Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Musing on Meetings: Agendas, Switch and Bait, Giving People Back Their Precious, Precious Time

I was just in an hour long meeting where I was a bit unclear on what the organizer wanted to get out of the meeting until 20 minutes in. While many people consider this an unsuccessful meeting because they eventually figured out what was going on and thus, boredom had a chance to enter their brains, I consider this a less than successful meeting because I kinda should have had a better idea going in what we were talking about and what the organizer wanted. In this way I could avoid meetings that don't concern me (or which I don't want to be concerned with) and actually be (gasp) prepared for meetings I should actually go to.

A brief aside: I 'prepare' for meetings by reading the agenda somewhere between 2 and 5 minutes before (sometimes I read it on my laptop while we're waiting for the rest of the meeting participants to show); if I am presenting, I usually schedule a half hour before the meeting to get my act together, which usually involves at least one Dilbert cartoon. Life is busy. Meetings are boring. But they are useful, and knowing what is going on is always useful, whether you need to know if you need to fake a kidney stone to escape a dull meeting or if you need to know the fastest route out in case of fire.

Some people are very militant about meetings: they write an agenda in the invite, they write the agenda on the board; they go over every agenda item with the people who attend the meeting, and then cover action items before the meeting closes. And even in these kinds of meetings you can go in and have very little idea of what is actually trying to be accomplished as opposed to what you were hoping would be when you arrived.

The only time I think that being vague about the meeting contents is when you are doing so deliberately. I call this the Switch and Bait; use a vaguely worded or similarly sounding meeting content to attract people who would otherwise not show up. You know, like that exec who has accepted your last three specific meetings and then just not shown up and failed to answer any of your emails. That guy will come to this, because, maybe you've used some keywords to make him think its his pet project you are talking about. Once the squirrelly people show up, you tell them that you will be talking about X, but only after you've talked about what you REALLY need to talk about, usually with a very thin connection between the two. Traditionally people then spit out what you need about X so they can get to Y. Effective on occasion, Switch and Bait is not a good meeting habit to get into--use it sparingly or people will just stop showing up to ALL your meetings.

However you wish to communicate it (agenda items, goals, talking in person), before the meeting I like to be clear about why we're going in and what I want to come out of it. For example, I might set up a meeting with the lines"We're losing data when we move content to production; I'd like to find out possible reasons for that and come up with at least two ways to mitigate it." Everyone knows what the meeting is about. They can come "prepared" or not (some people are VERY eager to weigh in on things and will appreciate the time to do their homework). It also gives a clear indication of how to stick to the topic and when to determine the meeting is over.

For example, someone who comes to your meeting to complain about the content loss can be redirected to the meeting purpose, which is to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it happening again, not to blame anyone or further vent on the topic ("vent" was originally going to be "piss and moan" but I am a lady). Once we have at least two ideas, if people want to stay and give more, great; if not, you can end the meeting...even if it didn't go the full amount of time. Yes, Virginia, Meetings Can End Early.

I'm a big fan of using early meeting endings as incentive to work the problem presented in the meeting; for example "Guys, if we can just find one more mitigation, we can all get 25 minutes of our lives back." Most people love that idea.

Ok. Speaking of meetings, I need to "prep" for my next one. What does the world of Dilbert have to offer me today? God bless you, Scott Adams.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How You Eat an Elephant (Cake)

I have always disliked this particular metaphor; it's supposed to help you understand the basic fundamentals of problem solving. How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.

However. Who wants to eat an elephant? They're intelligent beings that are actually pretty damn nice to humans (one of the few species that will actually go out of their way to help a human occasionally). Aside from that, the purpose of the metaphor is to make you think of surmounting a huge problem, but in essence it generally makes me queasy because, say, I start eating the elephant at the front right leg...I fill up before I even reach his KNEE. I could consume the entire elephant in small bites, yes, but there's a good chance that by the time I reached his shoulder (assuming an elderly-already-going-to-die-senile-elephant-who-lived-a-good-life-but-with-a-degenerative-disease-that-killing-him-really-saved-him-a-lot-of-pain but which will not infect me, so I don't feel bad about eating him), the rest of him would have gone BAD. Note, this does not make it a horrible project management metaphor--I've had plenty of projects that were a lot like trying to eat a lot of dead rotting elephant. But its not really the best image to have when you're trying to remember something useful and positive.

I would rather eat cake. I'm more of a pie girl, really, but cake has its place. The metaphor works for cake, too, btw: if you ask most people how they eat cake, they do not say they put the entire cake in their mouths at once, struggling to breathe and swallow. They eat cake one piece at a time. I could, in fact, consume an entire cake this way, and, furthermore, would want to.

Cake and elephants aside, however, troubleshooting problems does require breaking them down into smaller pieces.

Here's an example: your group has a reorganization. It now fulfills different functions than it did before, with more people than you had before. Your boss wants to know how much to budget for this team for the next year. You can't grab last years estimates and tweak them to get the right numbers because they really don't apply. Well, you could, but it would be similar to the second option: make stuff up from your gut. There is a time and place for making stuff up based on gut feelings, but deciding budget for the rest of the year is really not one of those times. So, in this case, like the cake, you have to break the problem down into tastier bites and then calculate based on those.

So you look at the number of people and how easily they've done their previous jobs. You assign time per day for the average person (I'm a HUGE fan of booking six hours in a day rather than 8, because I cannot remember the last time I came to work and didn't need to use the bathroom, get something to drink, chat at the water cooler, attend regular meetings or put out multiple unexpected fires...all which eat at that 8 hour day). Then you look at how much of their time per various project you think it will take them to do.

Now, in a perfect world, you take your resulting numbers and consult those people. Frequently they will freak out. "How can I estimate how long it will take me to do something I won't start for another 2 months?" Pretty much, you have to wing it--with budgeting for an entire year, it's better to have some basis for your wild guessing than none at all; responding to your boss with "There are too many unknowns" will not get those unknowns defined for you--they'll get him to make up a number (however he does it) that you have no influence over. So calm the freaky person out, and ask them to eat the cake in small pieces (I would avoid suggesting he/she eat an elephant as I don't think it would help here).

Once you've assured god and country (and everyone on the team) that they will not be held at gunpoint to these numbers, take them to your boss and go over them. Bosses like to cut stuff off they don't understand. While that may reduce the total amount of elephant/cake you have to eat now, you'll be eating moldy cake/rotting elephant in a few months if that money isn't there and you couldn't justify it.

A lot of the time, your boss will tell you he needs those numbers for a meeting in X hours (where X is the amount of time you intended to go out with a friend to lunch, which you suddenly have to cancel). In this case, you can't run the numbers by your team. But you still have to eat the cake/elephant.

In this case, I recommend going through and giving your best guess for time estimates. Go with your gut, knowledge of the person, or, absent that, estimate of an average person learning that job doing it over time. Once you've got it where you think it ought to be, mark all estimates of time up by 20-25%. That should make up for not being able to vet your numbers with your team, but not be too huge an increase as to have your boss freak out (more so than he/she already is, anyway). Next, tell your boss--as you are handing over the numbers--that these are WAGs (Wild Ass Guesses) and not to hold you to them...then follow that up with an email that you can show him/her in a few months when your boss has forgotten his/her promise and wonders why you aren't keeping to "schedule."

So now we've eaten the cake/elephant. Budgeting is just one example where you're going to be asked, as a manager, to make decisions about how long things will take. Your teammates do like to go on vacation, will have sick days, and might want to go to training. All of these require estimates about their current projects--made by them and approved by you--to determine slips in schedule or the best time you can do without someone for a while.

The moral of the story? You will have to make WAGs and to do that and you'll need to break things down into manageable pieces. It's up to you if those pieces where once a pachyderm or of the frosted, baked-good variety. And now I kill this extremely overused metaphor (but don't eat it).

A very Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it, and I hope Friday comes fast for those of you who do not.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Awesome is Better Than Normal

A basic theory around the idea of advance bribery and overall transactional communication is to take advantage of human norms and expectations. A “norm” is defined as “A rule or authoritative standard; a model; a type” by Dictionary.com. Think for a minute about standing in an elevator. You’re there, in an elevator. Which way are you facing? The norm is to face the door. It’s a small space, and the norm developed so strangers in a tight confine would not feel uncomfortable so close together.

In the business world, there are many norms like the elevator example. Norms differ per place of business and the group at the business within which you work. As a manager, trying to make a difference to the culture means understanding those norms.

Think about the elevator example. If you didn’t know that most people face forward, and you entered a crowded elevator and faced the people, instead of the doors, statistically speaking you are currently making a bad impression on some of the people in the elevator, most likely the ones closest to you who no longer have the illusion of personal space because you’re staring right at them. If this is one of the first times you’ve met them, you have a long, rocky road of changing the opinion formed while you’re violating this norm.

Now think about a team that you might work with. It may be the norm in the team that every shouts over everyone else. Waiting for your turn may never come, and be seen as a sign of weakness. This may be a norm you want to change, but if you don’t know about it until several meetings, you’ve already established a pattern of appearing weak. Trying to change the framework—making sure everyone gets a time to speak—would be perceived as stemming from your weakness in the situation where the norm is present, rather than in an enlightened view that everyone would be happier if they could speak their mind without fear of interruption.

Can you always know the norms before you screw up? No. But when you start at a new place, interact with people you’ve never interacted with before, or try to grow communication or interaction with strangers, be aware that norms—subtle and not-so-subtle—are there and need to be looked for.

Once you’ve got a feel of the norms, you can then look at ways of changing them if they are not producing the effect you would like to produce. Alternately, you can look at ways to encourage them if they are producing what you’d like to see.

In the previous example, you may screw up and not talk the first few shouting matches where talking over each other is the norm. But once you figure out what is going on, you can make changes to your behavior—such as joining the throng of shouting voices—a few times before you attempt to change overall behavior. Is it healthy to yell at each other? No. Is it a good idea to come in and make changes without seeming to try to understand how people do their work currently? No.

Some people may see the shouting and think they understand immediately. Some people even do grasp things that quickly. However, the people who have been following the norm for some time cannot comprehend how someone who just entered the situation could understand it so quickly. Some people may feel that you feel you need to do something just because you’re new, and a manager, and in need of proving yourself.

Now, they’re probably not wrong about the proving yourself part. But the application of proving yourself is probably different than what they expect. You need to, at least for a week or two, obey and observe the norms of the group. Try to understand what they get out of following those norms and the behaviors they follow. Instead of just looking at things as “what can I change to make it better” you need to look at them, as well, as, “what are they getting out of doing things this way?”

It seems pretty fundamental, but looking at our example of the people shouting at each other in meetings as a norm, you’re not going to immediately grasp that some people in the group might feel that it produces a good environment for the challenging and developing of new ideas. Or that some people really don’t like to talk in front of groups, and everyone shouting and considering them weak is a small price to pay to doodle or check email during a meeting. Finally, some of the people in the meeting like to feel important, and expressing themselves through this norm allows them to feel that way.

Now that you’ve engaged in the exercise, and come to these conclusions, changing the norm is a matter of providing the good parts of the norm without the norm itself. Schedule shouting matches. Do not invite the people who do not like to shout. Do not attend, nor allow others in a position of authority to attend, these meetings. This will allow those who feel that they get the best ideas out of the situation to continue doing so. It also looks to the rest of the team that you’re not breaking up their norm completely. Finally, it has the added benefit of making the meetings less interesting to the people who were fighting for the sake of fighting—there is no one there to impress in a position of power.

Regular group meetings should next be altered. Explain that, because you have a place to get out controversial ideas, that group meetings are now a place of collaboration. Ask the team to come up with goals for their “new” group meeting. Inject some goals as “suggestions” of your own. Suggestions like a round robin approach to answering questions, where people can say “pass” if they haven’t got anything to add. Going around the table will restrict the amount of time that grandstanders (who were doing this for attention) can grandstand, and encourage people who were otherwise tuned out to speak up. At the very least, they have to pay attention to what they’re actively passing on commenting about.

Finally, meet with the people outside the meetings. The people who like attention, set aside specific time to talk to. Keep their conversations constructive about their work. Praise them as appropriate. Do not use these conversations for negative interactions (you can handle that in a one on one when you also cover the things you liked for the week). Encourage them to come to you when they have things to talk about. In so doing, you’re encouraging them not to dominate meetings by giving them a place where they can still be important, but focused towards their work.

Talk to the quiet ones, who don’t speak up much during meetings. Let them know they can always come to you if they want something or had something to say they didn’t feel comfortable talking about during the meeting. Stop by their desks when you don’t want anything, just to be friendly. Encourage, them, slowly, to come out of their shells first to you (as a safe person) and then to the team, in small, controlled and safe ways.

As you can see, we’ve altered the norm when we’re done. There were a ton of benefits from understanding it, and then using that understanding to alter it.

What if you see some behavior, expressed as a norm in your group, that you like? For example, most of your team deliberately attempts to spend social time together because they enjoy each others’ company so much.

This is a really good thing in a team. People who willingly spend time with each other are less likely to do things that screw each other over. I do say less likely, because not every human understands every other human, and they will occasionally mess up; possibly more than usual, because they spend so much time together. However, because they opt to spend that time together themselves, they tend as a group, to be a lot more forgiving.

When a norm like this develops, there are always folks that are left out of the socializing, even folks within the same group. It may be that they have restricted diets so going out together doesn’t make a lot of sense, or they are new to the group, or have cultural differences…who knows.

In encouraging this norm, you want to make sure to expand it a little. This is hard to do if you’re already IN the norm. If you are one of the people who always gets invited, you may not even notice the folks in the group not being invited. This is why you really need to step back and look for norms in a group. As positive a norm as this is, and you wish to encourage, it still needs to be modified so it doesn’t create a negative affect on those who are not part of it.

This means suggesting that people who don’t normally go get invited, or inviting them yourself. It means changing up the restaurant so the folks with restricted food choices feel comfortable going. It means, as the manager, occasionally arranging company group social events, rather than letting them start organically, in order to keep everyone feeling included, and as if they could be part of the “cool crowd” who goes out together at any time.

The moral of the positive norm story is that, even if a norm is very good for your team, you still need to examine it and make sure its as good as it could be, for the whole team.

This, however, are just a few norms. I challenge you to go to your workplace and identify a norm in operation there. Then ask the following questions of yourself:

1) What is the behavior that everyone finds “normal” that makes up the norm?
· In our elevator example, the behavior is everyone facing forward.

2) What are the people engaged in the behavior trying to get out of the behavior?
· Per the example, if everyone is facing forward, they have the illusion of privacy and boundaries in a small, cramped space they share temporarily.

3) What other behaviors could take place during the norm that might achieve the affect the people are trying to get out of the behavior they are performing?
· In the example, if people tried to space themselves more evenly, it would give even a better feeling of boundaries and privacy.

4) What are the negative things that you notice about the norm?
· In this example, it encourages people not to talk to each other or otherwise to really interact with each other.

5) Are the outcomes of this norm overall positive? Do the positives of the norm outweigh the negatives you notice about the norm?
· In the elevator example, is it better to sacrifice a few moments of polite but potentially awkward interaction with strangers for a calming affect of privacy and personal boundary in a tiny space?

6) If the negatives of the norm outweigh the positives of the norm, how can you alter the norm so that the balance is changed—that the positives outweigh the negatives?
I leave this as an exercise to the reader when thinking about their own examples.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bonus Blog: How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Nothing like a "Sound of Music" reference to get you in the managerial mood.

In a previous post I mentioned one of my favorite managerial axioms: Praise in public, punish in private. I also said I'd get to the "punish in private" part in a later blog post. This is that post.

First, "punish" is kind of a misnomer. One adult punishing another adult in a workplace environment in any other manner beyond passive aggressive is rare. No one wants their manager or co-worker to act like a parent who punishes them, and no one wants their co-worker or manager to be a child that they have to parent. I have a friend who is a pre-school teacher, so, in some ways she is effectively expected to parent during the normal course of her duties, but, by the same token, she doesn't actually consider any of the 3-year-olds her co-workers (or peers).

In a work environment, your co-workers might ACT like 3-year-olds, but parenting is still not the expected or appropriate behavior.

Note, I did call out the "passive aggressive" type of punishment that happens pretty freaking regularly in the workplace. As a manager, I try to stamp that stuff out as fast I see it. Like a wildfire, it can rip apart a functioning organization and cause damage. While the damage is not irreparable, trust broken takes a long time to rebuild.

People behave in a passive aggressive manner (or act out in other ways) because they cannot get their needs met (or what they think their needs are, met), they do not feel comfortable communicating that fact in a direct way, and what they need is to fix their issue. Maybe they are conflict averse, maybe no one hugged them enough as a child...whatever the reason, they're striking out at people with whom they should be bonding. Further, they're doing it covertly.This makes the group in which you operate suddenly not a safe place, which is the death knell of productivity. Here that tense silence? Yeah, that's a cry for help. A team without trust is a team that doesn't do much and isn't very happy.

As a manager, passive aggressive behavior is not really a tool you should ever use. Ever. A lot about your gig--being a project manager, QA manager, developer manager, etc.--is about trust. People trusting your judgment, people believing you will protect and take care of them, people trusting you will kick their asses and get them going as needed...the list goes on. Be passive aggressive and you forfeit the trust you've earned.

So, how do you lay down the hurt on someone who is making waves inside (or outside) your team when you need a behavior correction?

First, let's talk about the standard ways you can punish someone. I mentioned in an earlier post that you have a standard tool kit as a manager, full of carrots and sticks that everyone knows about. Forgetting the carrots a moment, let's talk sticks. You can give someone work that may not be their first preference, you can demote someone, you can (sometimes) dock their pay, you can put them on a "performance" plan (usually the last step before you fire someone) that requires specific goal compliance, and you can fire someone. There are variants of this at most positions based on HR and the HR handbook, but that's a summary of the most common options.

In each of the above cases, you, as the manager, are wielding the stick. If you've ever been corrected by anyone, yourself, the person wielding the stick rarely gets a fair shake from the person being hit by it. Anger clouds judgment. As the stick wielder and not as the person doing the behavior, you usually see a narrower band of what is happening without any context. Even a good manager, attempting to gather such context before laying down the law with his/her stick, rarely gets the story from inside the mind of the person causing the ruckus. In effect, you have lots and lots of room to punish someone without all the facts or mitigating factors, which destroys their trust in you (and may erode trust with the rest of the team) and creates damage in overall group relations.

But what if you have no stick to wield? Maybe this person is managed by someone other than you. You always have the option to talk to their manager, but escalating like that can cause problems that aren't always solved by the escalation.

Assuming we reject the normal manager's toolbox of punishments, how do you punish behavior you don't like/that isn't productive?

First, despite how trippingly "Praise in public, punish in private" trips off the tongue, let's dispense with the word "punish." As we noted earlier, you're not the parent of any person on your team, and as adults we sort of assume that we won't be punished, we'll be talked to like adults. Let's keep that dream alive as managers. So let's call it a correction.

So, let's look at the facts we have on hand; this will dictate how we approach the correction. Is the experience of the problem only your own? If so, as a manager, you can talk to other people about their experiences, good and bad, on the entire team (or interacting with the team where this person is) and ask if everything is ok; you can tell them you've come to understand that there might have been some friction, but do not name names.

This leaves them open to telling you if they are having problems with ANYONE (which is valuable). Sometimes Person A seems like the troublemaker, until you realize that three other people have had issues and Person B was there every time. Then you talk to Person A, and yep, Person B suggested the disruptive behavior.

Now that you anecdotal evidence, you can question these folks, again (if they provided any), and ask if they have any documented instances or additional witnesses to what upset them, so you can fully investigate the matter. Some people are going to clam up, because , in their minds, venting =! getting other people in trouble, and we've clearly moved into the "getting other people in trouble" portion of the discussion. For those people, assurance that you are only gathering information and will not be doing anything to the individual involved until you've talked to him or her will a) make this person feel like they are less likely to be fired/punished out of the blue and b) make them more likely to provide you the information.

Once you've reviewed the witnesses and the evidence, calm the hell down.

Yep. A step in this is "calm down." As a manager, if someone is disturbing your group, a bunch of emotions come into play: everything from "kill the infidel" to "oh my god, I hope the person responsible is ok in their personal life" and many less PG thoughts. You can only provide a correction if you are not emotionally charged. So, go to lunch, take a walk, and/or wait a few hours.

Next, schedule a formal meeting time in a private place with the person involved. If there are more than one persons involved, a separate meeting for each is required, one right after the other and a request not to discuss with each other, if necessary. This assumes one person, which is the most common scenario.

Know what you're going to talk about. Create an agenda for the meeting. It should look something like:

1) There's a problem
2) I think you're part of the problem, and here's why (cite evidence, examples, without using team names, if possible)
3) Please tell me your side of the story
4) Let me repeat your side of the story to you so you can tell I absorbed it
5) Please help me stop the behavior that has caused the problem
6) What are our next steps to doing this/help this situation?

Extra credit: When sitting down to talk to the person, do not talk ACROSS the table. If its your desk, put the chair on the side closest to you, rather than across from you. If its a meeting room, sit next to the person on their side of the table. This is an exercise in "you are not alone, I'm here to help" not "baby did a bad, bad thing."

Follow your agenda. This agenda should work if you manage the person or not. In agenda item 6, you are committing to help solve the problem with the person. Both of you have next steps to follow.

For 60% of troublemaking, this usually works. People don't want to cause waves in the office. Often they don't know they are causing problems. I'll go more in depth on next steps in a later blog, in the event this relatively friendly sit down did not set the stage for success.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bonus Blog Options - Many Masters or What do you do with a problem like Maria?

I have a few ideas kicking around for this week's bonus blog. So I give you, the reader(s) the choice: do you want to hear me talk about having multiple masters--dotted line bosses, bosses of bosses who are very hands on--and being a multiple boss or do you want me to discuss what to do when you need to correct a member of your team/someone you're managing (the unfun half of "Praise in Public, Punish in Private").

Of course, if you have any ideas you'd like me to explore, that's also free game (Assuming they have something to do with management and are not, you know, profane).

Look forward to your comments.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Everyone is well aware of how Assumptions can make an ass out of you and me. Typically, then, people tend to think of assumptions as bad things, to be avoided at all costs, often while they're making an assumption about something (like assumptions).

A brick can be a bad thing when it careens into your house through a window. A brick can also be a good thing, when it makes an awesomely cheap but very useful book shelf for some poor college student who wants books off the floor. You cannot assume a brick is a good or a bad thing--its what you're doing with the brick that makes it so.

Assumptions work in the same way, but are more delicate for human beings because a) we're trained to make assumptions in order to process data, b) making an assumption typically involves dropping our primary defense--thinking about something--for a variable we're reasonably certain is equal to what we think it is (but might not be) and c) often times, because of (a), we don't always know we're making an assumption, until it hits us like a brick careening through a window.

There is a lot of social psychology work out there on the formation of assumptions. Traditionally, assumptions happen when we lack additional facts but still need to move forward. Because a decision has been made, we often don't revisit it after we've progressed further to get additional data. That is the intricate flaw in assumptions.

However, if you look at assumptions as variables in a math problem, assumptions can be filled in later--this is because for a math equation to work, you have to do the entire equation; you have to look back at the assumptions made and the variables selected, put in values, and process the thing as a whole. Likewise, with the brick, you may be building a cheap shelf, but you might not see, until half the book case is made, that one of your starting bricks was smaller than the others leading to structural integrity issues.

Speaking of integrity, assumptions and integrity go hand in hand. Its not that the most experienced people make assumptions and, because of their experience, their initial thinking is "good," it's because they go back and review their assumptions to maintain the integrity of a project/problem/personnel issue/whatever. And they do it quite a few times, every time they think of that thing.

In high school and college you sometimes got assigned to group projects. I had a nice diatribe about them an in earlier post, so you're probably wondering: what has this got to do with assumptions? Well, as a manager or a member of a group project, there comes a point when you cannot see the people you are working with. You have to assume they are doing their work. You have to let them take the time they need to put their brand on things, to get out of them their dreams and passions, or at least a really, really good spec. You have to let go, and you have to start with the assumption that people who work with you and for you will actually do their jobs.

Being a good manager, however, is finding a way to have contingencies around that so that if that person does do their job (your assumption is correct), they feel you were supportive and believed in them the entire time. However, you also need to be covered in case one of those people assumed somebody else would do the work, or that you and they wandered off with two different sets of assumptions and ended up with the wrong final product.

This typically happens with a new boss to team relationship; you don't know how you all work together, and you won't until you've had a few successes and you've had a few failures. This also applies to when you're "loaned" to another team or other teams are loaned to you--when you're working with a vendor, for example, who provides you dev resources while you manage a specific project.

So how do you make it work?

I'll talk about over communication in another entry. Sufficing to say, you cannot talk to people enough on your team. And you shouldn't be interrogating them; you should be asking them how things are going. I'll also talk about removing impediments (Yay Agile/Scrum!), in a later blog post, but that's another item that you can use--ask them if they are blocked on anything so you can help them.

Then listen to their responses.

Some people are naturally shy and will do monosyllables. Most people, however, will either at least talk a little about the work they're supposed to be doing and where they are, talk a lot about it, or divert/deflect to a different subject. Those who are monosyllabic and those who divert are those that need your additional attention--those that change your assumption from "this is getting done by these people" to "um, maybe things aren't getting done." As you re-examine that assumption, you can provide other methods of communication in case that person prefers, say, email. But after a day or so of poking around with no solid answers, the assumption can be revised to "I need to do something to make this happen."

As an aside: the verbose, confident sounding people can sometimes be the ones not getting their work done, too, but they're better at hiding it.

If you need to do something to make something happen, what do you do?

It depends on the person. You can always ask what else they're working on; if you get a 10 minute excited discussion, then that's probably why they aren't working on their project for you. If they don't know what else they should be/are working on, you can start to troubleshoot that particular individual: revisit specific guidance on priorities and come up with goals for each day, end of day, to help keep them on track. Some people make the assumption that if they are stuck, they should wait until someone comes and helps them, and this type of touching base can a) make that seem like a really bad idea and b) get them on track for what you'd prefer to be assuming: that they are doing their expected work.

Times do come when people fail to meet your expectations (which, in and of themselves are assumptions of a type), and you have to deal with one of the more unpleasant parts of managing: making corrections. Most of the time, however, you'll find that the reason that people didn't meet your assumptions is not out of laziness or malice, but out of ignorance and/or lack of communication.

Never attribute to malice what can easily be explained by ignorance.

Which leads me to another thought on assumption: one assumption you should always have is that the person with whom you are working is trying to do their best, according to his or her ability. Working with this variable in place in your equations makes it easier to stop a moment and find out what is really blocking things and how you can help them, rather than you feeling disappointed and feeling like you need to punish them. Very, very rarely are people who are being paid to work with and for you actually trying to fail you.

Keep that assumption in mind, and the rest of them are a lot easier to manage when they need to be altered to fit the formula of what must be done.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bonus Blog: Busy People Solutions and Calendar Stalking

You may have heard the phrase, "If you have something that needs doing, give it to a busy person." The theory is that a busy person is busy because they are actually accomplishing things.

In fact, however, having been that busy person, I'm not in any way amused by this saying or the subsequent additional work. Most people do not float down the hallway saying "I'm totally swamped but pile it on!"

Usually, we're looking to offload the extra work to get our proverbial heads above water.

This is why when you're waiting on a response from someone whom you know is overwhelmed, and don't receive the response, it can be frustrating. Oh, you know they're busy. You're busy, too. You really need that info, and they have it.

Many bosses think the best way to get that info is to set up a status meeting once a week (or sometimes once a day) until that data is in your hot little hands. Effectively, they have a ton of work they are buried in, so to get what you need from them, give them more work to do and less time to do it at their desks. This should work perfectly!

Ok. A lot of the time this isn't a horrible idea; people who are perpetually incapable of meeting deadlines without a human hovering benefit from these types of meetings. Most people, however, are annoyed by them. I have 60+ hours of work to do and now I have an extra hour each week sitting at a table with people not doing that work. Theory holds it will provide impetus for them to provide the data required so they can reclaim their time. What the theory doesn't include, however, is that a) you're pissing them off and by ) what else is on that person's priority list.

Typically, people that owe you something have bosses. To their bosses their love be true. Ok, their love of raises and praise, anyway. They have priorities they've approved with their bosses. Your stuff may or may not be on that list. Dragging them to another meeting once a week is annoying, but if their boss hasn't prioritized your stuff for them, they will either a) attend and draw pictures on their notepad for the entire meeting and or/ b) skip your meetings with a refreshing regularity that reminds you of the data you haven't yet gotten from them.

So, you've now figured out that they aren't sending you the data and the meetings are possibly anti-useful in getting the data. What do you do?

Many people would suggest you escalate. Escalation, however, usually casts the person in a bad light. If that person really is doing the bidding of their bosses' priorities, the escalation could explode in your face as their boss takes your boss to task over you pestering their busy employee.

The nice part about escalation, though, is you can do it at any point. So while it doesn't have to be your first option--and is frequently more powerful when it's not--you can try a few other things first.

Ok. Email doesn't work (check). Extra meetings don't work (check). Can't escalate, yet (check). What now?

Well, if you were in that person's shoes, what would you want you to do (and "Go away and never come back" is not a viable option)? You'd want the person who is begging for your time (a valuable resource) to understand why you have not been able to give it. If that work is on your priority list--just not at the top--you'd still want to get it done, but you'd need to communicate that to the person asking you for the data. Finally, you might want some help. I mean, if you're so buried you can't respond to emails and there's this resource hovering around you wanting something from you...well, you're in the perfect position to bargain for some help, right?

As the person doing the begging, you can use your ability to help the person you are begging as another tool to help you get what you need. From a transactional standpoint (see how I cleverly called back to an earlier blog post?), you offer them something, and then you might be able to get what you need in return (or at least get what you need closer to the top of the priority pile). Even, and especially, if you've already done them a good turn, offering to help someone can produce the results you want much more quickly than scheduling a meeting or setting up an escalation. It also makes EVERYONE involved happier.

So you calendar stalk the person--

A brief aside, calendar stalking is where you use their calendar to determine where they are likely to be in the office and then appear there, like a stalker, to get their attention, response, etc. For example, if you know person A is in meeting room 2 until 5 pm, hanging out outside the meeting room at 4:55 makes it a 90% chance you'll get to talk to person A for at least 1-2 minutes (maybe more depending on his/her evening plans). Calendar stalking can even work when people don't open their calendar to you (eg: you don't know what all their meetings are or where they are), because you can still view the gaps in their meeting schedules and then casually wander by their offices during those times to catch them when they might actually be working.

--and you find them in their office or desk (preferably). There you explain that you understand they are VERY busy. Next, you ask them if there is anything you can do to offload their current work to get closer to the info you need from them. You can attend meetings in their stead, review documentation, take them to lunch and let them work on the problem while you're eating...be imaginative. Anything is possible.

At this point, either they tell you yes, you can help, or no you cannot. They also can give you an estimate of when the work will be done.

If the answer is "yes", tell them you're sending a confirmation email of your discussion including when they think the work will be done and drop some "Cheerleader Bum Rush" on them--be happy and cheerful and tell them how awesome they are. Then go back to your desk, write up the summary email, and send it to your boss, their boss and them, praising them and telling all parties how you will be helping that person and when you're component will be completed. Include their original estimate of time completion for the task you are waiting on from them. End with additional praise (total Cheerleader Bum Rush here), and submit. Then set your calendar reminder to remind you to poke them half way before their committeemen time, and again on the day the commitment is supposed to be completed. And by "poke" I mean, politely inquire if there is anything else you can do to help them/do they have what they need rather than ask, pointedly, where your stuff is. You want them to like seeing you, not hide when you come around.

If the answer is "no," tell them you really need the data, and therefore you're going to email your boss and their boss and cc them (so they know what you are saying) about your need for the data. Then let them know you're letting their bosses prioritize when it should be done and that you are including the fact that if your info gets prioritized higher than other data on that person's plate, that accommodations will need to be made. Then talk to that person about the highest priority items on their plate and what kind of accommodations would need to be made if your data was prioritized highest for them. Then go back to your desk and send the email with your deadlines and a request to prioritize your item, including the information about additional accommodations that may need to be made for the person whose priority apple cart might suddenly be upturned. Be sure to thank the person in your email about disucssing the issue with you, and end the email with the fact that that person and yourself are awaiting an answer by the higher ups--putting yourself in the group with them makes this a clarification from upper management, rather than an escalation. Additionally, identifying what they need if your priority becomes their priority will make the transition for them to your item easier, and them less likely to be unhappy with you for changing their apple cart's progress in midstream (to mix metaphors shamelessly).

If the outcome of the answer from management is to deprioritize your needs, thank everyone involved and pass the email on to the people with expectations about your project. Plan accordingly for workarounds. If the outcome is to prioritize your needs, thank everyone, offer to help the person (again) and follow up with making sure that person gets the accommodations required to make it easier for your request to the prioritized. Then set a date for response with that person for your data. Create calendar items for the due date and halfway before it, with a reminder to yourself to "poke" them on the topic (politely).

90% of the time, I have found this technique to work with busy people. It also builds transactional credits with them, making them more inclined to help you in the future, while keeping all the important parties informed.

As a person who is the busy, busy, busy one, you can employ this tactic in reverse--get additional work out of someone, praise them and yourself, and build a tighter team by turning "me" into "we." If someone who wants something is engaged and interested in your overall outcome, they are going to be a lot more likely to play nicely with you the next time the two of you cross paths.

After getting something from someone who is incredibly busy--no matter how I got what I wanted--I always do two things. First, I send a message to their boss and my own talking them up. Those emails are frequently saved for review time, and are worth their weight in gold. Also, as noted in my last post, no one ever complains about being thanked too much. Second, I bring them something. Candy or a small toy, or something meaningful to them. An example I have is that a dev here kept trying to tell what temperature it was in his area of the building (always seeming to be 10 degrees colder than the rest of the room), so I bought him a $4 indoor thermometer. It was small, but it proved I was thinking about him, and thinking about his needs, and I like to think that crosses his mind occasionally when he's reaching down to turn on his heater and checks the temperature.

True management, and, to a certain degree, true happiness in the workplace, is spawned by people thinking good things about you, even when you're not around. I strive for that every day (in between picking up apples from my upturned, mid-stream apple cart).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thank People. A Lot. In Public. Seriously.

One of my favorite managerial sounding phrases which has the benefit of actually containing wisdom is “Praise people publicly, punish people privately.” Leaving the punishing part to a later blog post, I’d like to look at the Praise People part.

When was the last time you felt you had been appreciated too much for your hard work and good efforts? If you are like most people who are not delusional, the answer is never.

Empty praise given too often doesn’t hold meaning and many people don’t really know how to “take” a compliment: “Great Job, Johnson,” Um, it was nothing. Really. I didn’t steal anything from the supply room! Some people don’t really know how to give one: “Your code was just like a spider laying its eggs in the center of a perfect web,” Um, thank you?

This is not because those people are self-absorbed jerks, but because singing someone else’s praises brings the risk of attention to yourself (Are you pointing out to someone who makes money decisions that this person is better than you?) and your judgment (What happens the next time this person screws up after you said they were awesome?).

The workplace is where you go to be noticed or invisible and varying degrees in between. Speaking—even talking about someone else positively—can draw attention to people who want to be invisible, while talking positively about someone else can make you less noticed as attention turns to that person.

Add in the fact that, hey, you are being paid to be here, and many people stop even contemplating thanking other people. They get a paycheck, right?

This is not to say that people don’t thank other people in the course of a day; many people do as a matter of civility and habit. Someone holds the door open, you thank them. But what if someone fixes a bug in your code? Unlike the door holding thing, which is not their job, bug fixing is one of their duties. But the reason that thanking people and praising them is important is to avoid one of the greatest sins in any relationship: taking people and the work they do for granted.

Assuming your significant other will have a meal on the table every night for you when you get home without thanking them is likely to involve arsenic or drain cleaner in one of those dinners in the future; they are unlikely to actually kill you, just poison you enough to get you to thank them for taking you to the hospital emergency room.

As someone who cares about you, there are expectations that they will fulfill chores and duties that they’ve assumed, but as anyone who has ever had a relationship with anyone else knows, it’s nice to be appreciated, even and especially for the ordinary things you do.

Thanking people when they do their jobs well is positive reinforcement to continue to their jobs well. Positive reinforcement helps to solidify good behaviors that you like to see in your team and co-workers, and it makes people actually feel good, as well as avoiding any potential poisoning mishaps at home or abroad.