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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).

Hack School Project Management

Take 11 minutes and watch this video...


It's refreshing to see a kid like Logan communicate so eloquently. Having taught graduate school for 12 years and consulted for over 20 years, I can honestly say most of the adults I meet can't articulate what they want to be when they grow up.

I've pretty much figured out that being a contented accomplisher is my calling in life. Sometimes this takes the form of speaker; other times it's being an author. But at my core, I'm always a project manager. And as a project manager, I've figured intuitively how to be "hack school" over the years. Logan's description of hack school is spot on:

Hackers are innovators, hackers are people who challenge and change the systems to make them work differently, to make them work better, it’s just how they think, it’s a mindset...

I take advantage of opportunities in my community, and through a network of my friends and family. I take advantage of opportunities to experience what I’m learning, and I’m not afraid to look for shortcuts or hacks to get a better faster result. It’s like a remix or a mash-up of learning. It’s flexible, opportunistic, and it never loses sight of making happy, healthy and creativity a priority.

Picasso QuoteOnce, I was brought onto a client because a person wanted to learn from me as I managed a major project for her organization. A couple of months into my contract, this individual took a seven-week online project management class. Voila... the class turned her into an instant "expert" in project management. She started taking glee in pointing out all the things I didn't do according to her instructor and text book. The problem with her approach was that I was actually getting results by doing things my way. I knew how to do things "by the book" but the difference between knowledge and wisdom is knowing when drop the book. (Purely unrelated, I'm thinking of switching physicians... do you know anybody who completed medical school in seven weeks online?)

A few years ago, Dr. Delaney Kirk sent me an article about the main reason fire fighters die when working on wild fires: When surrounded by flames, they focus too much on saving their tools and equipment and not enough on just running to save their own lives. That really sums up my project management "hack school" mindset. I love tools, by the way. A great project plan can save months and dollars to an organization. A well-written status report can bring critical issues to light. Issues logs cut through office politics. I love tools, but I don't rely on them. What I rely on is the ability to accomplish a successful end result.

So what about you? Are you more "by the book" or "hack school"? How can you start dropping your tools? Who knows? By doing so, you might just grow up to be happy and healthy.

Let's See What Aunt Clara Sent You

"Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl." -Ralphie

Ralphie_bunny_suitMy girls and I chose Christmas Story as our first family movie night this Christmas season. So for the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about Aunt Clara. What was this woman like? Most of us have had an Aunt Clara in our own world at some point (or knew someone who did): sweet, befuddled, well-meaning, yet determined.

As the owner of my own pink bunny suit (long story), I've always held a special affinity for this scene. Poor Ralphie! Christmas morning is supposed to hold joy and excitement and anticipation as the wrapping is torn off each gift, and his character captures the overall moment with rapture. And then there's this.

What I want to know is this: what possessed Aunt Clara to produce this monstrosity in the first place? Did she, as Ralphie suspected, think he was somebody else? Did she just not know her audience well? Did she secretly harbor a pink bunny fetish? (SHUDDER) Could it have been averted if Ralphie's parents had provided her a little more guidance?

Either way, all you have to do is mention "pink bunny" and people think of Aunt Clara. It is the one accomplishment with which she will forever be branded. The entirety of Modern Western Civilization associates the two: Aunt Clara = Pink Bunny Pajamas. And then we sigh and smile.

As we wrap up 2012 and look toward 2013, I want to ask you: are YOU thinking about how your accomplishments are branded? When people hear your name, what accomplishments are they considering? Do they understand the compass directing you to accomplish what you did? Are you providing others with the direction they need to brand their accomplishments effectively.


Do You Hear What I Hear?

Christmas_MusicI love the Christmas season, but I there's little I love more than the music. There are certain CD's which sit expectantly on the shelf for 11 months, and then get constant airing for a 5-week period.

However, there are certain songs that stand out... primarily because of the way the artist performed them. Some Christmas carols are just tied to the artist... you think of the song, you think of the artist... you think of the artist, you think of the song.

It may be the first person who performed it, like Eartha Kitt's "Santa, Baby." Perhaps it's just a song that's not overplayed, like Karen Carpenter's "Christmas Waltz." Maybe, the artist was so ubiquitous that they eclipsed every other artist before them, like Dean Martin's "Baby, it's cold outside." It could be that the artist created a unique sound with the song... Mannheim Steamroller's "Silent Night" or The Blenders' "The First Noel."

What about YOUR accomplishments? Have you made an indelible stamp on what you do? When people see your PowerPoints, do they think of you personally? When they read your status reports, do they automatically hear your voice speaking? When you lead a meeting, does your personal brand of accomplishment shine through?

Think about how you can add your personal stamp on the things you do in the coming year. "Yule" be glad you did.

Cruise Conformity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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