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Idea Thief Prevention

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

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

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

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

Thinking the Undoable

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


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

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

Back to my lesson plans!

Over My Dad Body

MewithgirlsFather's Day is fast approaching, as evidenced by the explosion of ads in my email and social media feeds, everything from power tools to clothing, from beer to sporting goods. I've been at this whole "dad thing" for the better part of two decades now, but I'm still learning. It's an "on the job" training kind of gig.

Now that I'm 50 (how did THAT happen?!?!), I've noticed myself becoming more reflective and observational, appreciating and noting the little things in life that keep it all interesting and lively. So today, indulge me as I do a bit of a brain dump on thoughts about being a dad and watching other dads:

  • Role play - when moms watch their kids alone, nobody refers to them as babysitting. So why do people assume that when a dad is left alone with kids that he's doing exactly that? It's called PARENTING, folks, regardless of which parent is doing it. (But for the record, when most dads are left alone with the kids, the probability of the scene resembling something from Animal House is much more probable.)
  • Single parenting - when either my wife or I have to go from a man-to-man defense to a zone defense with our two daughters, things can get interesting. I can't imagine a life of having to get kids all over creation without support. I've become far more appreciative of the life single parents lead, and I'm much more willing to cut them a lot of slack in helping them reach their goals.
  • Special needs - I've had the privilege of getting to know people whose kids have special needs and I'm pretty sure that's where the phrase "I can't even..." originated, at least from the parents whose kids are seemingly normal (what does "normal" even mean anymore???). What amazing people. Some friends of ours have a bumper sticker that reads "Autism isn't for wimps." A hearty AMEN is due. And they take it all in stride, sometimes even making me feel like a parenting slacker. My biggest challenge? Teenage angst. That's hard enough for this middle-aged dude to navigate, thank you. Regardless, parents of special needs children are superhero status in my book.
  • Aging - some people wait to have children when they are older, and I applaud them. A close friend who is near my age is adopting a newborn, and that baby is going to have a wonderful life. But for me, as I've grown older, I have noticed gratitude in the small things - getting up, walking, bending over, breathing, eating foods I enjoy, independence - that have been robbed from others my age or younger. I'm not taking much for granted these days.
  • Priorities - for the most part, my children ARE my priority. I've made countless career decisions in their favor over the years. I've dealt with pompous and sexist bosses who have asked, "Can't your wife just handle that?" But there are times I've learned that telling myself yes and my children no is actually healthy for them and their development. And I'm learning to shift that balance as they grow older and need to discover their own independence.
  • Legacy - I really don't want my daughters just to be little versions of me. I've had a good life, and I have nothing to prove through my children's successes or personalities. That being said, I don't want my children to grow up to be sociopaths or sycophants either. I'm fortunate: both of my girls have strengths and talents and intelligence and beauty (inside and out). They will change the world, and I'll know (when my time is up) that I had a role in helping them do so, and their legacy will pass on to their children.

Oh sure, there are many other parenting ponderings to pontificate, but you get the idea. When it comes to being a dad, do your best, accept the shortcomings (yours and theirs), and then try a little harder tomorrow. Happy Father's Day to my special brotherhood.

A Loyal Pain

LoyaltyThere's been a lot in the news recently about our current president's authoritarian command desire for loyalty. But given everything else that's been in the news recently about him, this one is just another log on the fire. It has, however, started me thinking about the topic of loyalty, especially in comparison to other levels of commitment.

As an independent contractor, I have the choice whether I contract directly with a client or whether I subcontract through another firm. Currently, I am subcontracting through a great firm named Paragon IT Professionals, and I have no qualms about touting the relationship. This morning when I arrived at my client site, I was greeted with a small gift in conjunction with their 20th anniversary in business. The account reps, the recruiters, and the office staff go out of their way to engage the consultants individually and collectively. In turn, we provide great service to our clients. In other words, Paragon has EARNED my loyalty as a consultant.

I was reflecting on other firms through whom I've contracted who operated closer to the current POTUS as far as making loyalty a requirement. They didn't want to go through the steps of earning it, and often times masked the lack of day-to-day engagement with grander yet less frequent gestures, which by the end just came off as disingenuous. Most now have gone out of business or have been devoured by other consulting firms. A childhood teacher always used to spout the adage, "Nobody is completely worthless; they can always serve as a bad example." And that's what these firms and their agents have become to me... prime examples of what not to do. And as a result of their actions, my loyalty looked something more like hesitant compliance.

My friend and mentor, Steve Farber, lives and breathes the phrase, "Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do." This one sentence is both extremely simple yet dizzyingly complex. I try daily to integrate it as a key aspect in how I operate in many of my roles from project manager to college instructor, from friend to dad. I do what I love: I accomplish things (projects, solutions, relationships, learning). There's another part to that phrase which many seem to forget: I do what I love IN THE SERVICE OF PEOPLE. Call it servant leadership or just being a vulnerable human, but if we aren't putting ourselves out there to serve, what good is it? Finally, those people whom we serve love what we do. That's not about seeking kudos or praise; it's about finding the sweet spot in life. It's about the reciprocity that they appreciate what I bring to the table while I'm serving them. I've brought my best to people who have no appreciation for project management or for good instruction, and my efforts become mere acts which fall into the category of "no good deed goes unpunished."

What about you? To whom are you loyal? Why? Who is loyal to you? Have you commanded it or earned it?

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.

Fast Pass Plus

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Project: Gratitude

Thanksgiving_prayerHappy Thanksgiving from Carpe Factum!

Looking back over my life, I'm reminded of many blessings, things that have shaped me, challenged me, and defined me. Sure, there are the obvious ones: My home, my family, my career.

There are more subtle points - events, opportunities, people - which played a role in my life. I may not have realized it at the time (and generally didn't), but looking back, they served a key role. Here are just a few:

Paper Route - from ages 11 through 15, I carried the Des Moines Tribune (the now defunct afternoon sister paper to the Des Moines Register). I had an average of 40 customers who expected their papers promptly, placed exactly where they wanted it. By the time I was a teenager, I had the basics of customer service and customer facing down. I learned self-discipline and responsibility. I learned to appreciate what was going on in the world (watching headlines change throughout the entire Iran Hostage crisis).

Family on the Farm - both of my mom's siblings (and their families) farmed. From birth, I was exposed to livestock and crops, to dirt and creekbeds. I listened to family discussions about market prices and government programs. I was able to experience sights and sounds and smells to instill an appreciation for nature. It's served me well in seeing the systems in the world around me and exactly how much everyting is connected.

Healthy Drama - I was a bit of a theater geek in high school and college. I got to learn from some awesome coaches and teachers about acting, creating a character, setting a mood, and appreciating really amazing writing. These opportunities shaped me as a teacher, an author, a creative, an office politics consultant, a project manager, and a dad. Always let your imagination come out to play.

Sunday School - I have pretty fond memories of my childhood church and what it represented back then. Learning Bible stories from different teachers, framing my values system, singing songs... it broke down the mysteries of religion and provided me with a framework for how I view the world. As I grew, I was able to add on to those building blocks, to interpret scripture in light of its original context and how its timelessness applies to an ever-changing world today. I'll be forever grateful to those faithful ladies and gentlemen who took the time to teach Bible stories to us kids.

Dogs - What can I say about Sam, Casey, Zorro, and now Fergus? Their love, their humor, and their needs taught me the basics and the complexities of taking care of other living beings. I observed their ability to listen. I saw them communicate without words. I viewed what excited them, what scared them, and what motivated them. Seeing the world through a dog's eyes is inspirational and honest.

So this Thanksgiving, I'll enjoy the trappings and trimmings of family and food. But I will have an eye on the past and its many blessings. Enjoy the holiday!

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!)

The Horror of Surprise

The defenseless couple walk along the dark hallway, dim lights flickering among the cobwebs. Eerie music crescendos as they near the door at the end, unsuspecting of any possible harm as they slowly reach for and turn the knob.


Sorry, that's as scary as we're going to get this Halloween season. Unless you're a project manager. And you're blindsided by the unexpected. Like some hideous monster jumping out from behind the shadows, there are always creepy-crawly things waiting to scare you:

  • Indecisive executives
  • Changing business landscapes
  • New or forgotten requirements
  • Office politics gone awry
  • Sudden staff changes

I saw a t-shirt this summer that said "Life is all about how you handle Plan B," and that's especially true if you're a project manager. But with all of our risk and issue planning, few project managers TRULY give thought to Plan B and how it plays out.

What are the elements to creating a solid Plan B?

  • Trigger Event - what has to happen among all your risks in order for you to jump away from Plan A? Define events, thresholds, or variances that must be present for you to go to your Plan B.
  • Outcomes - what do you want Plan B to accomplish? Don't assume it's the same thing as Plan A. You may need to scale back features and functions of your scope to get done on time. You may need to sacrifice time or budget.
  • Roles - what skill sets will help you achieve the Plan B outcomes, and which available staff have those skills? Avoid the temptation to simply reassign your Plan A team (after all, they may have been the ones who got you into the mess).
  • Tasks, Dependencies, and Estimates - create your Plan B project plan to show how you will use the ROLES to achieve the desired OUTCOMES once the TRIGGER EVENT has occurred.
  • Stakeholders and Accountability - who cares and how are we going to keep them apprised of our progress? How will we define "done" to ensure people are accomplishing Plan B?

So the next time you go sneaking around dark passageways on stormy evenings, make sure you have your escape route marked. Go Plan B!

Lessons From The Storm

2013 Wind Storm 2Last Thursday afternoon seemed fairly normal. After a day of running around doing this and that, I had picked up my daughter from school and we were watching a little Doctor Who and chatting when we heard thunder. I had seen on the radar that a storm was coming so it wasn't a huge shock. To be on the safe side, I ran upstairs to shut the garage door. What happened next was unreal. I could tell the wind was a lot stronger than usual as I hit the button to protect my car from the elements. It was then my daughter yelled that a branch had fallen in our yard. By the time I came back downstairs, our very mature silver maple was snapping off limbs like little twigs. Our yard looked like a war zone in a matter of seconds.

2013 Wind Storm 3Later, we assessed the damage. It's unclear if our silver maple will survive. Our pear tree definitely will not. We lost a few shingles and I'm waiting to hear from the roofing contractor. After a quick drive through our part of town, we realized we fared better than many in the neighborhood. Now a week later, I'm looking back on what I learned:

  1. Gratitude - for me the storm, at worst, was an inconvenience. Many neighbors suffered major damage to their homes and automobiles. I suffered a few days of yard clean-up. I'm also grateful there will be fewer leaves to rake.
  2. Neighbors - never underestimate your neighbors as part of the value of your home. After they cleaned up their own messes, two of my neighbors were helping me out with the debris in my yard, chainsaws running. (Of course, we made our wives nervous when dislodging stubborn branches. Imagine Grumpy Old Men meets Cirque du Soleil, and you have a good image of the activity around our house.)
  3. Accomplishment - often things take longer than estimated or projected. As long as you keep making forward progress, it's all good in the end.
  4. 2013 Wind Storm 5Long View - the storm lasted seconds. It's now a week later and most of the mess is clean. Most of life's storms are like this also. Remember: this, too, shall pass. Right after the storm passed, a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the sky... just a reminder that everything will be alright.
  5. Resourcefulness - I now have a large stack of wood for future firepits with my family and friends. Sometimes storm produce resources you didn't realize you had.
  6. Timing - I was grateful I hadn't yet returned to full-time consulting work so I had time to deal with the effects of the storm. Sometimes things just have a way of working out.

2013 Wind Storm 6City crews are picking up the debris this week. The roof will get fixed. And things will get back to normal. There will be other storms, weather and otherwise. But for a few brief moments, my best teacher was a bit of atmospheric upheaval. What are you learning from the storms in your life?

Tastes Like Check-In

Fried_chickenI spent a great summer away from consulting work this year. After wrapping up an almost two-year project, I decided to take time for myself. There were home organization projects to do, books to read, and calories to burn, so the project deliverable of the summer was... well... me. It felt great to invest time in myself. As Christine Kane once said, "I'm always impressed with anyone who can stop their life when their life starts speaking to you, when things start falling down around you. You know, most of us, we just think it means that instead of ordering a grande at Starbucks, we should order a venti and go a little harder." Not this boy. After all I've been through in the past five years, it was time to take that "self-imposed vision quest."

Anyway, I'm now back on the hunt for speaking engagements and/or contract projects. One lesson I've learned consistently over the years (and am reminded of constantly the past few weeks) is to pay attention to how people treat me during the initial contact and interview process. The "check-in" process is a great indicator of how things will go. If people are combative and caustic during the interview process, they will act that way during the project. If people are hospitable and friendly during onboarding, that's how they generally act throughout the duration of the contract. Indecision and waffling in hiring leads to indecision and waffling when work needs to move forward. Micromanagement breeds micromanagement. Openness breeds openness. You get the picture.

I had a phone interview a couple of weeks ago for something that seemed like an interesting project. I was very up-front with the person about my skills and abilities over our half-hour conversation. The following week, I found out the person came away with a completely different perception of our conversation and what I could/couldn't do than I remember telling him. I withdrew my name from consideration within the day, figuring if a simple half-hour conversation (and a couple of subsequent emails) yielded such disparity, I could only imagine what a multi-month project would do to my blood pressure.

So it has been a fun trip for my inner anthropologist to observe these people. I'm able to get a fairly accurate reading of their corporate culture before I even step foot in the door. And it gives me the opportunity to say "no" before I ever have to say "yes." There's a lot to be said for first impressions. One of my favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and I've shared with a lot of people the importance of "thin slicing," or taking that first impression to draw conclusions. Our brain's experiences coupled with our gut's intuition is generally spot on.

So what can you do to make the check-in process reflect the type of organization you really are? How can you as an individual align first impressions with reality? Because people are watching you, and they're drawing conclusions about you as well.

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).

Following To the Gates of Help

Othello-iagoIn the grander scheme of office politics, it's fairly simple to note the overt office politicians. Recently, my wife dragged me to encouraged me to escort her to a live production of Shakespeare's Othello. From an audience member's perspective, especially one who knows the plot and characters at least on the surface, the villain Iago's actions and motives were pretty transparent. The guy was slick, and he almost pulled it off.

However, sometimes it is much harder to identify and diagnose underhanded political behavior. A while back in my career, I was recruited to a project by a couple of employees who said I'd be perfect for their organization. They didn't want (or need) the "standard" way of managing a project, as it had yielded failure in the past. The project sounded interesting, and their timing was perfect, so I relented to synchronicity and came on board. A few months into the contract, one of the two took an online project management course. Those who know me and have seen me in action know the paradox: as a college professor, I am generally the polar opposite from "text book" (in pretty much anything in life). I liken project management to music or cooking: to do it well, you learn the rules and ingrain them into your being. To go beyond, you separate science from art and figure out how to break the rules.

Hence, we set up the conflict. Within a couple of weeks of starting this course, this individual noticed I wasn't following all the rules that the online instructor was teaching all "good" project managers do. And this employee started a one-person mission to discredit me. But, in an organization that hadn't delivered anything significant on time or well, I was getting results and I was delivering them on-time. In working with the decision-makers, we had agreed to sacrifice some features and functions up front, and we determined the short-term organizational pain was worth a long-term organizational win. In other words, credibility was on my side, and this person started looking more foolish with every tattling complaint.

Here's the kicker, though: Whenever called on the carpet for this behavior, this individual would muster a look of perplexed hurt and innocently state "I was just concerned" or "I was only trying to help." And therein lies the rub of some covert snake politicians. If they can effectively mask their their true motives with a concerned "Ha! I like not that" (Iago's line which starts Othello down his path of destructive jealousy), then they can get away with a lot.

How do you combat a person like this? Here are a few tips from my experience:

  1. Perform well and accomplish. My project's results and performance discredited this person more than anything I could have said or done in my defense. I've often stated that the best revenge is success. On-time milestone delivery and honest communication of the issues undermined all complaints about process and methodology.
  2. Watch your back. This person rarely came to me, but rather targeted the project executives for complaining innuendo. I had others watching out for me and informing me what was happening. Having a spy or two acting on your behalf is far more valuable. Also, know who really has your back and who is using your back for target practice. Office politics often bring in allies to both sides of a conflict. In this case, my thorn-in-the-side had their own team. Othello fell because the one person he trusted to watch his back was Iago.
  3. Face to Face. Tandem with watching your back is watching the other person's behavior when they're in your presence. Until this person's motives and actions were brought into clear light, the M.O. was syrupy sweet interchanges to my face. I had been clued in early, as my first day on the job, they were all too willing to "take me into their confidence" and provide the gossip on others in the organization.
  4. Give them rope. This is a balancing act for you. If they are doing damage to the project with their actions, you may need to help hasten their demise for the good of the team. But if their self-destruction is imminent, just step back and givem them enough rope to hang themselves. (You might also assess whether the behavior is coachable. I attempted to talk with the person on a couple of occasions, but the die was already cast.)
  5. Document. I never needed to use it, but I had started documenting the behaviors and events as they were coming to my attention. I saved forwarded emails and tracked dates and those involved.

In the end, my project's Iago was defeated and left the organization. I completed the contract successfully and moved on to other endeavors. I've come to learn they used the same behaviors in prior jobs, and they still employ those same behaviors currently. (Some job markets are just too small, and people talk.) I'm guessing at some point early in their career, they were successful with the "I was just concerned" and/or "I was just trying to help" approaches. It's sad they couldn't learn from past mistakes and try something new and constructive.

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: Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, it is man against nature.

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

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

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

"Well, no," was her response.

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

"I can't do that, sir."

"I'll take the spray."

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

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

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

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

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


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

My Hero(es)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Young and Hungry

I'm at a crossroads with our current house. We've done almost everything to it we possibly can, but should we decide to stay in this house long-term, there are a couple more projects we'd like to tackle. The question isn't really about the projects, but more about who would do the work. We've used one contractor fairly consistently over the past 10 years, but I think we're moving on.


Well, he's no longer "young and hungry."

When we first used him, he was just starting out and was very eager to prove himself in the dog-eat-dog world of contracting. And he did. Which was why we kept inviting him back for more projects. Sunroom. Bathroom. Kitchen. But by the time he reached our basement, things had changed. He was successful. He no longer did (or even directly supervised) a lot of the work himself. He used more subcontractors. And things important to me were missed. And he acted like we - his customers - were more of an inconvenience by merely asking questions. And while the final product was... well... just okay, it wasn't the level of work that made us love what he did and compelled us to keep inviting him back.

It's that way in the white-collar business world as well. I once subcontracted to a consulting firm that was young and hungry. I was one of their first recruits. Those first couple of years were stressful yet exhiliarating. We worked our tails off to prove ourselves as a viable consulting firm. The owner and founder worked even harder to match up projects with the skills and strengths of the consultants. We got larger and more successful. And then he turned over the operations to a salesperson. So much for "care and feeding" of the consultants. At that point, we were treated more like mental prostitutes as the emphasis went from "young and hungry" to "established and self-satisfied."

Young and hungry is a mindset. Young and hungry abdicates lazy satisfaction. Young and hungry celebrates a job well-done, and then turns around and looks for ways to raise the bar. Young and hungry stays in training to become better, faster, stronger, more agile. Last month, Fast Company released its annual list of the 50 most innovative companies. It was interesting who wasn't on the list: Facebook and Twitter. Ubiquitous? Yes. Young and hungry? Not so much.

Young and hungry is not about ego. In proving itself, young and hungry lets the accomplishment trump the personality. We'll let Kim Jong Un stay in North Korea, thank you very much. We have enough little dictators invading our cubicles already. Young and hungry is not autocratic. It doesn't need to be. Young and hungry doesn't backstab or steal credit. Young and hungry doesn't need to issue hollow ultimatums to get its way; young and hungry sets out a compelling vision. Young and hungry invites others along on the journey and attempts to keep them engaged as long as they want to be part of that journey. Young and hungry doesn't delegate; it rolls up its sleeves and welcomes the work.

So where do you fall on the scale? Are you still young and hungry? What will get you back there?

What Part of "NO" Don't You Understand?

It's been an interesting few months... that's an understatement. A lot of things culminated last week, giving me some much anticipated (and highly needed) down time to catch my breath and catch up on life.

No-yes-480And I've been taking advantage of it. Bill paying, paperwork, taxes, laundry (yes, Chief Accomplishment Officers do their own laundry), and some house cleaning have been my task list this week. Oh, and blogging.

One of my favorite quotes is "The Quality of our YESes is determined by the Quantity of our NOs." I'll admit I've had hard time finding the origin of this quote and web searches have yielded little. I originally thought it belonged to the late Stephen R. Covey, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe I picked it up from a random speaker or sermon from years ago. Regardless, it's stuck with me. And the past several months, blogging has fallen into my "NO" category.

But I started realizing how much I missed it. There have been so many things that have happened in the past year that have warranted a passing "Oh, I should blog about that," but then my other pressing YESes took over. And you want to know what? I'm good with it. Sure, I probably need to start over building a readership, but I think I can figure out how to do it.

So bear with me. I have a lot to say. About current events (and past events and future events). About accomplishment and leadership. About project management and people. About branding and behavior. About me. About you.

We have a lot of catching up to do as I move from "no" back to "yes."

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.


"Hush, my dear," he said. "Don't speak so loud, or you will be overheard--and I should be ruined. I'm supposed to be a Great Wizard."

"And aren't you?" she asked.

"Not a bit of it, my dear; I'm just a common man."

"You're more than that," said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; "you're a humbug."

"Exactly so!" declared the little man, rubbing his hands together as if it pleased him. "I am a humbug."

-Excerpt from The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

DorothypullingcurtainThose of us familiar with the movie are familiar with the "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain line. We've all known people who pose to be one thing but are exposed later to be something else. As a project manager and as a consultant, I've seen my fair share of "humbugs" posing to be wizards. 

Often, we get blindsided by the fact that there was a curtain in the first place. In the role of office politicians, our job is to identify when and where curtains exist between the "image" and the "reality." It's generally not that hard to expose if one knows what to look for:

  1. How does the person in question treat others who are not present? More than one co-worker has exposed their curtain by "taking me into their confidence" by bad-mouthing others on day one. That's a huge warning sign that the snake will rear his/her ugly head against me some day.
  2. How does this person's behavior change in the presence of those whose organizational power and influence is higher or lower than theirs? People without curtains tend to treat people consistently regardless of organizational position.
  3. What exterior signals does this person give to draw attention to themselves? Note that there's a difference between a strong personal brand (e.g., wearing a bow tie every day) and drawing attention to a $2,000 suit.
  4. How does this person behave in meetings? Are they interested and engaged in what other people have to say? Are they late? Leave early?
  5. Do they verbally draw attention to their own press? I knew a law enforcement officer who rose high in the ranks who talked about his own ethics all the time. His behavior soon negated his own press releases.
  6. Do they change their behavior during or after a conflict? Once corrected or reprimanded, are they grateful or resentful of the feedback?

These are just a few of the "curtains" to look for to determine whether the "wizard" in your life is really hiding a humbug behind the curtain. The ability to identify this is key in both human relations and branding. What are you doing to identify and pull back the curtain before it's too late?

They're Coming To Get You...

It's Halloween night and I'm home writing a blog post. No costume. No party. No November 1st regrets.

I've been thinking a lot about zombies recently. No, that's not a reflection on my current client or current group of students... probably just the "spirit of the holidays," as it were.

1968 Night of the Living DeadOf course, the benchmark for zombie flicks is "Night of the Living Dead." The great thing about horror movies is, if it's good enough, they'll do a remake. George Romero's 1968 flick was the ground-breaker, but the 1990 remake has its merits, too. Both start out with brother and sister visiting a cemetery, only to be accosted by zombies. Johnny, the obnoxious brother, is the first to reanimate to the walking dead, after taunting his sister Barbra (spelled Barbara for the 1990 version) with "They're coming to get you." Ah, the irony. (OK, now I'm getting hungry for Zombie Burger.)

1990 Night of the Living DeadHere's the interesting divergence in the two movies (SPOILER ALERT). In both Barb(a)ra hides with a group in a farm house until the bitter end. In the 1968 version, though, Barbra is a catatonic victim, drifting through the film up to the point of becoming the final undead buffet. The 1990 Barbara won't stand for that. She takes charge and takes names, and is the only farmhouse survivor.

For those of us who have to dwell among the "Working Dead," we get to see zombies in their most real form. A few years ago, I went to work as a contractor for a company where I had been employed for many years. After being out among the living for so long, I realized how zombified the organization really was. Most who were there were like the 1968 Barbra, fatefully awaiting their acclimation to the other zombies. I, on the other hand, after seeing their grotesque dysfunctionality, likened myself to the 1990 Barbara and engineered my exit (letting them think it was their idea - zombies are pretty easy to trick).

How do you approach the zombies around you? Do you just shrug and accept your fate of becoming one of them, or do you fight for your own personal survival, "leaving the farmhouse" if necessary to seek safer ground away from the undead?

If you're faced with a workplace of the undead and you've not yet joined them, what are you doing to plan your escape? Better think fast. We'll hope you survive till "morning."

The Summer Reading Assignment

Greatgatsby-cover“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby

I knew my wife was right. I really needed to just hunker down and do it. At first, I gritted my teeth and stared at it from across the table. If a book could taunt a person, this one was thumbing its nose and sticking out its tongue at me. I wasn't to be bested by an inanimate object. So I grabbed it and started reading.

I have a confession to make: for the most part, I have avoided "great literature" all my life. I'm an avid reader, mind you, but my interests fall mainly with business books. I enjoy the occasional bout with fiction. However, in my almost 46 years on the planet, I had averted many of the big names unless unavoidable as curriculum in a required class. Both in high school and in college, lit instructors had a nasty reputation of "Read this and then tell me what I think it means or get a bad grade." Those who know me best know that I have never liked being told what to think. So good grade or bad, I wasn't about to "play the game." Hence, my reading stayed with business books and whatever else tripped my trigger.

That's almost unconsciable to a high school literature teacher, and through whatever twist of fate, that is the profession I married. Instead of going off to the East Coast to learn about the lives of the Transcendentalists or the writings of Ben Franklin, she decided to make ME her summer professional development project. She gave me The Great Gatsby, and the only condition she stipulated was we would discuss it when I was done.

So I picked it up. I had heard her talk about on numerous occasions as she taught it, so I had the most general of ideas of the plot and characters (the same tip of the iceberg understanding I'd developed about many of the greats I'd never read). I had never seen any of the prior movie releases either, so I couldn't cheat (nor would I).

A few nights later, around 11 PM, I closed the book.


I didn't let her down. I told her I thought it was rather presumptive that most people thought the eyeglass billboard of Dr. Eckleburg was the omniscient yet detached god watching over the characters, when it was clearly Nick Carroway himself playing that role - narrating, judging, positioning, observing - yet never really intervening until it was too late. I countered that Meyer Wolfsheim was his satanic counterpart,  who set up Gatsby during his lifetime in a counterfeit house of cards yet stated he didn't have use for the man after he was dead. I talked about looking up what the name Myrtle meant, and finding out it was an evergreen bough that was actually a symbol of love in mythology. Perfect for the woman who was "ever green" - vibrant among the Valley of the Ashes, yet was merely a symbol of love for both Tom and her husband. I agreed with the obvious assessment that Daisy, more than any other character, was the villainess, yet no character was really likeable.

"You should have been a lit instructor," she enthused, thrilled that I had taken so much away from my first foray in many years.

I countered: "No, I'm still not overly 'fond' of literature yet. And the only people who read Gatsby these days are English teachers who have read it a zillion times before and literature students who are generally too young to really understand human nature. I'm seeing it through the fresh eyes of a 45-year-old's life experiences."

And thus we get to the crux of this post: Who's reviewing your accomplishments? Are you giving them to the old and jaded of your own profession to look over and provide the same stale feedback from their commoditized ilk? Or are your accomplishments being judged by the young and inexperienced, performing it only as a function of duty?

Or are you seeking out that sweet spot combination of fresh eyes AND valuable outside experience?

Accomplishing great things is only part of the equation; finding the right people to give you the best feedback is the rest of the equation. A few years ago, I quit active networking with other project managers. (Don't worry, I still count some of them among my best friends.) I just decided that we all spoke the same language already. I started hanging out with marketing and branding and public relations people. I hung out with social media geeks and technologists and musicians and fitness hounds. And I learned from them. I learned about them. I learned with them. But the most valuable thing is I learned what they could teach me about what I thought I already knew.

And that was one assignment I'm glad I undertook.

Flipping the Birds

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

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

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

What are some of the flocks gathering behind them?

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

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

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.

Guess Who's Thumbing the Winner?

Bad_Authority_Figure Sigh.

I like to maintain a baseline level of confidence in society.

I like to think that people - at their core - have qualities that benefit others.

I like to believe that all bosses are inherently good... kind of like Luke Skywalker believed there was still good in Darth Vader.

The problem is that Luke Skywalker was right.

This story comes from Eastern Iowa. William Ernst, owner of the QC Mart chain, decided to make a game of firing employees. A judge ruled against him on his little game, stating that he created a hostile work environment, for releasing this memo last spring:

New Contest – Guess The Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired!!!

To win our game, write on a piece of paper the name of the next cashier you believe will be fired. Write their name [the person who will be fired], today's date, today's time, and your name. Seal it in an envelope and give it to the manager to put in my envelope.

"Here's how the game will work: We are doubling our secret-shopper efforts, and your store will be visited during the day and at night several times a week. Secret shoppers will be looking for cashiers wearing a hat, talking on a cell phone, not wearing a QC Mart shirt, having someone hanging around/behind the counter, and/or a personal car parked by the pumps after 7 p.m., among other things.

"If the name in your envelope has the right answer, you will win $10 CASH. Only one winner per firing unless there are multiple right answers with the exact same name, date, and time. Once we fire the person, we will open all the envelopes, award the prize, and start the contest again.

"And no fair picking Mike Miller from (the Rockingham Road store). He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a hat and talking on his cell phone. Good luck!!!!!!!!!!"

(Poor Mike Miller of the Rockingham Road Store.)

One of the questions I generally field as an office politics advisor is: "What happens when it's the boss/leader/owner/authority figure who is exhibiting the bad behavior?"

My answer is generally the same: YOU are still in control of your reaction. YOU can choose to leave. YOU can choose to talk back. YOU can choose not to engage. Or, in their case, YOU can choose to hire a lawyer and fight. Yes, there are consequences to YOUR actions, but the empowering thing is... they're YOUR actions.

We had a situation at a soccer game a couple of weeks back. A child was obviously injured on the field (and this is not my first rodeo, folks... I know the difference between a "shake it off" injury and a "everybody grab a knee" injury). The parents were trying to call the ref's attention to the injured child, and instead of stopping the game to check on her welfare, he opted for yelling at the parents, screaming at him that he knew the rules, and antagonizing instead of managing the situation. Worse yet was the league's decision to side with him without doing adequate investigation into the matter. The parents did what they could; they backed down to his irrational behavior at the game and then reported the referee to the league afterwards. Will this ref ever have a bearing on their lives long-term? No. He was just a man who cared more about his injured ego than an injured child. But the bottom line is this: the parents took the actions that were within their power.

I've dealt with many a bad boss in the course of my career. Nowadays such a person is just fodder for future writing. Nevertheless, it's taken time to learn how to finesse the situation when in the heat of battle. I congratulate those convenience store employees for taking decisive action against their boss. It took courage, no doubt. We'll hope he can learn from the situation.

Remember: when dealing with an ill-minded and/or ill-behaving authority figure, YOU are still in control of YOUR reactions. Never, EVER forget that.

Waving "Buy-Buy" to Change

Best_Buyx2 Recently, in my commute to my client site, I thought I was seeing double. As one Best Buy store was being shelled out to make way for a new Whole Foods Market (my gastro side is giddy beyond belief), a new Best Buy store was being built right next store. What initially looked like a redundant marketing campaign was actually bridging a potential gap for electronics-seeking consumers.

Right now, I'm in the midst of managing a major software conversion for my client. They have the old software, and my job is to get them to new software. We're approaching this change like the dual-Best-Buy approach, but I don't have the luxury of making an obvious sign that points the users to one system one day and another system the next. That's where change management principles come into play.

  • First, my team and I have to assure the end users that when we switch over, they'll have a quality product. We have to build creditiblity through our testing to give them the best we can. Unlike a Best Buy shopper who can buy his or her latest iDrool at one property or another and know it will work equally well, we have to earn that assurance.
  • Second, we have to answer the never ending question of "What's In It For Me?" (WIIFM)  Unlike Best Buy customers, they don't have the option to shop elsewhere during construction. Still, they want to know how their professional lives will be affected. It's my job to make sure those messages go out.
  • Third, we have to bring them along on the journey. Where as passersby got to see one Best Buy sign go up and then the old one come down, my stakeholders will rely on me to tell them where we are in our journey and answer the age old question, "Are we there yet"?

Stephen Warrilow wrote a great piece on resistance to change about a year ago. Slightly different emphases but some great thoughts nonetheless.

The bottom line on change is how you as the change leader bridge the gap from the present to the future. Seizing the accomplishment means more than just hitting all of your milestones and staying within budget; it also means bringing the right stakeholders along for the ride.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing to Fear? Let's Find Something!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Australia vs. The Time-Out Chair

Timeout chair  I was having lunch with friends the other day, and they started asking my advice on some chronically bad behavior at their company.  They were complaining that dysfunctionality was running rampant in their organization, and were wondering what they could do about it.

I asked them one simple question:  "How do your executives act?"

The response was as I expected.  Terms such as "childish" and "distrustful" and "conniving" were thrown about.  It was simple cause-and-effect.  The employees misbehave BECAUSE the executives misbehave.  A while back, I was asked to respond to a letter on Office-Politics.com where the top three executives were having affairs.  I suggested to the letter writer that he may want to consider a career change because their behaviors would eventually filter throughout the company.

It's pretty easy if one person misbehaves.  In school or at daycare or at home, you have a time-out chair to help correct the errant child.  (Some children spend more time on the chair than anywhere else.)  However, a couple of centuries ago, Britain decided they needed a whole island to deal with their less-than-stellar citizens, so Australia was colonized as a prison.  (Now people vacation there; go figure.)  So it is with some organizations.  If you have one or two bad employees, it's fairly easy to deal with them the traditional ways: coaching, counseling, corrective action.  If the whole lot are acting like a werewolf convention during a full-moon, then you have a problem with the overall culture.

The diagnosis of the systems output is simple.  However, the cure can be more challenging (but not impossible).  If enough people (namely executives), decide they want to change the culture (think Seattle's world famous fish market), then anything is possible.  With the Fish! example, the decision to change had to come from the top man himself, and then he had to make good by modeling the behaviors he wanted to see.

Where do you see yourself fitting into this organization?  Are you prepared to tackle an entire culture?  Some battles you can win, but some wars are costly.

There are no easy answers, but it certainly gives you something to think about if you're in an organization where you dread getting up in the morning.

Nailing The Dismount

Gymnast Even in a bad job market, people evidently still have their dignity.

After all, one can only put up with a bad job, bad coworkers, and/or bad boss so long before one gets really fed up and says "Screw it!!!"  I'm always bewildered by those who write into Office-Politics.com and have put up with a bad work situation for (drum roll) YEARS and wonder how they can make it better.  (It's called a "recurring pattern of behavior," Bucky... sloooowly step away from the employer.)

I've been amused by two stories that have made the news in the past couple of days.  The first is Steven Slater of Jet Blue who got fed up with a passenger's disobedience, delivered a rant via the PA, grabbed some beer, and high-tailed it down the inflatable slide.  The second is Jenny, who got fed up with her bad boss, and resigned via photos to her coworkers (in the process exposing her boss's Farmville addiction)... although I'm not sure how credible the latter story is, but it is hilarious nonetheless.

"Take this job and shove it!" never sounded so good... well, except for poor Steven who is now behind bars for his antics.  Everyone has had a bad work situation from time to time.  As I talked about yesterday, office bullies sometimes run rampant and unchecked.  Some executives are utterly clueless.  Silly rules of bureaucracy befuddle otherwise intelligent and rational individuals.

Still, your stint at a particular employer (or client, in my case) is a system.  And your departure is the final piece of output.  Losing it on the dismount is never a good thing... unless you are attempting a triple-quadruple-3/4-rotating-back-front-rotating-vertical-gravity-defying-death-cheating-Holy-Mary-mother-of-God-did-we-really-just-see-that flip.  Then a less than perfect landing might be expected.  I've had clients where I've left less than gracefully (but I've done it with my head held high for what I attempted to do while I was there), and I've dismounted some projects with a style and grace that would leave Shawn Johnson with her mouth gaping.  How you depart is up to you.  But be prepared to deal with the perceptions of others... that feedback loop can be like landing on concrete without padding if you're not careful.

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.

Yacht-A Yacht-A Yacht-A

Yacht_hayward  So Tony Hayward wants his "life back."

So the pressures of cleaning up BP's disastrous oil spill is too much for him to handle.

So he goes to a prestigious yacht race to cheer on ol' Bob (the name of his yacht).

Big deal... who cares?

Um... well... it would appear... A LOT OF PEOPLE.

On office politics, appearances mean everything.  Arms crossed.  Disengaging in a meeting.  Going to lunch with somebody.  Leaving early.  Arriving late.  Laughing at a joke.  People are paying attention to what you do.  For some of you, you may not care what other people think.  (For the most part, I'm right there with you.)  But, like it or not, we do have to be concerned about perceptions.  If they go unchecked, perceptions can become fact.  And facts can ruin careers.

You don't have to be obsessing about others' opinions every minute of every day.  All I'm saying is to watch out for the ammo you give their perception arsenal.

Here We Go Loop-De-Loo

Spanking_kids Recently, I've been observing a lot of real-life "labs" in Consequence 101.  People I know have been receiving feedback on their past actions.  For some of them, their actions have been occurring for months and years.  But luck ran out, fate caught up, and consequence won out.

I'm not going to pass judgment on these individuals or on their actions.  But it is a good lesson in systems thinking when it's applied to human behavior.  I've talked about systems thinking a ton over the past couple of years.  Most of the time, it has been in the context of organizations and accomplishment.  However, systems thinking applies equally well to how people act.

I love to watch people, and I especially love to watch people reacting to other people.  I was recently in a meeting where a professional was passionately trying to get his point across.  He was coming across somewhat abrasively, and the body language around the room told me this was not the first exchange where this individual overstepped his bounds.  Postures stiffened; facial expressions became defensive; responses were curt.  But this individual was missing a vital piece of the feedback loop.  And so his output (behavior) became an input for the inevitable next exchange sometime in the future.

The feedback loop of systems thinking is highly consistent.  You can occasionally trick it with a rogue input, and the system will forgive you.  But if you keep pushing the system with bad inputs, the feedback loop does catch up, and when the system pushes back, it pushes back hard.  I've mentioned Peter Senge's Beer Game before.  When the retailer, wholesaler, and manufacturer see the patterns in the greater system, they realize how their bad decisions led to horrible consequences.

What about you?  Are your decisions and behaviors showing up in various feedback loops?  How are people responding to your actions and words?  When/how will the feedback loop catch up to you?  Can you reverse the trend of your behavioral system before it's too late?  Trust me, I've been on the receiving end of systems thinking feedback loop spanking.  It's easier just to pay attention to the system when it gives you a gentle nudge the first time.

How To Steal Your Boss's Job

Burglar Recently, I was approached by Fox News to be interviewed on an office politics segment, which they entitled "How to Steal your Boss's Job."  For logistical reasons, the interview fell through, but I've been thinking a lot about this topic since being approached.  Yes, the title is rather sensationalistic, but we've all come to expect that from various news outlets.

Regardless, in this economy, there are more than a few people who are scanning upward, hoping to unseat a barricading boss.  Hence, in the spirit of keeping office politics on the up-and-up, I'll share with you what I would have shared with the segment producer had the story gone through:

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up?  Is the boss's position really the direction you want to go with your career?  Are you in the right field for your skills and passions?  I think it was Zig Ziglar who always used to admonish those who climbed the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.
  2. Be careful what you wish for.  Remember the movie, Bruce Almighty?  Talk about stealing the boss's job!  Bruce got to be God.  And he found out it was a heck of a lot harder to be the boss than he imagined (or criticized).  Sometimes being the boss isn't all it's cracked up to be.
  3. There's an upside to Thievery.  Every company should be concerned about succession planning.  If you are skilled and qualified for your boss's job, you should make that known to your boss in a non-threatening way.  If something should happen to him or her, being groomed to fill in seamlessly is a plus in today's economy.
  4. You are your boss's ad agency.  The best way to "steal" your boss's job is to get him or her promoted.  Be their marketer.  Make them look so darn good to their superiors that upward mobility is a foregone conclusion.  They should be so appreciative of your efforts, you will be a shoe-in as their replacement.  And remember:  a rising tide raises all ships.
  5. You're all on the same team.  Each of my daughters plays soccer.  My older daughter's team plays well together, stealing the ball from the other team, while helping and defending each other.  My younger daughter's team is supposed to be 3-on-3.  It's actually 5-on-1, as whoever has the ball is attacked... sometimes by their own teammates... and it's chaos.  Who's team would you rather play on?
  6. Don't lose it on the dismount.  Should you succeed your boss in his or her position, just remember what (and who) it took to get there.  And there's always another upstart who wants to play "king of the hill" - so watch how you behave when you get there.
  7. And... should you have an incompetent boss who needs to be deposed... and you've tried every effort to coach them to be successful... quit enabling and protecting bad behaviors; their own incompetence will do them in.  Just don't help with the cover-up any longer unless it would endanger your company's livelihood (or other stakeholders such as customers).  If that is the case, document responsibilities so it will be clear where accountability truly lies.

Yeah, I know, not nearly as juicy-sounding as the way Fox wanted to spin it... but it does show you can play office politics AND keep your soul.  Go figure.

After Tax Deductions

Tea-party-protests Yesterday was "Tax Day" here in the United States.  And along with it came numerous "Tea Party" protests across the U.S.

Now say what you want to about the Tea Party, I sort of admire them.  Libertarians with attitude.  Statistically, they are educated and financially well off, dispelling the myth that they're a bunch of militant whackos.  Essentially, they want smaller government and less spending.  They transcend party-lines (because as we all saw during the Bush years, there was some record spending going on within the Republican party, so we can't blame all of the big spending on the Obama-Reid-Pelosi menage-a-trois).

The media likes to dismiss them as disgruntled.  They say "disgruntled" like it's a bad thing.  I personally enjoy those who are disgruntled, at least a little bit.  I tend to learn a thing or two from people who complain.  I learn what's wrong with the status quo.  I learn what doesn't work.  I learn WHO doesn't work.  I learn what's not fair and equitable.  I learn who's getting away with things they shouldn't be.  But most importantly, I learn to keep my eyes open to my surroundings at all times.  When you're a consultant, these are valuable lessons to learn early.  When the tea party has been taxed, they're pretty vocal, and you can deduce a lot of interesting conclusions from them.

Where is your cubicle tea party happening?  What can you learn from them? 

Street Cred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Downhill

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Past The Romance

Hairy_Valentine Any blogger can write a gushy post on Valentine's Day.

It takes a "real man" to write about the day after.

Seriously, folks, we can talk about loving our jobs, our projects, and our accomplishments when "love is in the air" and everyone holds hands and sings at the end of the day.

But how do we feel the love when the romance is dead and all the happy gushy feelings are on the 75% off clearance shelf?

What do you do when the love is dead in our workplace?  Well, here are a few ideas:

  • Ask why and how - what path did your work environment take to get here? Was it one toxic co-worker? Is it a bad policy? Did the project not make sense? Can you isolate the root cause(s) of the dissatisfaction?
  • How long - has the current environment always existed? If not, how long did it take to go downhill? Was it overnight (it rarely is)? Can you still reverse the trend? (If so, see the bullet point above.)
  • Control freak - do you and your colleagues have control over the culture and environment? Can you call a "come to Jesus" meeting, or is it the elephant in the room of which everyone is aware but nobody wants to discuss? If you can't fix it all, what steps are in your control? Will it take baby steps or a quantum leap?
  • Feet to the fire - ally yourself with others who want change and hold each other accountable for the behavior shifts that need to occur. Set timelines and goals. Touch base and figure out where you're slipping.
  • What have you done for me lately - there may be some who don't want you to succeed or who feel threatened. If you can demonstrate you are moving in the right direction, you can champion your own changes.
  • Keep the romance alive - workplace changes are like marriage.  If you only wait until special occasions like retreats and appraisals (or anniversaries and birthdays), you will be in trouble.  Culture is a day-to-day personal branding decision.

Start feeling the love again... at least for the next 364 days.

Embrace Your Anti-Heroes

Mistakes "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." - George Santayana

Submitted for your consideration:

  • An academically elitist high school algebra teacher who would openly berate and mock students who struggled to grasp a concept
  • A college religion professor who droned monotonously yet who, when questioned, would mark down the papers of those who did not fall lock step in line with his thinking
  • A new supervisor who took sadistic pleasure in the downfall of others, who went to great strides to make life unbearably miserable for subordinates
  • A Chief Information Officer who frequently blew up like Vesuvius at the smallest of issues, sparking direct fear from his underlings
  • A Consulting Sales Executive who exhaled negativity like it was carbon dioxide, quick to kill ideas and dreams as inconsequential, and who would sabotage consultants perceived as "threatening"

These are some of my anti-heroes.  We all know heroes.  They're the ones we look up to, the ones we embrace, the ones we admire and emulate.  But we all have anti-heroes, too.  However, we tend to run from them, avoid them, ignore them, and dismiss them.

But should we?

As I grow older, I find comfort in thinking about my anti-heroes.  They no longer hold power over me as they did when I was in direct contact with them, but their influence on my life is still very strong today.  I remember the way their actions and words made me feel.  I remember the stings and barbs and the acute pain caused by them.  And these things make me a better person, because I know how NOT to act.

In leadership, we elevate a lot of heroes.  We herald strong leadership.  We boast of result-warriors.  And we write books and case studies about bad leaders in hopes that we never meet them.  Come on, people!  We've all experienced an anti-hero (or two or three or dozens).  And if we want to be the best, then we can no longer afford to ignore the worst.

I know what I need to do to be successful in my career, in my field, and in my life.  But as I keep my eye on the prize, I also want to make sure I observe the polar opposites of success, the antithesis of what I want to become as a teacher, a consultant, a writer, and a speaker.  And my anti-heroes help me with this goal.  Eventually, their actions have caught up with many of them, and they've experienced publicly embarrassing set-backs.  A few have yet to collide with karma.  But it'll happen.  It invariablly does.  But it's not my job to make it happen.  My job is to model the positive behaviors important in my life while avoiding the behaviors of my anti-heroes.

I'm grateful to my anti-heroes.  They've shaped me in many ways.  I'm definitely a better person because of them.  Who are your anti-heroes?  Are they still controlling your life in bad ways?  Or do you control your memories of them?  What are you learning from them?

Embrace your anti-heroes... but not too tightly... you may cut off the oxygen to their brains.

Work with People Who "Get" You

Puzzle The past couple of weeks have been... well... distracting.  That much should have been obvious with the lack of original blog postings.  But most of you who read this blog know that I have been enjoying the ultimate masochism by finalizing two book projects this summer.

Race Through The Forest has been just that:  a race through the proverbial forest of the publishing world.  I've actually been working with two publishers on this project.  My original publisher, Tiberius, maintains the rights and handles all of the Amazon activity.  I made the decision to hire my current publisher, Lexicon, to reformat the book and make it look more like my other two for brand consistency.  But still, one would think the second edition and second printing of a book would be easier than the first.  Not so, my friend.

The project has come with the normal bumps and bruises, but I have to say I've been so impressed working with Catherine Staub and her team.  She has been a communication hub between me and the printer the past few days.  I always feel completely comfortable talking with her about any publishing-related issue.

I started processing why this was the case.  What makes Lexicon stand out?  (For the record, I really liked Tiberius, too, and the ONLY reason for the switch was geography.)  Even so, Des Moines is a publishing town.  We have historically held much talent in the field of creating literary tomes people want to read.  For Catherine and Lexicon, books are just one drop in a very diverse bucket of publications they produce.  They create everything from photographic layouts to corporate publications (all of the highest quality) and a lot of other things I would never guess.  The big reason for going with Lexicon time and time again is... well... they "get" me.

They understand what makes a project manager tick.  Catherine can read me like a book.  She knows when I'm in my gregarious and goofy mood, and she knows when I'm in my down-to-business mood.  She knows how to encourage and negotiate on the triple constraint of project management, and she knows when (and how) to tell me I'm not being realistic.  She knows how to tell me bad news.  She celebrates the victories along the way.  In short, she gets me.

Besides a shameless plug for my publisher (who deserves that and much more), this post is about YOU.  Do you work with people who "get" you?  Do you allow them to understand you and your needs?  Have you shared the difficult "come to Jesus" meetings with them?  In office politics, I sometimes advise people to play it safe and not reveal too much... at least in the beginning when trust levels are low.  However, there comes a point when the veil must be lifted.  Trust has to be built.  Emotional bridges are the foundation to Carpe Factum.  I know I don't work well with people I don't trust (and I've seen plenty of them in my career).  But when the trust level is present and the communication is zipping along... watch out, world!

Big thanks to both Lexicon and Tiberius for a great project completion.

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