Thursday, March 18, 2010

Unlocking The Key Principles

I've been doing a ton of writing lately and throughout the drafts I reference many different concepts which I refer to as the Key Principles. I've written about many of these at length, but I've never publicly shared my personal list. Even after this entry, I still haven't. But I'm publishing a small sample that will show up in many upcoming posts so they can be used as a reference. I'm including just a small description of each for context. Perhaps I'll find time to cross-reference them with the larger posts on each topic. (uh huh) This entry will get updated if needed to reflect the links in the upcoming posts.

This also introduces a couple of conventions I've started using in my drafts. An example is the use of [subtext]. This tag will summarize and restate the previous section, usually in axiom form or slang.

Manage Up, Drive Down
The people you are responsible for should be aware that you take responsibility for them. How their actions reflect on you should be a significant part of their decision-making. Keeping them focused on following your agenda as foremost will recursively embed this principle.

The people you are responsible to should be aware of which responsibilities you are taking on and those which you are not. Focus on understanding and following their agenda. Clearly articulate when you see conflict in their agenda and support them in resolving it (read: time, attention, information). If it fails to be resolved, be clear about the implications of not addressing that conflict.
[subtext]The things which interest my boss, fascinate me.
Praise in Public, Criticize Quietly
This only applies to personal accomplishment or growth. Performance that affects a team or behaviors that can be observed by people you wish to influence are excepted. When you are trying to influence others (for example teaching), you need to acknowledge individual performance in view of those who need to learn. See: Communicate Consequences Clearly.
[subtext] Allow people to save face and time to absorb bad news privately.
Often Wrong, Never In Doubt
Leaders who are indecisive aren't leading. If you don't have a vision, you need to get one quickly. Ask for help, solicit options and opinions, then make decisions. Once you've committed, stick to what you've decided. If it becomes evident that a wrong choice was made, own the decision and fix it promptly. But until that point, you need to act like you have the answer.
[subtext] The more confidence you have, the more confidence others will give you.
If It Isn't Written, It Isn't Real
[alternative] If you didn't measure it, you didn't do it.
[alternative] If you didn't write it down, it didn't happen.
Talking and waving hands is fun and easy, but is not a replacement for writing things down and having people review it. When it comes to setting down standards or communicating expectations, having a written record will flush out conflicts and allow individuals to preemptively check their standing so they can save face. Because writing takes work, it encourages you to focus on efficient communication. To avoid challenges to your writing, focus on quantifiable metrics and hard facts.

Trust, But Verify
We need to trust to move quickly. But blind trust is another word for an unverified assumption and it can set us up for failure. Give your resources the benefit of the doubt, but don't hesitate to ask for proof of the facts. If you ask others to trust you, give them ways to check your facts independently and without a having to ask. When it comes to successful collaborate, most of trust is perception. If you display a lack of trust in someone (say, by second-guessing) be prepared to find that the reciprocal trust is eroding as well. See: Rely on Tests, Not Opinions.
[subtext] The more trust you show towards others, the more trust others will show towards you. But don't be stupid.
Everything Temporary Becomes Permanent
Change always has a cost, and we only make temporary things to save costs today. We usually underestimate the future costs because we forget about the costs of dealing with the temporary until the future arrives. When it does arrive, we've usually sunk so much cost into it and built so much around it, that it becomes cheaper to simply leave things alone. Don't fight this, just plan that any road you go down, you will likely stay on for a while. This means don't show things to users or customers unless you are willing to ship or start supporting them as they stand.

Communicate Consequences Clearly
Always be broadcasting your expectations so that those you work with know how support you. For those who work for you, ensure the examples of consequences (positive and negative) are frequent and obvious so they will factor into their decision-making. If you reward generously, this should be well understood. Make sure the results of bad behavior are well understood. This is not always the same as explaining the outcomes from failure, because there are many times that failure is an acceptable result. See: A Process Is Not An Outcome.
[subtext] Always show the horse the carrot and the stick. Which to show first, depends on the horse.
Something Is Only As Simple As Its Explanation
[alternative] You only know that which you can teach.
[alternative] If you have to write it down, it is too complicated.
[alternative] If you can't explain it simply, you can't simply program it.
[alternative] The likelihood of failure is equivalent to the ambiguity of your expectations.
There are several versions and applications of this principle, because the concept is so foundational. When you need something done, you should be able to explain it in clear terms to the uninitiated. If you can't do that, don't expect them to understand your expectations. If you are working with someone who can't explain their expectations succinctly and clearly, you should be careful.
[subtext] Don't expect people to be successful at a task that you can't easily explain.
Rely on Numbers, Not Opinions
When possible, make decisions with objective information not subjective perceptions. Asking someone if they are making progress is different than asking what percentage of the tasks are complete today. Instead of saying the build is complete, publish the number of projects compiling/components deployed/tests passing. We all have good days and bad days, we guess with varying degrees of accuracy, but numbers are precise. The way to get numbers is by using tests and quantifiable metrics, anything else is just opinion.
[subtext] One good test is worth a hundred opinions.
A Process Is Not An Outcome
In the age of commodity, this is borderline heresy. If the desired outcome can be obtained by a rigid process, it should likely be automated. When it comes to anything requiring higher intelligence and creativity, blindly following a process is a quick way to fail. This is not to say that intelligent and creative individuals do not need boundaries, conventions, and standards; they surely do. But following a process is only managing to failure. Only the least creative and the unskilled will tolerate a process that mandates how those skills are applied. Allow individuals to find their own way by giving them clear criteria for success. They will likely surprise you and surpass those expectations.
[subtext] Choose good people, give them clear criteria to succeed, and stay out of their way.

There are quite a few more and much can be written about each of these, but that is for another time.

Comments welcome.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Getting Somewhere

A friend of mine recently got promoted to a CTO job for decent-sized technology company. As is sometimes the case with big undertakings, we sat down for a beer to bounce some ideas around. Part of why he's as good as he is at his job is because he asks for advice from those with experience.

Through the course of the evening I found myself coming back to some earlier post-mortem writing I'd done about some large corporation restructurings. We also compared the results of some big reorganizations of which we'd been on the side-lines, to their present day situations and what we could find of the road they traveled. Eerily enough, the steps the successes made weren't that different from my Creation in Chaos checklists. The paraphrased version goes something like this:

Head Down
When it comes to earning trust, the quickest way is with results. Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks. So start walking. Don't publicize your plans, don't invite dialog outside of those conversations in which you absolutely need to engage. Save your energy, kill idle speculation, and don't give room for rumors. You were chosen for the job for a reason, so start proving people right. If you don't have a vision, make crystallizing it your first priority but keep that process to yourself. Be direct and transparent with your organization, be direct and opaque with everyone else.

Assemble the Team
What you need most are the resources marshaled around you to get things done. So find out who you can count on, who has skin in the game, and who needs to go. Pick some champions, equip them well and unleash them. To do this you need to have a clearly defined inner circle. Set clear priorities, make sure they know and respect the ground rules of the new game. Give them regular and consistent chances to provide input and a forum to keep your thumb on their pulse. This will mean reducing the layers within the organization and if necessary trimming the organization. The evidence in history shows that you will have to do these reductions anyway, one way or another. So it's best to be upfront about what it takes to be in the inner circle, and eliminate those who aren't. Give them packages, help them along as best you can, but do it quickly and transparently. Your long-term success relies on this.

Find a Focus
This step needs to be done in parallel with the previous one. Success is always predicated on focus. Pick the 3 or 4 things that are already driving your (and the organizations success) and reinforce their priority. Make sure your team is in the loop to identify this list, and align the troops and the funding around these items. At the same time, pick the 4 or 5 things that are impeding your goals and find out how to bury them. Whether it is sucking time, money, or attention, the worst of this lot need to get bullets in the brain, fast. Again, get the team in on the process to identify these, but don't let them run the show. Don't get side-tracked by history, sacred cows, or personal agendas. Keep laser-focused on hard facts, raw data, and make note of anyone who isn't slicing the fat alongside you. Chances are they should be the next neck under the axe.

Lower the Bar
When it comes to planning and setting goals, keep them simple and attainable. Nothing will impede your forward progress like unrealistic goals, or worse, goals you fail to hit. Until you have your feet under you and track record behind you, under-promise and over-deliver. Give your people soft pitches that they can knock out of the park. Let everyone claim some successes so the mood can recover. Give people time to refine the basics, learn the new game and become efficient at delivery on the focus items.

Rinse and Repeat
When you have some successes, and the situation begins to improve, it is time to publicize the results. Go back to the beginning, examining the team, the focus items, and the success criteria. Raise the bar a little, add some new items to focus on, grow the team, and give your people new challenges. Remember that it is a process and each step needs solid footing so you don't fall.

While these may seem to apply only for organizations, they are the same steps we follow when constructing a life plan or any self-improvement process. I welcome your comments and success stories.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Brain Cramps - Information Overload

Over the next several posts I'm going to be reflecting on several concepts that are shaping our world, specifically how we are dealing with technological advances. The first couple, you'll recognize immediately. Once we dispense with the obvious, I'll delve into the more obtuse. Along the way, I'll provide some pointers to the various techniques I've investigated for handling the brain cramps that can occur.

The first concept is Information Overload. This phrase was made so popular by Toffler that we all think we understand what it means. At the core, this condition arises when we have too much information to easily digest or understand. While problematic, there are many techniques for dealing with an onslaught of data. The real issues arise in the follow-up problems for which this is just a precursor.

If it was just about handling a stream of consistent data, we could apply lots of ways to survive and possibly thrive. It is when the information coming at us is always changing, always new, and therefore increasing in complexity and depth that our normal coping mechanisms start to break down. For now, let's just understand some techniques for managing Information Overload.

If you want to be success and handling large volumes of information, the first step is to Be Deliberate.(If you've read any of my previous writing, you probably knew what I was going to say.)

Like any activity, you won't be nearly as efficiently successful until you have clearly defined intentions. With your goals understood and an end-result in clear sight, our natural ability to focus, prioritize and assign value kicks in and easily let the irrelevant fall away. With practice you will learn to be ruthless in determining if the incoming information flow is supporting your intentions and ejecting that which doesn't.

Once you have some sort of filter in place, you can then identify those sources where the signal-to-noise ratio is unduly high. The STN ratio is a measure of how much usefulness or relevant information is received from a source in comparison to how much useless or irrelevant information is presented by that same source. A new show that only has 1 story out of several hundreds that supports my intentions has a very low STN. Conversely, a blog that posts infrequently but routinely has excellent information relevant to my intentions, has a high STN.

So the next step is to Limit Information Sources. Prune away those sources where the STN is too low. If you can't remove it completely, find a way to consign it to less impactful or interruptive times during your day. Ideally, only review those sources during your down or idle time.

Adjusting the information by limited sources is easier when you Define Touchpoints. Set aside different areas and tools for doing work that are different from the areas and tools where you interact with others. For example, I use a separate computer for IM, personal email, and social networking then my work computer. When I'm on one device, I create different accounts and workspaces to keep things separate. Set a work schedule and stick to it. If people know when you arrive and leave work, the times of day you respond to email or IM messages and so forth, you'll have a better chance of them respecting your work times.

Lastly, Forget Useless Information Quickly. No matter what you do, the flow of information will continue and you will be presented with too much information that is vying for your attention. So learn to ask some questions of each new piece of information and if it doesn't meet your criteria, dump it. This is one of those behaviors you will have to practice to become ruthless and deliberate about, but the rewards are significant.

An interviewer once asked Albert Einstein why he didn't know his own phone number. Einstein replied "Because I don't use it." How much information are you carrying that you don't use? Much of the information we keep only has limited time value anyway. By the time we need it, the information will have changed or been outdated. So ask yourself:
  • Do I really need the information? If it doesn't support your intentions, get rid of it.
  • Is this information I can get somewhere else? If there are other ways to acquire it when needed, forget it right away.
  • Is this information time-sensitive ? If it will be obsolete before you'll be able to use it, dump it.

In the next series of posts, we'll talk about the other derivative issues that arise from the increasing speed of technological advancement. As always your comments are coveted.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dealing with Doody-heads

It's been way too long since I've had half a moment to organize my thoughts for a post.

In all fairness, I should probably be doing something besides working on this post right at this minute. But like a riot in the heart, sometimes you just need to get your thoughts out of your head. So let's begin...

We have all had to deal with crazies, sillies, and douche-bags in the workplace. My personal area of frustration right now though, is a the doody-head. That guy who is nice but slow. He's reasonably smart and probably educated, but utterly un-pragmatic and has no critical thinking skills in evidence. He insists on dragging everyone along on whatever wild tangent of drivel that currently occupies his limited field of vision. He's naïve about risks and costs, and blindly bumbles around like a cheerleader at a frat party, which is basically the role out of which he's never grown. When she drops your shiny new cell phone into the punch bowl, she just shrugs and says "Sorry" before stumbling off to puke in the bushes. Ugh, the doody-head.

So how does one handle having a doody-head in the workplace? Can you be productive? Can your team be productive in spite of their propensity to flutter after every shiny idea that floats past? Sort of.

Firstly, you need to recognize that they will not change. Just like a douche-bag is always a douche-bag, and a crazy is always a crazy. Once you are clear that you aren't going to change their spots, you can get down to figuring out how to entice, lure, seduce, and otherwise cajole them into a safe place where they can't accidently set fire to the backseat of your Mercedes.

Pay attention to their common interests and be prepared to use anecdotes and trivia to distract them from their subtle slide into irrelevance. Laugh at their jokes, and give them plenty of opportunity during the small-talk time before meetings to let them ruminate. Help them feel important by letting them spew their verbal diarrhea in out of the way forums and hallways. Give them tasks that involve spreadsheets, diagrams, process flows, and lots of writing. Make a big deal of out these special research projects. If necessary, let them present their findings during lunch meetings so as not to detract from actual work time. This has the added bonus of allowing you to look engaged as you plow through a turkey sandwich. And of course, the team will love you for the free lunch!

Lastly, you need to always have a backup plan. What happens if they notice that you aren't really listening to them anymore? If that small glimmer of awareness manages to clue them in that they aren't actually in the loop, you don't want them self-destructing and turning into a crazy. So keep an area or set of tasks that are actually relevant but are simple and already well understood. You wouldn't want a doody-head getting creative. That's a recipe for disaster.
When figuring out which types of tasks and roles work best, it helps if you can tie the tasks to external team dependencies. This way, they'll have meaningful work that should amount to following a pre-laid path. Put them in the driver seat of the train. As long as you've laid the track first and have other teams with an interest in keeping the train on the track, you should feel free to toss them a conductor hat and let them blow the whistle to their hearts content.

It's important to realize that there two things for which you never want a doody-head to be responsible. The first is planning. It's fine to let a doody-head drive a train or the backseat of a tandem bike, but not your speed-boat or even your tiny remote control helicopter you got at the mall. They will invariably face-plant into or run right over the largest, most expensive, thing it is possible to destroy.

The second to keep doody-heads away from is interfacing with other teams. It's fine to give them work that another team requires, or have them take the work another team produces. You just don't want a doody-head being the line of communication you have with that other team. Getting teams to talk effectively is a little like playing telephone even on a good day. Adding a doody-head is like putting the office gossip who's just a little bit tipsy in the middle of the chain. Everything coming through will just end up sounding dirty and not making any sense.

I hope these tips help you handle your doody-head. Try not to get any on you.