.  While they helped provide some temporary respite from the cold, they made communication somewhat challenging.  Orders of "Police! Put your hands on your head!" was generally met with a response of "Huh?" or "I can't hear you."  Most of these guys have fairly booming voices, so for the heaters to compete for attention is fairly significant.

In communicating directions for our accomplishments, we sometimes don't realize that we're competing with noise.  The noise is generally not obvious, and comes in the form of perceptions (have you ever tried listening to somebody you don't like), health (try communicating when tanked up on cold medicine), fear (everybody is wondering if they will have a paycheck next month), among other things.

How do you know if you are competing with noise?

  • Body language: folded arms and lack of eye contact are generally good indicators
  • Divide and conquer: ask multiple senders their interpretation of your message
  • Feedback loop: are the responses fitting the message?

OK, those are the easy ones...  the stuff they teach you in Communication 101.  What happens when the noise is being created by something beneficial, like our heaters?  What do you do when your message runs counter to a needed company policy, a popular employee benefit, or a sacred cow of your organizational culture?  The first step for you as a communicator is to recognize this constraint.  Too many people take corporate communication too lightly, only to be burned by their own messages.  Once you know what you are up against, you can tailor your message and your medium to fit the audience and the situation.  Keep in mind, your revised approach may mean that you AVOID or DELAY the communication.  Also remember, your delivery of the message, no matter how well thought out or executed, may still yield a negative response.  The trick to communicating your accomplishments is to be constantly and acutely prepared... loud heaters notwithstanding.

Return to Sender

A_plus_paperAbout five years ago, I had a spectacular group of students in my graduate organizational management class.  It was a relatively large class for an MBA course (45 students), but this particular group meshed very well, and it never really seemed like teaching.  I would go in, throw out a few "thought grenades" and these students carried the discussion.  Three hours every week for 15 weeks.  It was amazing and energizing.  I've only had one other section of students who collectively fell in that UBER-WOW category since.  It's a rare phenomenon when a class fires on ALL cylinders ALL the time, and a professor knows when it happens.

Anyway, back to five years ago, I had just given the mid-term exam, which was primarily essay.  The grades were really good, and I provided each student with the appropriate feedback.  After class, I had one student linger after longer than she usually did.  When most of the students had cleared out, she came up to me holding her exam, and she had tears in her eyes.  I thought this was strange, because out of a class of 45, I remembered her exam specifically.  Her writing was BEAUTIFUL, and I've had few students who have rivaled her expressiveness and descriptions.  As a matter of fact, I commented that she should consider writing professionally on her exam.

Being the concerned professor, I asked her if anything was wrong or if she had a question.  She choked back the tears as she explained what my comments had meant to her.  She told me that her own husband always criticized her writing and was constantly telling her how bad it was.  The problem was that she believed him.  She heard his negative input too many times, and she had started to accept it as reality.  And one honest comment from a well-meaning professor had completely changed her mindset.  I lost track of that student over the years (darn it).  I'd love to find out what happened to her and her career.  For me, it was just genuine exam feedback.  For her, it was the world.  I look back over my teaching career and there are more blurs now than I care to admit.  But there are moments that shine brighter than any star.  This was one of them.

What about the people around you?  What messages have they been receiving from bad bosses, mean-spirited co-workers, and harsh customers?  And what message are they waiting to hear from you which could erase all of the negative messages?  Sometimes our greatest accomplishment of the moment can be the simple "atta boy" or "good job" we give to others.

Are We Even Having The Same Argument?

ArgumentThere were a couple of great editorials in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend (actually, there were a lot of them, but a couple I wanted to hit on specificially).  One was an article by Lee Siegel on the current political landscape.  No, I'm not going to spout any anti-Obama rhetoric here, nor will I make any comments on The Bridge to Nowhere.  For once, there was somebody who actually captured the essence of the election.  One of the excepts, which WSJ used to tagline the article, summarized the issue rather eloquently:

Liberals always think there's something broken in politics.  Conservatives always think there's something wrong with the culture.

That's the problem!  Our two sides aren't even having the same argument.  What we have is a national version of the husband's irritation about a scratch in the car merged with a wife's annoyance about a constantly vertical toilet seat.  They're arguing about the purchase of a new sofa, but he's bringing up issues about how she never takes care of things, and she is countering with arguments about how he can't bring things to closure.  Their words and emotions really have nothing to do with sofa fabrics or price ranges.  Meanwhile, the kids (nationally, a growing base of disenfranchised voters) see exactly what's going on and want nothing to do with either party because of it.

The other editorial was by Phil Gramm and Mike Solon.  It made some great economic comparisons between Michigan's current economy and what an Obama Whitehouse would look like.  Looking beyond the obvious slant against Democrats' economic policies, we see another underlying argument flaw in this election.  Neither side can even see the positive the other one brings to the table.  Each party's platform contains positive elements, but the other side would never consider acknowledging them.  We're clouding the issue with rhetoric and smoke and mirrors and character smears.  Yes, it is both sides who are accomplishing this.  What I liked about the Gramm-Solon editorial was its use of statistics to point out positives and negatives of economic policies.  It didn't play to heartstrings about unemployment; it stated numbers and facts.  Yes, it was meant to persuade, but to do so factually rather than emotionally.

We do it in our workplaces and professional relationships, also.  In office politics, we attempt to villify the other party and not acknowledge anything positive they may bring to the project or the department.  We cloud the issues with our own brand of innuendo and rhetoric.  The owners of a firm I used to subcontract through were masters of this technique.  I've joked with people that the Midwest uses passive-aggression as a food group.  I've watched many a meeting, project, and career be derailed by emotion.

Hmmm... sounds like we could all use a big ol' collective time-out to think about how we're running this campaign... and our offices.

Are You Phoning It In?

HandueberallWith our geographically distributed workforces, we're seeing more and more meetings occurring via conference call and webchat.  Certainly, the collaboration software industry has exploded over the past 10 years.  I'm all for using technology as it is not only more efficient but better from a green/sustainability perspective as well.

However, there's a time and a place to "phone it in" and then there are situations where person-to-person contact is necessary.  A few years ago, I served on a project which had dozens upon dozens of individuals spread from coast to coast.  While it was very expensive for them to do so, the executives paid for the team to meet once a quarter (usually in an airline hub city like Denver or Chicago or Minneapolis).  We presented our findings and results and progress to each other, but mostly we were able to build real face-to-face relationships.  People would go out for dinner or drinks following the presentations, and tensions during conference calls and email exchanges were generally minimal during the life cycle of this project.

If you think of communication as a task rather than as an investment, the channel through which it is delivered won't matter much.  Ironically enough, the most dysfunctional communication behavior I ever experienced was from the CEO and founder of a collaboration software company.  Sometimes, you have to get up out of your chair and have a real live conversation.

How can you arrange a face-to-face meeting with the important people in your professional life?

Running With The Bull

Hillary_conventionIf you've been reading this blog for a while, many of you know, despite my longstanding conservative bent, I believed firmly Hillary Clinton was the best pick for president.  I've moved past my disappointment in the Democrats for choosing Barack.  It's still fun to watch as the candidates have dangled hints their VP choices in front of us for weeks.  As Letterman said of the Biden pick the other night, "Nothing says change like a 35-year veteran of the Senate."  But on the other side:  if McCain wants any shot at the White House, his VP pick will almost have be a minority or more necessarily a woman to lure the disenfranchised Hillary supporters who are on the fence over these two mediocre candidates; to have "two white males" on the ticket sets the Republicans up for almost certain failure in November.  (I don't suppose there's any chance Hillary would switch parties last minute to become John's running mate... oops... forgot to turn on my "inside voice" filter... sorry.)

Sigh.  So many office politics applications.  So little time.

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about Hillary's speech last night.  Some of the traits I admire about Hillary are her ability to turn a phrase to her own gain.  I was telling a friend of mine this past week, "All Hillary has to do is deliver a speech that makes herself sound good and will have both sides arguing about what she really meant."

Congratulations, Hillary!

She reaffirmed my reasons for thinking she was the best person for the job.  After all, the President of the United States needs to be skilled in oratory skills - not just making pretty speeches, but in letting each audience member come away with his or her own interpretation.  Reagan was a master of that.  It was entertaining on multiple levels to flip between the talking heads on Fox News and CNN last night after her speech was complete.  Wow!  One would wonder if they were talking about the same speech delivered by the same person.  Let's face it, the hosts on the talk shows on both sides are sheep; none showed much critical thinking ability in truly dissecting the speech objectively.  Last night I heard the following:

  • She only mentioned Barack 9 or 10 times.
  • She mentioned him more times than Kennedy mentioned Carter in the 1980 Convention.
  • She merely said not to vote Republican.
  • She unified the party.
  • Her description of McCain was more personally glowing than her description of Obama.
  • She's a strong Barack supporter now.
  • She never talked about Barack's character or leadership; she could have delivered that same speech about any of her Democratic opponents.

(Just for fun, would you like to match the above comments to CNN or Fox?)

Now to the professional applications:  When we communicate a message - especially a really tough message - how much time do we really spend on things like word choice, tone, and voice?  Do we expend much effort on our audience's interpretation of our communication, or do we just spit out what we want to say?  Do we read body language of our audience to tell if we're connecting with them (by the way, someone needs to teach Michelle Obama how to smile when listening to somebody she loathes... that scowl on her face during Hillary's speech was something neither party could miss).  Whether we're communicating remotely or in person, do we do some research on our intended audience to figure out what their hot buttons are and what they want to hear?  Are there times when you need to communicate something by saying absolutely nothing?  To summarize, when we communicate, are we asking ourselves what we want to say, or are we asking ourselves what we want our audience to hear?

I'm not really looking for a political debate on this.  After all, if the talking sheep on CNN and Fox can't agree, why would a little ol' blog have anything new to add.  Believe it or not, I'm still relatively in the undecided camp, and I'll probably make up my mind when I'm casting my ballot in November.  But until then... Wow - it's going to be a fun nine weeks until the election.

I am, however, looking for a good communication debate.  What have you done in the past to communicate your message effectively... on your own terms?  Did I assess the Hillary speech correctly?  What has been your most impactful communication you've delivered?

Make That High Priority... And Pronto!

When my students do their final presentations, I'm always introduced to some funny and fascinating YouTube videos I would have never found on my own.  This one came from a group doing a presentation on how miscommunication leads to office politics situations.

We could probably solve the "high priority" email crisis by doing a "reply all" to the sender with this video attached.  They might get the point.  After all, if a flood of high priority emails is annoying, imagine how much more annoying this video would seem to them?  (And, as a fun irony, send it out as low priority.)

When should an email be marked high priority?  Here are my criteria:

  1. Is the sender's career, life, or livelihood in mortal danger?  If you can answer yes to any of those three, you MIGHT have a case.  For example, if the company will go bankrupt if the message isn't sent, I can see a high priority marking.
  2. Do you need to CC a "cast of thousands"?  I've found very few broadcast messages that are truly high priority.  Other channels might be more appropriate.
  3. Is the email requesting a specific action to be taken?  If it is only informational, can the priority truly be that high?
  4. Is the message extremely time sensitive?  In this case, wouldn't a phone call work better?  You can still send the email, but does it need to be marked as high priority if it's just a back-up plan?

What are your criteria for marking emails as high priority?  How do you handle those who abuse this email function?

Spring Cleaning Your Project Archives

Originally Published In IowaBiz.com in April 2008

Spring_cleaningThe requirements and specifications drafted for your project solution.

The minutes from all of those project meetings.

The status reports, drafted weekly.

The change requests, approved or denied.

The project plan.

The business case... or project charter... or statement of work... whatever you use to define the project up front.

What happens to all of these things when you are done with your project?  Well, there are a couple of different approaches. 

Ending a project is like spring cleaning.  Things either get thrown away, go in the garage sale pile, or go into seasonal storage (to be brought out later when needed).  Unfortunately, many project managers treat all of the project documentation like one of the first two categories (dispose or never access again) instead of the third.

Saving your project files in an easily accessible location allows reuse for other project managers to learn from you and your project - the good and the bad.  It also diminishes rework on future projects.  ("Remember that great test plan that Fred wrote last year?  Yeah, use that as a template.")  You no longer have to reinvent the wheel.

So don't toss that documentation into the spring cleaning bin too quickly.  It may be useful after all.  Just find a way to store it effectively so others can access it.

Carpe Factum!


Stone_signAnd we wonder why we have employee policy binders that are four inches thick.

Could it be that we're just communicating way too much that really doesn't need to be said?

What is your organization communicating (expressly or implicitly) that is creating eye-rolling among the ranks?

Thanks to one of my students for sharing this picture with me... great thought to start out the work week.

Are You Flushing Your Message?

Dsc_0097This past weekend at SOBCon, Kristen King advised us all (via Twitter) of an interesting issue.  There was a placard in the women's restroom advising people to turn off their lavalier microphones BEFORE using the facilities.  Sage advice.  The only problem was that the sign was posted on the inside of the bathroom door, so people didn't see it until exiting.  (By the way, thanks, Kristen, for humoring me by taking my camera into the women's room to capture this phenomenon... evidently the men in Chicago don't make this faux pas.)

Are you giving people warning messages at the right time and in the right way?  Are you posting the messages WHERE they'll see them and WHEN they'll need them?  I've seen too many professionals who "conveniently bury" critical messages.  I've seen others who have ignored those same messages.  So, how can we communicate better?

Before you deliver a message, use the military approach of HUA:

  • Will the recipient HEAR the message?  How can I make them listen to it?
  • What can I do to make them UNDERSTAND the message (both the content and the importance)?
  • In what ways can they convey their ACKNOWLEDGMENT of the message?

And turn off your microphones in the restroom... PLEASE!

Making Noise

Do_not_honkA picture is worth a thousand words... and a few hundred calories when it makes you laugh.

Having just finished giving two presentations about "what your project team isn't telling you," I heard a lot of pain and fear about making noise to the executives.  It seems a few people have witnessed messengers being shot.  Ironically, I saw this sign in New York City this morning, and I just had to share it.  I wonder who is enforcing it, because honking is a language in and of itself in a city that hears about every tongue imaginable spoken.  Somehow I doubt that anybody has collected much money in honking penalties.

So... is your reluctance to speak up and "honk your horn" at work due to "obsolete" signs that should be ignored?  As I told both the audiences, the really good executives will listen when the message is presented intelligently and with an orientation toward solutions.  The times that any executive gets hyper is when she or he is blindsided with a problem that is dumped on his or her lap with no sign of a solution in sight.  The bad executives will blow a gasket regardless of the message or the delivery.

Just something to think about as you are about to deliver bad news.

This Little Light of Mine

Tactical_flashlightThe other night, I was able to follow along with the SWAT team once again.  My role has evolved a little with them, and in addition to researching my next book, I am now their volunteer photographer.  (As volunteer community service goes, I scored the jackpot!  These guys are great!)

Rather than following specific scenarios as they had the last two times I've tagged along, the guys spent most of their time on basic drills:  room entries, searches, Lincoln drills, stairways, stacks, night vision, and corner advancement (using mirrors).  After dark, they were given some basics on flashlight safety and technique.

Huh?  Police SWAT guys need to learn how to use a flashlight?

There is actually a lot more to the art and science of flashlight usage than meets the eye, especially for the tactical officer.  A SWAT operator needs to be able to search a room quickly.  If that room is dark, he needs to use his flashlight in a way that's not going to make him a walking target.  Some of the techniques discussed included strobing (turning your light and off quickly so you can advance a few feet at a time) and rotating the flashlight with your wrist to make it difficult for the "bad guys" to pinpoint the light source.  The instructor was a wealth of knowledge on do's and don't's to keep everyone safe.

While listening to the very knowledgeable SWAT instructor, I started thinking about some of the parallels with communication.  Sometimes, it becomes difficult to pinpoint the source of a message as well.  When there is "big news on the grapevine" or the "office gossip is running rampant," the source of their information can be challenging to determine.  The media and pollsters in New Hampshire figured that one out this week as well, with Obama's 10 point lead becoming a 3 point loss to Clinton.  Where did they get their data?  Who knows?  But it turned out to be very inaccurate.

So what do you do when somebody is strobing and rotating a piece of "communication light" in front of you?  How can you get to the source to determine where the light is really coming from?  A few ideas:

  • Don't act on the information too quickly - if you can, sit on it overnight or for a few days.  Some rumors are simply a "flash in the pan" and fizzle out quickly.  The more sensational the rumor, the faster it seems to fizzle.
  • Find multiple, independent sources - if you hear people from different departments and functions who are saying pretty much the same thing, there may be a little more validity to the information.  Don't be afraid to do a little independent investigative research yourself.
  • Consider the source - what is the credibility of the individual who is speaking?  If they are nothing more than the office tabloid mongerer, then it's probably a case of "boy crying wolf."
  • Challenge the source - using phrases like "Wow, that's serious information, where did you hear that?" or "I bet the boss will go on a witch-hunt over that news" may get the person to back-pedal a little and tone down the message.

The last thing about flashlight safety also applies to communication:  don't allow yourself to get blinded unexpectedly.  For SWAT operators, it could mean their life.  For you, it could mean your career.

Sniffing Butts

SniffbuttsYou just have to love dogs.  No handshakes.  No pleasantries.  No faking it.  If they want to get to know another canine, they just walk up and sniff the other dog's butt.  With our prior dog, Casey, we got to the point where we would not tell her we were going to the pet supply store... we'd ask her if she wanted to "go sniff butts."  She perked up, tail started wagging, and she ran to her leash.  Our current dog, Zorro, doesn't quite have the same vernacular, but he knows the routine.  When he meets another dog, the nose "goes below" and that's all the introduction he needs.

Now, I'm sure at this point, I've just grossed out all of the non-dog-people in my reading audience.  That's fine, because they probably wouldn't get it anyway.  I wonder if there's a correlation between "dog people" and bloggers, because we're really good at "sniffing blogospheric butts," aren't we?  We generally don't ask... we go into a blog, sniff around, and leave a comment.  And woof, woof, bow-wow, we're communicating!

There are some blog butts that you need to start sniffing, if you haven't discovered them already.  Some of my current and former Drake University students are turning into blogging machines.  Eric Peterson is has gotten the attention of some great bloggers like Troy Worman and Ann Michael and Steve Farber... and for good reason... he writes brilliant and relevant posts.  Another excellent writer is Erik Potter (no relation to Harry).  He's hit Valeria Maltoni's radar and his post about embracing your inner mullet is hilarious.  Beth Peck is a former student who has a lot of heart and passion in her job as a college recruiter for Simpson College.  She doesn't have the time to blog as frequently as she would like because she's currently managing the blogging efforts of nine other people at her college!

But it's not just my students whose blogospheric behinds are worth a whiff.  I discovered Jeri Merrell's Ungeek It blog through Andrew Boyd's Fabicus blog, while writing for Iowabiz.com.  These are people who can really write!  More importantly, these are people you really need to read.

So... have you sniffed around to get to know somebody new a little better?

UPDATE:  My mistake.  It was Bob Loch, not Erik Potter, whose been "sniffing around" Valeria's blog.  Sorry for the overlook, Bob.  Just too many great blogs.  I feel like a pup in a dog park.

Now THIS Is An Elevator Speech

I've always said that every professional needs to be prepared with an elevator speech... you know, the 30-second yada-yada-yada that you can give your CEO if he asks what you're doing and how you add value to the company.  It should not be that hard.  After all, if Anita Renfroe can take every single line that a mom says in a 24 hour period and condense it to under 3 minutes and set it to the William Tell Overture, how hard really can YOUR job be?  Enjoy!

Communication = Angle + Timing

Mayan_equinoxHappy first day of Autumn!  We're coming up on my favorite time of year... the cooler temps, the colors, football, holidays... and, oh yeah, the Mayan ruins.


The Mayans, whose culture centered around southern Mexico and the central Americas, were amazing astronomers.  The ruins at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan peninsula are evidence of this.  Every year, on both the vernal and autumnal equinox, a shadow forms on the staircase of the main pyramid (the Castillo) and takes the appearance of a giant snake.  Accident?  I doubt it, or the Mayans would not have created a giant snake's head at the base of the stairs.  I was there 19 years ago (next spring) and it is truly a phenomenon to behold.  Still, it only happens twice a year, at exactly sunset, on this one building.

That's also how it happens in communication, isn't it?  It's all about timing and the angle with which the message is delivered and perceived.  I was checking out Ron Karr's blog, and he provided a great example of timing in communication.  Our timing is a constant conscious decision... or at least it should be.

So... how can you adjust your communication to achieve just the right angle or perception at just the right time?  Well... there's an ART to timing and perception:

  • Ask - start your communications with the question:  "is this a good time?"  Often body language will give you the answer, but be sensitive to the message recipient if it's not a good time.
  • Role Play - test out your message on somebody else before you deliver it to your intended target.  You may have some unintended sub-messages imbedded.
  • Target - determine the outcome of your communication.  Instead of asking what you want to say, ask what you want your target to hear.

And if you can make it Chichen Itza by sunset, say hi to the tourists for me.

Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap

I know what you're thinking, and NO, I'm not going to expound on Senator Craig's recent indiscretions.  I'm not going to speculate whether he is or he isn't... whether he did or he didn't.  That's for the attorneys and political pundits and talking media heads to figure out.  There is a lesson in this news story, though.  How often do we communicate something (sometimes on purpose; others, inadvertently), and have the message come crashing down around us as things go terribly wrong?

DcommThere was a recent post in the Leadership Experience Blog that caught my attention.  In it, Casey shares some ideas about various common sense guidelines, but it was this paragraph early in the post that grabbed me:

Communication is how you verbalize what you want, when you want it and how you want it done. It also serves to give visual cues about your mood, your passion, your responses. These body language clues are not only seen but also felt and heard.

In the quest to accomplish things, we see people mess up communications in some pretty large ways.  Let me ask you, my readers, what the following communicate to you?

  • Arms folded, legs crossed, eyebrows furrowed, scowl growing
  • Yawning and looking at watch
  • Consistently showing up late to meetings
  • Cutting off a face-to-face conversation to answer email or take a cell call
  • Not delivering on a promised report/assignment/task without prior warning?

Now, without being busted by an undercover communications sting operation, what can you do to avoid sending unintended messages?

Maybe He Should Have Added Seth Godin To The List

Godemail OK, this one was just too good to pass up.  We've all been hit by the CC Monster on email, as well as his little henchman, Reply All.  I found an amusing blog post by Shark Bait (where do they come up with these names?) who came up with a fun solution.  I'm not sure if it served its intended purpose, but at least it made me laugh.

I've got a user in a remote office who cc's everyone in his office, as well as the president of the company, whenever he has any problem. So when I get his email this morning that the internet seemed a little slow, and I saw that once again, the company pres was on the list, I thought it was time to take action.

When I answered that I would check into it, I hit reply-all, but added [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected]. I knew full well that he'd reply-all again (which he did) without looking at the new list, and can only picture his face when he gets the bounces from czar, comandante, and god!

Maybe he'll get the idea!

To all of you email vigilantes out there, enjoy the moment.  It's great to see somebody tackle office politics of this sort with a sense of humor.

Authorities Baffled By Conversation Serial Killer

Conversation_crime_scene[Blog Wire Press] - Local authorities are baffled by a series of killed conversations.  Unfortunately, these untimely deaths are providing few clues to police, who arrive in time to find the corpse of a conversation lying dormant on the ground with no witnesses in sight.

"We're baffled.  The killer is showing no distinct patterns," stated an investigator who asked that his name not be used.  The most recent victim was found on a sidewalk near an abandoned garage.  Victims have been found in all parts of town, some in very prominent and well-trafficked areas.  None have survived to identify the perpetrator(s).

Many citizens are becoming more and more concerned about the safety of their conversations, and are taking them online, where they are perceived to be safe.  However, this may or may not be the best solution, depending on one's prowess with social media.  The killers may exist on-line, but may just take on different appearances to suit their needs.

Investigators are researching past "crimes against communication" (CAC) division files.  An essay by John Carey revealed some clues:

And cell phones, fortunately, are everywhere; allowing us to multiplex our minds and our lives. Cell phoning while driving. Cell phoning while eating. Talking on the cell phone at a wedding. I’ve even recently observed fast food restaurant guests talking to each other across the table on their cell phones. Do we really need to communicate this much? Are we discussing Plato or the meaning of life? Not usually. We are often scheduling more work, explaining why we are late, or just wasting time and space on the frequency band.

Conversation_police_lineup_2Meanwhile, police have rounded up some of the usual suspects of crimes of this magnitude, although not one was positively identified in a series of police line-ups.  Detectives are considering contacting conversational forensics experts, Mike Sansone or Valeria Maltoni, to consult on the case.  Meanwhile, security is being beefed up around communications gurus like Connie Reece and Lisa Gates, just as a precaution.

These recent violent acts against communication come as authorities are still reeling from the Morale Marauder, who remains at large after a scandalous spree of kidnapping team morale for ransom.  Authorities have few leads on this case after more than a year of investigation.

If you have any leads on either of these cases, or if you observe suspicious acts toward or near active conversations, you are encouraged to contact the appropriate authorities.

That Really Frosts Me

TworoadsI've always been a fan of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken.  The idea of personal choice and breaking away from the crowd always are strong themes with me.  Then my wife, the high school English teacher, told me a story she had read (from multiple sources) about the origin of this poem.  It seems that Frost had a friend who loved to take walks with him and would constantly distract them from their intended path with "Oh, hey, I saw this bush down here the other day that you've just got to see" or "I wonder what's down that trail... let's go!"  This poem wasn't so much one of personal choice, but rather a sarcastic jab about his friend's eccentricities.  My wife commented that if this story about the poem were true, how much Frost would be laughing at us all from beyond the grave about the meaning we tend to put on things.

I remember a recent post by Steve Farber. in which he shared that a reader got upset that he quoted HP-helm alum, Carly Fiorina.  Steve leads a great discussion on his blog about the relationship between the words and the source of the words.  If the person isn't living up to the words that he or she says, does it make the words any less true?  At a church that my wife and I attended when we were first married, a woman in the church used to berate the preacher almost every Sunday if he quoted or referenced anybody who did not fall chapter-and-verse into our church's doctrine.  (Boy, will she be surprised about who gets into heaven.)

One of the things we fail to do in Office Politics situations is assessing context.  Do words and actions sync up with the people creating them?  If something is out of context, it should be a red flag for us.  Often, though, we look only at the person (through halo effect) or the words/actions and we miss the entire context.  Because we don't see the whole big picture, we go down paths that do not lead to effective political conclusions.

Because we find out that Frost's poem wasn't an eloquent waxing about personal choice, does that mean the words can no longer be interpreted as such?  Does that mean we can only use Frost's words as a jab against focus-impaired acquaintances?  I sure hope not.  That would make all the difference.


FisherpricephoneI've been saying all along that accomplishment - in its various forms - is a team sport.  Rarely does any individual who accomplishes something great operate in a vacuum.  Sure, there are some egos out there who think they do, but there's always somebody behind the scenes who is helping them along.  You can't Carpe Factum alone.

In that same vein, there are some tools I've been exploring recently in my quest for building relationships that can help achieve mutually beneficial accomplishments.  While I was at the Successful and Outstanding Bloggers Conference last month, I met Derrick Sorles, who has become an excellent (and that's being mild - if there was an adjective beyond excellent to describe his help, I'd use it) mentor in managing LinkedIn.  I'm still getting my arms around what networking through this form of social medium can can do, but it has been almost as fascinating as blogging as I've been building my network.  The tool I've found most fascinating and useful has been the Questions & Answers section.  Through it, I've been able to meet some great individuals I would never have met otherwise.

Recently, Rodney Rumford, that sage of social media and prince of the platform, has persuaded me (as well as other bloggers) to set up profiles on Facebook.  Now I know what some of you are thinking:  "Facebook is to networking what Myspace is to blogging:  A teenage fun fest."  Rodney claims that there is benefit behind the acne-and-hormone-laden facade of Facebook, so I'm going to take him at his word.

However, while we were having this discussion at Liz Strauss's open mic night a couple of weeks ago (OK, OK, ignore the jokes about pirates and the horrible pun about cats), folks like Mike Dewitt and Chris Cree were voicing what I was thinking:  blogs (for some of us, multiple blogs), LinkedIn, Facebook, multiple email accounts... where does it all end?  How much can one person manage?  I'm not sure what the breaking point is.  I think the issue here is that there is a much larger world out there for bringing out thoughts and ideas together.  The tools are there for us to make this a truly phenomenal world to live in.

This leads me to three questions:

  1. Whom can you leverage to accomplish something great?
  2. What tools can you use to build that relationship?
  3. How can we manage all of these tools without letting them overwhelm us?

Wicked Good Spin Doctoring

Tom Haskins has to quit reading my mind.  After all, I have a sort of quasi-schedule to my blog posts, and it never ceases to amaze me how he can leave a comment on one post that acts as a natural segue to my next post.  He just left an insightful comment to my recent book reviews:

Your addition of the adverb "genuine" got me thinking. I wonder if people who are "nice with a side order of backstabbing" are conscious of being nice, but unaware of their dark side? I wonder if genuinely nice people are born genuine (genetics), raised by genuinely nice parents, or it's a trait they acquired later in life. I wonder if a backstabber can change to genuine? I wonder what that change would involve: feedback, practicing skills, problem solving, therapy...? I wonder if the backstabber is merely confused, damaged by abuse, lacking goals to be genuine or lazy about improving his/her character?

DefyingwickedWhich brings me to my planned post.  A couple of months ago, my wife and I were able to see the musical Wicked while we were in southern Florida over spring break.  For those of you not familiar with this musical, it is the "story behind the story" of The Wizard of Oz.  While the musical hardly follows the book at all, I actually like it better because it meshes well with the familiar movie that we all know and love.  Besides the fact that it was one of the best musicals I've ever seen (I would rank it above Les Mis and Phantom), there was something that Wicked accomplished that no other broadway musical has up to this point:  it really made me think.

Submitted for your consideration:  Suppose everything you accepted as truth were suddenly turned on its ear and spun around about a zillion times?  We sometimes experience this with our office politics situations.  Without giving away too much of the plot, how would your thinking about The Wizard of Oz change if you knew that:

  • Glinda and Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) were roommates (and good friends) at school?
  • Elphaba was not so much of a wicked witch as she was an animal rights activist who fell victim to bad spin doctoring?
  • The pointy hat that the witch wears was actually a malicious regifting from Glinda?
  • All of the characters that Dorothy (who is barely a footnote in the musical) meets in her journey actually knew each other quite well long before she arrived in Oz?

Recently, I had to face a situation where somebody I had perceived as a snake politician was one of the "good guys," and somebody else I had previously trusted was really a snake.  My perceptions were allowed to persist because of spin doctoring (rather effectively executed, considering that I've always prided myself on having a rather keen BS-o-meter).  I began to wonder what it was about this newly discovered snake which made them behave as such.  Then Tom's comment came up, and it brought to mind part of Glinda's dialogue at the beginning of Wicked:

Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?  After all, she had a father, she had a mother, as so many of us do.... And, like any family, they had their secrets.

I'm not sure how many of Tom's questions I can answer... can you?  Sometimes reality, like spin doctoring, is very situational.  Perception is a prickly ally.  I do believe that every situation is capable of a happy ending, and that the "bad guys" eventually get theirs in the end.  We may never get to witness it, but it does happen... somewhere over the rainbow.

The Road Less Raveled

Shoot_messengerRecently, I was asked to provide feedback on somebody's performance.  To be honest, I've really been struggling with the issue of how brutally candid I want to be with my answers.  I generally tend to avoid out-and-out malice when providing feedback; after all, the word "feedback" implies that there is some mental or emotional nourishment to the recipient.  So... why the hesitancy?

We've all heard of the phrase "shoot the messenger," and it conjures the image of the Vesuvius manager waiting to erupt at the first sign of bad news.  However, like the game of Clue, there are multiple ways to injure a messenger of feedback, which in turn shuts him or her down.  See if any of these sound familiar:

  • Naked Emperor - This person can see no wrong in him/herself, so if you see it, you must be an inferior being.  If the Naked Emperor wants feedback, she or he is asking for ego strokes in disguise.
  • Excuses, Excuses - This person begins coming up with all of the reasons why he or she is to be exonerated for the negative feedback.  The root cause of the problem is a lack of accountability; the excuse-monger may want feedback about everyone and everything else.
  • Forty Lashes - When hearing any negative feedback about himself, this person automatically starts telling you everything that you've done wrong.  Similar to the Excuses person above, the negativity is directed at you as the deliverer of feedback.  Lashing out at the messenger completely changes the scope of the feedback session.
  • Passive Aggression - Similar to the Lasher above, this person will smile and nod while you are providing the feedback, only to lash out at you... later... in unpleasant ways... when you least expect it.
  • Apathy - These peoplen may not even care what you have to say.  It may be due to their perception of you, or it may be that they just don't think that changing is a high priority on their list.
  • Shields Up, Captain - This person becomes defensive at the first sign of negative feedback and will shut you down.  The reasons may relate to any of the other five, but it tends to be a general shutdown of receiving feedback.  Behaviors include a glazed expression or multi-tasking so they don't have to listen.

So, what do you do when you are asked to provide feedback to somebody or feel compelled to provide feedback?  There are a couple of tricks and tips:

  • Determine the receptiveness - has this person historically been receptive of feedback?  If not, then anything you say or do might fall on deaf ears or get you in greater trouble
  • Is the timing good - if this person is having a bad day, kicking the horse out from under them while they already have the noose around their neck is generally not a good strategy
  • Fitness for use - if they've asked you for feedback, ask them why and what your feedback will be used for.  I've occasionally asked how candid they want me to be with my feedback in a humorous way:  "Do you want to be lightly toasted or extra crispy when I'm done with you?"
  • Document, Document, Document - have your feedback in writing while you are delivering it to them.  Follow up with an email to recap.  When it comes to feedback, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished.

On my recent situation, I chose to pass on providing completely candid feedback.  I also chose my words very carefully, so I wasn't lying to the person, but I also wasn't being as candid as I would have liked.  The person asking me for feedback has a solid reputation as a passive aggressive naked emperor; hence, anything negative would have hurt me in the long run more than anything.

I'll happily give feedback to people when I know they will use it.  I've had to deliver very difficult messages to individuals, telling executives that their projects are failing, that they have a poor reputation among their staff, and that they are just generally heading down an incorrect path.  However, delivering those difficult messages is easier knowing the person operates with a healthy ego intact, and that the feedback will be used for good rather than evil.

NOTE:  My apologies to Robert Frost fans for the post title.  Please don't provide me feedback.  :)

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend Me Your Rears

Gal_1953_julius_caesar_2It's a scary thing to hold a project kick-off meeting.  You have a lot to accomplish in a very short period of time.  You have to introduce team members, make people aware of the scope and purpose of the project, and build enthusiasm.  Jeff Lash of Good Product Manager says that this meeting is the differentiator between good project managers and bad project managers, and I wholeheartedly agree.  There's a reason why the "kickoff" analogy from football is used.  Imagine the ref tossing the ol' pigskin in the middle of 22 guys and simply saying "Have at it, boys!"  (I think it was tried once; the XFL lasted only one season before cancellation.)

However, the scariest part of the kick-off is when your executive stands up to speak.  As a project manager, I know that these few words are a make-or-break moment.  This executive has to express his or her knowledge of the project, why it is important for success, level of enthusiasm, and why everyone's butts are on the line... and generate enough of an attitude adjustment in the meeting participants to get the project off on the right foot.  (Oh yeah, and it has to be a believable performance.)  That's one tall order.  After all, think of the damage Marc Antony accomplished by his word choice at Julius Caesar's funeral (a la Shakespeare, of course)... and he technically was following Brutus' orders to the letter of the law.

How can you pull off an executive state-of-the-project speech that will have them laughing and crying and cheering (all at the right times)?  For starters, you had better make sure that the kickoff (or right before) is not your FIRST interaction with your executive sponsor.  If it is, you may want to have the resume updated.  Sponsorship is not a role that can be "phoned in."  Assuming that your executive is already engaged in the project and communicating with you, here are some things to think about before you hand them the microphone and brace yourself for an evening at the Improv:

  1. Interrogate Them For Knowledge - Can your executive tell you what the project is about, at least in laymen's terms?  Make sure your sponsor understands the scope and the purpose of the project and can explain it to other executives in an elevator trip or restroom break.
  2. Test Them for Buy-In - Make sure your sponsor not only knows what the project is about and why it's important; they need to believe it.  They need to be "shouting from the rooftops" excited about this project (or scared to death if it doesn't happen).  I want to see their skin in the game, too.
  3. Quiz Them for Understanding - Do they know who their stakeholders are and why each one has a part in the project?  Do they understand the office politics surrounding this project?  If they poo-poo the politics, that is a big red flag for you.
  4. Rehearse - If this is a big enough project, then the sponsor is not allowed to "just wing it" at the kick-off meeting.  Do a dry run with him or her one-on-one.  Bring in a "trusted somebody" who generally sees things differently than you do to ensure that the message will be embraced across the board.  Inserting the appropriate story can do wonders to build credibility, if it is delivered well and is relevant to the cause.

While there will always be the "loose cannon" sponsor, the goal is to leverage an already healthy relationship to ensure that the first formal message is delivered on target.

April Fools

Today is the day when we're supposedly given license to try and "pull one over" on each other.  Taken in the right context, it can be fun to pull somebody else's chain on occasion.  Heaven knows that there are days I view the world as my personal plaything, and as such, I enjoy the opportunity to pull a fast one.  However, both victim and perpetrator alike quickly know the nature of the beast, and the misinformation is called for what it is.


There are times when it can be fun to do this, especially when you're a dad.  When driving to my in-laws, my daughter asked what the Mississippi was as we were driving across the mighty river.  I informed her that it was the wife of her sippy cup (Mrs. Sippy).  When we were at the zoo and she saw the dolphins on the monitors overhead and asked why those dolphins were on TV, I simply replied that their "big screen career didn't pan out."  Of course, those are the moments when pain is inflicted from my better half, so I'm slowly learning.

But what about the more nefarious type of misinformation?  What happens when somebody deliberately sets out to mislead you?  How can you tell whether the information you're being told is honest and reliable?  Recently, Drew McClellan asked a great "what if" question on his blog.  On the blogosphere, there's no honesty filter.  Unfortunately, that applies across the board to all other kinds of communication as well.  The more snake-like office politicians rely heavily on misinformation.  We have to rely on some other things to help ourselves hone our BS-o-meter (3 C's and 3 M's):

  • Consistency - Is the message consistent with what you know to be true, or with other trusted sources of information?
  • Character - Is the person sharing the message known for his or her character?  Would he or she knowingly lie about a topic?
  • Channel - How is the message being shared?  I've found that there's a direct correlation between the integrity of the message and the openness of the channel.  Misinformation tends to travel more by word of mouth, and it tends to rely more heavily on one-on-one communication.
  • Malice - Is the information being shared meant to hurt somebody?  A lot of misinformation is shared on purpose out of emotional spite.
  • Motive - Is the information consistent with the intent behind it.  Ask yourself (and then ask the source):  "Why is this information being shared with me?"
  • Message - What is the basic content of the message?  How outlandish or realistic is it?  Does it make you cringe to hear it?

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon had an interesting blog post recently.  While I don't agree with her general political and social views on the topic, I'm able to be objective enough to see that she stated a very profound truth about the dangers of lying and misinformation which can be applied to either side of an emotionally charged issue:

The great insight from 1984 was how the routine nature of misinformation stripped people of their free will. If you step back and think about it, it makes perfect sense. Choices are never made in a vaccum. People draw on what they know and then make their choices accordingly. If what they “know” has been deliberately skewed by lies, then that will change the choices. Lying is almost always an attempt to coerce someone else’s choices by manipulating their knowledge base.

So, while we're playing our games with each other today, let's keep the bigger picture in mind.  We all have to go back to work tomorrow, and that's where the real games occur.  We probably need to figure out how to manage office politics better by managing the information flow.

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