A Business Technology Place

Is the rabbit big enough to chase?

Stay the course.

Six weeks into the New Year is when many people lose their motivation to follow their New Year resolutions. It’s difficult to have the discipline required to change behavior.  It’s also around this time when we are tempted in our businesses to shelve the new annual plan. It’s not intentional. We get busy with the day-to-day steps to run the business and solve immediate problems. Years ago I decided I couldn’t let this happen. I make the IT annual plan in a portable format. After reflecting on using this approach the last few years, I’m thinking about how to introduce technical margin in the plan next year.

Rabbits, squirrels, and other tempting things.

Throughout the course of a year distractions tempt us to wander from our plan. Some of the new things we see are good and worth making adjustments to achieve. But most distractions are industry fads, marketing mind tricks, or situations of minor inconveniences we make into urgent matters. I call them office squirrels or rabbits.

Every week my voicemail and email have unsolicited messages about products and services to make my life easier. Every week someone suggests a new project to solve an opportunity they see in their work area. Every week unplanned requests enter the organization from a variety of sources including customers, auditors, and executives.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The question is so easy to ask but difficult to answer. The rabbit begs us to chase it. It lures us with the temptations of rewards and the fear of not catching it. The annual plan consists of activities to support long range goals, the organizational mission, and the core values. The rabbits may support organizational improvements too. But something I’ve learned is to accomplish the plan of great things we often have to learn to say no to some good things.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The rabbit hole.

I’m not advocating sticking to the approved plan without the ability to make tactical course corrections or even the ability to alter goals. Executing and closing projects on the plan is hard enough without the distractions of office rabbits. We make calculated decisions through the course of the year. Changing course on a whim, or because an influential requestor swayed opinions, is expensive to the productivity of the organization. Changing course quickly promotes short-term thinking and often results in mistakes. How many times has a ‘must-have’ project for a customer never used or cancelled halfway through implementation? That’s when the rabbit disappears down the hole and we look up to discover we’ve wandered from the path and deeper into uncharted woods.

I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down.

I’m passionate about following the plan, or going on the hunt every week. But I make mistakes and follow rabbits that run down holes. So I’m trying to grow wiser through experience. I want to make decisions with the long term success of the organization in mind, keep the annual plan readily available to maintain focus and alignment, and make decisions through consensus to support the mission and core values.  

In the book of Nehemiah in the Bible, Nehemiah was tempted by adversaries to stop rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. He stuck to his plan saying “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop, while I leave it and go down to you?” He was intentional and focused on his plan. He considered the cost of leaving the work for what his adversaries promised. By doing so, he avoided the rabbit and completed his goal. I like it. Let’s stay focused.

Onward and upward!

Photo Source: Ballad of the Lost Hare – Public domain book.

Conflict advice – It’s how you say it

A few years ago when my kids reached adolescence they began to push-back on certain household rules. It was a very natural, if not expected, phase of their upbringing. On a few occasions the conversation escalated to an unhealthy tone. During those times I spoke about an important principle to my kids explaining it was not ‘what’ they were saying but ‘how’ they were saying it that was creating the tension. I was ready to listen to their issues but not when approached in a non-respectful manner.

The same principle holds true in a business environment. I believe that most people want to rationally discuss an event or issue with others in a respectful and edifying way. But our emotions and bad behavior get in the way. That’s why inspirational author Stephen Covey writes “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  John Maxwell describes it like this, “People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.”

I have found in my career that situations with conflict more often reach a satisfying conclusion when I first listen. Then I listen again before speaking. Then when I speak, it is first to understand the other person before speaking my view point. Conflict resolution rarely works when one person (or group) raises their voice, attempts to bully, speaks with accusations, or claims their viewpoint as the only view.

I like the council of the Apostle Paul, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

I’m not perfect in this area of my life. But I’m confident that we would all do well to follow this advice.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Larry Smith via Creative Commons

Corralling your task list and action items

The Chaotic Symphony.

Throughout the course of a typical week in the office I attract action items and tasks like mosquitos on a summer night. They appear from every direction and often without notice as part of what I call organizational entropy. Most professional workers today have this dilemma because there are so many sources tasks can originate:

  • Meeting minutes (usually in a word file or email)
  • Meeting minutes (verbally given because no one wrote the minutes)
  • Emails
  • Ticketing system / Service desk
  • Project plans (Excel, MS Project, Software Development System)
  • Personal notebooks
  • Hallway conversations
  • CRM
  • Customer requests for information

It’s easy to get to a state where the loudest voices get my attention during the week and I lose all sense of priority. Having tasks in multiple places makes it easy to lose them and really difficult to see what is most important. Help!

Make a Corral.

I’ve tried different systems over the years to corral tasks into a reduced number of areas. I try to group personal tasks outside of ticketing systems and email together into one tool. Getting down to one tool is part of a simplification plan that makes managing action items achievable. A single location allows me to group, sort, and prioritize the list.

I’ve tried a number of electronic solutions over the years and at times I just use pen and paper. There is a no perfect tool or system. What we choose to use is a personal preference based on how we think, how we mentally organize data, and what we can make part of our routine.

Personally, I prefer a tool that puts a task into the context of the larger body of work. I like a task list that is easily searchable. I like a tool that allows me to add notes and related documents to the task.

Some action items, like service tickets, are assigned in group workflow tools. These tasks require interaction with the customer/requestor or project manager. Using group workflow tools provides communication back to the requestor and keeps a record of the interaction.

Two important attributes for tasks.

To create an effective system for tracking my tasks and action items I try to focus on two key attributes. If you are evaluating methods or tools then consider these:

  1. Communication – Keeping the requestor current with clear communication is the best way to reduce the number of status report inquiries.
  2. Visibility – It hurts when I forget about a task. That’s like letting someone down because I forgot about something that is important to them. I need to pick a tool that I will both use and will see through the course of a day.

Making it routine.

Since I have tasks in both a personal to-do list and group workflow systems, I created an entry in my leader standard work definition so they receive recurring attention. Without some definition of routine our day is ruled by the loudest voices. That’s not productive.

Let’s do this.

Onward and upward!

Special Sauce

Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. I remember that McDonald’s commercial like it was yesterday. Now, decades later, I’m still fascinated with ‘special sauce’, just not the sauce on a Big Mac. The topic is universal. What makes companies and groups successful?special-sauce

This article from Harvard Business Review about corporate survival examines the increased failure rate of companies that start today versus those that started before 1980. Their research found that, “firms listed after 2000 spent more than twice as much as earlier firms (in percentage terms) on organizational capital and half as much on physical assets…..But that advantage is a double-edged sword, they add: The good news is the newer firms are more nimble. The bad news for these firms is that their days are numbered, unless they continually innovate.”

Innovation encompasses special sauce. Some companies find it by creating a new paradigm like Cirque de Soleil. They created a new mold for a circus by removing animals and focusing on adults with a more sophisticated form of entertainment. Chic-fil-a uses customer experience and community involvement for their special sauce to make a chicken sandwich more than just lunch. Innovation isn’t limited to technology. The special sauces from Cirque de Soleil and Chic-fil-a have staying power. While competitors can see it, they haven’t really been able to imitate it. I found the Big Mac special sauce recipe online.

Keep searching for your special sauce.

Onward and Upward!

Pick your team.

I have fond memories from my youth when I was with a group of friends and we picked teams for a game. The games varied; baseball, kickball, capture the flag, football, or war. But the act of picking teams usually followed the same process. Two captains were selected and then each captain would take turns picking team members from the rest of the group. The order of selection was based on skills and the kid the captain thought provided the best chance to win. Sometimes it was based on friendships and alliances made outside the field of play. Then we played.the-sandlot-crew

When I select members for a technology department today, I have a different perspective. I like to look for team members that can contribute beyond a specific technical skill set. A base technical skill is required, but it is not enough to be on the team I would pick. Daniel Pink writes in his book A Whole New Mind that technical skills are increasingly being replaced by someone who can do it cheaper (think Asia) or a computer that can do it faster. Pink argues knowledge workers who can contribute beyond direct technical output will find more options for employment and a higher likelihood of career fulfilment. These workers can detect patterns, see opportunities, and combine results into new inventions and stories to connect with customers and coworkers.

This past week my wife interviewed two candidates for a position on her team. She asked me for advice on how to approach the process and make a distinction between the two candidates. I recommended looking for the candidate who showed interest in the mission of her workplace. Did they ask questions about the business, the workflows used by the team, the current challenges, etc.? This employee would become more fully engaged in looking at the big picture and trying to help find solutions and make improvements.

In another conversation this week, I was asked about replacing a member on our technology steering committee. The basis for the question was the new prospective member was younger and more comfortable with technology solutions. I reminded my colleague the primary purpose of the committee was to discuss the direction and impact of technology solutions on the business more than any specific technology used. The skill set I want on the committee requires more institutional knowledge of the business than it does technical knowledge.

Picking teams today is different than when I was a kid. I want team members who are engaged enough to ask clarifying questions, to ask why, and to suggest areas of improvement. I want team members to make an intentional effort to understand the whole solution and not just the tasks assigned to them. When we play the game, these are the skills that will help us win. You in?

Onward and upward!