Tuesday, April 26, 2011


This is a relatively good post to follow last week's post on enforcing boundaries; this post is about the randomizing factors (sometimes people, sometimes events, sometimes resources) that make standing up for yourself, your team and/or your boundaries that much harder.

The heart of managing randomization is communication with others and reliance on yourself. It's ok to let people know that randomizations will affect the other tasks/projects on which you are working and how. While you might be a super hero and do them all, even with the additional complication, your health and sanity are more important. Most people read that list sentence and say "Yes, I'm sure its that way for everyone but me," but let me tell you: working yourself to a point of crazy doesn't get more work done, it creates more work to do as you make mistakes.

Part of fighting randomization and violation of your work boundaries is agreeing that, right here, and right now, what you think is important is important. They do pay you to be an expert at what you do (or to become an expert). If you can't agree that you are allowed to make normal time frames out of abnormal events, then you will never fully maintain your boundaries. Boundaries are not necessarily there for the day-to-day, but to handle and bolster you against the random.

Reality is a harsh mistress: just because you want to do too many things at once doesn't mean that you can. Boundaries are there to help you not hit the wall and let people down. At some point you'll take on too many tasks--often because of randomization--(no matter how much you try) and not be able to do them all as expected with the level of quality you would like them to have. People need to know that in advance. Some people would rather have the work product late than low quality. You deprive them of the choice of what they receive if you just blindly accept work. Use your boundaries--and the occasional randomization--to assess what is physically possible for you, and then communicate that to the interested parties. In addition to making your workload more bearable, it will improve the quality of you work and your relationship with others.

Randomizing factors are not always humans, but always lead to the need to communicate with and reinforce boundaries with human beings. Random events or resource losses still affect people other than you, even if they only happen to you, and of course, randomizing humans always require some human intervention (unless you're moonlighting as a serial killer).

Many people are familiar with the human randomizer; maybe you live with one, maybe you work for one, and (possibly) you are one. The traits of the human randomizer are that your natural operating procedure is that of exception to whatever the rule is. Typically the randomizer either has a really good reason for violating the convention of process, or they have sufficient power over the situation that a good reason is not necessary. Rarely is the human randomizer malicious. Typically he or she has a radically different method of getting things done than, well, probably everyone, and what makes sense to him/her completely messes up a work day for someone else.

A good example is the randomizer boss; for whatever reason--maybe he/she is very reactive to other departments, or a procrastinator so that they only get work to you just before it's required, or she/he is very, very unlucky--daily, sometimes hourly, the randomizer boss will drop by your desk or send an innocent-seeming email and suddenly a new project is now your top priority.

Other human randomizers include co-workers and executives higher up on the chain who may have let something go to the last minute or found a "really cool idea" and gotten it approved by upper management and need you to work on the new hot thing RIGHT NOW.

Randomizing events are (usually) easier to handle simply because they don't happen as often. Usually. An earthquake may disrupt production meaning that you have two days of nothing on your current urgent project and need to use that time on the next one, for example. Or a competitor's product is announced to come out two weeks before your product, so you have to work crunch time to get your product out first. If you work in a competitive field or an earthquake zone, you are aware these things can happen, and while you often may include some float in your schedule for it, it so rarely happens that it can still ruin a perfectly good schedule/day/task experience.

Randomizing resources are the least predictable of the randomizers. When you come to work you typically expect your equipment to work. Rarely does a project manager on a three week project schedule time for hardware/software/internet failure. Most people assume, also, that they'll be healthy for the entire run of a project, so when the other engineer is out sick and his projects are due before your projects, it can be very unexpected to get them dumped on your plate in an effort to get them done when he really, really can't do them himself because he's ill.

Whatever the reason for the randomization, in addition to the time away from whatever your previously "current" project was, you also have to the pay in additional work for transition time.

Transition time in electronics is "the time a dynamical system needs to switch between two different stable states, when responding to a stable input signal." Assuming that "Stable" isn't required for the definition of transition time for humans, transition time is the time it takes to move from one task to another. From physically moving materials or hoofing it building to building to allowing your brain to let go of one activity and get organized and then started on a new one, this transition time can take up to 20 minutes per transition.

Dealing with randomization is a little different than establishing your boundaries, and a little bit the same. When a force can be reasoned with, establishing and maintaining boundaries is actually a lot easier. Randomization typically involves some lack of general reasoning (by someone, something, or the cruel hand of Fate), and while you still have to deal with it, your typical tools of reality and logic are not as easy to apply.

So, to start with randomizing humans, it is always good to have established boundaries before the randomization. As noted in last week's post there are a variety of good ways to do this, which you should check out.

If you don't have normal boundaries established prior to the randomization, there's really no time like the present to clarify what your priorities are. As I always say to my bosses, "I am here to work." It doesn't matter to me what I'm working on, for the most part, as long as everyone in the food chain gets out of my way and lets me work on it, or accepts why I am not working on their thing right now. I usually keep that last part a bit more diplomatic, or entirely in my head, but you get the gist.

There are always two outcomes to the randomizer humans: you can do it when they want it done or you cannot do it when they want it done (for various reasons, up to and including that what they want done is impossible). No matter what the randomizer says, or what other things speckle your plate, or the urgency of the five items you're already working on, you really need to think about it in terms of: can I do what they are asking when they are asking or not?

Once you've determined that answer, you need to look at what you have to do to either communicate that you cannot do what they want when they want it done or what you need to move/pause/alter in order to do what they want you to do when they need it done. Please keep in mind that in either case you determine, just from what you're desk and tasks look like, you do not actually make this decision alone. The randomizer human would like you to think that you have sufficient control of time/space/your destiny that you can, but just like when you established boundaries by getting agreement at a peer level and above, you still have to take your initial decision about randomized items and subject them to similar review.

For example, if the task is impossible (not just because you have other tasks, but because it literally is impossible, like trying to hold your breath for 30 minutes), just telling a randomizer the task is impossible is frequently not going to work. Remember I mentioned that logic doesn't always play into this?

Using our impossible task above as an example, you would need to both tell the randomizer the task is not possible AND provide that randomizer with an escalation path. Typically you're being randomized with a passion (something is late, something is too cool to wait, etc.). Just saying "not possible" works like saying "no" in last week's entry around boundaries. If they don't have a method to escalate, they'll make one. So when you determine its physically impossible, go to your boss (provided he/she isn't the randomizer), and explain both the issue and the escalation path. Maybe you need to call in a Scientist so that the randomizer has outside confirmation that no one can hold their breath for 30 minutes no matter what.

In the event the task is possible but unlikely (ie: you have tasks that are prioritized above the randomized task), you would do the same thing: talk to your boss and then provide an escalation path to the randomizer and clear instructions: "If you can get tasks 1-5 off my plate for two weeks, then it's possible." Get the randomizer pestering someone other than you, someone who really does have control over your schedule and tasks.

In the event the task is possible and likely, THINK CAREFULLY. Even if the task is a 5 minute task, are you setting a precedent whereby people feel that they can randomize you regularly? If you have caved in the past and this has become a habit, work with your boss, a project manager, or even a fellow co-worker to deal with it. Ask that all tasks go to person X (manager, project manager, co-worker, etc.) before it comes to you. Often people will reduce their overall requests if they don't feel they'll get instant gratification for making them. In the event that this is either the fifth time or the first, you will want to notify someone--such as your boss or a project manager waiting on your work--that you are doing this additional task. Talk to your boss and/or project manager and have them talk to the randomizer about controlling future tasks. If you are the boss or the project manager, put a process in place to handle randomization...from planning extra days into the schedule on the knowledge a specific VP likes random additional features to a process by which current features get de-prioritized under certain circumstances to allow for the new "cooler" features, have a way for randomizers to, well, not randomize.

With events and resource randomizations, less front work can be done. While it's often hard to argue with a high level executive about adding in a cute smiley face because people like smiley faces, there is no arguing with a tornado (one actually touched down less than a hundred feet from one of the places where I worked) or a dead computer.

In the case where an event or resource randomization has taken place and you are feeling overwhelmed/not sure what to do (there is really no maintaining work boundaries with electrical equipment) take a step back. Get up and go for a walk. Breathe a little. Come back to your desk and make a list of the items you have to do in addition to the work and transition time created by the new randomization. Then, talk to your boss or a subject matter expert or your project manager about the priority of items. If, for example, things are just not there for you to do, say, testing on a video game, they are not there and those people can agree with you on what you should be doing next. If you cannot do testing because you cannot get the computer to work at all, it's ok to walk a list over to people or call them, and let them know you have a new number one priority.

Today's post was more of a meandering, which sort of makes sense, given that its about randomization and I went all random on you. In the interest of full disclosure, one of my nicknames is Random Girl (which is not something you usually expect of a manager, (Im)Perfect or not).

The point of today's post is "things will happen and you will expect it, but you won't REALLY expect it until it falls on you like a ton of bricks." Being randomized SUCKS, and you are not alone in feeling that way. However, you are also not alone in being paid to do a job, be an expert, get work done, and it's OK to stand up for yourself and your work against all kinds of random things. You matter, and your belief in yourself (and others) affects your quality of work especially when you are being randomized.

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