Friday, December 14, 2007

Whine Power

When it comes to persuasion and the arts of influence, your primary gift is your voice. Surely there are other techniques that sophisticated and experienced people use, but by far, it's the voice.

Not only do we communicate multiple layers of information with our words, but there is a tremendous amount of additional impact in our tones, our pitch, and our pacing. You can certainly read more about how to use tone and pacing in my other writings; in this post I want to talk about whining. Specifically how you can use the power of the whine to overcome obstacles.

The obstacles that whining is great for removing are objections. Objections are the reasons we give to justify our movement or lack of movement. They answer the question "Why could/should/would we do. . ." or "Why we can't/won't do. . ."

Objections are a natural and necessary part of any negotiation. During the persuasion process you either overcome them and achieve influence, or you don't. Whether you succeed or not, objections can provide a ton of information about the person objecting. You can find out about their needs and motivations, their discovery and planning processes, and so much more. I'll save decoding objections for another post.

Handling obstacles before you encounter them is a great way to smooth the way for your negotiation. Whining is a great way to deal with them before they ever become a problem.

If you want to be able to address objections before they are presented, you first have to forecast what the likely objections might be. There are many ways to figure these out but generally playing devil's advocate for your discussion or running a practice negotiation with a friend beforehand are great ways to discover possible objections.

Once you've predicted the obstacle, you can disarm it by using the power of the whine. As part of laying out your discussion, present the obstacle with a whiny, annoying voice. You can play it for comedic effect, use hand-gestures, and really get into it. The more whiny and annoying it is, the better. No one wants to be associated with such pitiful tonality and obnoxious behavior. So instinctively they will distance themselves from the objection.

For example, work into the discussion about price "Some people say It's Too Expensive!" and whine obnoxiously on the italics. The same can be done for other common objections like I'm Too Busy, or I've Never Done That Before.

For maximum effect, put the whiny bits into a larger sentence with a positive outtake. Such as "Sometimes people say: Doesn't That Require Specialized Knowledge, but the training in our class is open to everyone including beginners!". Having a positive outcome doesn't just push them away from the objection, it gives them something to hold onto so they work with you to convince themselves.

Next time you need to be persuasive, put the power of whining to work for you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Where's Your Elephant?

The following is a great story sent to me by a friend on the importance of not making assumptions. I have no idea of the original source...
In 1986, Mike Membre was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University.

On a hike through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air. The elephant seemed distressed, so Membre approached it very carefully.

He got down on one knee and inspected the elephant's foot and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. As carefully and as gently as he could, Membre worked the wood out with his hunting knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot.

The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments. Membre stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away. Membre never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.

Twenty years later, Membre was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenaged son. As they approached the elephant enclosure, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Membre and his son Cantri were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Membre, lifted its front foot off the ground, then put it down. The elephant did that several times then trumpeted loudly, all the while staring at the man. Remembering the encounter in 1986, Membre couldn't help wondering if this was the same elephant.

Membre summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder. The elephant trumpeted again, wrapped its trunk around one of Membre' s legs and raised him high into the air then slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.

Probably wasn't the same elephant.

Funny but poignant. I sit at my desk listening to conversations every day watching people walk up to their own elephants with nothing more than a vague hope or some wishful thinking. Sometimes I catch them in time. Most of the time I don't. It's a great show though.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Have Whip, Will Travel

In my dialog with other professionals about project performance I identified two distinct roles that seemed to emerge reliably throughout every engagement. The Manager and the Driver. The Manager usually interacts with the Client or between teams and sets direction. The Driver is usually just a higher-form of Grunt Boy who is brought in to deliver on the goals and direction established by the Manager. If your software project were a pirate ship, the Manager is the Captain and the Driver is his First Mate who whips the crew to shreds, yelling at them to "Row Harder!" and so forth.

One of my most common delivery roles is being the Bad Guy. The Driver, not the Manager. It makes me almost universally despised and loathed. Of course, since the Driver is a role that someone must play on any aggressive project, when I am willing to step up, it makes me a critical necessity without which little to nothing would get done.

In my experience the difference between the Driver and the Manager rests on a couple small factors that are easily observed. Having been in both camps at various times, I can tell you that there are pros and cons of each, and each is absolutely essential at various times and in different situations. The hard part is we often don't know we need one until we really need one. We also are typically annoyed the greatest by their respective behaviors when the role is being performed most efficiently.

  • Drivers realize that the maximum allowable time lag for a dialog is measured in seconds. Managers maximize communication lag to allow for spin and messaging.
  • Drivers demand transparency and enforce individual accountability. Managers package information for audience appropriateness, and assign credit or blame.
  • Managers review. Drivers do. I can't think of any more poignant or direct way to express this one.
  • Managers buffer personalities and styles. Drivers crash people into each other.
  • Managers plan and negotiate; schedules, costs, resources, environment, politics. Drivers push forward and either stop at or run over obstacles.
  • Managers put the work of others into context and therefore create Value. Drivers are less concerned with showing Value; the tend to be motivated more by Accomplishments (regardless of Value).

Next time you are struggling with someone in leadership around you, run through the list and figure out what role they are playing. When you see someone playing Manager, give them credit for tackling the squishy, important stuff. When you see someone playing Driver, put on a helmet before approaching.

If you want to be liked, be a Manager. Don't sign up to a Driver unless you've got skin thick enough to handle it.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Deming's 14 Points

Everywhere you look you can find ideas and checklists that help you bring transformation to your company or your life. For organizational transformation specifically, none has stood the test of time like W. Edward Demings, 14 Points.
  1. Create constancy of purpose.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy.
  3. Cease dependence on mass inspection to achieve quality.
  4. Minimize total cost, not initial price of supplies.
  5. Improve constantly the system of production and service.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Institute leadership.
  8. Drive out fear.
  9. Break down barriers between departments.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and numerical targets.
  11. Eliminate work standards (quotas) and management by objective.
  12. Remove barriers that rob workers, engineers, and managers of their right to pride of
  13. workmanship.
  14. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
  15. Put everyone in the company to work to accomplish the transformation.
-- Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming
As someone who is all too often attempting to drive transformation in various organizations, I have found my internal dialog referring to this list often enough.

As helpful as these words have been for understanding how to implement transformation in an organization, I have found his words on how to bring the individual into the process even more empowering.

The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous. It comes from understanding of the system of profound knowledge. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.

Once the individual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to. The individual, once transformed, will:
  • Set an example
  • Be a good listener, but will not compromise
  • Continually teach other people
  • Help people to pull away from their current practice and beliefs and move into the new philosophy without a feeling of guilt about the past
-- Excerpt from Chapter 4 of The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education by W. Edwards Deming
For myself, I am often challenged on my desire to keep quality high and to not compromise on language or vocabulary during discussion. I will adapt my language and alter my point of view, but always seek for consistency and correctness in speech. Often times the less deliberate find this strict discipline confining or frustrating. For me it is the cost of quality and effectiveness.

Thanks for validating me, Deming.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Consistent or Correct

One of the bloggers I follow pretty consistently changed up his writing style. In a recent post he had the following lines...
A commenter to one of my posts last months said "you have to be consistent". I reject that notion entirely. I am not consistent at all. I feel entirely comfortable being a raging capitalist in some circumstances and a raging socialist in other circumstances. I’d rather be right than consistent.
-- Fred Wilson
This was one of the best retorts I've heard in a while. In my many roles, I am often criticized for the speed at which my perspectives appear to change. The ability to be flexible and adapt to new information is one of my fundamental strengths, but my personal velocity can make others uncomfortable. This simple response laid out something I haven't quite been able to say.

Well done.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Avoid or Compensate

When you hit crunch time on a project, the stress increase has the wonderful effect of showcasing the individual contributions which aren't always apparent. Strengths and weaknesses are illuminated most when risk (and therefore stress) is highest.

You may have heard others talk about stress as a way to weed out those who can't cut it. To identify those people with weaknesses and therefore cull them. Increasing stress works both ways, you can spot both weaknesses and strengths this way. The difference between smart people and lazy people is what they do with this information.

Surely, you can remove people based on their weaknesses, but is that really the best way to get top performers. Not in my experience, and I'm not the only one. A whole slew of authors are writing about this balance between strength and weakness. For example, Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham, or Teach With Your Strengths by Rosanne Liesveld , Jo Ann Miller , and Jennifer Robison.

Historically, the path to improvement has always been through building up your weak areas, not downplaying them (or better yet, avoiding them entirely!). We give people feedback on the areas they aren't performing, ostensibly so they'll get better.

When was the last time you got a review or feedback that focused on what you did well and only glossed over how you could improve? We have been obsessed with it, and therefore churn out contributors who try and be well-rounded or generic, living in constant fear their weaknesses will be exposed. Because of this close-mindedness, they are never able to pour themselves headlong into their strengths. Like a fly buzzing around, they are constantly distracted by their weaknesses, so they never put full force into their punches.

This is most definitely not how I give feedback. If I'm going to spend energy and time to think about and communicate my analysis of someone else, it is going to be practical. We will celebrate your accomplishments and spend time talking about how you can use the things you do well to really knock peoples socks off and be smashingly successful. Then maybe if you have really pissed someone off or are offensively negligent in some area, we'll mention how you can either avoid those situations, or how to minimize the damage when they happen. There is no sense trying to make a surgical scalpel into a hammer.

For my own performance, the same rules apply. Certainly I am critical of my failures and short-comings, but only as they distract from my ability to perform with my strengths to their maximum potential. Rather then dwell on not being a white guy with shiny, gleaming, perfect teeth, bushy hair, a perfect handshake and who looks at home in a suit, I play my geeky, straight-shooter, mushroom-like role to the hilt. And then I bring a white guy with full hair, a nice tie, and a firm handshake to the meeting. He talks his white-guy talk and does the secret handshakes so I can focus on the important details necessary for us to actually deliver.

No one can do it all. Recognize what you can do really well and then avoid or compensate for the rest.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Familiarity is Fatal

At various times in my life I have participated in and tried all sorts of exercises to formulate and follow a plan for my life. From creating vision statements, to setting goals, to crafting written plans and laying out graphic plans, I've tried a host. For one reason or another they all seem to fall short.

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come. If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction. Hell is life drying up. The Hoarder, the one in us that wants to keep, to hold on, must be killed. If we are hanging onto the form now, we're not going to have the form next. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.
-- Joseph Campbell

To be sure, individually they each have their merits and advantages. Some have worked better than others, or at least I have put some to more effective use than others. And while in general they are helpful for setting a direction or kick-starting performance, they seem to fall apart in the long-term. The control each tries to establish simply cannot be maintained in the face of the chaotic pressure exerted by the comedic farce that is my life.
Familiarity is the most powerful force exerted by humans.
-- Virginia Satir
As humans we long for, we crave the familiar. Conversely we are most afraid of that which we do not know. Why are we so able to conquer the fear of the unknown in some ways and not in others? Perhaps because of the familiarity?

When I was first learning to drive, like most people I suppose, I was nervous. I made mistakes, I had issues, but I corrected them and kept going. I was able to face each new unknown thing because I saw people around me every day successfully accomplishing this feat. My familiarity with their success gave me hope and a belief that at some point I could succeed with this too. If you can skydive, so can I. At least in theory. . .
Failure is only possible if you give yourself a time limit.
-- Richard Bandler
Considering the fantastical pull of familiarity, how can we harness that to help drive us forward? Start by asking yourself how you would behave differently if you knew it was alright to fail. If you were allowed to be wrong, to make mistakes. If trying again was normal, how would it change the way you see your progress? How would it change how you plan?

Would you, like many people I know, stay in a situation that isn't meeting your goals and objectives? If you weren't so afraid of the unknown of moving on, would you move on quicker?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Good, Better, Best

One of my friends is a talented musician. He composes and performs and I've never seen him at a loss for how to coax nice notes from any instrument he's ever picked up. He is, by almost any standard, gifted. Extraordinarily, unfairly, majestically, gifted in the art of making music.

On the other hand, the only way I can carry a tune is in a bucket. Which is not for lack of trying; it is simply that I really stink. So sticking with it when I am so horrendously un-gifted is a challenge.

It used to be that I would just say, I'm not gifted. I don't have that talent. Why waste my time practicing? I'll never be that good. Since then, I've been reading.

If you read books like Satisfaction and The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance you begin to realize that the only thing standing in the way of your growth from novice to expert is dedication. If you are consistent in your deliberate pursuit of change, you will find the change you desire.

Science today tells us that almost anyone can develop expert-level abilities in almost anything (from which they aren't physically impaired). I don't think anyone is saying you can beat Lance Armstrong, that man is just genetically supposed to dominating the rest of us. At least on a bike.

But for most abilities, like being naturally gifted at music or math or languages, the big differentiator between the beginners and the best is usually only a focused, deliberate, and consistent exercise of that ability motivated by a simple desire to keep getting better.

The basic premise we can infer from the science is that if you are willing to do what is required to keep getting better, you will actually get better. The key is that doing what is required to keep getter better is usually the hardest things to do.
Superior performers use their brains to intentionally focus on individual components of a skill to gain increasing control over their performance. In this way more of their performance comes from long-term storage instead of requiring the coding of new information.
-- paraphrased, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson
When you consider that becoming good at a skill requires deliberate, methodical control over each aspect of that skill, it is no wonder so many of us are novices. We would rather spend time on the parts we can actually accomplish or understand, instead of grinding out the rough spots that are the most difficult for us.

This lines up with everything I've ever been told by other musicians: Practice, practice, practice. It also reinforces my elementary school piano teacher, and my good friend when talking about the guitar. Just learn the scales. When you can play them smoothly, fast or slow, and transition between them without faltering, then you can worry about playing songs.

It's back to fingering scales for me.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Size Does Matter

As a consultant I am often put on the spot for specific answers and decisions for very ambiguous and undefined problems. Sometimes they want the finish date for a project, or a how much it will cost to build some gigantic piece of software. Whenever you faced with taking a stand on something that is very unknown you should address it head on: "I do not know."

Many people have a problem being able to admit their ignorance. One of my mantras is often misinterpreted to mean I always have THE answer (Often Wrong, Never in Doubt). What must be realized is that I freely admit I don't have THE answer. That is not the same as not having AN answer. My answer might often be that I don't know, but you'll get it clearly and quickly when that is the case.

The goal with always having an answer is avoid paralysis and continued chaos. The goal with admitting ignorance when appropriate is to illustrate the care and attention to detail that you should have for your decision-making. It helps to be Articulate, but only if you are first Deliberate. So being deliberate about how you provide answers is critical to keeping credibility and integrity.

In addition to showing that you care for quality of your responses, you can show that you care about the input of others by asking questions to clarify what is being asked or what will make a decision acceptable. Take the time to understand what a good answer would be, how precise or concrete the details must be, what is at stake in the decision. Being able to clarify the factors that go into your answers and responses is important for being able to defend or justify your position.

This technique of acknowledging ignorance and seeking to understand doesn't just help the quality of decisions, it can actually help ensure you are making forward progress. Breaking big issues into smaller ones, dissecting tasks into dependant steps, is a great way to not get sucked into Analysis Paralysis.

Even in your personal life, if you have a challenge that seems overwhelming, start distilling it into small steps and milestones. Then you can move forward by focusing on just one step at a time.

At work on software projects we use 2 hour increments and daily milestones. Anything more is just too big to digest. By using small units of work, we stay nimble and can celebrate victories more often. Instead of assigning work that takes days, I assign work that takes hours. It takes more effort on my part, but my engineers aren't able to procrastinate. The productivity can stay very high and because I have to understand the work at a much more granular level, the outcomes are easier to predict.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Flock of Stupid

There may not be an "I" in TEAM, but there is one in PASSION.

In his book Re-imagine!, author Tom Peters said, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

James Surowiecki, is the New Yorker columnist who wrote The Wisdom of Crowds. This compelling book is about how groups of people operate compared to individuals. He sets the context by discussing how many animals and insects increase the sophistication of their behavior by acting in groups. The concept here is that sets of simple interactions following straight-forward rules can produce very complex behaviors. This theory applied to birds is known as flocking. For many insects it is called a swarm.
Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible.
-- The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
After going through the background he then illustrates how all these theories break down when you get to homo sapiens. His premise here is that we present the opposite behavior. Essentially, in contrast to the animal and insect kingdoms, the more interactions that are involved in our behaviors, the less sophisticated and less intelligent the behavior becomes.

All this is not to say that groups cannot be intelligent, it just requires that we aggregate the interactions and don't attempt to reach consolidation or consensus. To put this another way, it means that you should take the average of the individual responses or inputs, don't try and work together to formulate a single answer. He goes into great detail with lots of examples that are very interesting.

He doesn't stop there thought but extrapolates several other ideas as well. For example, if you are aggregating input then you can increase the effectiveness of the group by increasing the diversity of the group.
"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms--like market prices, or intelligent voting systems--to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think."

Leaping forward from this it becomes clear that team thinking can lead only to incremental improvements, because it will prevent revolutionary ideas, those thoughts which are by definition outside the group norm.

If you want to create a formidable team then you must acknowledge that the mission of the team is to create a supportive environment for a collection of individuals. Team members must have their own unique voices and perspectives. The team is empowered to encourage the individuals to pursue their own ideas, not to force consensus and keep everything warm and fuzzy.

The saying that "None of us is as good as all of us" is crap. My biggest reward from people I mentor is when I hear them say that not only are they as good as their group but they are actually better at specific thing X or Y. Only then will I know they have the confidence and will to head the lemmings off at the pass when they're all heading off a cliff.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Supposing We Presuppose

An experience with my children this past weekend reminded me of a technique that I've used for some time that I wanted to share with you today.

When trying to get my son to dress himself, he keep picking out things and then deciding he didn't want to wear them. To get some traction I tried something different. I chose two shirts and asked "Do you want to wear this one or that one?" He quickly pointed to one and we were on our way towards being dressed!

The technique here is called Presupposition. Essentially, it lays out a concept that must be accepted as true for a sentence to be understood. For example, if I was to say "Paulo drives fast", there a some things that must be accepted for the sentence to even make sense:
  • Paulo must exist.
  • Driving is something done by Paulo.
  • Some measure of how Paulo drives is possible.
This sounds simplistic (as is true of most truly practical things) but consider the presupposition in the sentence "Will that be cash or credit?" This sentence presupposes that you will be paying. What a great way to get the notion of paying to be accepted by a potential buyer!

What makes this powerful is linking a concept that you'd like to be accepted as true, with neutral topics or choices that presuppose the acceptance of that concept.

To demonstrate, let's start with the sentence "Using web services will save development time." Out of the gate, this is a sentence that is easy to argue about. But if we add some presuppositions it softens the blow: "You may be aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

The phrasing with the word "aware" enhances the acceptance of this sentence. You may be aware of it or you may not be aware of it, but we've already presupposed that using web services will save development time.

Another great word is "already". Let's improve our sentence even further: "You may already have started to become aware of how much development time will be saved by using web services."

Notice how adding more and more presuppositions can build the pattern of yes, yes, yes as it is understood so that the final yes can just fall right out. Building in presuppositions allows you to get to a state of acceptance quickly.

Of course, none of that matters unless you have some rapport to begin with and the content is ultimately acceptable. In cases where you are stuck arguing about the window-dressing, this will help you get to a real discussion about the cost of the house that much quicker. In cases where you don't want to discuss the house quite yet, this will help you keep the conversation about the window-dressing until you are ready to introduce the cost of the house.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Do / Not Do

It doesn't matter where I go, how long I have been there, or who I'm surrounded by. Sooner or later, the conversation begins to repeat itself. Someone starts talking about making a play, striking out in an endeavor, taking risks, making investments. Sometimes it is very simple and clear, "I want to make a bunch of money". Other times it is less so, "I'm nervous about [insert your favorite: retirement, kids college fund, taking care of parents, dying, etc.]."

In all cases, the pivotal part of the conversation is when they realize that their road is always directed more by what they will not do, then what they truly want to do. Everyone is aware on some level of the things they want in their life. Few are aware on any deliberate level of the things they do NOT in their life. The sad part is that most of their situations are directed in the larger part because of the choices they continue to make in avoiding some things, rather than the deliberate decisions they make to embrace other things. Knowing what you WILL NOT do, is much more meaningful and impactful than knowing what you WILL do. Unfortunately, getting this backward is much more common, probably because it is much easier.
Day to day
Where do you want to be?
'Cos now you're trying to pick a fight
With everyone you meet

You seem like a soldier
Who's lost his composure
You're wounded and play a waiting game
In no-man's land, no-one's to blame

See the world
Find an old fashioned girl
And when all's been said and done
It's the things that are given, not won
Are the things that you earnt

-- See The World by Gomez
Making money is easy. Figuring out which of the many ways to do that will fit your specific desires and contributions for Risk/Reward/Reputation/Rapport/Resolve.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Feedback Fouls & Faux Pas

How do you provide feedback to the people that work for you? How does your company review employees? Do you have a cyclic review period tied to compensation? Does everyone scramble around every 6 months or so to collect and deliver evaluations of each employee? If so, I feel sorry for you.

If the people you work with every day aren't providing you feedback daily, then they have no right to show up at the end with a list of could-haves and should-haves. What kind of teammates hold back any information that truly would improve your behavior? The progress you make to improve is something that doesn't happen with a summarized list once or twice a year. It is a daily grind that demands you get unflinching, constructive, and contextual feedback from your peers, your leaders, and your subordinates. Anything less is just an exercise in whining and collective finger-pointing.

The same is true for customer feedback. Customers tell you when you aren't behaving as they would like. If they don't it is because they recognize other forms of value you might bring. Or they ask you to leave. They vote with their pocketbook every day. Just because someone has rough edges doesn't mean the customer doesn't see the value in that edge. Now mind you, I'm only talking about singling out individuals here. Success as a corporation or on an engagement basis still absolutely requires that you measure their satisfaction at intervals, and definitely seek engagement feedback with post-mortems and such. Even with your peers and teammates these are good practices. The point of those exercises is to collect information corporately, meaning "as a group" or collectively. It allows the aggregate experiences, the sum of the value-exchanges, the result of the processes and approaches to be refined and improved. They can't successfully be used for isolating out individual performance if for no other reason then the ineffectiveness caused by the time-delay and lack of context. What was uncomfortable or outrageous in one context can be completely justified if the delivery priorities are met. You have to examine the parts as they relate to the whole, not independently. You can't separate the means from the ends, even if they don't always justify each other.

When it comes to personal feedback I would go so far as to say that if you have feedback to give someone and you don't provide it in a timely manner, then you are the more at fault. Consider how we excuse the behaviors of others around us all the time. There may be some aspect of the context, the value-exchange, or their behavior that balances things out. There may be something there in the moment, at the time you noticed the behavior that allowed you to see past whatever negative things you'd like to complain about. Maybe you emphasized with the situation at the time, or made allowances because you noticed other positive side-effects. As you watched the reactions, maybe you agreed with the messages or appreciated someone else's unique predicament. Or maybe you were just lazy. But if in the moment, when you noticed the behavior, it wasn't significant enough for you to speak up, then you can't bring it up later and beat them over the head with it, out of context. When you no longer have the balance of the empathy, or the clarity of the context, you can't assume you are really being objective. Was the intern rude to interrupt your meeting, or did he save you thousands of dollars by catching a costly mistake just in time? Was voicing objections to a potentially bad decision a good idea, or inflexibility? It may be that she is defending her decisions because she is self-serving, or perhaps she realizes that not speaking out now will open a door for future liability? As any good consultant will tell you, the right answers always start with "it depends".

All of this is not to say that it isn't possible to notice trends over time. Sometimes behaviors are subtle enough, or we are lazy enough, that we need to see the same patterns repeated before we notice the effect. It may have to occur several times before we have enough data points to take umbrage. This is very realistic and understandable. But still we must realize that that at some point, you did know. You became aware and cognizant that the latest data-point was the one that showed the pattern. You witnessed the latest exchange, you noted the recent behavior, you said to yourself "they're doing it again". It is at that moment, that you have a choice. Give the feedback, or store it up as ammunition to blast them with later. My suggestion is: don't be a punk.

Of course, just because I think feedback should be frequent, contextual, specific and time-sensitive doesn't mean I think you can interrupt processes, dialogs, or other exchanges just to give that feedback. I am not ignoring or dismissing the necessity of propriety and appropriateness. Sometimes you do need to set something aside so that progress can be completed, so that events can unfold, and this is fine. The trick is not to let things go. Don't let them fester and build up with time. Find (or make!) time to engage that person and encourage them with what you have noticed. If you care enough to give them feedback, if your feedback is meaningful enough that you expect it to be well received, then it needs to be delivered swiftly and surely. If it is something you can wait months to tell them about, it probably isn't worth spending the time on. If you can't be bothered to help them alter their behavior by giving them feedback right after the meeting that went so poorly, then it must not have been so earth-moving that it needs to come up again at review time. If your feedback is truly impactful, you owe that person a chance to show that they can take your feedback and apply it. If it was just anecdotal or just your opinion on things that might somehow in some subtle or subjective way make them more "successful" (whatever that means!), then you surely can tell them in a forum that won't adversely affect their salary and standing.

In my mind, your compensation should be appropriate for the value you bring the company, not fluctuating to the randomness of some subjective standard. Getting evaluation feedback that helps you improve should be an every day occurrence, not a special event. If you only get a few special events they should be encouraging and uplifting. So if you want to use an evaluation result as a reward or incentive, then direct it for that purpose specifically. Linking it with personal development improvement items sends too many mixed messages and often only reinforces the bad behaviors and laziness of managers unable or unwilling to invest in their individuals.

Does your organize only provide for evaluations at milestones that are spread far apart? If your role requires that you review others, perhaps you could try to focus on and celebrate the positives. Use the special occasion to encourage and build up, rather than tear down. There will be plenty of time to talk about how they can improve at a later time. Like tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after that.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Juice vs. The Squeeze

In my recent work-life, I've been noticing a recurring conversation. Mostly the subject of the dialogue goes by names like Motivation, Incentive, or Compensation. At the heart I find they contend with the same concepts, they just take different forms depending on the vocabulary of the participants.

How do you decide that the cost to you for expending your labor continues to be worth whatever you gain by doing so?

How do you know if the juice is worth the squeeze?

The flip-side of this equation is equally important to understand when you are in a position of leadership. Regardless of the words you use, the same exchange takes place. You might call them resources or employees, contributors or individuals, children or parents, spouses or significant others, all these are participants in the various value exchanges we participate in every day. You might call it money, freedom, pleasure, power, contribution, or simply productivity; these are all substitutes for the value in a value-exchange.

When you are trying to get productivity out of contributors (or money out an employer) it only works successfully if the value systems between the two parties have some overlap that can be shared. You can't expect an employee to work for free, you can't expect to be paid if you haven't delivered.

It seems like these value-exchanges would be simple, but in reality it's what causes all the office tension and much of strife in our personal relationships. My current perception is that this is because we tend to hide our true value-systems. We hide them from each other, from our employer, our spouses, and most noticeably from ourselves.

Think about the last time you saw someone complaining about not getting paid enough to you, but then asking the boss for more training, or more vacation time. I witness people hiding their value-systems all the time. They talk about having "interesting" work, when they really only want more responsibility. They complain about working overtime, when they really just want to choose their own working hours.

Even the simple exchanges are difficult enough but when you add the group dynamics, and the comparisons that are invariably made between different value systems, things get even more complicated. You can hardly give out raises to satisfy a person who is driven by financial incentives if most of your workforce is motivated by non-monetary benefits. You can't expect to motivate people with extras and intangible benefits if the financial incentive is non-existent.

My friend said it very well the other day:
I will behave exactly as you incent me to. -- H

If you aren't getting the response you want from your employees, or your boss, from your spouse or from your kids. Then you might examine the value-systems being exchanged. A good analytical review might really surprise you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Algebra or Calculus?

The great thing about traveling to for work is when you get to spend time in another country with people you don't normally get to spend time. The time difference, the stress of the unknown, and the lack of sleep is a powerful combination for creating some strong conversations.

One of my friends last night brought up the subject of leadership styles. Specifically, we were discussing how much help to provide people who are struggling. Do you provide them all the answers, and cover for their short-comings? Do you hold them accountable which invariably leads to some very upset and stressed individuals? Is there somewhere in the middle between direct involvement and letting them work things out for themselves?

We didn't necessary arrive at conclusions, and I don't think we were trying for any. It was more one of those casual conversations where you can see people working out what they think by talking and questioning.
To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school.
- Heretics
For my own part, I think it very much depends on what is at stake in the endeavor. If very much is to be gained or the downside of failure isn't necessarily survivable, then stepping in with more direct involvement is probably warranted. On the other hand, as a matter of course, I tend to give people plenty of room to work things out themselves. Some might even say I give people too much wiggle room.

The funny thing about leadership is how different it can be than management. In some ways, managing people is much like solving an algebra equation. The variables are fairly limited and constrained so a solution is pretty easy to work towards regardless of how complicated it might at first appear. Contrast that with leadership which to my mind is more like doing calculus. You have to solve for multiple functions simultaneously and while the simple algebraic operations come into play, they are manipulated in much higher orders.

In any case, I do consider it a privilege to discuss these topics when approached. There is still much to learn and refine.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Seeking Simplicity

Large projects are very different from small projects. Large team dynamics work on fundamentally different rules than small team dynamics. This isn't something that would be readily apparent or appreciated in its fullness unless and until you have slogged through them both.

My recent endeavors allow me great insight into the working mindset of a variety of people around me. It is a great joy for me, that even after all this time, I still am able to find refinements in my own thinking just from watching the mental meanderings of others. It is a great sadness that reverse is so infrequently true. Alas my communication skills are just inept. Hence the blog.

As I compare and contrast the endpoints we each inevitably reach as we drag our thoughts to their logical conclusion, I am reminded of the how and why I metaphorically strive to drink the Juice of Sapho during each and every conversation. If the thoughts do not acquire speed, the sheer number of available pathways looms large and grows faster causing us invariably to become overwhelmed. It is only when thoughts acquire speed that we can indeed make progress. Much like any orbital mechanics problem, if you want to go faster, you have to slow down.

I've written often of the need for simplicity and generalization as a means to efficiency. Efficiency is often used interchangeably with speed as speed is often a side-effect or result of efficiency. When I speak of generalization (which leads to simplicity, which leads to efficiency) you will often find it described in terms of elegance. And I am not the only one who strives as such:
When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
-- Richard Buckminster Fuller
While we often search for aids that allow us to go faster, such as the Juice of Sapho, we often forget that the most direct way to increase our speed, is simply to go slower.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Taking My Own Medicine

Do you ever have the same conversation repeat itself with more than one person in just a very short span of time? It recently happened to me.

We were discussing skills that one might need to be a better consultant. Please ignore for now the sweeping generalization that is "consultant". In reality, the different people I conversed with are from different walks of life, attempting to be good at very different things. I am generalizing because the conversations were so very similar in context if not content.

The gist of the context was how important being able to take in a breadth of information, efficiently identify what is important, organize your thoughts succinctly about that information, and articulate a response quickly. For almost any form of knowledge-based service, this is a crucial skill. Whether you are providing technology leadership about a specific solution, personal leadership about a career, or creative leadership as part of sales, the patterns are similar. Admittedly I only came to this after the fact, once the conversations had transpired.

In each case, we were discussing how one gets better at that process. Each of them used different language to describe their process, but each provided the same answer: practice. When we dove into what the process looked like for the purposes of identifying how one might go about practicing the fundamentals, the same pattern emerged. Again, I didn't realize they were the same during the conversations only in retrospect.

As we discussed what are the fundamentals that one should practice, again the same concept came out: writing. Writing is widely understood to be one of the best means for helping you practice organizing your thoughts. The ability to make thoughts concrete so they can moved around, weighed, and compared is only possible by writing them down. Almost every form of self-help, get-better, be-the-best scheme out there has a component of writing. But I have found that writing by itself is not enough.
For Practice to be Effective it should be:
1. Written.
2. Relevant.
3. Read.

The more feedback the better. The more public, the more feedback.
If you are going to write there are two additional factors that should be considered. The first is relevance. Why put time into something that isn't interesting to you? It needs to be something you can be passionate about or you won't stick with it. You won't really put in the energy if you don't care about the subject you write about. I have found that you can truly write about any subject that matters as long as it is relevant in your thoughts.

The second factor is that it must be read. For some people this only means that they themselves must be willing to come back after some significant time has passed and read their words. If no more than that is done I believe some benefit can be gained. In fact, I feel that only once it is read is any significant benefit to be gained from the writing.

If at all possible though, the greatest benefit is by sharing your words. Share them someone close if that is all you dare, share them with the world if you can. The feedback to be garnered is where the real learning comes in to play. If you recognize that your writing is the practice for your thoughts, then you need the feedback to know how to get better.

Before you think I am only talking about blogging or something, let me caution that there are many ways that aren't as obvious as a blog to engage in writing and get feedback. You can join a user community and participate in the forum posts, you write letters to the editor of your paper. You can read other blogs and post comments. There are dozens of opportunities to find subject matter that is relevant to you, write about it, and have it be read. Do you have email communities at your work? Read and respond! Not into public displays of writing (PDW)? Keep a journal and have your friends, advisors, therapist, read it over.

If you want to learn to think fast and articulate well, practice your writing. You can even start now, write me a comment. ;-)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Morning, Noon, and Night

Do you ever have those moments when you realize that despite everything you've been telling yourself and all the guidelines you have in place, you have completely ended up somewhere you don't want to be?

Maybe it's a situation, or relationship, or just lost in Yonkers? Somehow, against everything you've been working for, you are faced with the inexplicable. The unavoidable, the inevitable.

Recently, I found myself explaining to someone that a process works as long as perform a certain routine morning, noon, and night. Which I meant in all seriousness, and was actually received without comment. It wasn't until my brain engaged that a realized what I was talking about.

The reality of the situation dawned on me without warning. Sort of like walking on the beach at night and the police helicopter comes hovering over and puts the spot-light on you. You can't run, you can't hide, you just stand there amidst the swirling wind, blind and helpless.

Now I didn't really believe I was getting off track before this day. Like a frog slowly boiled, the water temperature increased so slowly that by the time I realized how hot things were, I was already cooked.

Why don't my normal defenses catch this? Why is my otherwise useful rationale and reason seemingly incapable of catching these subtle deviations from the norm? I need a GPS, because my needle isn't pointing north anymore.

How do you ensure that you aren't losing your way, bit by little bit?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Middle Always Costs More

I am such a hypocrite.

On the one hand, I strive for consistency and transparency in my walk. On the other hand, I flake out and take the lazy lane with remarkable alacrity.

It just seems to me that you shouldn't be able to hold up standards and faith and then so willingly succumb to numbness when you cease to strive. Sometimes all it takes is a random conversation you bring on to pass the time that leaves you muddled, unmanned, unmade.
They believe in nothing,
We believe in One Thing.
-- Fire by The Supertones
It isn't that I don't know that I should be striving, it is more than I find ways to talk myself out of it without even realizing it. My fear of being judged by some men causes me to let down others. I back down from situations where backbone is required. My callow cowardice comes to light every time I choose form over function, appearances over outcome.

At one time I would have held my ground and been thought difficult, uncouth, unkempt, or even rude. But I would have said the needful, averted the disaster, and ultimately delivered. Not today though. Now I hold my tongue and watch the ships slowly sink. Now I play the negligent Nero as the flames rise and my desire to remain polite and politick binds me to inactivity.

More and more I act like those I once proclaimed as wrong. They "Don't Get It." was common in my vocabulary. The proverbial They were always selling out success for short-term gain, and I snickered at them. Today I find myself on the brink of that same shortcoming. Fear freezing my insides, I smile instead of speak. Astride the fence, I see both pastures and realize the grass grows green on either ground. The only difference is that one you rent at exorbitant rates and other you own free and clear. Why do I even consider leaving the land of free? Perhaps I find that price too high?

You can deliver messages with care and kindness but if you cannot make the hard decisions, hold fast to accountability, and push forward one and only one agenda, you will fail. There is more to being a Leader than Management. Sometimes to deliver you will not be well-liked, this I've known from much time past. Now I am learning that being well-liked generally means you compromised if you delivered at all.

They always told me come to Middle. Find that spot between Productive and Polite and it will be Perfect. To which I now say Pppfftttpppttt. The Middle costs more. If you are going to be Polite, recognize your irrelevance. If you are going to be Productive, accept you will be outcast. It is better to be tolerated out of respect, than desired out of shallowness that disappears in stress.

No more Middle for me.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Stomping Grapes

Someone who works for me recently was charged with doing some work on a system that many people use for the project on which we were working. He came to me with concerns on how to proceed. He wasn't sure how to set expectations to the team about the work he was doing. He was struggling with how to layout his work because he was concerned with impacting others. Keep in mind, his work is absolutely crucial to the forward progress of the entire team and as such has far reaching impact. Specifically, he was proposing to create multiple versions of the system and play a shell game of moving people from system to system in an attempt to minimize their impact. The following is a much edited version of the email I responded with:


The proper way to follow an Adaptive Approach is to keep one and only one reference or definition for a thing. In this case that is your application. If that impacts other work we are doing on the system, so be it. Work fast.

One of our basic principles is that the overhead used in trying not to impact other people slows us down. This slow down costs a lot and the amount of impact avoidance gained is rarely enough to warrant the expenditure. As such, if you need to make changes, then by all means make changes. If that impacts people, so be it. Work faster.

I will give you my best advice that you have heard before and will doubtless hear again from me. Think in terms of a single build. A single process. A single copy of code. A single version. A single Application. And so on. When you think about "old" versus "new" it skews your ability to focus on the work. Instead you spend mindshare on preservation of work, or juggling conflicting requirements. Whenever I hear someone in a conversation about setting expectations start to say "What we were doing..." or "Before we did it like..." or anything that doesn't speak in the present or future tense I mentally shudder. They have just lost points with me and I make a mental note that their stock price is sinking. That is because they are effectively wasting the time of everyone in the conversation.

Like ripping a bandage off, or breaking up with someone, you need to just do it quickly and for heavens sake do it all it once!

One of the quickest ways to get into an Adaptive Approach is to forgo chronological labels like old and new. As the Highlander would say, "There can be only one." It means you impact people more often, but working in isolation is a myth of software, not reality.

You will find that software development (real software development) is a social activity. It's sort of like stomping grapes. You can try not to get any on you, but you'd be really missing the point as well as the fun. Wash your feet, wear white clothes, and embrace that the mess is going to get everywhere for a little while and your clothes will never be the same.

Enjoy the stomp, it makes better wine.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What Stops You?

We have been discussing the power of our beliefs and how they shape our reality. We introduced the technique of using classifying sentences to uncover the beliefs that impact us unobtrusively.

In this post, I'll introduce you to a follow-on technique you can use to change your beliefs once you have identified them. The process starts (as all great processes do) with asking questions. You ask these questions after the "I can't..." statements we talked about previously.

When you are uncover a belief using an "I can't..." statement, try asking the question, What would happen if you did? For example:
I can't get rich.
What would happen if you did?
I would be able to run my own business (or take time off or ???)
I can't lose weight.
What would happen if you did?
I would finally be able to find my soulmate (or get the job I want or ???)
Try this yourself and you should see that you have structured a belief about the end condition that you probably need to reconsider if you are ever going to achieve your end condition. If hidden behind your statements about your financial situation is a belief about your abilities or potential, then changing that belief is the first step towards influencing yourself to achieve that end condition. Why is this true?

Our minds control everything about us. They control our physical behaviors, but they also filter and scope reality around us to make it manageable. If in your head you are walking around with the belief that you are poor, then when your mind presents you with reality it will try and make reality and your belief match up. It doesn't want you to be a liar, right?

Generally speaking I use this question to break myself (or someone I'm working with) out of the pattern of following their limiting belief. Answering this question helps to unlock the belief pattern as internally you have to envision a path in which you achieved the positive end result. Simply put, you can't not think about a pink elephant. Internally, you have to construct the reality of a pink elephant in your mind so that you can not think about it.

When I am seeking to find why my beliefs have been formed a certain way, or how to unblock particularly well established beliefs, I sometimes find a more direct approach works well. After an "I Can't…" statement, ask the question "What stops you?" For example:
I can't lose weight.
What stops you?
It's genetic, my whole family is large. (or I have no discipline or ???)
I can't become rich. What stops you? It takes money to make money. (or I don't have the education/opportunity/time or ??)
The thing about this question is that it causes you to internally run through the strategy you've been using to limit or restrict your behavior. As G.I. Joe always said, Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. When we can face the beliefs that have been controlling our behavior they become much easier to change.

When using this question in conversation with another person, watch the nonverbal queues that will invariably harmonize the response. Generally you can gather a wealth of information from eye movements, physical gestures, changes in breath rate, alterations in skin tone and so on. All of these will give you insight into the internal process because used as well as the depth and severity of the conflict.

Of course, these types of queries are best used between participants that are already in rapport.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Changing Direction

In the previous post we discussed how our beliefs guide our behaviors just like the rudder on a ship. Now let's talk about how to uncover those beliefs and use them to change our direction. If you want the ship of your life to head somewhere specific, you have to know how to control your rudder so you can steer.

If you recall, there are two types of beliefs: positive and negative. When it comes to dragging us off course, it is our negative beliefs that tend to be more dangerous. If you want to control the direction of your behaviors, you first need to understand your negative beliefs.

Identifying your negative beliefs can be tricky, but let me walk you through a simple technique that can help you to to discover your negative beliefs.

Start with an area of your life where you are haven't been seeing the results you'd like. Then construct a sentence starting with the words "I can't..." that you believe to be true. For example:
  • I can't lose weight.
  • I can't become rich.
  • I can't find my soulmate.
  • I can't learn to speak another language.
  • I can't take the vacation I would like.
So now you have a statement that gives you a clue to your beliefs in this area. Remember, many of our beliefs we don't even realize are there, but an obvious statement like this will give us the opening we need to discover the other less obvious beliefs.

Now consider the statement you just constructed (I can't...). Construct another statement that explains how you know that your original statement is true. We often call this a Classify step. This exercises the internal process you normally use to verify beliefs or statements. For example:
I can't lose weight.
Because I've tried dieting and that doesn't work.
I can't become rich.
Because it takes money to make money.
I can't find my soulmate.
Because all the good ones are already taken.
The classifying sentences you come up with should give you a good starting place to identify the beliefs you hold that are guiding this area of your life. Once you can clearly state your beliefs, you can begin to change them. If you can change your beliefs, then like a rudder on ship, you can change the direction for your life.

As we continue through this series I'll introduce some other techniques like the one discussed in this post. As you bring together these tools and practice you will become adept and influence. First with yourself and then with others.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Where's Your Rudder?

Our beliefs about ourselves and about the world around us are like the rudder of ship. They guide us to follow certain directions to avoid others. Just like a rudder on a ship, your beliefs are very small but enormously influential. Because they are usually out of the way they are easily overlooked. Most of us don't even realize they are there.

In this discussion beliefs aren't those heavy presuppositions about God, politics, or freedom. We're focused more on the little beliefs like whether you can become wealthy, or lose weight, or whether all jobs are draining and devoid of enjoyment. Does someone have to lose for someone else to win? Do any good deeds go unpunished? Will you ever be good at languages? These are the types of (mostly) unspoken questions that we answer with our beliefs every day.

Do you know about the foundational beliefs you hold that are silently guiding your life? There is an easy way to find out what they are, and how they are guiding you. Just look at the results that have been occurring in your life over a recent period of time. Just like you can tell what a ship has been through and where a ship is heading by looking at the wake it leaves behind.

We develop and grow our beliefs in a variety of ways. We learn them some of them directly from other people. We might draw them from the experiences we have had. If we are fortunate we might learn them by observing the experiences of others.

We develop our beliefs quickly, they are plentiful, and cover the vast landscape of our lives. It is our beliefs that give us the sense of stability we require to operate everyday in a chaotic world. These feelings of security and certainty are necessary for us to predict, plan, and proceed each and every day in every situation.

Because our beliefs provide this amazing ability, we often fail to remember one of the most important aspects about any belief:
Beliefs are not Truth.
It is easy to forget that beliefs aren't reality. They are not necessarily true, and they are definitely not Truth. That is because we've just made them up. We've fabricated them from what we learn. They speak about the world, they are not the world. While they can give you a picture of the landscape, they are not the landscape.

There are two basic kinds of beliefs. There are beliefs that are positive. These empower us and give us the capability for forward direction. There are also beliefs that are negative. They limit or restrict us. Both types are valuable and necessary. But it can be interesting to discover which ones are influencing you in particular ways.

Think about the situations you have recently been faced with. Were you reacting to restrictions or limitations? Or were you pursuing something you desired?

In the next few posts in this series, I'll discuss some ways you can influence your own thinking (and by extension your own performance) simply by being aware of your beliefs and how they are motivating you.