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?

The phone’s for you, it’s the Gorilla


Bob, if you will read my response six emails down, you will see we are already
aware of that solution. It is not working…”

 

I leaned back and rested my head against the wall. I needed to take a mental break from this email before I started imitating a wildfire and flaming Bob for his idiocy. Why did they have to make it so difficult? Trying to get my bearings I started to scroll back through the email chain. I gave up after the tenth page down.

 

This was hopeless, no one was listening to anyone and Bob was sitting at the middle of this like some big land mine that was keeping anything from moving for fear it would all blow up. I’d exhausted myself trying to sort this all out. I didn’t have a clue how to finish this email and I didn’t think any email would solve this anyway..

 

The worst part of this all is I knew it was a simple understanding. I just couldn’t get through to Bob. He didn’t seem to be even reading the emails anymore, just kept responding with the same dogmatic hash over and over.

 

What was I going to do?

 

Hogarth dangled my Android in front of my face, “Have you tried this?”

 

I should know better to ask rhetorical questions to the myself. The problem with having an imaginary gorilla is they can eavesdrop on your thoughts. Turning to take in the lumbering form of my gorilla I shook my head. “Hogarth, don’t be ridiculous, I can’t send a text, I need way more than a couple hundred characters to get my point across.”

 

Hogarth nodded in that annoying manner that usually meant he was about to zing me hard. “You’re right. It will take a lot more character to solve this problem.” He waggled the device at me again, “You know this thing here has an incredible power? One that can cut through all the emails and all the miscommunication and get you to a solution in just a few short minutes.”

 

I sat up, “Seriously? What’s this App called?”

 

“A phone call…”

 

Huh? A phone… oh, ouch.

 

 

DID YOU KNOW A SMART PHONE CAN ALSO MAKE PHONE CALLS?

 

I’m half afraid the next generation of iPhone will have the revolutionary new feature of doing away with that pesky telephone. I mean why does it need to be there anyway? You can send email, send texts, post to Facebook and Twitter, and even log into your companies portal to post to the internal sites. Why on earth would you need to make a phone call?

 

Maybe because they work so very well? Of course face to face is even better. The phone is a good substitute, email should be the last resort of the desperate.

 

Now the exact numbers of course vary on this. Still, if you Google “percentage of communication is nonverbal” you will get a mess of hits that put non-verbal communication at a minimum of 60% and up to 93%. And then whatever percentage is left over gets cut down significantly by your tone of voice. By the time you get to only the words you say, it can be as little as 7% of your total communication.

 

So when you are in an email conversation, up to 93% of your communication is lost? Makes me think of that old kid’s game called telephone. You know the one, the kids all sit in a circle, the first one whispers to the kid on his left and then the message gets passed around until it comes back to the start. “My cat has fleas” could easily turn into “Hapsburgs flee from the Martians.”

 

Now I’m not saying we should toss out our Exchange servers and go back to the 1970’s. If we did nothing else, we’d only be replacing electronic emails with the old fashioned memo.  That’s not the problem. The problem is what we are using the email for.

 

Email is great for things like status reports, assigning tasks to directs or team members, communicating already decided changes or policy on a one to many basis.

 

Emails are horrible for solving problems, carrying on a conversation, dealing with anything that requires more than the cold hard facts that can be properly communicated in email. If there is one iota of emotion involved in the communication, then email is not the ideal medium.

 

Sure, there are times when email is the only option. These times are however vanishingly small. Even leaving a voicemail can often be more effective than an email.

 

Now diligent readers will point out that this is counter to how some DISC profiles work, as I discussed in “Talk to the Gorilla, Not At It.” True, there are DISC profiles that cringe at the thought of talking on the phone or face to face. That doesn’t mean it’s not the best solution. It just means you have to be careful about it. You don’t just call a High C unannounced, you use email to schedule a time to talk instead.

 

Let’s go back to the math for a minute. If non-verbal is truly 93% of communication, does that mean if we only ever do email we can take a 93% pay cut?

 

The phone won’t bite you and it may very well help you tame those monster email threads so you have something approaching a sane mailbox.

 

Ring… It’s for you.

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

Gorillas don’t juggle – The Sins of Multi-Tasking

“Yeah hang on a second there Pete.” I shifted the phone to my other ear so I could grab my cell phone. “Go on, I’m listening.” I brought up the screen on my cell phone to see a text message from my wife asking if I’d done the research on website design I’d promised. Setting the cell phone down I tried to shift my desk phone back to my other ear. Only to drop it on the desk.

 

Scrabbling it up I tried to sound nonchalant, “Oh sorry, wind caught my office door.” Pete started talking again so I hit the mute button and then put the phone on speaker so I had two hands free. While Pete continued on about the project status, I think Bill was actually asking some questions now though it wasn’t important, I brought up my web browser and  quickly shifted it to my second screen so it wouldn’t block the web session I was hosting. I needed to get my wife an answer. I could do that while the conversation went along, just had to keep it on track.

 

“Yeah, Pete, that’s a good point. Can you talk about how you’re going to…” Why were people talking over me like I was on… Oh right. I hit the mute button and steered the conversation back the right direction.

 

Mute back on I dove into the website I had pulled up.

 

Why was the phone ringing and people talking at the same time. Oh, cell phone. “Yeah, honey I’m looking at it right now.  What? No, hang on.”

 

Unmute, “Yeah, Bill can we get a summary of the Icarus work?”

 

Back to my wife, “No, I haven’t had a chance to do anything, I’ve had thing to get done first.”

 

“What, no, Bill Icarus is the highest priority I, uh, had someone come into my office. Please proceed.”

 

Mute.

 

“Honey, what? No, I understand how important this is. Hang on.”

 

Unmute “Yes, Pete the website will be ready on June 12.” Mute

 

“Now honey,” Oh crap, did I just.

 

UnMute, “I mean the software release will be ready on June 12, sorry about that.”

 

And before I could hit the mute button a massive hair covered hand reached over me to hang up my desk phone. Before I could protest, another similarly hirsute hand plucked my cell phone from my ear. “Mrs. BC, he’ll need to call you back. Oh, I’m good, thanks. Just doing a little intervention. Yeah, he’ll be better. Soon.”

 

“Hogarth!” I snapped, trying to snatch the phone out of his hand. “I’m working here!”

 

My gorilla drew back across the desk and settled into my guest chair with a creaking groan of protest from the chair. “Really,” he said, “It looks more like you are juggling, badly.”

 

“Wha…” I tried to come up with something sharp to say, but the image of dropping my desk phone wouldn’t leave my mind.

 

Hogarth set my phone down on the desk. “Think of it this way, ever seen a juggler try to eat an apple while he’s juggling?” I gave a mute nod and Hogarth continued, “Yeah, it’s a mess isn’t it? The worse one I ever saw was the guy juggling one apple and three eight-balls.” Hogarth shook his head, “I hope he had a good dental plan.”

 

Ouch….

 

MULTITASKING IS NO TASKING

 

Let’s do a little exercise. You’ve got a smart phone, right? If you don’t I’m betting you have a watch with a second hand. If you have both, pick your poison. You’ll also need a piece of scratch paper and a pencil or pen.

 

Ready?

 

For the next fifteen seconds I want you to write from number 1 to as high as you can get in that time. Ready? Go!

 

Okay, how far did you get? Not bad, huh?

 

Another fifteen seconds now. This time I want you to alternate between numbers and the alphabet. 1A2B3C etc. Ready? Go!

 

Wow… didn’t get as far, did you?

 

And these are easy tasks. Try a third time only this time start at number one and the letter Z. Go forwards on the numbers and backwards on the letters.

 

Yeah, didn’t go so well did it?

 

Multitasking is not really multitasking. Instead what we are doing reminds me of the early days of main frame computers. We have one CPU, our brain, which can only do one primary task at a time. We aren’t multitasking, we are switch-tasking. Like the main frames of the 1960s and 70s where the CPU would give each user a slice of time and constantly rotate. Only, we are not computers and that means we can’t switch tasks instantly like those old IBM main frames could.

 

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The human brain is not capable of focusing on more than one primary task at a time. Yes, we can do a lot of secondary things (breathing, peripheral vision, etc.), we can only face one focused tasked at a time. We might be able to switch quickly from task to task. We just won’t be nearly as efficient as focusing on a single task. The cost of switching tasks high.

 

Some studies say we can take up to fifteen minutes to get back on track after being interrupted. If we are multitasking, we are interrupting ourselves.

 

The same thing applies to teams, that applies to people. If your team is only working 50% of the time on your project, the reality is they are probably only working 40% on your project as they have the overhead of switching back and forth between your project and other projects. The more projects they are working on, the less time they can devote to each project.

 

Jim Highsmith, in Agile Project Management gives a great example of a team doing multitasking.   In the first example, the team switches between three projects, one day on project one, two days on project two, etc. In the second example, the team works on project one until it is done, then moves to the next project.

 

In the multitask example, the first project completes on day 48 and all three projects are done on on day 52.

 

In the sequential projects, project one is done on day 20 and all three projects are done by day 36.

 

I’m no math major and I can tell sequential is a better idea. The first project is done in less than half the time and all of them are done in two thirds the time.

 

Multitasking, all it does it make you look busy.

 

Results matter.

 

Do the math.

 

 

Miss Manners is a Gorilla

Photo by _Faraz @ Flickr

“Awesome, that’s great news. Send me the details as soon as you get them.” I put down the phone and leaned back in me chair. I sat for a minute collecting my thoughts. Then with a smile splitting my face I let out a long sigh of relief.

 

That was close, way to close. If Gus hadn’t come through at the last minute, the entire release would have gone into the toilet, along with my career. Raising my coffee cup in salute, I said “You dodged another one old boy.” Bringing the mug to my lips I took a healthy swig of the lukewarm coffee.

 

And nearly spit it out all over Hogarth.

 

Swallowing hard, I set the cup down and glared at my gorilla, now sitting across my desk from me. “Go away, Hogarth, I’m not letting you ruin this.” I held up my hand and started ticking off my points. “I used my relationship power when we needed something in a rush.” One finger. “I had that relationship power because I get out from behind desk and walk around.” Two fingers. “We had this on our plan because we thought about risks because we reviewed our previous projects.” Three fingers. “And we played it by the book, even though it would have been so much easier to cut corners and go around the system.” I leaned back in my chair and gave him a smug, self satisfied look. “So take your dour face and pester someone else, you got nothing on me.”

 

Hogarth stared at me for long seconds, his dark eyes pinning me to my chair and making me squirm. This wasn’t fair, I’d done it all. I’d been professional, I’d been effective, I’d headed of the risks at the pass, I’d helped the team through difficult waters without taking charge. What on earth could he find fault with?

 

He didn’t speak, which made it all the more unnerving. He just reached one of his massive furred hands out and laid it on the desk. As his hand drew back it revealed something laying on my desk. It was a square bit of paper, no more like a large business card. Leaning forward I could see it was really a card that opened. I turned my lamp so I could read the front of it better.

 

Thank you

 

 

A thank you card? What on earth was he thanking me for? I mean if anyone should be thanking anyone, not that I would ever admit it to him, of course, I should be thanking Hogarth.

 

Wait… Gus… Oh, heck…

 

 

THERE IS STILL ROOM FOR 18TH CENTURY MANNERS IN A 21ST CENTURY WORLD

 

I was recently reminded how much people take good manners and politeness for granted. I was in a conversation with some non-work colleagues. One of them was in the middle of a job interview process. I’d asked him if he’d sent his thank you cards yet. One of the other people in the group said “I don’t send thank you cards, there just so old fashioned…”

 

A bottle of Dom Pérignon has been made in much the same way for the last hundred years. That doesn’t make it old fashioned, that makes it good.

 

A standard longbow made today is made in much the same way a longbow was made a thousand years ago. It works, don’t break it.

 

The wheel has the same basic shape it had four thousand years ago. Why reinvent the wheel?

 

Today we have iPhones, netbooks, email, voicemail, fax, video chat, high speed data connections and more. The technology we have today would seem like witchcraft 200 years ago and pure science fiction for most of us even fifty years ago. Like the Bionic Man technology has made us better, stronger and faster than before. And that still doesn’t change who we are. Good manners have been around for a heck of a lot longer than email. Email doesn’t suddenly mean all the politeness of the world can be bottled up in a couple of sideways colons and closed parenthesis (ASCII smiley faces). 

 

I’m simply amazed how often even the most basic politeness is forgotten in the work place.

 

  • When you pass someone in the hall, smile and nod. Heck, even say hello. Don’t stare at the ground and pretend they are not there.
  • Say “Thank you” whenever someone does something even close to nice. Even “Thanks” is an improvement over a guttural grunt. This includes the cashier at lunch.
  • Don’t interrupt when someone is speaking. (I know, the DISC model talks about High Ds and High Is being okay with this. They are not the whole world. Even if they are okay with it, the High S listening in will be horrified).
  • Chew with your mouth closed. Now I may be showing my US based culture here. I honestly don’t know if this is culturally okay in other parts of the world. In the US, it’s not.

 

Beyond the basics there are a couple of key manner tools that are must haves in your manager tool bag.

 

  • Thank You Cards: Honest to goodness handwritten thank you cards. When you interview*, send them to everyone who interviewed with you. If you have someone in a mentor like role, send them a Thank You card with a gift card inside from time to time. If someone at work bails your butt out of a major jam, send them a Thank You card (again, a gift card can’t hurt). And before one of you says it, yes, you should send them when you interview. A Thank You card is a thank you it doesn’t ask for anything in return. It is not something to get you a job, its something that is the right thing to do. Send a card no matter what, it will pay off in the long run.

 

  • Recommendations/Praise: Corporate culture operates very much on perception. Perception only works if people are aware. If Susan in accounting saved your bacon and you are in her debt, the thank you card with a Starbucks gift card is nice. Sending an email to her boss to tell them how awesome Susan is, is one step better. When it comes time for reviews, Susan has those notes in her brag file and can roll them out to remind her boss how good she is.

 

Miss Manners isn’t an antique. She’s the wisdom of the ages.

 

Thank you,
Joel and Hogarth

 

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.

Thank goodness Gorillas can’t fly- Pigeon Project Management

Well dang! My team really does love me.

Holding the glass statue up to my mouth I let out a hot breath. With my shirt sleeve I rubbed away the condensation leaving the glass shinier than before. Setting it back down on the desk I beamed at the statue.

It was a glass hummingbird, roughly six inches high. There was an engraved plaque on the wooden base it was set on. “The Hummingbird Award” it said in bold letters. Below that, in smaller letters, it said “For your skill in always showing up when things are bad.”

My mood was so high even the shambling entrance of my personal gorilla could do nothing to lower it. “Look at this, Hogarth!” I held up the statue for him to see. “What do you think of that.”

Hogarth looked at the statue for a moment then let out a long, sad sigh. “Wow, I’m so sorry. I thought we’d been making progress.”

“What?” I set the statue back down, careful not to get fingerprints on it. “What’s to be sorry about? My team gave me this award, isn’t it great?”

Hogarth settled into a chair and gave me a long puzzled look.

“What?!?” I said.

Hogarth sighed, again. This was getting repetitive. “I thought you knew about the Hummingbird award.” He shook his head. “I’m really sorry. Look I can help you get your resume cleaned up.”

“What on earth are you talking about!” I snapped.

Leaning forward he clasped his massive hands together on the desk. “What does a hummingbird do all day?”

I shrugged “It flies around from place to place quickly and it eats.” I looked down at my body, “I’m not exactly a candidate for weight loss if you hadn’t noticed. They didn’t give this to me because I eat all the time.”

Another sigh. What was with his sighs? “Maybe it would help if you knew the real name of the prize is the ‘Pigeon Manager’ award.”

“Why on earth would they call it that? Pigeon’s aren’t exactly fast and they don’t even fly all that often. You have to shoo them to get them to move.”

Hogarth nodded. “What else?”

I rolled my eyes. I hated when he played this game. “Okay, they don’t fly much. They aren’t fast and I darn well wouldn’t want to be a statue with them around. They poop on everything.”

Hogarth nodded. “Uh huh…”

“Wait a minute!” I stared at the award. “If I’m the pigeon, then that makes the team the statue?”

Hogarth just nodded. Even he couldn’t bring himself to kick me when I was this far down.

 

 

SUPPORT THE TEAM, DON’T BURDEN THE TEAM

Trust me, even if it were really the hummingbird award, you don’t want to win it.

Sure hummingbirds are cute. They dart around the sky here and there. They hover by a sweet flower and suck up the nectar and, whoosh, they’re off to another place in the blink of an eye. Thing is, that’s not exactly the makings of a good manager.

The hummingbird manager rarely stays focused on any one thing long enough to make a lasting change. Like some hyper-caffeinated cheerleader, they rush around from place to place with uplifting words and a big smile. And in their wake is a team that wishes they would have stayed long enough to find out what was really going on and done something to help. Sure you look busy, what matters though is does your team see value in what you are doing?

And do I really need to explain why you don’t want to be the pigeon manager?

The hummingbird manager is at least has a nice smile and is trying to cheer people up. The pigeon manager swoops in, poops all over what you’re doing and then swoops off the minute things get hot. “You’re doing it wrong!” “Well tell us how to do it right.” “I don’t have time for that, just fix it.” Like the caped anti-hero they swoop in to ruin your day and rush off before you can say “thanks for nothing.”

Being a good manager is about putting yourself second and the team first. Do they have what they need? Is there something you can specifically do for them? Are you just getting in the way and what they really need if for you to leave them alone?

It takes time to be a good manager. You have to build relationships (like with Manager Tools “One on Ones” or Internal Customer Interviews). Building relationships builds trust. Building that trust means they will come to you when there is a problem. It also means they know you will help them when they need it, not criticize them, or give empty words of encouragement.

Management is about building relationships, not about being everywhere at once. Especially if you leave droppings behind.

So don’t be a bird brain.

Reviews: There is no "Gorilla" in "Team"

“That’s it! Kill me now!” Throwing myself into one of my office’s guest chairs I directed an exasperated look at Hogarth.

 

Sitting in the corner, fichus on one side, bamboo on the other, he looked at me with placid eyes. Not say a word to me, my gorilla chewed slowly on a head of lettuce.

 

Trying to not think about where he got a head of lettuce I gave a deep sigh and waited.

 

Hogarth kept chewing.

 

I threw my hands in the air, “I mean it! Just put an arrow right through my heart. It’s just not worth the trouble of trying to go on.”

 

Hogarth set the lettuce down. Good, now maybe he’d say something outlandish so I could get angry and him and distract myself from my misery. Looking at me for several long seconds, he then picked up the remains of a fichus branch. Beginning to pick his teeth with the denuded branch he continued to stare at me mutely.

 

“Oh, fine! I see how it is,” I snapped. “When I don’t want your pithy words of wisdom I can’t get you to shut up. But when I actually want your help you just sit there and remain mute?”

 

Hogarth shrugged. “Well I’m a poor archer and I’d really rather not get blood on my fur, so I’m not going to kill you. Lacking any other information, I have a leaf stuck between my molars.”

 

“Argh!” He was so infuriating. Couldn’t he be a normal and reasonable human being? Right… 800 pound imaginary gorilla. What was I thinking? Sigh, I hate it when he’s right.

 

“We’re headed up on year end.” Hogarth nodded in agreement. “That means annual reviews.” He nodded again. “And it means my agile teams have just become a pack a ravening piranha out to be last fish standing.”

 

Hogarth cocked his head to the side, “Fish don’t stand and isn’t the whole point of an agile team that they all pull together?”

 

I jumped up and pointed a finger at him, “Precisely!” Realizing pointing at a gorilla was probably not smart, I lowered my arm and continued. “That’s the whole problem. The review process measures individual goals. Suddenly all my agile team members are scrambling to show how good they are and fighting for credit of who improved the database, or made the UI fixes, or identified the root cause of the uRay issue.” I waved towards my office door, “productivity has plummeted, morale is holed and I’ve even had to break up a couple of yelling matches.”

 

Hogarth shrugged, “Sounds like the review process is broken.”

 

“Give that gorillas a cigar!” I exclaimed. “Only it’s not really broken, it’s just the way it is. Yet another process that doesn’t match with agile. I’m doomed. Agile will never work outside of small startups.”

 

Hogarth shook his head, “No, it’s broken. You don’t measure your spaghetti one noodle at a time.” I stared at him in abject confusion. Seeing this, he said,  “when the four man bobsled crosses the finish line fastest, who wins?”

 

“The sled team of course. What’s that got to do with this? They are all in the same sled.”

 

Hogarth nodded, “Good point.” Hah, I had him now. “What about the four hundred meter freestyle swimming relay? Michael Phelps carries the whole team, everyone knows that they couldn’t win without him. Why give the medal to anyone else?”

 

“Hogarth that’s silly. He couldn’t win without them.  It’s not like he could have swum all 400 meters himself.”

 

Hogarth nodded again. “Yes, that’s right. There is no ‘I’ in team.”

 

“I know that!” I snapped. “We’re doing agile after all. It’s all about the team. Team empowerment, team accountability, team rooms, we even have team plush toys for Ghu’s sake!”

 

“Then why are you measuring individuals and not the team?” Hogarth asked.

 

Huh… Why indeed?

 

 

Agile Reviews for Agile Teams

 

The average corporate review process is an almost myopic focus on the individual. What have you done? What goals did you achieve? What milestones did you meet? You, you, you. Almost like a bad country western song. Everything is focused on the individual worker and what they did. You don’t get credit for being part of a successful launch team. No, you only get credit if you led the team, or did some great thing ,that no one else did, to save the launch.

 

And that’s the good companies. There are companies out there (I hear Microsoft is a big sinner here) that use stack ranking. If you have a five person team, you can only give one person a five star rating and by the same extension, you have to give someone a one star rating. How do you think your team is going to behave when their literally is no points for second best?

 

Traditional review styles are murder on normal teams. Just imagine how much worse they are on an agile team? Agile teams promote the team owning the deliverables. The team does the work. The team commits. The team delivers. Until review time, and then hold on tight because it’s every developer for themselves.

 

It doesn’t work. You’re killing your teams one review at a time.

 

We don’t have a choice, it’s the way HR does reviews.

 

First of all, go read last weeks blog. If one junior captain can change the US Navy, then a manager can certainly change how his team is measured.

 

As for how to do it, well that I can’t take credit. I learned of this from an agile training house here in Silicon Valley. Agile Learning Labs has factored into my own agile journey many times. The founder, Chris Sims, is one of the people who took it as a challenge when I said “You’ll pry waterfall from my cold, dead hands” (Oh yes, I did say this, once upon a time). I took my CSM course from ALL and learned about the real value of agile for the first time, while getting the straight talk on how effective a CSM is (not much, you should still get one, from a good teacher, it’s a great way to learn).

 

Agile Learning Labs was asked to help a company that was facing just the issues we’ve discussed. The company had gone completely agile and was very happy with the change. Unfortunately, when it came time for reviews, they experienced significant disruption across the company for the entire review cycle. I’m guessing for a time after the cycle ended as well, as people digested their reviews.

 

So ALL worked with the company and implemented a new review process. No fancy math, no weird hoops or process and absolutely no touchy feeling trust falls.

 

Each employee had their review divided into two equal parts.

 

The first 50% rated them on how they met their individual goals. These were goals created with their manager (Oh, hey how about the Manager Tools Coaching Model) and focused 100% on things that were only about that employee and their development as an employee. Things like “Will become proficient in Ruby,” “Will present to an audience of at least 50 people,” “Will be on time to work 95% of the time” (Sometimes your goals are not big and earth shattering). Most importantly is none of this 50% had anything to do with their work on the team.

 

The second 50% was how well their team did. The team was measured on how it succeeded in its  business objectives (shipped the product, fixed the defects, shortened the release cycle by 25%, etc.). And then every single person on the team was given the exact same rating. The exact same! If the team did poorly, then everyone might get 20%. If the team was a rockstar band, then 50% all around.

 

That’s not fair! One of our team is a total slacker!

 

Then even money says you don’t really have an agile team. Still, let’s give the benefit of the doubt here, shall we? If one of the team is not performing, then it’s the team’s responsibility to deal with the issue.

 

Let’s head back to the Olympics, shall we? The swim team analogy probably isn’t the greatest. The relay is based on who is fastest on the Olympic team. These guys are rivals most of the time and don’t train together except at the Olympics.

 

Let’s look at the sculling team (that’s rowing, people). A four man sculling team trains together year round. They are a true team in every sense. If one of the team is not performing, do the Olympic judges say “Hey, you’re a horrible team mate, out of the boat”?

 

No, they don’t. That team mate never makes it to the Olympics. The team takes care of it. Sure, they may have help from their coach (Coach, hmm. Could that be a manager?). The team takes care of the problem and they make it to the Olympics.

 

If it works for an Olympics sports team, it can work for a software development team (or hardware, or marketing, or…).

 

Let’s go back to Agile Learning Labs and the company they were helping. A year later, the company went through the first full review cycle. They’d been using the new model all year and everyone knew this was the model and got reminded through out the year. What happened? It worked. It worked great. The details that ALL has shared is that morale went up, productivity went up and teams didn’t miss any strides during review time.

 

Want to know more? I hear Agile Learning Labs is available for hire.

 

 

So take the “I” out of the team and start measuring the team, as a team.

It’s Your Gorilla, So Change the World!

ARGH!!!!!

 

I had just enough sanity left in me to reflect on just how often that sound escaped from my mouth these days. And then sanity left me and I walked towards the door to my office. All I wanted to do was pound my head on the oak door until all my cares went away.

 

“Gonna break that poor door,” the words cut through my haze of frustration for just a moment. Just a moment. Then they were replaced by new frustrations. Was there ever going to be a day that Hogarth didn’t show up to offer me his ‘words of wisdom’?

 

From his perch, by my office window, my gorilla answered. “Sure there will be. At this rate though, not going to be a for a long time. Leave the door alone, its already got a dent in it.”

 

I threw up my hands. “I give up! I just give up. There is no way I’m ever going to change corporate culture around here.” I threw myself down in a chair and gave a resigned sigh. “I tried to get the test group to share their data with the support group.”

 

Hogarth cocked his head, “And?”

 

I shook my head, “No go, the test guys say it’s too complicated and would only distract support from helping the customers. The support guys are livid because they feel like test is treating them like children.” I sighed. “So the support guys have decided to stop coming to meetings until Test changes their mind.”

 

Hogarth chuckled, “Very adult.”

 

I glared at him. “You’re not helping. If you have some practical advice, I’m all ears. Otherwise, please go away.”

 

Pulling a banana from somewhere (don’t ask, I never do) he began to peel it. “Sure I do, stop trying to fix the world.”

 

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” I snapped.

 

“Be the best damned project manager you can be. Focus on what you have direct control of.” Hogarth took a bite of his banana. “Do that and you’ll change the world.”

 

I laughed. “Oh that’s rich. How exactly can I change the world? I’m just one project manager in a huge company.”

 

Hogarth tossed me a book. “It’s Your Ship.”

 

 

IT’S YOUR SHIP- NOT QUITE A BOOK REVIEW

 

I recently finished reading It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best  Damn Ship in the Navy, by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. This book goes on my top inspirational books list and I’ll be recommending it to my friends and colleagues as a must read (or listen) book. Abrashoff communicates his powerful advice through great stories and by showing exactly how his advice worked in the real world.

 

I could go into the standard book review format. I’ve got a good system going after all, just check out my Good to Great review.

 

I’m not going to do that though. You see there is a far more powerful message in this book than can be covered by a book review. Beyond Mike’s eleven keys of good command, there is an even larger message to be read. You just have to cock your head to the side and read between the lines.

 

One ship, one crew, one captain, one person, can change the world

 

Captain Abrashoff was on his very first command. He was the junior captain in his naval group. His ship was probably not considered the gem of the fleet , elsewise a new captain wouldn’t have been posted to it. He was assigned an officer who was considered a failure by his last ship. In short, the level of influence that the USS Benfold could exert was not on the level of a Jobs, Clinton, Buffet or Branson. It was lucky if it could influence itself out of its own way. One certainly wouldn’t have expected Benfold to impact the entire US Navy.

 

Yet Abrashoff, Benfold and her crew went on to change the Navy. No, it wasn’t some diabolical plan to take over the world. Heck, Abrashoff probably never envisioned he would even be able to make the sea changes that he did. Instead he was completely and totally focused on what he could do in his little circle of influence. And through that focus, he changed the world.

 

Let’s look at just a handful of the examples I collected from my reading:

 

Steel Fasteners: Now remember, this was 1997, stainless steel had been around a good long while. Painting the ship was an absolute nightmare chore that cut into the new sailors training time. The fasteners on the ship (bolts, screws, nuts, etc) would rust and streak the still perfectly painted metal and you’d have to paint the ship every couple of months. After listening to his crew, Abrashoff bought steel fasteners with his ship credit card (The Navy didn’t stock them). Bang, the painting chore dropped radically. Today all Navy ships are using steel fasteners and other improvements that Benfold trailblazed. Imagine all that recovered productivity?

 

Real Time Communication from a Weapon System: We take instant communication for granted a lot. In 1997 cell phones were still bricks, AOL was still one of the largest email providers, and computer radio traffic was still in its infancy. It could take hours if not days to get orders out to everyone. This caused some pretty serious issues in the Persian Gulf and the Iraqi peacekeeping mission. Abrashoff listened to one of his petty officers. Then he bucked the system and brought the idea to his Admiral. End result? The computer network system for the Tomahawk Cruise Missile system was leveraged to allow real time, two way communication between ships of the fleet. It was rolled out across the Navy and changed how ship to ship coordination was done.

 

Get the food on the ship!: I was floored by this one. In the 90’s, Navy ships were still having their food stores loaded by hand. They would form a human chain and pass the boxes from the dock to the storage lockers. Abrashoff told a non-Navy friend (it pays to have a wide network!) about the problem. Long story short, his friend created a conveyor belt system that could be setup quickly and load the ship in a fraction of the time and labor. Not to mention with more safety. The Navy hired that guy to load all ships in the San Diego port.

 

New Sailor Policy: You just graduated from Navy boot camp. You fly a civilian airline across country and find your own way to the ship you will be serving on. Almost everyone is off the ship because its in port. You spend the first forty-eight hours just trying to find the head (bathroom) and how to get back to the deck (outside) of the ship. Abrashoff set up a new sailor on-boarding process that greatly improved morale and new hire ramp up speed. The process was copied by other ships and I wouldn’t be surprised if its not SOP for the Navy now.

 

You can change the world

 

Yes, you. The project manager on the right. You sitting in your cube with a stack of Gant charts threatening to bury you. You with the action item list that looks more like a parts list for a nuclear sub. You, the project manager who just had to go turn back on the office lights because the timer automatically turns them off at 10:00pm.

 

We can change our companies, we can change the world. We don’t have to be the CEO. We don’t have to have a dozen direct reports.

 

What we have to do is be the best we can be. Focus on what we are good at, do it and keep doing it. When you something really well, people notice. I’ve had it happen to me. I’ve created MSFT Office templates for my own use. I always put my name into the properties section when I do it. Many times I’ve gotten a document sent to me from some other project. Gee, this looks familiar. Well, hey there, look at that. My template, tweaked a little and being used half a company away. Guess it worked.

 

If one junior Captain, one single destroyer can change the United States Navy, then a good project manager can damn well change the world.

 

So what are you waiting for?