Don’t blame the Gorilla, blame the you

I shot up from my chair so fast it skittered backwards headed for the wall of the conference room. I didn’t really notice though, I was so worked up at this point, I would probably have ignored a 7.0 earthquake. The blame game going around the table had gone on long enough and I was damn well going to put a stop to it here and now. I pointed at the projector screen and was getting ready to lay into the program team with a vengeance.

 

When the projector cut out and the room was plunged into near darkness…

 

It took a minute of pandemonium before someone got the lights turned on and attention turned to trying to get the projector back on.

 

“Did you check the bulb, maybe the bulb burned out.”

 

“I bet it over heated, it is hot in here.”

 

“Did your computer get unplugged? I do that all the time.”

 

“Are we having a power outage? No, right, we wouldn’t have lights.”

 

“Facilities can’t keep anything running around here, you really outta complain.”

 

The “help” from the rest of the program team was not doing anything of the kind. Finally I decided it was better to just call the meeting. No one was focused on the meeting anymore and without the projector we couldn’t work through the issues we were looking at.

 

As everyone filed out of the room, someone brushed the light switch plunging the room back into a gloom broken only be the light coming from the hallway. Apparently my laptop was now suffering the same malaise the projector was and its screen was black. Leaning on the table, I gave a long weary sigh. First the program drives off a cliff, quickly followed by most of the program team and now I’m being plagued by faulty equipment. What was causing all of this?

 

From deeper in the gloom of the conference room I heard a deep voice. It spoke quietly and I could just make out the words “circles” and “oneself.” I hung my head a little lower, great, just what I needed.

 

I stepped over to the doorway and flipped on the lights. “What do you want Hogarth? Can’t you tell I’m just a little busy right now to be dealing with a figment of my imagination. Unless you can solve my problems I’m not interested. You can’t tell me what cause the projector failure is, can you?”

 

My gorilla was lounging in one of the chairs nearer to the projector screen. His size umpteen big feet were propped up on the table and he gave me one of his casual Hogarth signature shrugs. “Oh, I don’t know. Have you ever thought it might be you?”

 

Looking at him as if he’d just grown a second head I said, “What on earth makes you think I’m the cause of the problem?!”

 

Hogarth pointed me at my chair, still pushed up against the wall where it had stopped after my abortive tirade. Down at the base of my chair, wrapped around one leg, was indeed the source of all the problems.

 

The power cord for the entire conference-room table. My chair had caught the cord and pulled it from the wall when I stood up.

 

“Oh, well dang…”

 

 

One Hundred Conversations With The Gorilla In Room

 

In November 2009 I had my first conversation with the “Gorilla In The Room” and began my ongoing journey to become a better program manager, leader and person. Ninety-eight conversations later I find myself looking back at my journey and asking myself what I can learn from all my conversations with Hogarth. What can I learn from how I managed my career differently, from how I helped others, from how I interacted with others, from the conferences I’ve spoken at and the people I’ve coached.

 

In June of 2011 I asked similar questions in “Wake Up and Smell The Gorilla.” Only at that time I was still focused my personal “branding.” I was trying to create solutions. “Wake Up” was my vehicle to talk about my five point value system, when I probably had no business in trying to change anyone else yet. Reading the blog again today I even see that Hogarth had already giving me the answer. I was just so absorbed in helping others, I was missing the real key.

 

“When searching for the source of a problem, start looking in ever widening concentric circles about oneself.”

Mark Horstman, Manager Tools      

 

Regular readers met Peet, my horse, back in “The Gorilla Robot.” Last year I also took up the sport of archery, an excellent sport for mental calm and mental concentration. While both my hobby of horse-back riding and my sport of archery were taken up for their enjoyment and for the positive impact they had on my stress levels, I have since learned an equally valuable lesson from these two past times.

 

What does this have to do with Mark Horstman’s quote?

 

~”I’ve never met a problem horse. I’ve met many problem owners.” Clinton Anderson, Horse Trainer

 

“Don’t blame the arrow, blame the archer.” Uncounted numbers of Archery Coaches

 

Whatever the problem you are facing, no matter who is involved, or what the mitigating factors are, you can almost be certain that some of that problem is because of you. An example…

 

Before I met my wife, I had the normal red-blooded American-male aspiration to own a motorcycle.  My wife had owned a motorcycle and was a really good rider. Not long after we met she told me I had no business riding a motorcycle, I just didn’t have the right mindset for it. Naturally I didn’t believe her for an instant. I would take the CHP Easy Rider safety course and I’d be a great motorcycle rider, there was nothing wrong with me. Clearly she was wrong. The only thing stopping me was time and money, motorcycles are expensive.

 

I’d owned my horse for about three months when I took my first solo ride. I came back from that ride and told my wife, “You’re right. I have no business riding a horse. If I can steer an intelligent animal into a tree, just think what I could do with a motorcycle?”

 

I was so bound an determined to own a motorcycle (I wanted one of those nice BMW touring bikes) that I refused to even consider if I was right for riding. I ignored that I might be the source of the problem. Taking up archery was an even greater example. There is so much that the archer can do wrong, that the few times it really is your equipment are so rare it just pays to assume it was you.

 

And even if this is the 1% of the time that you are not at all a factor in the problem, if you tackle the problem like you might be part of it, then you’re going to get a hell of a lot farther than if you are always looking for the source outside of you.

 

Assume you are the problem, be happy when you are not. If you focus on constantly making yourself better, then you will make the world around you better.

 

So as long as I’m not perfect, I’ll keep on having conversations with Hogarth. One hundred conversations down, and here’s to two hundred more conversations.

Gorilla Mail: You can have mailbox zero, and you should

I took a deep breath and plunged in. Wading through the tide I tried to stem the flow and get above the flood. I kept at it, hour after hour, in a relentless slog that seemed to have no end in sight. I tried to stay strong and see my way to the end. But I was weak, I couldn’t do it…

 

Rearing my head back I yelled into the darkness of my late-night office. “Augh!!….. I hate Email!”

 

“Then stop,” came a very unhelpful reply from across the room. My cries of anguish had awakened the sleeping Hogarth. My gorilla contemplated me sitting in the solitary glow of my computer monitor.

 

“Oh, yeah, easy for you to say. How many emails do you get a day, you’re a gorilla.” Two hours of trying to dig myself out of an email hole had not left me feeling like pleasant conversation.

 

Hogarth tisked at me. Reaching into the darkness he came back with something that I first thought was a large banana. Until he flipped back the case cover to reveal an oblong screen and a soft keyboard. “iBanana. I usually get a couple hundred emails a day.”

 

I blinked and tried to convince myself I was just dreaming. Until I realized that even in my worst nightmares I would never imagine this much email.Two days in a training class and my inbox looked like an LA rush hour on the Friday on a three-day weekend. How was I going to get through this backlog and on to my current emails?

 

“You don’t.”

 

Oh, right, my gorilla was still there, mocking my working g style. “What do you propose I do, delete it?”

 

Hogarth lumbered over to my desk, setting his banana-shaped tablet computer on the desk. Leaning into the light he said, “Deleting is certainly an option. If it is really urgent, most folks will follow up with you. You had a very good out of office message.” He probably saw my look of utter horror at these words. “If you have to go through them, then sort it all by subject and use the navigation approach.”

 

“Navigation approach,” I asked.

 

He nodded, “Yep, when you’re lost do you go back to where you started, or do you try and figure out how to get unlost from where you are now. You know, maybe by asking direction or something.”

 

Trying to ignore the ‘guys never ask for directions’ crack I said, “You figure out where you are now. It would be silly to go back to where you started.”

 

Hogarth nodded. “Bingo. So why do that with emails? Read the last one in the thread, figure it out from there.”

 

I gave a resigned shrug, his idea had some merit. It would certainly help with this massive backlog of email. “Okay, so that gets me out of the hole. Got any brilliant ideas on how to not get buried again?”

 

My gorilla gave a nod. “You’re of course familiar with Newton’s Third Law of Motion?” Hogarth asked.

 

I snorted, not seeing where this was going. “Oh course I am. ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”

 

He nodded his head, black fur shining in the desk lamp’s glow. “Close enough. Now what happens if you apply that to Parkinson’s Law?”

 

“Parkinson’s Law…” I cocked my head sideways. Desperately, I tried to see where my Gorilla’s logic was taking me. “Parkinson’s Law states ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

 

Again Hogarth nodded. “Yes, and so the opposite would be?”

 

I blinked a few times, processing his question in my mind. “That’s so crazy it just might work…”

 

 

RULE YOUR INBOX, DON’T BE RULED BY IT

 

Parkinson’s Law is the concept that how ever much time you have to complete a task, you will fill that time. So what is the reverse of Parkinson’s Law?

 

Have you ever been in a situation like this:

Tomorrow you go on vacation. You absolutely have to get this report done, or you can’t go. Normally the report takes two days to compile. You dig in and manage to get it done by the end of the day. You really wanted to go on vacation.

 

If you’ve experienced something like this, then you’ve discovered the Horstman Corollary to Parkinson’s Law.

 

“Work contracts to fit into the time we GIVE it.”

 

If you spend all day in your email, then you’ll spend all day in your email. Parkinson has won. Email is dominating your life because you let it dominate your life. So don’t spend all day, just spend 30 minutes, three times a day.

 

I’ve heard of the Mailbox Zero concept many times over the years. I’ve have  even managed to get to there a couple of times, just never for very long. I just never saw how it could be possible. Like so many I believed it was some Sisyphean myth dangled by management consultants to make themselves more money.

 

For the last several years I was usually happy if I could get under 50 emails and to do even that was a struggle. My email was still killing me. It would backlog with tons of unread messages it felt like I was spending all day in my mailbox, constantly responding to the latest fires. That’s not to say my email habits in the last several years have not improved significantly. I learned a lot of great ideas from the Manager Tools 2005 podcast, Got Email?. Ideas like auto filing distribution list emails into folders,  flagging emails I’m only CC’d on so I know they are lower importance or scheduling my follow up as tasks or appointments. This all had helped, it just wasn’t enough.

 

Since late March, 2013, I’ve left work with an empty mailbox more than 90% of the time. Not just empty at the end of the day, empty in the morning, and empty after lunch. Following the advice from Manager Tools “Email Three Times a Day podcast” (Email Three Times A Day – Part 1, Email Three Times A Day – Part 2), I stopped letting Parkinson rule my life. I schedule time to read my email, even going so far as to setting a countdown timer. Thirty Minutes in the Morning, 30 minutes in the middle of the day and 15-30 at the end of the day. It wasn’t easy to start. With focus and perseverance though I was able to power through. And all the demons I was worried about never materialized.

 

  • People don’t complain that I’m late in responding to their emails
  • I rarely get trapped in email chains that go on forever and ever
  • I don’t forget to do things because they are not in my mailbox to remind me
  • I get to all my email (sometimes I still go more than thirty minutes, but I spend way less time that I used to)

 

 

Here are some additional tricks I’ve been using. Ones I adjusted from Manager Tools or came up with to meet the my usage of email as a program manager.

 

  1. Gone in 30 Seconds : The cardinal rule of Mailbox zero is “If it takes more than 30 seconds to process, then schedule it.” I use Trello for my task lists. If an email will take more than 30 seconds to resolve, I drop a task in Trello, file the email and move on.
  2. Emergency Skim: There are still people who live and die by email, not wanting to use any other medium to communicate and who expect quick responses. Some of these folks are above me in the management food chain, so I can’t change them (You don’t manage your boss, ever). Because of these people, I check my mailbox a couple of times between my main processing windows. However the rule here is you only process any urgent emails from those key critical people. You don’t read or process any other emails, even ones from those critical people. This requires good subject lines and some common sense. It does prevent you from living in your mailbox, without becoming completely out of touch. Using your smart phone to do this “Emergency Skim” is a great way to keep from getting in to deep.
  3. Action Folders: I have two sub-folders to my main inbox. They are called “To Follow Up” and “Waiting”

“To Follow Up” is where I put an email that requires a response and it will take more than a few seconds to type the response.  I still add a task to my task list. The email goes here so I can later come back and hit reply.

 

“Waiting” is where I put any email when I need more information to be able to act. This was one of the killers for me in the past. I’d keep emails in my mailbox because I was waiting for more instructions or input. Now I file them in “Waiting” and a couple of times a week I scroll through the folder. Most of the time I have already gotten the response I was waiting for and have acted already. These emails then just get filed or deleted. If I’m still waiting for information, then it goes in one of two buckets. If it is a task I need, I ping them again. If it was something the other party asked me to do, I leave it and wait for them to follow up. Anything older than a few weeks gets filed into a normal file.

 

 

What about a massive email backlog? I just got back from vacation and I’ve got a thousand emails! I can’t get through that in 30 minutes.

 

Nope, you can’t. So don’t. Here are some things you can do.

 

  • Before going on vacation, set expectations in your Out of Office. Instead of saying “I’ll get back to you” say “Please follow up with me when I am back in the office.”
  • As soon as you get back to work, move all the email backlog into a temporary folder. Only look at email that has come in from Midnight to now. You can then process the vacation backlog without it being in your main mailbox.
  • Sort the backlog by subject. Then read the most recent email in the thread (only the final email, don’t scroll through all the responses). If you can’t follow what’s going on, contact someone in the thread you trust and ask for a synopsis
  • Hold the backlog for a month. After you’ve skimmed it for those critical nuggets and asked for a synopsis on that 100 responses thread, then just leave the backlog. After a month, if no one has followed up with you, then it probably wasn’t important. Rename the folder Vacation_Mo_YR and archive it (or just delete it).

 

 

 

Email is a tool, we don’t let the hammer decide how we’ll build a house. Don’t let email decide how you will do your job.

Gorillas are often a matter of perspective

 

“What? Another three days?” I was gripping the phone so tight I think I may have cracked the handset. I tried to rein in my rising blood pressure and listen to the what the woman at the other end of the phone was saying. I pretty much failed. With blood still pounding in my ears I said, “Look, get it to me as fast as you can” and then hung up the phone.

 

I would have started pulling out my hair, had I had enough to pull out in the first place. Days like this make me think it’s the job that is leading to my hair loss. Lacking hair to tear out, I resorted to a more vocal approach for expressing my displeasure with the situation. 

 

Taking advantage of Hogarth denuding my fichus plant, I vented my frustration at the gorilla. “I swear I’ve seen lazy before, but I’ll be pickled if I’ve ever seen someone as lazy as Sue. What does it take to get a simple revision to the document out? It’s been a bloody flipping week already and she wants another three days? Doesn’t she realize what it’s like to be in my shoes? Has she no compassion?”

 

I was on a roll now. Nothing like a good vent to get you going. I was ready to rip into techpubs and not stop until I’d flattened every proverbial tree in the imaginary forest. I opened my mouth to launch a fresh diatribe towards Hogarth and stopped before the first word began to form. Hogarth was giving me that “look.”

 

“What?!” I said.

 

My gorilla laid down the denuded fichus branch and turned to face me properly. Sitting on his haunches, folded hands across his stomach  he looked nothing so much like a hairy version of Buddha preparing to impart his wisdom.  “See first to understand, then to be understood.”

 

I raised an eyebrow, “Seriously, you’re using that line?” He was quoting Stephen Covey at me, specifically Habit 5. “It’s not like I’m on a subway car with a perfect stranger, I’ve know Sue for years. What the heck is there to understand now?”

 

Hogarth just stared at me. For an entire minute he said nothing, he just stared at me. You ever been driving a little fast on the freeway and suddenly have a police officer come up from behind. You of course take your foot off the  gas as our heart rate rises. As the police car passes you, the officer gives you that look that tells you they know you were speeding and then they drive off. After that you drive exactly the speed limit the rest of the way home. Hogarth was giving me that kind of look.

 

Finally he spoke, “Sue was in a car accident two weeks ago, she broke both her legs and is on bed rest at home. She’s been cutting back on pain medication just so she can have a clear enough head to get some work done because she feels really bad about letting the team down.”

 

I just sat there feeling like the biggest rear end of a donkey there had ever been.

 

 

JUDGING WITHOUT PERSPECTIVE IS LIKE DRIVING WITHOUT SIGHT

 

Back in 2011I reviewedthe late Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of a Highly Effective Person. One of the things I really enjoyed about his book, was the very personal stories he put into the book. These stories brought home the lessons he was imparting in a way that sterile examples just can’t give. The one that stays with me the most is his story on perspective. That someone with the vision and insight of Stephen Covey could fall into the perspective trap, and in such an embarrassingly dramatic way, just emphasizes how important keeping an open mind is. In Covey’s case he assumed the parent was a bad parent who was letting his kids run amok on the subway, when the reality is father and children had just left the hospital where they had watched their wife/mother die.

 

The old adage says you never truly understand a person until “you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Thing about these trite old sayings is they are usually founded on something.

 

  • Does your co-worker always copy their boss, your boss and anyone else vaguely related to the subject onto replies to your emails? Maybe they are not trying to get you in trouble, maybe they’ve been burned badly by a “he said, she said.” situation.
  • Has your direct started coming in late every day? Maybe he’s not lazy, perhaps his car died and he can’t afford to replace it so he’s taking the bus and is too embarrassed to say anything.
  • Does that developer insist on always doing everything herself and not sharing her work? Perhaps she got laid off from a previous job because someone else took credit for all of her work.

 

Are there lazy, shiftless, dishonest, immoral people in the world? Alas, the answer to this is very much yes. And if we always assume the worst, then we will very likely never get much  done.

 

Before we jump to conclusions, we need to ask ourselves some simple questions. Questions that are going to help us not come out looking like idiots or tyrants.

  • Is this normal behavior for them?
  • What would they gain from doing this supposedly mean thing to you?
  • Has anything changed in their lives recently?
  • Has the company re-orged, had management re-shuffle, or are projects at risk?

 

And if you think someone’s behavior is a little off, instead of assuming the worst you should instead communicate with that person. In the Hogarth story above, I didn’t ask for any information, instead I just complained. I could have asked what the delay was caused by, or even better asked if there is anything I could do.

 

At the end of the day, it really comes down to trust.

 

Will you trust your team to have the best intentions?

One Size fits all Gorilla? No more Telecommuting?

“Look, Eric, that’s just not the way we work here.” I was trying to go for my most fatherly voice with this. It was a touchy subject. “You’re an incredible engineer, you’re awesome with the rest of the team. And the mentoring you do is priceless.” I clasped my hands together and tapped the desk with them, “but at this company we just can’t have people marching to their own drummer. You need to adjust your work schedule. We have policies and procedures that apply to everyone and that means you need to be here in the office everyday, or you can’t work on the team…”

 

An hour later I leaned back in my chair with an exhausted sigh. Wow, I was wiped out. That kind of meeting never goes well. But it had to be done, policies are policies and if it’s good for the boss, it’s good for everyone. What’s that saying about “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”?

 

My office door opened just then. I looked up, half expecting to see a tearful Eric back to plead his case. Instead the light beyond the door was all but blotted out by the broad shoulders of my personal gorilla, Hogarth.


“What do you want, Hogarth?” I wasn’t going to let him get to me this time. I’d been enforcing company policy and I’d done it nicely and professionally. He couldn’t get to me this time.

 

Hogarth ambled in, swinging forward on one arm as the other reached out towards me with something.  “I just came to make a delivery,” Hogarth said. “Here’s your T-Shirt for the company picnic.”  He handed me over a folded black shirt that looked  minuscule in his hands. When I took it from his gorilla-sized hands I found the shirt didn’t look all that much larger in my hands.

 

Holding it to me I glared at my gorilla, “Hogarth, this shirt wouldn’t fit a pygmy. I don’t think my shoulders will even fit through the arm holes.”


Hogarth gave a shrug, “What can I say, Marketing ordered a ‘one size fits most’ people. Guess you’ll just have to adjust yourself to fit…”

 

Ouch, hoisted on my own words. I really have to stop doing that.

 

 

GET TO YOUR DESK BEFORE THE TARDY BELL RINGS!

 

Yahoo CEO tells remote workers to report to the office (Huffington Post)

The recent news, that Yahoo’s CEO has ended telecommuting has started up a firestorm of fresh debate and exposed the coals of long smoldering arguments on the subject.  According to the articles, all telecommuting is ending. From the customer service rep, who works full time from home, to the engineer who works from home one day a week so he can save on that hundred mile commute.

 

The reasons CEO Mayer gives should sound familiar to agilists everywhere:

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. “

 

Sounds almost like Mrs. Mayer was reading out of the Agile Manifesto when she wrote her memo.

“The most efficient and effective method of  conveying information to and within a development  team is face-to-face conversation.”

 

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

 

I’ve worked on both remote and local teams and I can’t argue with Mrs. Mayer’s general logic one bit. There is nothing that beats face to face conversation. All the best that technology can offer still only scratches the surface of replicating that face to face experience.

 

And yet I find myself agreeing with those that are up in arms about this policy.

 

1: Are we in prison? First and foremost it is a mandatory policy, no or very few exceptions will be given. This reminds me of the agile principle that sits right between the two Mrs. Mayer seems to be playing from.

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

 

Give them the tools and the trust to get the job done. Yahoo’s move isn’t giving people the tools and trust. Instead its making a mandate that covers all teams, all projects, all people, all locations. Even universities and public K-12 education have realized that some students will thrive better with virtual learning, than with face to face. You don’t motivate teams by locking them in a room and feeding them pizza. At the end of the day, the room is still locked.

 

2: Everyone must work in the office, which office? In the Yahoo memo Mayer says ” From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing…” Well let’s see here. Say I work in Customer Support and I live in Santa Monica. The head of Customer Support and the largest team are in Bangalore, in fact there are no other CS folks in Santa Monica. Does this mean I have to move to Bangalore? My job is very internally focused on Customer Support. Sure, there are advantages to being able to go to lunch with HR. At the end of the day though, I still am not seeing my team face to face.

 

We live in a global society now. With projects often having dozens if not hundreds of people involved, it is nearly impossible for everyone on the project to be co-located. Someone is always going to be working remote. What’s the difference between the remote engineer sitting in a sales office in Des Moines and a remote engineer sitting in his home office in Windsor Heights (a suburb of Des Moines)? In High Tech, it has become increasingly common for test organizations to be located in India or China. Is Yahoo going to relocate all these people to Sunnyvale so that they can be next to the engineers making the product they test?

 

3: Get the right people on the bus: I reviewed Jim Collins book, Good to Great, back in November of 2011. Mr. Collins makes a very compelling argument for getting the right people on your team, instead of getting the right skills on your team. The same concepts hold true in military special forces, where a team trains together long term and learns the skills they need for a new mission together, instead of bringing a new person in.

 

Say you find the most brilliant engineer for your project. Not only does she have all the skills you need, she fits great with your company culture and the team. You know she’d be a great asset. Only your offices are in San Francisco and New York. The engineer is in North Carolina and can’t move because she takes care of her ailing mother. Do you pass up on the engineer who gets a perfect 10 and instead hire the local engineer who gets a 6, just because he’s local?

 

 

Working co-located is great! – Don’t get me wrong. When I’ve had the luck of working with a team, all in one place, the effects are awesome. The issue here is like an army handing out size ten boots for everyone, because that’s the most common boot size needed. What happens to the guy who wears size 13, or the woman in the size 4s?

 

You do what is right for the team. You remember that your teams are not the entire company. You remember that one size never fits all.

 

Oh! – In small defense to Mrs. Mayer. For all of you remote workers who don’t want to use a webcam in your meetings?

 

Get over it. Working remote doesn’t mean you get to come to work in your pajamas. It means you have to work 200% harder to connect with your other co-workers. Video chat is here, it is real, it is now. Use it, or get your butt into the office.

 

One size won’t fit the Gorilla and it won’t fit your employees either. 

 

Hogarth and the Gorilla Talker

Always talk to the worst Gorilla first- Risk mitigation though facing it.

“THREE MONTHS!” I’m pretty sure my voice cracked in a very unmanly-like manner just then. “We have to slip the release by three months?!” Okay I had my voice under better control, now if I could just loosen the death grip on my pen before it broke. “And you’re telling me this three weeks before we were supposed to release!” I needed a new pen anyway.

Jake, meanwhile, was managing to keep his usual calm demeanor through all of this. If he’d ever had a drop of caffeine in his life, you couldn’t tell by his response. Nodding slowly he said, “Yes.”

Yes? That was the sum total of his response? If I squeezed any harder on my broken pen, they’d need to use tweezers to get the bits out of my skin. “Jake,” I said with more calmness than I felt, “I can’t go to E-Staff with just ‘yes, we’re going to slip.’ I need to tell them what went wrong.” What I didn’t say was what I was feeling, I needed something, or someone to hang the problem on.

Jake gave a shrug, “Well we knew there was a lot of risk with the new destabilizers in the matter conversion code. It ended up being a lot more integration work than we thought it would be.”

I gripped the edge of the table. Two inch oak wouldn’t break under my grip like my pen had. “Okay, so why are we not hearing about this until just now?”

Jake pointed towards the planning wall, “Because it was put last in the product backlog. We only just started working on it last week.” He turned back to look at me, “that and because when we tried to estimate it as a 54 point story, ‘everyone’ (he was being nice, he could have just have easily said the product owner and I)  objected and insisted it couldn’t be more than an 11 point story. Honestly, I’m not sure we can even ship in three months, this could be a non-starter feature.”

I loosened my grip on the table and buried my head in my hands. It was looking like I had two perfect nooses for this debacle. One for the product owner and one for… Me.

“You know…”

Oh, just great! The last thing I needed was an 800 pound gorilla showing up to give me his “pearls of wisdom.”

There was Hogarth, quietly contemplating the burn down charts on the planning wall. He was being very un-gorilla like, standing almost erect with his great hands clasped behind his back. He was facing away from me, but I could still hear his voice clearly. “I love slides. I really enjoy the feeling in your stomach as you push off and start dropping.”

Slides? What on earth?

Hogarth sighed, “Still I don’t play on them much. You know why?”

I had no idea what on earth he was talking about. I did know he was going to tell me even if I didn’t want to know.

And he went ahead and did, “The problem is you have to climb up the ladder first. I hate doing all that hard work first. I wish I could slide and then climb the ladder.”

“Hogarth! That’s utterly ridiculous. You can’t go down until you’ve gone up. It’s the hard work that allows you to have the easy ride. That’s the whole point of a slide.”

He turned to eye me, one hand pointing back to the burn down chart which showed how our velocity had shrunk consistently for the entire release. “So nothing like your software development practices?”

I sighed and nodded. Sometimes his questions just showed how much he just a gorilla lost in a jungle of silicon. “Yes, Hogarth, nothing like our software development practices at all.”

He nodded, “Yeah that’s what I thought.”

Finally, I’d gotten one over on him. Of course our software process was nothing like climbing the ladder first so we could coast to the bottom.

Wait a minute…. Damn it! He did it again!

 

DO THE WORST THING FIRST

Clean the garage or sort my sock drawer, put away clothes and vacuum the bedroom? Given the choices I’m probably not going to start with the garage. So when I’m done, I’ll have gotten three fairly small things done, and I’ll be no closer to getting the elephant in the house clean (If you can park a car in your garage, I envy you. I can’t park a Hot Wheels in my garage it’s so full). So at the end of the day, the biggest issues I’m facing is still there and I’m too tired on the little stuff to work on it.

We do the same thing all too often when developing new products (any kind, software, hardware, toys, financial instruments, etc.). And all too often we end up with a looming specter at the end of the project. One that often turns out to be bigger and nastier than we realized. That or maybe we’re just too tired from all the other stuff to face something so big.

We do this so often it has become normal for us to accept this behavior. Reportedly, the US Navy air program has projects that take years to complete. Project Management is done by a senior officer and their tour of duty is three years, which is shorter than the whole project. There is a marked tendency for first project manager to push hard stuff down the line so that when their tour is up the easy stuff is done and they look great. The next Captain is then faced with all the really challenging stuff. The second tour of a project has come to be referred to as the “Dead Man’s Tour,” because the second guy looks like a failure.

Extreme Programming tackles this head on. They have a concept called “Do the worst things first.” The concept is to get the toughest issues out of the way before moving on to the really easy stuff. I know, I know, you’re saying “hey that’s not very agile. I thought we were supposed to focus on early wins.” Yes, that’s true and when you first start a project communication is usually your worst problem. So you do an easy sprint or two to make sure everyone is working together well. The early wins make the team ready to tackle the worst technical issue with the project.

And what about the risk of the worst things? As we see in Hogarth’s introduction, Jake talks about not being sure it will even work. Might not even work?

“Holy broken faucets, Batman, what a waste of resources if the whole project fails now.”

That’s right. If we put off the really hard stuff, and then the really hard stuff kills your project, not only is the project dead, you’ve also wasted a lot of time, resources and people on a project that didn’t fly. If you’d done some early prototypes and tackled that big hairy audacious goal first, then you would have known if you should even keep going or not.

Fail early, get better, don’t waste time and resources.

So what risks are you putting off in hopes they will go away? Next time you’re at the zoo, ask the ostrich how well putting his head in the sand works for him.

A Good Gorilla is Good Enough

“Come on!” I shouted, “just two pixels to the left, you can do it!” Alas, despite my exhortation, the picture refused to move the requested two pixels, instead moving a mind staggering four pixels.

 

Throwing up my hands I leaned back in my chair to contemplate the darkness of my office. It was long since past sunset and I was still trying to get this report perfect. Sure, it was a good, but I knew I could make it even better.

 

“Why?”

 

Was that the sweet smell of banana wafting into my office? Why yes it was. My hirsute conscience must have arrived. “Hogarth, unless you’re a PowerPoint expert, go away.”

 

Hogarth shuffled into the room, making his way to his usual place between my fichus and bamboo plants (mental note, need to buy a new bamboo plant). Making himself comfortable he said, “Well I am a PowerPoint expert. That’s not why I’m here though.”

 

Oh, naturally. Once again he had the answers, only I was going to have to figure it all out on my own.

 

My Gorilla grinned around a mouthful of bamboo. “Well if I just told it all, what would be the fun in that?”

 

I sighed, it was never easy. “Hogarth, I’m tired. This report isn’t done yet and I’m about ready to damn PowerPoint to the nine hells of bad products like New Coke.”

 

Cocking his head to the side, Hogarth said, “Why?”

 

“Why?” I asked incredulously. “Because it’s an imperfect piece of garbage software than won’t let you do what you want to do, only what it thinks you should want to do.”

 

Hogarth shook his head, “No, why is the report not done? Don’t you have all the data? Don’t you have sign offs from everyone? Isn’t the project going amazingly well?”

 

I waved my hand at him, “sure, sure, but it’s not perfect. I want to make sure it’s the best it can be.”

 

“Down to the last pixel?” Hogarth asked.

 

“It looks better,” I defended. 

 

Nodding in his sage like manner, Hogarth asked. “Do you remember what your theater teach told you in college?”

 

“Don’t quit your day job?” I said flippantly

 

Hogarth gave a nod. “Well that was true. I was more thinking about what she said about making mistakes on stage.”

 

“You mean how if you mess up on stage, just keep going?”

 

Hogarth grinned, “Yeah that’s the one. And I believe she then said ‘because nine times out of ten, no one will notice your mistake.”

 

Ouch, so was 90% good enough?

 

 

WHEN IS PERFECTION TOO MUCH?

I was inspired to write this by Lucy Kellaway’s piece in the November 5th edition of BBC Business Daily. She has a much better and far more humorous take on all this that I can only agree with and try to promote in my own small, Hogarth-like, way.

 

 

One of the things that fascinates me about agile, is the findings on just how much software code actually gets used by customer in the field. The numbers vary a bit, though generally it is between 60% and 70% of all code written is next exercised by the customer. Just ask yourself, how often have you used the “Find by Author” feature in MS Word?

 

So why is it even there?

 

If you can build a product that does 80% of the product features, in three months and 90% of them in twelve months, the math starts to come into question.

 

It’s not just software. For goodness sakes, it’s baked into the US educational system. If you get 70% of the questions right on a test, you pass with a C. The difference between an A and an A+ is five percent. How much does that five percent really matter in the real world? How much extra effort did  it take to get from A to A+?

 

Now I’m certainly not espousing we became complacent and stop trying. However I think we need to take a long look at the laws of diminishing return. If perfection is truly what we should always strive for, then why don’t we put all our resources on a single project? Sure, after the tenth person on the project, we are seeing only a 1% gain in the project for each person. Still, isn’t perfection more important?

 

Show me a project that is resourced to 100% efficiency and I’ll show you government bloat.

 

The point is we have to find that line between good enough to not be noticed and the insane perfection you really only need to see in the tolerances of scientific equipment.

 

Let’s go back to that line from theater teachers. Yes, I’ve had this said to me many times and I’ve had it happen to me countless times . However, I’m just a guy with an imaginary gorilla. Let’s take a look at the professionals.

 

Buzzfeed.com did a list of the thirty best known movie scenes that were improvised.

 

So test yourself, did you know it was an on the spot improve or did you think it was part of the script?

 

Jack Nicholson in The Shining: “Here’s Johnny!”

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “Here’s looking at you kid.”

Roy Scheider in Jaws: “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark: When he pulls out the gun and shoots the swordsman.

 

Granted these are not examples of someone not being perfect. Instead they are adding something that wasn’t in the original plan (ooh, agile). The thing is there was a director and a script reader and a whole crew who’s job is to make sure the movie goes according to the script. To have it done “perfect” they should have reshot the scene. Only they didn’t. The scene worked “good enough” with the improve and might be argued ended up being even better. The main point is to show that when you aren’t looking for something, you often don’t notice its out of place.

 

So, my point?

 

If you’ve got something to 90%, don’t kill yourself to get it to 99%. If 90% is good enough, be happy and move on.

 

 

 

The Gorilla Salutes Teamwork, An Agile Value

“You did what?” I could feel my blood pressure rising as fast as a thermometer dropped into the sun. I was hoping I had just misunderstood what Jake had said. They hadn’t really changed the release plan, had they?

 

Jake nodded at me, “We were completely blocked on the database layer performance enhancements so we shifted that out to the next release and focused on the new user friendly interface.”

 

I shook my head, okay, they really had. “Jake, Jake, Jake, we can’t just go and change the release plans on the fly like that. We have procedures for this.”

 

Jake gave a shrug, “Well we could have kept pounding our head against the database and gotten nothing done this month, or we could put it aside and get work done. You were out and the VP was to busy to “play sponsor.”

 

I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Jake, changing the release plan requires a change order. That’s got to go to the oversight committee before we can even start evaluating the request.” I waved at room, filled with a buzz of developers hunched, in pairs, over computers.  “This just flies in the face of procedure.”

 

Jake gave another shrug, he just wasn’t getting this was he? “Not sure why it matters anyway. These are all internal releases. Everything will still be done before we ship to the customer. All we did was move some internal work around so we could get around a roadblock. Figured you’d be happy, it means your precious schedule isn’t impacted.”

 

I waved dismissively. “That’s great, but we still have procedures.” I pulled out my tablet ‘puter and brought up the product lifecycle document. “See, here’s the change control process loop…”

 

An hour later I strolled into my office. It took a little bit, but Jake was all sorted out. I wouldn’t have to worry about development changing the plan again. They wouldn’t so much as change the order of two bug fixes now without going through the right procedures.

 

“So how’d it go?”

 

I sighed. Maybe if I got rid of all my plants Hogarth would stop hanging out in my office.

 

“Then I would just have to BYOP and that would make me an angry gorilla,” Hogarth said.

 

Propped in the corner of my office I eyed him as I made my way to my desk. My gorilla was gently nibbling on a leaf from my bamboo plant. I’m not even sure why I had a bamboo plant, it wasn’t all that pretty and Hogarth seemed to like eating them even more than my fichus. Come to think of it, wasn’t it his idea to get it?

 

Dropping into my seat I shoved  those thoughts from my mind. I’d just had a big win and nothing was going to dampen my mood. “It went great. I sorted it all out and the developers won’t be changing the order of the release again anytime soon.”

 

Hogarth gave a snort, “Oh, good. We wouldn’t want them to be productive or anything now would we?”

 

I looked over at him. “Look, we have processes and procedures to follow. Decisions need to be made at the right level or there will be chaos.” Hogarth didn’t seem to be convinced, though how one can tell with a gorilla I’m not sure. He just kept nibbling at the bamboo leaf while keeping one eye on me. I sighed, “Look, you wouldn’t let a corporal decide if his squad storms a building would you? That’s what general s are for.”

 

“Oorah!” Hogarth’s voice reverberated off the windows behind me.

 

Somehow I just knew I’d been led down the primrose path and then bludgeoned with it..

 

 

CORPS VALUES- Can we learn agile values from the Marine Corps?

 

I recently sat down with a fellow project manager to talk to him about his next steps in his career. We were talking about agile and its impact. He’d first learned about it while taking a PMI PMP class, when the instructor briefly talked about the team focused values of agile projects and how. I still remember the look on my colleagues face. He started to speak “When I heard about the focus on teams I was like..” He paused for a moment, as if he were self editing, before he continued, “right on, they get it. When I was in the military, that’s exactly what they trained us to think. There is no “I”, there is only “we.”

 

At that point I knew exactly what my colleague had probably self edited out.

 

“Oorah!” the quintessential Marine Corps slogan. Whether shouted in agreement or in raw enthusiasm, it has become synonymous with a military force known for rapid response, quick reactions to the changing battlefields and ability to “think on their feet.”

 

You know, just like an agile team? It made perfect sense to me that he had instantly identified with agile. Despite having served in a hierarchical military structure, I knew his experiences as a marine positioned him to see the true value in the values and principles of agile .

 

How did I make that jump?

 

Last year another colleague, Bernie Maloney, turned me on to a great article at Inc.com called “Corps Values.” This article was writing in 1998, three years before the Snowbird gathering gave us the Agile Manifesto. Not only is  this another example that agile is just a new term for long standing values, it also shows us that one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, a military army, can operate on concepts that empower soldiers from private to general to make decisions.

 

The Marines hold two beliefs at their the core (no pun intended):

 

“1. War is chaos, confusion, and the unexpected.

2. Because of that difficult fact, the only way to succeed as an organization is to push the ability and authority for decision making down to the marines who are on the spot.”

 

What this means is if the Corporal needs to decide if this building needs to be stormed and he can’t reach anyone above him, then he’s empowered to make the decision. He’s not only empowered, he’s trusted.

 

Empowerment isn’t just in the trenches, when the bullets are flying. It also happens in the planning stages. In the article a Marine Colonel comes in on a group planning a mission. His first question is why there are so many people in the room. “The marines tend to inversely correlate the number of people on a task with the likelihood of the task’s successful completion.” And the planning session is three hours long. No matter the mission, it’s three hours to plan, three hours to prepare. If you over plan, you don’t end up getting better, you just over plan.

 

Another agile concept is that Marine Corps planning focuses on the “End State,” and fully recognizes they probably don’t have a perfect solution. Marines look for the “70% solution, by which they mean an imperfect decision whose saving grace is that it can be made right now.” Sounds a lot like the advice of many agilists, “just start.” You can refine as you go, you have to start going though to ever know if you are getting there.

 

Generic Leaders:

Beyond the similarities to agile values and principles, there was something else that really called to me when I read this article. When training officers (managers) the Marines have a program that is designed to promote “chaos-proof leadership.” The way they do this is not by specialized training. The Marine Corps instead “unabashedly favors breeding generic, high-speed, chaos-proof leadership over imparting specific skills. “Experts and specialists are a dime a dozen,” sniffs Lee, dismissing in one fell swoop a century of business-management theory. “What the world needs is someone who can grasp the workings of an entire organization, understand people, and motivate them.”

 

Regular gorilla readers know that I passionately believe that management (people and project) should focus on the team, not the technical skills. Managers need enough “subject matter” knowledge to interact with and help the team. If the manager is the world’s leading expert in database performance, then he’s not going to have the skills to help his team. There is a common insult,  “Those that do, do. Those that can’t, teach.” I don’t see it as an insult. I see it as the people who “do” are not leaders. If you can’t teach, coach, motivate then you are not going to be a good leader.

 

I spend a lot of word count giving advice. I know it can be hard taking advice from a man who talks to an imaginary gorilla. So why not try taking some advice from one of the most successful military forces in the world? Go and read “Corps Values,” hear it from some real experts. 

 

 

Saving the world, One Gorilla Project Manager at a Time

I leaned back with a heavy sigh. “What on earth ever possessed me to choose a career in project management?” I asked the blank ceiling.

 

Lacking a response from the blank ceiling I looked back down at my computer screen. Sigh, another day, another status report. I was starting to wonder if it was all worth it. Sure it was a paycheck. But so was digging ditches and at the end of the day digging at least you can see what you’ve accomplished. I felt more Sisyphus endlessly creating status reports, only to have to start all over next week. Which brought me back to the same question I had just asked the ceiling.

 

What on earth ever possessed me to choose be a project?

 

A deep voice spoke from the darkness of my after hours office. “Oh, that’s simple. Because you wanted to change the world.”

 

Save the world? I looked into the depth of the darkness and said, “What, are, you, smoking, Hogarth?”

 

I watched my gorilla materialize from the darkness of the corner, half eaten fichus branch in hand .  “Well I’ve heard dried banana leaves make a good kindling. Not sure what that has to do with saving world.” He waved the fichus branch at my computer. “You’re doing this job because ditch diggers don’t tend to change the world by themselves.”

 

I threw up my hands. “Hogarth, I’m just a cog in the machine. At the very best I’m the project glue, but that’s only because I’ve been crushed in the machinery of process and gummed up the works.”

 

Hogarth nodded his massive head, “Glue you say? So you’re saying you hold the project together?”

 

I gave a shrug, “I suppose so. Feel more like a border collie most of the time as I chase everyone down for status.”

 

Hogarth cocked his head to the side. “You know what else is a lot like glue?”

 

I shook my head and turned back to my computer screen. I wasn’t really interested in playing his games.

 

“A nail,” he said causing me to snort.

 

I looked back at him, “You know what they say about the nail? The nail that sticks out gets pounded down.”

 

Hogarth nodded sagely, “True. They also say, ‘For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.”

 

Uhh…. Had Hogarth just hit the proverbial nail on the head?

 

 

A SIMPLE BELIEF

I don’t have some eye opening revelation for you. I don’t have any statistics to point at. And I’m sorry to say set super powers to suggest. This isn’t a call to specific “go do this” action.

 

This is a call to action.

 

I believe that Project Management can change the world. I believe it can make it a better world.

 

Now this does bring up the whole “project management” title issue again, that I’ve talked about in a past blog. In that the title project manager really doesn’t fit what we who hold that title do. Whether we are “Project Leaders” as Kimberly Wiefling espouses or my own “Catalyst Leader” idea, we are no longer well defined by our 20th century title. So to prevent confusion and rat holes, I’ll stick with calling us Project Managers for this blog.

 

Project Managers have become an integral part of business. Across the business lines and across industries we are in every corner of the business world. Like the grizzled sergeant major of war movie trope, we have seen it all. When the new kid (Product Manager, Engineering Manager, CEO) comes in, we see them stumble there way through like so many have before. When they reach out to us for help, we can easily step up and let them know where the coffee, staplers, process documents and even mine fields are. We are the common denominator that pervades our companies and within us lies not only the institutional  knowledge of our firms, also within us lies the wisdom and moral compass of our firms.

 

Our role as project shepherd coupled with our relationships within and without the organization, gives us a great amount of influence over others. And as the famed statesman, Winston Churchill, said “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

 

We not only can change the world, it is our responsibility to.

 

It isn’t even that hard for us to effect change. Just the act of being the best and most ethical business professional we can be, can create change. As a key figure on project teams, our visibility within companies is great. If we do our best, we are doing our best in front of a large cross-section of the company. Our example becomes there example and they in turn will influence the rest. We become the butterfly whose wings create a hurricane a half a world away.

 

We have a responsibility to help our teams, our projects, our companies be better.

 

We have the power and ability to do that.

 

We have the power to make a better world.

 

We have a responsibility to make a better world.

 

Sure, we may do it one team member or one project at a time. And that’s okay. If the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step, then the journey to a better world can start with the first project manager who believes we can change the world.

 

I believe.

 

 

Talk to the Gorilla, Not At it

“What is this crap!?!”

Not the first things you want to hear from the CEO’s mouth when summoned in to give a report on your project.

“I’m not sure I understan…” I started to say.

“That makes two of us. What the hell is going on with the Icarus project?” He interrupted. “Is the project on track or not? Yes or no.”

“Well, it’s complicated…” I started. A voice in my head was screaming that this was the exact wrong way to answer his question. Only problem is I could barely hear it over the roar coming from the other side of the desk.

“I asked a simple question!” He yelled. “I want to know if the project is in trouble or not. I don’t need a philibuster speech.”

I took a mental cleansing breath. I’d dealt with angry stakeholders plenty of times. I had all the data and I had all the answers, so I wasn’t worried. All I needed to do was carefully walk him through this and I was sure he’d calm down and we’d be fine.

I sat down in the visitors chair and leaned forward. Hands clasped together I used my best teacher voice, “If you look at slide twelve of the status deck, we have a comprehensive project status dashboard. But really it’s better if we start on slide one and walk through the whole report.”

“Slides?” I’m pretty sure eyes are not supposed to bulge out of your head as much as the CEO’s were right now. “What slides?”

I nodded and pointed towards his computer screen. “The ones I attached to the status email. Email really isn’t the best medium to go into the status. I did type up a one page summary of course, but in the last paragraph of the email status I reference the slide attachment as has having the complete status.” I turned back to look at the CEO, to see if he was following along. If he didn’t open the slides this was going to a lot longer.

Seriously, I’m pretty sure eyes are not supposed to do that.

He took a deep breath, but I don’t think it did much for his blood pressure. “Listen, I want a clear answer on if we are in trouble. I don’t want some seventeen page…”

“Thirty-eight,” I corrected. Then I winced as I realized I’d interrupted him.

Amazingly he seemed nonplused by the interruption and continued on, “..Thirty-eight page slide deck to find out the status. You go back to your desk and you figure out if the project is in trouble. Then you send me an email that starts with the project color and if its not green give me no more than two sentences about what we are doing about it.”

And then he was getting up and walking out of his office. “By 3:00pm, no later.”

I sat there in stunned disbelief. He hadn’t even looked at my beautiful slides. If he’d just read the slide deck he’d know what we were doing about the problem. He’d also have a complete analysis of what was wrong, why it was wrong and what we’d done to analyze the problem.

The visitor’s chair next to me gave a groan of protest, heralding the arrival of my personal gorilla. This was all too much. Now he was going to say something pithy and then walk me down the path of everything I had done wrong. I sighed and bowed to the inevitable waiting for his pithy comment.

“So, how was you’re weekend?” he said. I heard the chair give another protest quickly followed by the unmistakable sent of a banana. Then, speaking around a mouthful of banana, Hogarth continued, “I went with Wanda to a black swan convention up in Sacramento. It’s a lot like a black hat convention, only…”

“HOGARTH!” I turned to look at the hulking form of my gorilla. He had paused mid-bite, the banana poised just in front of his open mouth. “Can’t you see I’m having a major problem here. The CEO’s about ready to shoot me out of a cannon and you’re talking about what you did this weekend. Really?”

Hogarth lowered the banana, nodding his head. “Oh, sorry. So you’re saying I’m not speaking in the way you want to listen?”

Wow, this was almost making me feel good. Here I was, getting to be in the position of correcting Hogarth. “Precisely! You’ve got to take account for your audiences moods. You’ve got to give them what they want.” Hogarth nodded, his face a little crestfallen. Had I maybe gone to far? Did I need to be so pompous in correcting him?

“So, a little like being in Paris and asking for directions to the bathroom in English?” He said.

I felt my eyes doing the same thing the CEO’s had. “What?! Hogarth, what on earth are you going on about?”

Hogarth waved his banana at me, “you know. You ask for the bathroom in English. The Parisian doesn’t understand so you ask again, louder and slower, but still in English.”

I just started at Hogarth, not having a clue where he was going with this and not really having the time to deal with this.

Hogarth seemed to sense my confusion. “Let me be a little more direct. When you talk PMI Geek to the CEO, all he hears is ‘wha wha wha wha,’. You need to talk in CEO Short Hand not PMI Geek Long.

I scratched my head. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

He stared at me and spoke very slowly. “When in Rome speak as the Romans do.”

Oh…

COMMUNICATION IS WHAT THE LISTENER DOES

If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does anyone hear it? Philosopher’s have asked this question for millennia. Modern science has proven the answer is no. There are sound waves, there is no sound unless there is someone there to perceive it.

And now, if you will allow, I am going to directly quote Peter Drucker. Specifically Chapter 38 of his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

Sound is created by perception. Sound is communication.

This may seem trite; after all, the mystics of old already knew this, for they too always answered that there is no sound unless someone can hear it. Yet the implications of this rather trite statement are great indeed.

First, it means that it is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise. The communicator speaks or writes or sings — but he does not communicate. Indeed, he cannot communicate. He can only make it possible, or impossible, for a recipient — or rather, “percipient” — to perceive

Mark Hortsman, of Manager Tools, is a big believer if Peter Drucker’s work. I think he best encapsulates all of Chapter 38 in the single sentence, “Communication is what the listener does.”

In other words, if we don’t speak in the language of the listener, they won’t understand us. And it’s going to be our fault. Just like the American yelling for the bathroom in France, if we can’t communicate in the way our audience (stakeholders, team, manager) understand, we are the rude American on the Champ Élysées.

Okay, great advice. What now?

The DISC Profile system.

DISC is about understanding how people communicate. It’s about what behaviors they will fall back on by default. Do they prefer short and simple answers or are they the kind of people who want to get seven layers into the architecture diagrams? How about whether they prefer starting conversations with a nice preamble or the last thing want to hear about is what your cat did this weekend, ever?

Knowing how the people you talk to want to listen is incredibly important. To put my own spin on Drucker’s words, “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” That’s what DISC helps you do. It helps you to understand how people naturally perceive. Understanding that you’re engineering stakeholder is really a to the point High D is going to save you from trying to explain things to him in a thirty slide deck, when all he wants is the bottom line.

Now while it is “all about them,” interestingly enough your first job, with good communication, is to know you. If you know what your defaults are, you are going to be able to tailor your communication to fit the listener. If you prefer detailed analysis before you do anything and your boss is the next Donald Trump, you need to adjust your communication style when you talk to him.

DISC- The BASICS

DISC is broken down along two axis. The vertical axis looks at you based on how assertive or reserved you are. From the soldier who is not afraid to storm that next hill \to the retiring door mouse afraid to speak to his neighbor of twenty years.

The horizontal axis focuses on how you look at tasks vs. people interactions. Would you rather groom your Gantt chart or take the team to lunch?

This gives four basic profiles:

The High I is Mr. Influence. They achieve success by persuading others to work with them towards the same goal. As interested if not more interested in what they did this weekend as they are in the next milestone. “Ready! Say, did I mention I went sailing this weekend? Aim, It was a blast.” If you find yourself cheerfully doing your coworkers work, you may have just been recruited by a High I. Bill Clinton, Willard Scott, Tom Sawyer.

The High C, or Conscientious, works within the rules and procedures to ensure success. A High C can never have to much data. “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim. Oh wait, more data. Okay, ready, aim, aim, aim.”  This is the person who won’t let emotion get in the way, that would be illogical. Joe Friday, Bill Gates, Mr. Spock.

The High S is for Steadiness. They work with others as part of the team to achieve success. “Okay is everyone pointing their guns in the same direction? Are we all ready? Bob, do you need more ammo? Frank, that’s not a nice thing to say about the enemy.” If you catch your co-worker humming “won’t you be my neighbor”, then you may be in the presence of a High S. Mother Teresa, John Denver, Mr. Rogers.

Those who are High D, or Dominance, achieve success by taking decisive actions towards their goal. These are the ultimate results oriented drivers. They are “Ready, Fire, to hell with aiming that takes to long” types. If you are following a leader and not sure if you are inspired or terrified, they might be a High D. General George Patton, Margaret Thatcher, Darth Vader.

So before you head into your next meeting. Figure out what language your team is using. You don’t want to be Darth Vader to a room full of Mr. Rogers.

The Gorilla doesn’t take credit

The CEO beamed at me with a delighted smile. “Excellent work, excellent work. You did a bang up job on this, you can count on your bonus being nice and fat this year.”

I glowed with overwhelming pride. The CEO liked my work, he really liked it. Hard work and perseverance paid off!

“In fact,” the CEO continued, “I think you’re just the man to make the Gutenberg project happen. It’s been in trouble and I want you to make it happen.”

I blinked. Then I blinked some more. Gutenberg was THE project. It was the single most important thing the company was doing. Everyone had wanted to be on Gutenberg when it started. That was when it started. It was now twelve months behind schedule, the development team working on it was in shambles, the communication between groups was abysmal and the last project manager had taken a leave of absence, supposedly to recover from a heart attack brought on by stress.

“Um, sir, I’m not sure I’m the right…”

“Nonsense! ” he said. And then he was standing and I knew my audience was over. “You single handedly brought the Firestorm project together. I’ve got complete confidence in you.” With that I was ushered out of his office and carried on a tide of “great job” and a firm pat on the back all the way to the elevators.

 As the elevator doors closed on me, I let me head fall forward. Leaning head against the doors my heart competed with the elevator for a race to the third floor. “I’m so doomed…”

 “Ayup,” came a deep voiced reply from behind me.

 Just great. Didn’t these elevators have a weight limit or something ? Maybe we could hang “no gorilla” signs.

 “Weight limit is about 2500 pounds, so stop worrying your going to plunge to your death. You’re not getting off the hook that easy.”

 I turned around, slumping heavily against the doors. “Fine,” I said. “Go ahead, tell me  what a complete idiot I am.” I hung my head and waited for the piercing words of wisdom. The words that would underline just how stupid I had been. The Firestorm project had been a success because the team was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of engineers and everyone else involved had pulled together. We’d faced serious challenges, but we’d faced them together and tackled everything that got in our way.

 And I’d gotten all the glory and credit…

 Not because I’d moved mountains, or conquered the nasty integration issues. No, I got the credit because like the old adage “The victor writes the history,” I controlled the status reports and all the communication that went to senior management. I’d put myself front and center in all the reports and spoke about in the project in what “I” was doing. I’d been so focused on making myself look good, I’d succeeded. Not only was my team ticked off at me, now I was being asked to step in and save a failing project with a team that made the US Congress look like a happy social club. All because I didn’t give the team the credit they deserved.

 Sigh, I was so doomed…

 Why wasn’t Hogarth saying anything? I looked up and was instantly caught by his deep brown eyes. He just gave me a nod. A nod that said, “yeah, everything you just thought.”

 Dang it, now he was making me do the thinking too?

 Hogarth’s voice took a lofty tone, as he finally spoke. “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

 I looked at him puzzled . Where the hell did he get these quotes from?

 “Abraham Lincoln,” Hogarth said.

I threw up my hands in despair. “That’s all fine and good for Honest Abe. And you’re an imaginary gorilla so what do you know about survival in the corporate jungle. I’m working for a living. If I don’t blow my own horn, who the hell will?”

Hogarth replied softly. “Don’t take credit, communicate success. Your excellence will show through this and people will know.”

I stared at my Gorilla, “At what famous statesman said that?”

Hogarth folded his arms over his broad chest and said, “I did, you got a problem with that?”

 “Uh… no. Nope, none at all.”

 <DING> “3rd Floor, Hubris and Humility.”

 

DON’T TAKE CREDT, COMMUNICATE SUCCESS

Once upon a time I used to worry constantly about metrics. How does a project manager (or any non-hand on doer) measure their effectiveness. A really good manager is all but invisible. Problems are dealt with before they ever get big. Contingencies are set up before they are needed. Relationships are forged and maintained. The team is given all the tools they need and just enough guidance to head for the end goal. To me the perfect manager always seemed completely invisible.

Invisible and corporate survival are not a good match. So I spent a lot of my early career figuring out how to keep my profile up. My goal wasn’t “a job well done”, it was “will this look good on my yearly review.” I looked for every opportunity to be right up there in the spot light. I wanted to make sure I was seen as important.

And thereby utterly failed. I spent so much time trying to look good, that I failed to be effective. Instead of being seen as a vital member of the organization, I was seen as a glory hound. Its not that I was incompetent. To the contrary, I was very good at project leadership, if I focused on that. I just spent so much time worrying about if I was being recognized for my work that I wasn’t effective at what really mattered.

The Team.

The Team is what matters. Focus on the team and the rest will follow.

I talked about how an Agile Project Manager is like R2-D2 a while back. The journey to that epiphany took me through the world of Servant Leadership and much of my own mental tribulations over just what my job role should really be called (Does a gorilla by any other name still smell?).

While I still can’t answer what my job role should be called, I did discover how to measure my own success. I measure my success through the success of the team.

Having spent the last three years with this new focus I have discovered I never needed to have worried about making sure my own value was known.

You see, if you spend all your working hours helping the team, it shows. And just as important, the team knows.

So I stopped trying to promote myself and I started promoting my team. When someone went the extra mile, I made sure to email their boss and tell them how much I appreciated it. When someone complimented my status report, I would give the credit to the team (“I’m just reporting their success, they did the hard work.”).

And you know what? By helping the team I also helped myself. People know what I do. They know I’m valuable. They know I’ll go the extra mile for them. They know I’ll promote my team every single time.

I don’t blow my own horn, I communicate the success of my team.

It’s a good feeling.