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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?

Idea Thief Prevention

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

It's Bigger On The Inside

TardisMy older daughter has been working feverishly at turning me into a Doctor Who fan this year. (Actually, given most of the crap that passes for television viewing, I'm a thrilled parent to find her interests lie in British sci-fi and mysteries.)

For those of you not familiar with the Doctor Who series, the Doctor (generally with a companion) travels around time and space battling nefarious aliens and underworld creatures who seek to destroy the human race. His "vehicle" of choice is called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) and is cleverly disguised as a 1960's police call box. However, when mere mortals are invited inside, they see how vast and advanced the inside of the TARDIS is. Their first line of incredulity is almost always, "It's bigger on the inside."

With the advancing 50th anniversary episode called "The Day of the Doctor" coming this weekend, this observation about the TARDIS got me thinking about some of the projects I've managed over the years, as well as others I've observed. One of the biggest pitfalls of project management is scope creep, where the amount of work seems to grow once the project has begun; hence, "it's bigger on the inside."

In addition to just having sound change control procedures up front, I've learned a few tricks over the years to predict whether scope creep may be an issue. Here are my top tips to use at the beginning of the project before you travel into the future and see what's really inside the TARDIS:

  1. Can the Executive Sponsor articulate the scope? When I interview the sponsor, I like to see if they can succinctly sum up the purpose of the project. If I find them droning on and on and not coming to a point, that's a big warning flag.
  2. Can the Sponsor tell me what "Done" looks like? In addition to the purpose, I want to see their vision of successful completion. In other words, "we will be finished with this project when _____." If the one signing the checks can't recognize completion when s/he sees it, how do they expect the rest of us to know what it looks like?
  3. How many outcomes are expected? I'm of the Thoreau camp of "let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand." The fewer deliverables expected out of the project, the better the focus will be for everybody involved.
  4. Are the Business Analyst(s) and Programmer(s) doers or accomplishers? This is tricky, but in getting to know my team, I like to determine the orientation of those doing the work, so I'll ask them questions about their jobs. Those who talk about accomplishments rather than tasks and work, are generally more focused, where those who talk about the doing over the completing tend to allow more work to creep in than necessary.
  5. Do they "know no"? Prioritization is key in projects, and my favorite quote has always been "the quality of our YESes is determined by the quantity of our NOs." In the Midwest, we've had customer service pounded into us, and the overcommitment of "yes" gets a lot of projects in trouble. I'd rather take the heat for saying "no" and getting done on time with the critical tasks.

Following these simple tips at the beginning of a project can save you a Dalek-attack-load of trouble once you hit execution. Now, Allons-y! Geronimo! (And when it comes to scope creep, Exterminate!)

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!

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

Today, it is man against nature.

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

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

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

"Well, no," was her response.

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

"I can't do that, sir."

"I'll take the spray."

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

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

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

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

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


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

Linkin' Lincoln

Lincoln-Movie-PosterOver the holiday break, my wife and I ventured to the theater to catch a showing of Lincoln. First, I have to say it's great to FINALLY have children who are old enough to allow my wife and me to start enjoying movies again (at least ones that don't involve an animated princess of some sort). Second, my wife knows me well enough to sell me on these kinds of films before we go, and she didn't disappoint. She convinced me this movie would provide some great parallels to office politics. Finally, the movie was well made, and I predict many oscar nominations across the board.

But back to the office politics connection. Many of my clients are put in positions of selling ideas - BIG ideas - to their organizations. Sometimes there is popularity and support across the board. Other times, it's a mixed bag. Often, they are faced with a mountain of opposition.

The office politics lessons and affirmations abounded, and this movie reaffirmed why Lincoln's legacy as a leader continues to live on:

  1. Timing is everything - while many thought it best to hold off on such a vote, Lincoln looked at the big picture and saw potential failure in waiting until the war was over. Many often confuse assumed urgency with real urgency. Ask yourself what's driving the need for your accomplishment before rearranging others' priorities.
  2. Watch the message - Representative Thaddeus Stevens understood this when publicly cornered over his views on slavery and racial equality. Sometimes we can say what we really mean and other times we have to temper it in order for our accomplishments to succeed. Walking that fine line between truth and success is tricky.
  3. Divide and conquer - Approaching all the lame duck Democrats at once would have resulted in failure, so William Seward orchestrated persuasive tactics one at a time. In order to sell others on our accomplishments, it can be useful to approach opponents when nobody else is around to derail the efforts... and in such a way that there is something in it for them.
  4. Watch the home front - both Lincoln's wife and son provided plenty of distraction for him throughout the film. Often when dealing with political issues, we become so entrenched that we let other things slide. Remain mindful of EVERYTHING going on around you, even if you can't take action on it at that moment.
  5. Keep calm and carry on - only once or twice did the character of Lincoln have to raise his voice in this movie, and those times were generally with his allies. All others saw the humble lawyer from Illinois. People generally respect a voice of reason over a Chicken Little-esque squawk. Be careful on your delivery in highly emotional situations.

All in all, it was a couple of hours well spent in the theater. And it was easy to see why Abraham Lincoln still holds our attention 150 years later.

Bargain Basement Project Managers

Blue-light-specialEvery once in a while, I run into potential clients who just don't get it.

They assume a project manager is a commodity that they can take off the shelf, spray, wipe, and put away, thereby fixing their organizational messes on an ad hoc basis.

Let me give you some examples:

  • The head of a financial services firm hired me to manage the launch of a new product for him. I had to drag him kicking-and-screaming through the project plan to create something feasible and usable. Once he had a project plan documented, he let me go stating he could "manage it from here."
  • A strategic consulting firm kept stringing me along that they were going to engage me but "now is just not the right time" because "we're just not quite sure how you'll fit into our plans" yet they kept pinging me with various questions to help them market to their clients.
  • On a rather large and involved software project, a major client kept delaying until their next major milestone, stating they wanted to wait to bring me in so they could save money by doing as much of the up-front work themselves.

Let's just say that all three wound up in various levels of failure. Project management is a full life-cycle engagement. A solid project manager will understand the business needs creating the project up front, will be able to merge tasks and resources into a usable plan, and will be knowledgeable enough to execute against the plan they've created. Take away any one of those three, and it's like removing a leg from a 3-legged stool.

As project managers, sometimes (even in a rough economy) it's in our best interest just to walk away. Sometimes politely by saying, "I don't think this project is a good fit for me at this point in my career." Sometimes it takes harsher language. It's always OK to fire a client (even a potential client) who doesn't get it. Sometimes I'll let the client think that firing was their idea. Regardless of how it's done, I'm not going to waste skills and talents on a client who won't appreciate them and maximize them. (To my current client, don't worry, you're safe.)

As professionals, we all owe it to ourselves and our respective industries to protect our craft, our accomplishments, and our skills.

Is it time to fire your client?

You First

Garage_sale Another aspect of finishing up my mother's business was the estate sale (translated: overglorified garage sale). My sister and I took it as an opportunity to also rid our respective homes of unwanted stuff, so it was quite the sale. The first day of the two-day event got some great traffic, and we pared down the belongings significantly.

On the second day, we decided to try an experiment: we removed all the price tags and allowed people to make offers. What surprised us was how many customers declined that to place an offer. They wanted us to throw out a number... THEN they were comfortable countering it with something else. A couple of times we had people surprise us and offer more than what the prior day's price tag listed. But that was a rarity.

As a project manager and a consultant, I see that quite often. People don't want to define; they want to edit. Throwing out the first offer takes leadership and audacity. Throwing out a counter-offer is easier. There's a target at which to shoot. Negotiation isn't always about contracts and dollars; it may be about resources and requirements.

Of course, going first has its demands as well. It means one has to at least entertain counter-offers tactfully. I once worked on a project where the lead BA was comfortable with defining the requirements (i.e., offer) but would never entertain counter-offers ("my way or the highway"). The IT lead was uncomfortable with both offers and counter-offers; the only request was "I need more" without telling the rest of us what "more" looked like or why it was needed. It made for difficult scope and schedule discussions.

My friend, Lisa Gates, specializes in negotiation. She coaches women everywhere how to negotiate more effectively. Her commentary about negotiation itself is very telling:

Just look at the word negotiation. It hangs in the air like a dirigible, just a bunch of hot air and bloated promises. It’s enough to make your stomach turn.

Why is that? Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever in their ground-breaking books Women Don’t Askand Ask For It, have unpacked the answer to that question withexhaustive research and numbing statistics. Like my business partner and I, they’ve developed courses and training opportunities for women to begin turning those numbers around.

But because just the word itself carries such a heavy negative load, women don’t perceive negotiation to be transformative. And even if they do learn the strategies and tactics of interest-based negotiation, they don't believe they'll use what they learn. Yet in our experience teaching women, once the fundamental skills of interest-based negotiation are learned, everything changes.

Regardless of your gender, if you're going to learn to "seize the accomplishment," you need to be comfortable with both aspects of negotiation: offering AND counter-offering. Knowing how to define the value of what's being negotiated is key. If you know what "it" is worth (whether "it" is a software contract, a resource, or project requirements), then you are better prepared to negotiate for what you want.

Me? Well, let's just say I'm cured of my desire to hold another garage sale ANYTIME in the foreseeable future.

Environmentalist vs. Economist

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

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

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

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

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

Jest the Facts

Lalala I'm a big fan of systems thinking... and I happen to love the "thinking" part every bit as much as the "systems" part.  There's just something about the exchange and use of facts and information that fascinates me.

I've been distressed by the onslaught of poorly constructed rhetoric coming through the media in the past couple of years in the form of political campaigns.  It appears as though both parties have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction, reality from opinion.  And it doesn't matter which side we're talking about.  Both have become so entrenched that neither will consider a view the doesn't coincide with its own.  For example, here in Iowa, it's a FACT that the courts ruled that banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional.  It is OPINION that this ruling was part of a politically-fueled left-wing conspiracy.  It's a FACT that the democrats at a national level passed a health care bill.  It's OPINION that it will actually help those it is intended to help in the long run.  It is a FACT that some people are in this country without legal documentation; it is OPINION as to whether or not they should be allowed to stay.  (For the record, I could argue pro and con on either side of these arguments, so don't read anything into the above statements that is not intended.)

Facts and opinions are two of the many inputs our brain uses in its own system of making decisions about issues, news, people, and activity.  It also uses beliefs and values, as well as experiences and relationships to form decisions.  This article by Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe points out some fascinating things about us humans.  Facts don't always win.  If one's belief system is so strong, presenting said individual with facts may only backfire:

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters - the people making decisions about how the country runs - aren't blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the mere misinformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

"The general idea is that it's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong," says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon - known as "backfire" - is a "natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.

I think we've all run into those people who are ALWAYS right... even when they are not.  How do we deal with them?  Well, my preference is to disengage.  If somebody won't operate on logic and integrity, why bother dealing with them?  Whether or not I call them out for their behavior (directly or indirectly) depends on the individual and the culture (environment) in which I'm working.  Your main focus needs to remain on why you wanted to convince them in the first place.  If winning over the other individual is not mission critical to meeting your goals, then quit wasting energy there.  It's as silly as the rhetoric the far left and far right use to convince the other how wrong they are.  However, if you need to win the person over, but their belief systems are too strong to let facts influence them, then find other ways to penetrate through their beliefs. In some cases, you may need to appeal to their belief systems.

The key point is recognizing how the system of influence and exchange works between you and your audience before you engage.  It will save you much headache in the future.

Studying Executives In Their Native Habitat

OzTeaching a course in Executive Leadership at Drake this semester has been an interesting change of gears from the leadership class I taught last year.  I've served in various executive roles and I've been exposed to the good, bad, and ugly of executives in my employee and consulting careers.  Still, to many, the executive is that elusive "man behind the curtain" whom nobody really understands.  Is he "great and powerful" or just a "humbug"?

The first guest speaker I brought into class was Sue, an executive assistant with a locally large employer in town.  She entertaininly provided my students with many insights about the life and times of an executive's life, but since many of my students are far from being an executive yet, her most valuable advice was how to approach and interact with executives.

In her own words:

Be Bright

Be Quick

Be Gone

This person did not get to where he is by needing you to read him every page of 100 page deck; in fact, do not show up with a 100 page deck! Schedule your meeting for 30-minutes (or as requested by the exec or his assistant); be organized so you can cover the information, answer any questions, note any take aways and leave before your allotted time is spent.  Be pleasant and smile-- remember he’s a human being and usually very approachable.  Leave the brown nosing at your former employer’s---everyone knows when you’re baffling with bull because you aren’t able to dazzle with brilliance.  Also, read the body language; know the clues as when to move on, whether to the next topic or out the door

Sage advice.  My dad used to say that the perfect 3-point sermon was to stand up, speak up, and shut up.  It looks as though the same principles apply in dealing with executives.


Thank_you_for_arguingIn my last post, I talked about how our nation is at odds, and we weren't even holding the same arguments, then I related that back to work.  Rather than just leave you hanging, there's a book I've been reading which has been nothing short of phenomenal.

Thank You For Arguing - What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can teach us about the art of persuasion has been the find of the year for my book-shelf (with special nod to Mike Wagner for the recommendation).  If you've ever felt like you constantly get the short end of the rhetorical stick during conversations, this book is for you.

Jay Heinrichs does an outstandingly entertaining job of laying out the need for better argument skills.  He shares how we often argue in the wrong tense (forensic, or past) when we should be pushing our arguments into the deliberative (or future) tense, where we can actually change things moving forward.  He shares numerous little tricks about reading your audience and relating to them.  Quite frankly, this should be nationally required reading in an election year.  As I listen to the candidates speak about themselves and each other, I've been better equipped to dissect their logic (or lack thereof) and the little ploys.  Heinrichs gives many examples and tips to use with coworkers, bosses, friends, family, and strangers.

It's a Dogma-Eat-Dogma World Out There

Dogfightsigns2One more night left and then we are DONE with national political conventions for another four years.  Still, it has been fun to discuss and debate the candidates and the issues with friends and family.  With most people, I find I'm able to have wonderful talks.  We don't agree on everything, but we remain logical and respectful of each others' views.  Those whom I tend to avoid are the myopically dogmatic types who think that any diagreement is a personal attack on them, their party, their beliefs, their gender, their race, their age, their entire family, and anybody they may have looked at or talked with in the past 20 years.

To them I say, "CRIKEYS!  Get over yourself already.  LIfe is too short."

This kind of behavior is at the core of many office politics battles.  We assume since there is a conflict brewing, the other person has some personal vendetta against us personally since they don't agree with our views.  We also err in thinking if somebody agrees with us, they must be our friend.  Actually, there's a 2-axis grid which must be assessed when looking at office politics and conflict


Your strategy will depend on which square the other person falls.  The biggest mistake most people make is spending too much time and energy in the upper right hand corner (they already are on your side, you don't have to win them over any more) and the lower left hand corner (nothing short of a nuclear holocaust is going to bring them over to your side, so let it go).

The real trick to being good at influencing people and winning them over in an office politics conflict is paying moderate attention to the lower right (just don't do anything so stupid that they vote against you out of spite) and a little more attention to the upper left (they already like you, so have a logical, rational discussion about your differences to attempt to find a win-win solution or a compromise).  But the area where more effort should be spent is in the neutral camp.  At a minimum, we do not want them siding with the Against camp.  We may be able to win them over to our side, but that takes relationship building and a whole lot of persuasion and influence (for which you may or may not have time).  So build your strategy accordingly with the people who are in this middle ground.  You may have to create multiple strategies, depending on the people populating this center region and their demographics/beliefs/hot buttons.  Don't assume one size fits all.

So... where does your office politics battle fall in this grid?  What are YOU going to do about it?

Contract Miley-age

Hannah_montana"Assumptions not documented now become excuses later."  It was a favorite line of a former mentor of mine.  I've used it plenty of times during project communication presentations.  I even made reference to it in my first book.  And what I didn't realize is that my eight-year-old was paying more attention to me than I ever credited her for.

My wife and I have been "persuading" her all summer to clean her room so we could paint it.  We purchased a new quilt and agreed on a paint color.  The only critical path was the tidying up archaelogical dig it would take to plow through a world of eight-year-old treasures clutter.  Last night, I decided to provide a teachable moment to my daughter.  We drew up a contract.  We discussed what the final deliverable looked like (because for some kids, "clean room" is an ambiguous concept).  We covered timeframes.  We documented consequences for failing to deliver.  And to be fair, I asked her to document assumptions... what did she need from me to ensure successful delivery of the project?

Her requests?

  • Hourly check-ups to provide feedback
  • Move objects too heavy for her to carry
  • Keep her little sister out of her room during the project
  • Allow appropriately productivity-inducing music of her choice.

All seemed reasonable.  Everybody signed on the dotted line before bedtime.  We were ready to roll the next morning... until... where's my Miley Cyrus CD?  Miley who?  You know, Dad, Hannah Montana.  Oh, that Miley Cyrus.  Billy Ray's kid.  The one who actually can sing.  Then the news hit me:  her mother had taken away the CD and hid it as punishment for an earlier (and now expired) infraction.  Worse yet, her mother had forgotten where she hid it.

I tried negotiating.  "Can't you listen to the soundtrack to Wicked again?  You've only heard it 15,000 times.  What's one more?"  Nope.  "Isn't there at least one Princess song you haven't memorized?"  Princess songs are uncool past the age of seven.  She resolutely pointed out the terms of the contract as she sweetly and innocently asked me, "What's the balance on your iTunes account?"

I blanched.  The same iPod which housed the likes of Billy Joel, Alabama, Bon Jovi, Dave Koz, Johnny Cash, Marc Cohn, Blackhawk, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick Jr, Christine Kane, and Norah Jones was going to share giga-space with (gulp) Disney Bubble Gum Demon Spawn Miley Cyrus?  But a deal's a deal, and a contract's a contract.  After listening to the same six songs repeat in a three hour continuous loop (who says you can't tell time in Hell?), the room was cleaned.

I'll probably leave the songs on my iPod as a reminder.  And next time I negotiate a contract with my 8-year-old (or anyone else, for that matter), I'll do a quick refresher course of Rush Nigut's tips for contract negotiating... while I'm re-reading #3, I'll listen to the most recent iPod additions.  That should cement the lesson for a long, long time.  As Miley croons in her nasally adolescent voice, "Everybody makes mistakes."  Just don't tell my achy-breaky heart about it.

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