Friday, December 28, 2012

Re-Run: Picking Your Battles: Letting things go v. lettings things drop

This may come as a surprise, but you cannot control everything.

I spend a lot of time each day desperately trying to remember that fact.

My weakness aside, a lot of stuff happens in a work day when you're the boss; a million little decisions need to be made, and you make them, sometimes aware of it, and sometimes not. Things are bound to irritate you. Over time, they may, in fact, fill you with wrath.

Rather than turn into a large green copyrighted character with anger management issues, you need to look at something no one ever really discussed with me about management: when to let things go as opposed to letting things drop.

Now, semantically, that sort of sounds the same. "Let it go" and "Drop it" both are things you tell a dog to do who has absconded with your fine silver ladle. For purposes of this article, we're not talking about a Great Dane and expensive silverware, we're looking at the concepts of what your ego can allow to pass over and through you, and what you know is important but is not as important as other things that you can drop.  In the first case, you're letting things go that aren't as important, in the second case, you're holding onto things so important that it's okay to let go of other important things.

Letting things go, of the two, is probably the easiest...when you're not emotionally engaged in the problem. For example: a team you depend on changes the code you depend on from them without telling you for the hundredth time. At this point, you're pretty sure they aren't thinking outside their own box, and it's probably pissing you off that you have to spend thirty minutes with the team figuring out that is actually the problem (and not your teams' recently checked in code), then another twenty minutes to an hour waiting for the folks on their team to get back to their desks from lunch or a meeting to discuss the issue, then another twenty or so minutes proving the problem is on their end, followed by a hasty apology and then code work on the part of both teams to resolve. Upon querying those involved, this is not malicious. Steps put in place to minimize this damage/time taken in this process is working. It's not legal to choke co-workers. 

You have to let it go.

If you can think of other ways to optimize the solution, great, implement them. But if you've done all you can, you cannot control everything...its going to happen again. Take a deep breath. Find a nice pillow. Scream into the pillow. Let it go.

The reason allowing things to drop is so much harder is because you have more of an illusion of control over the situation than you do in the "let it go" situation. Pretend, a moment, that what you're managing are fine china plates (I know, silverware, now plates, my brain is throwing a fancy cocktail party and apparently I'm not invited), and you're juggling those plates. Now imagine that a circumstance has occurred to throw in another, larger, but even more precious plate into your juggling routine--maybe your boss tells you this is "the highest priority!"; or the front end servers have crashed and the team that normally manages them isn't available, so your team is on point; or the freaking president of the company has his car here to test out your service first hand and your team needs to do the best possible job of their lives on changing his oil and rotating his tires. Well, not his, but his car's.

You didn't screw up. You were juggling what you were told to juggle. There's a wiggling voice in the back of your head that says "maybe I can juggle this one, too" while the reasonable voice is shrieking "let something drop before you break EVERYTHING."There's this feeling that, maybe, you can do this, too, when if you were advising a friend about such things you'd be unloading plates from her hand faster than she could grab them back from you because what she's suggesting is insane.

But if you don't have someone to help you balance the load, you are, at least figuratively, going to be dropping some things that, up until the crisis, you thought important. This may break those things--their deadlines will be missed, it will set the team back time as they transition between that item and others, an opportunity to provide information to get better or furhter sales might be lost--but a rational person would look at all the plates in the air and pick the one that you need to let go of, even if it might shatter, so you don't drop and shatter everything else.

This is balance for your team, of course; they have a finite amount they can work in a day or week. But this is also balance for YOU. As a manager, you often feel important because people treat you as an important person. But the reason you are important is because you make the hard decisions and have to stand by them. You make them with input from others (you'd be stupid not to), but you do make those decisions. You choose which plate drops so the other plates can keep being juggled safely.

This is very, very hard to do.

You can cushion the landing of an item you let drop by communicating like a crazy person, so that it comes as no surprise to all involved. You can create contingencies for when to recover from the risks created by dropping that item, and when you can pick it--or whatever it turns into--up again.

But you still have to figuratively have something in your hand that you open your fingers on and watch/hear plummet to the floor.

Letting things go is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to no control force your hand, and letting go of your emotional load related to that issue can make you happier and more capable. Dropping things is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to not control force your hand, but you have to pick which items you're working on suffer because of that interruption...and then let go of the emotional load related to the issue as it plummets so you can be happier and more capable.

Once you recognize these are things you will have to do--that you will disappoint someone (even and often yourself), you no longer have two brutal things happening to you at any time...you have two, brutal options to use to help make you and your team more effective.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Re-Run: Presents and Presence - Holidays and Your Team

The holidays bring with them a special kind of madness.

The largest percentage of religious belief in the US is Christian, so Christmas and all it's trappings bombard everyone (Christian, Atheist, Jewish, etc.), usually starting after Halloween, but seriously moving into overdrive after Thanksgiving.

This leads to:

1) Folks who do not buy into the holiday or do not observe it being in a different head space than others
2) Statistically higher levels of depression this time of year (regardless of belief, both because of the expected "family" behaviors and the fact that its pretty dark all the time
3) An otherwise dependable work force disappearing to the four winds at random times, often all at the same time.
4) Issues around holiday parties, gift exchanges, decoration, etc. in the work place
5) Workflow issues--trying to find work for folks who remain behind while 2/3rds of the rest of the company is on vacation...you know, the 2/3rds that contains the folks that the remaining folks need to talk to in order to do their work?

My recommendations for addressing these issues are as follows:

--Have a thirty minute or less group meeting in a room that you have reserved for an hour. In this meeting, get promises of time off reports in to you by end of day, end of the week, whatever. Bring up gently that not everyone celebrates the holidays the same way, and ask people to be kind to each other this time of year about their religious or non-religious views. Ask the team to send you suggestions of how you can all celebrate something together, as a team, that has no specific religious affiliations but is fun and bonding and, most importantly, involves being paid to do something fun while on the clock. Take questions from the crowd. Finally, let folks know you'll be here for the rest of the hour if they wish to discuss anything or have any questions they don't feel comfortable raising in the group.

--Get people to commit to the time they will be out (or are likely to be out) by the first week of December, if possible.

--Post who will be out and when on a public calendar--if this means a white board in the area where your team works or the calendar function in Sharepoint (or any other option), have it publicly available where everyone will be. This will help a lot in letting people answer their own questions about when and where their co-workers are.

--After the meeting, drift around and talk to members of the team about a winter celebration. In one-on-ones, get the ideas of what they really don't want to see in such a celebration, as well as what they do. Also fish around for dates that the most number of your team will be present.

--Talk to the folks leaving during the time frame and establish deliverables to be handed off to team members who are remaining. Work with the project manager (or any other group dependent on your team), letting them know about the deliverables, where they are going, when they are going, and the overall vacation time for your staff. For those who remain, make sure that even if they don't get the deliverables they are promised, that they have a backlog of tasks on which they can work, either with other folks remaining and/or on their own. If you, too, are leaving for the holidays, make sure that you have someone "in charge" while you're gone to help make decisions...such as when to call you at home for help. Leave your contact information with the team, as well, when you're out.

--Encourage your team to decorate their space; I like to pick up a bunch of stuff from the dollar store that is basically snow, snow man, moon, stars, santas, icicles, etc. related. Non-denominational stuff. No angels, no crosses, and stars that are clearly non-denominational. If people are okay with it, I'll get each one an ornament as a present and bring in a tree, then we'll take an hour meeting and decorate it with each of their ornaments plus whatever else I've got.

One year, when working on projects for a company that produced Dungeons and Dragons, I got all fairy, dragons, knights, magic users, etc., with which to decorate the tree.

If they aren't okay with a tree (or your company is not), feel free to get fake garlands from the craft store and let folks use them in their cubes and hang whatever you've brought in their cubes with their ornaments. Holiday lights are ALWAYS popular with teams (though not always with facilities--so check before you get them).

Wreaths are also pretty easy to make and non-denominational--purchase a fake fir wreath from the craft store, wrap ribbon around it with a bow, and tie on small ornaments that reflect your team or company. Hang on cube wall or office door.

--After getting input about what they'd like to do as a team, do it. If that's going to lunch as a team, do that. If it's secret Santa, arrange that. I have had the most success with White Elephant parties, provided that the rules of the gifts are very specific: must be under $10, must not be anything that HR would put in your permanent file about, no explosives, etc. As the presents come in, stack them--if you have a tree, put them under the tree. Anticipation of the event is as much fun for some as the event itself.

You are the manager, so manage the event when it happens; that may mean making reservations at a suitable restaurant for all the food requirements of your team. That may mean enforcing the rules of a White Elephant gift exchange. That might mean booking a room for a gift exchange (secret Santa or otherwise). It also means bringing extra presents in case some folks forget, or in case someone's secret Santa is unclear on the concept--the "bad" gift can be whisked away and a new one left in its place (An excellent cook in the group getting "Cooking for Dummies" as a joke might not think it's funny, and that could cause serious problems for group cohesion as well as his/her personal happiness).

--Accept that total hours worked over winter holidays are never exactly what they should be. If these are people you trust and believe in year round, let things go. This is not to say that you should allow them to make a habit of only doing a six hour work day, but if there are the occasional six hour days, or days working from home where less work than you expected got done, don't fret it. Holidays take a lot of personal time for you and for your team. Be flexible. Just don't get run over.

--Enjoy the emptiness of the office. I love to work during the holiday times that most people take off because I get so much done. It's so quiet, and it's an opportunity to take folks to lunch you might not otherwise get one-on-one time with.

--Get a little something for the team; above I mentioned a little ornament for each, though you can suggest they each bring in an ornament from home. In previous years I've given $5 coffee cards or, in one place where I worked, where chairs were were stolen frequently and not returned, I made a set of "chair charms" so people could always get their chairs back. It's not the amount of the gift, it's the thought of it; thinking about people in a positive way when they're not around lifts spirits and creates and strengthens bonds with your team. Even if you're just giving out holiday cards, it works wonders. This time of year is a great time to build and grow these relationships that will make you all more productive and happier as the next year progresses.

So that sums up my holiday suggestions. I hope you all have a lovely Winter holiday and an awesome New Year!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Re-Run: Asking for (and getting) above and beyond the call of duty

As an employee, you know that sometimes you're going to have to suck it up: work through a lunch, stay an hour later, come in an hour earlier, work a night, work a weekend, shorten a vacation...every once in a while work asks extra of you, and, because you like working there or are in love with the concept of money for goods and services, you put up with it to prevent a stoppage in the flow of dirty lucre.

Typically, someone has to ask you to do that.

As the manager, boss, project manager, etc., you're the one who is going to have to ask people to do that for you.

Now, my other posts still apply, of course; if you suck at being a boss or are a lousy person, there's a good chance no one will go more than an inch out of their way for you.

But there are other things to consider when asking people to go above and beyond the normal call of duty.

For example, what will you be doing when people are working those extra hours? Will you be at home watching TV? You shouldn't be. Even if there's squat you can actually do while they're doing the heavy lifting, you should be there, where they can see you. Employees put a lot of stock in people who stick by them, especially in sucky situations and even more so in situations where you don't have to. Now, you don't have to stay the whole time, especially if people are trading in and out of the extra time. But you do have to show up, show some hardship for what you're asking them to do for you. It goes a very, very long way towards them doing a good job and being willing to do this for you again someday.

Next, how often have you asked for this special brand of favor? My preference--and we know the world doesn't revolve on preference--is not to ask people to work extra late/weekends/early more than once a month if I can help it. In the tech industry, many people are familiar with "crunch" time, when extra hours are required of everybody, but even in the tech industry, if it's not actually "crunch" time you want to think long and hard about asking for the extraordinary because if you tap that resource too often people aren't going to want to give it to you later, when you need it. Worse, they are going to start to resent you, which makes for all kinds of serious problems managing them during normal work hours.

Also, think carefully about how useful additional extra hours will be. If you've asked this favor for the last two weekends, they aren't going to be fresh on Saturday when they show; it might be worthwhile to skip working the weekend entirely, give them time to recharge, and try again later. People do burn out, and that makes for bad work that lasts longer than crunch time.

Next question: what do they get for doing this for you? A lot of people feel that, because their job includes some non-work regular hours, they should do it simply because its their job. While you might feel that way--and heck, they might, too--its too much like taking people for granted to say it. Staying late or working a weekend or coming in early or missing a lunch is unusual and extra and they don't actually have to do it, even if their contract says it, because they could always get another job where they don't have to do that (or can do it on their own terms). At the very least, you must acknowledge what they are doing for you is above and beyond, and thank them, preferably doing both regularly and publicly.

Where possible, provide incentives. Some companies will expense dinner or lunch for people working through lunch or dinner or on the weekend. You can always ask, and they can always say no, but if they say yes, you have advocated for your people. A free meal is not, by any means, equal to giving up their private time to you, but its a good place to remind them that you do appreciate them and you will go to bat for them in whatever ways you can.

No expense account? Take up a collection for pizza and donate extra to the pot for your people. Or, bring in donuts or bagels or soda or home baked goods. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it has to be a treat and a symbol of your appreciation for them.

Can you do comp days? Can you excuse them a much longer lunch (or two) later next week? There are a lot of ways to compensate people that don't require cash. Just make sure your options are legal and approved by the people who would get to use them.

Note, working a Saturday, in my opinion is not equal to getting a Thursday off. Trading days one for one is never my idea of a good time. When I can, I try to give more time for a weekend day than a weekday of work. If that's not possible for you, you can arrange those comp days in a better way for the employee...such as a four day weekend, for example. Be creative. Be thankful. Let them know.

Next, can you make the above and beyond suck less? Sometimes working just the Saturday and giving people Sunday off is way better than half of both days (or vice versa). Check in with the team and find out what floats their boat. Majority should win, though the next time you can try it the other way to please the people who didn't get their option this time.

Will there be a long period of waiting? Managing devs, they often have to wait for the testers to finish, and vice versa, or Operations has to wait for the team to finish. Bring fun stuff for down time; games, treats, toys. Look up interesting things on the web and have them available to share (but, of course, make sure they aren't anything HR will come after you for showing). APOD has these awesome star pictures, but some people are into LolCatz. Know your people. Let them laugh and have a moment as a team. It bonds them, and they work better.

Finally, reward them. They do the work, and you praise and publish their success, and you reward them. It can be as simple as bringing a board game to play over a long lunch, or hitting a restaurant as a team, or letting people go early (outside whatever comp deals you may have set up). Now, I'm not advocating letting people spend tons of time away when you do need them the most, but I am suggesting that you give them what you can when you're in crunch, and then be generous with them when they're not in crunch. Because there will always be another time you need them to go above and beyond the call of duty for you.

Doing these things will never make working late, early, through lunch, or on weekends 100% better. But it will be better than it could be, and they'll know. Pretty soon, they might not want to work extra time or go above and beyond for just anyone, but they will want to do it for you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Re-Run: A little honest bribery can go a long way

Whenever I start a new job, I purchase a lot of chocolate in various varieties. Then I put it in an easy to see, easy to transport cup. Then I walk around the building and introduce myself, bestowing candy on anyone who wants it.

I trade people’s names and a hello for candy. I am always careful to visit the Help Desk people (which, for those of you not in the tech industry, are the folks who usually manage your email, passwords, computer issues, etc.), the receptionist, IS/IT (if they are separate from Help Desk), any executive assistants, and my immediate co-workers/team. I want my first interaction with these people to be pleasant, and I’m not ashamed to say so; as a matter of fact, many people smile and laugh when you tell them that you’re bribing them for good will in advance.

That’s the trick to bribery. It’s a blatant means of manipulation, and failing to acknowledge that blatancy can annoy or upset people. Being obvious about what you’re doing sets them at ease, and people who meet you with a smile and the association of a treat, are more likely to think of you fondly the next time you run into them.

For example, you meet Mary the receptionist. You’ve passed her desk and know she collects bears, so, when you’re out and about, bring her a bear. A non-creepy bear, btw. Nothing to inspire concerns you might want to date her or stalk her, and nothing so expensive she feels obligated for receiving it. The point is—bears, candy or good conversation—you are letting Mary know she is important because you thought about Mary even when she was not around; and that means a lot to people. It could also be things like, if Mary is busy, sign for the package for her if that’s possible. You get the gist; do something kind of a tangible nature. Feel free to tell her it’s a bribe if you’re doing it just to get on her good side (feel free to let her know you want to be on her good side), and you will be banking good fortune against a need in the future…and you might make a friend along the way.

A lot of techniques I suggest in this blog are methods of manipulation; the point that I try to keep clear, that I continue to strive for, is that you be upfront and transparent with people. It often makes them laugh, yes, but its a vital ingredient to the natural integrity on which they will base their opinions of you. You want them happy. You want to associate yourself with a good thing. But you also want to take those baby steps of good communication and connection to the next level, which is very hard to do if those people feel you're in it only for yourself, and are willing to manipulate people in negative ways to get what you want.

You do want to manipulate people, yes. But you want to do in positive ways, so people understand what you are doing and who you are. And it certainly doesn't hurt if the first thing they think of when they see you is tasty candy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Re-Run: Never Volunteer. Well. Sort of.

Another favorite article being re-run for your enjoyment. 

This may seem counter to my overall message of help and bribery, but it fits in just fine. Before I explain how, however, I would like to give you the story my father gave me on the topic of volunteering that illustrated why not volunteering is a really, really good thing:

Dad and a bunch of other young men whose heads have been freshly shaved get off the bus for the first time at the Marine base for their very first day of boot camp. Carrying their supplies, they line up outside the bus and are confronted by a drill sergeant.

The drill sergeant says "I need 2 volunteers!"

Two hands go up. My father is neither of those two men.

"You two, report to the barracks to clean the toilets! Everyone else, drop your stuff off and head to the mess hall. And Gentlemen, let this be your first lesson: never volunteer."

The moral of the story is that you should never volunteer when you do not know what you are getting into.

This, in general, is a good lesson: don't leap into something without knowing what you're leaping into. I'm sure there are some Mammoths (not especially known for their leaping, but let me have this metaphor!) that wished they'd thought it through before moseying through the tar pits.

It is not always possible to know what's around the next corner, but when you do know, then volunteering might be an option; as I note in my early blog posts, bribing people in advance is a really good idea. Volunteering can be a method of doing a good turn for someone or some project either in thanks or to bank up good will...who knows when you'll need it?

When volunteering, know and enforce your boundaries. Which is to say, volunteering to give a brown bag to five people about X process is very different than when upper management thinks that's swell and wants you to do it at the quarterly meeting for 20 minutes with full PPT presentation.

When you are volunteering, you are agreeing to do a service for a charity or someone else in a charitable way. Many people who are involved with volunteer work capitalize on the fact that we do not like to disappoint or upset people, and put themselves more in a customer seat than in the seat of someone who is--at least in this case--getting something for nothing. Since customers give us money, we work our butts off to make them happy. But charities and folks receiving charitable energy/money/etc. do not have to receive the same quality level of service; its always good if you can put in your best effort, but if you're doing someone a favor, at the end of the day, you're still the one doing the favor--you get to decide the parameters of what you are willing to do, and subtle or not-so-subtle pressure by them should not change that...whether you're giving money or time to build homes for families in need or running that document to the fourth floor for your boss down the hall.

Now, if I could just tattoo that last paragraph on my forehead (backwards), I could work on one of my own weaknesses, which is, as you have guessed, maintaining boundaries around volunteer work. I am a sucker for someone in need.

On that note, Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Re-Run: You Can't Just Nag People

The original post ran in December 2010. Please enjoy a blast from the past:
 

You Can’t Just Nag People. It’s Rude. Also, Everyone Has Expectations, They Just Don't Always Tell You.

But it is technically your job to nag people, if you are a manager (or a lead, etc.). Just sayin'.

I’m not advocating a paranoid world in which people are completely unreliable and projects never get done due to stupidity or maliciousness (although I'm certain the world seems that way sometimes). I’m just asking to take a look at the fact that because the word “manager” is somewhere involved with you, your job is to make sure stuff gets done, and you will likely be held accountable for that expectation that others have of you.

While people make mistakes and forget things or prioritize them lower than other things, or spill coffee all over themselves ten seconds after saying yes to you and what they promised flees their mind as the searing pain tears through their clothing, its not a really good idea to let people feel like they’re in need of a constant nag. You’re no one’s mother (ok, you might be, and you might be at the office, but you know what I mean). But you are interested in getting things done in a specified time frame in order to meet your own obligations and goals.

To that end, let people know you’re going to nag about items that require such time frames. When you know you need something, do not be afraid to ask for data back by specific dates and times. Always explain why, try to be as transparent as possible about your requests, and reiterate that you understand that it is a request. If it’s a pressing request and they cannot agree to the time frame, that’s ok, too. You can either escalate to get the time you need from that person or tell the person who requires the data that they’ll have to wait (more on escalating—preferably without making people upset—in future blog posts). Then be sure to follow up with your information source after securing a time when you can check back.

What about requests that you have to fulfill that come in with no time frames? So, for example, you need an answer about a question you received this afternoon. There may be no time expectation expressed by the person who asked you, but using you judgment you would try not to assume there isn’t one. Because, for every request you will ever receive, there is always a time expectation, even if one isn’t expressed. Assuming there’s no hurry, or assuming that answering immediately is required can both be problematic. Answering too soon may mean your answer may not contain the full expected data set, and answering too late can be, well, too late.

When you receive requests, always try to get an idea of the importance of the request and the time frame. People will, without fail, inadvertently distort both. However, with both, you can make an educated guess about how fast you need to get an item completed. In turn, after taking the task, you can have a better idea of how much time to negotiate with others over before getting the data you require to return to the original requestor.

And, doing it all patiently, calmly and consistently will make some people actually ENJOY you nagging them. Really. It has happened to me, and all of those who reported as such are certifiably sane (or so they tell me).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

You're a Freaking Expert

I have Imposter Syndrome. I've been in the business for 20+ years, command a large salary, write this blog, teach scrum and process management and I still feel like someday, someone's going to notice I have no idea what I'm doing and that I'm just making it up as I go along.

Turns out, knowing what your doing is a fluid thing; making it up as you go along is perfectly acceptable and has gotten many people to great heights of accomplishment. Albert Einstein rarely remembered to tie his shoes--he went to work in slippers when his wife was out of town--but we're still quoting him today.

I am, by no means, Albert Einstein or anyone like him. But I am an expert at what I do. So are you. Think about it a minute. Strip away the "wait until they find out I don't know what I'm doing" and think about your job and the accomplishments in your life that led you to where you are. Got it? See it?

Yeah, you're a freaking expert.

You would be paid to do what you do if you weren't; from flipping burgers to writing code (and everything in between) employers are not just hiring people who can get by in this economy, they're hiring good, resourceful people. Experts, or soon to be experts. You're one of them.

When you look at the folks you manage, put the expert glasses on and take a look. I bet that each member of the teams you work with or the team you manage has something you'd consider them the lead on. Something that is in their wheelhouse of expertise. People often forget that they were hired because they rocked before they got this gig. They often get bogged down in the minutia of what they are doing and how well (or how poorly) that particular minutia is doing. Even if you know they could do more than they are doing now, you know it because you hired them to be competent. You hired them for their expertise.

People you work with need to hear that now and again. Not just compliments and praise and what have you, but that they are experts. That they were hired to do the job they are doing and they are doing it well. You need to hear that, too, incidentally. The entire department may have left for another company (which actually happened to me one time), leaving you the senior one in charge, but you're the one with the l33t skillz. You deserve to be there, both because of what you know and maybe because no one knows anymore than you do.

In any case, feel self-doubt: you will. Listen to your employees kabitz about their problems and their work. Then remember, you're a freaking expert. A professional. You're getting paid to do this. And so are they. Sometimes this means they need to straighten up and fly right to earn that concept of expertise, but typically, they just need to be reminded of it in their darker moments: that you rely on them because they are experts.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lights! Camera! Focus!

Ok, that's not how that saying goes. It's supposed to be "action." Of course, focus is a type of taking action, so I think that I am allowed to use the phrase as the title on technical merits as well as artistic license.

As a manager, you have two jobs to do: 1) your management job and 2) your "regular" work. Rarely does a manager JUST manage people, and a person who just does "regular" work and no managing is not actually a manager no matter what the label on the tin says.

No one tells you when you become a project manager or a people manager that these are two distinct jobs. No one tells you that if you're doing a good job at one, you're probably neglecting the other one at least a bit. Most employers assume you know what to do and leave you to do it (unless you're working in a less-than-happy environment with a micro-manager...this is not that blog post, though).

So how do you do it?

On the surface, it seems pretty sensible: come in and work. All work is work, right? Wrong. Like the features in your products, the work you do has different priorities. Unlike the features in your products, there is no general consensus about the priorities of your work; most people giving you work are usually unaware of work you've gotten from other people or that you have work of your own to do. They just know they need the TPS report by Monday and you're their source for that report. To them, the requests they make of you are, with very few exceptions, your highest priority.

As you know five items that are all marked "highest priority" basically means that the person going through the list of the five items is the one who really prioritizes those items...if you label all items at the same priority (even if it's the lowest possible), it sort of renders the concept of you setting the priority as moot because it really doesn't give information to the person who is looking for it in terms of priority. So that person makes up the priority themselves.

Note, that's an excellent argument to have with a boss, stakeholder, etc. who wants everything done now, at the highest priority. But this article is about staying focused and doing your two jobs.

This means that you are the arbiter of priority. Your boss, the CEO, the President of the United States may come to you and give you work to do...but at the end of the day, you're the one who does it (or passes it on to be done) and you are the one who decides the final order in which it is done, by doing it in that order.

For me, this sort of enforces list making habits. I need to know, somewhere, in a concise way, all the stuff I have to do. There are lots of organizational programs out there, even tasks programs available in Microsoft Office Outlook. Notepad and pencil also works. The gist is, write down everything you have to do for a set period of time, in whatever order you can remember it.

Next, go through the list and prioritize it. Use the information from the folks asking for the outcome of those tasks, but don't let it control the priority; a 12 hour task might be your boss's highest priority, but a 10 minute task might be his secondary priority. Knocking out the ten minute task could make you look like a hero before you start on the 12 hour one. 

My rule of thumb for writing down tasks in a list is that the task has to take more than 10 minutes or is easily forgettable (or both). Oftentimes, if its faster to do the task than write it on the list, I just do the task. Also don't forget to include tasks that you know you have to do but don't often consider tasks--things like going to a daily 15 min meeting or, if you take up more than 10 minutes a day doing it, checking your email. This means you also include all your management stuff as well as all your "regular" stuff.

Base your decisions on priority by:
  • Due date
  • Rank of person who gave it
  • Emphasis on priority as given by the person who gave it
  • What you'd like to get accomplished in this time frame (ie: finally knocking down that gigantic thing you haven't been able to get to for weeks or cranking out a piece of low hanging fruit so you look productive to your manager and his manager, or anything in between)
  • Relationship to your measurable performance goals
  • If you are blocking other people from being productive by not doing a specific piece of work (ie: not completing a code review that blocks someone from checking in code, for example)
  • Anything else you deem important criteria
 Note, I used "bullets" instead of numbers--the importance of any given item on the above list is determined by you regarding your own work. For example, you could receive a piece of work that is already beyond its due date because no one found it important enough to get to yet.

Now review the prioritized list and determine how much stuff there is managerial, and how much is "regular work." There are some days--for example, when you're working the week between Christmas and New Year's and everyone except you is on vacation--when doing managerial stuff is not as important as regular work. There will be other days where regular work is less important than managerial work, such as when you have to work with an employee to map out their paternity or maternity leave.

On the whole, however, you need to not only stay on top of your high priority issues, you need to balance your time between your regular work and your managerial duties. The exact balance of work 50%-50%, 25%-75%, etc., is determined by you, time of year, and anything else you can think of. But now is your time to review your tasks, their priorities, and make sure they measure up to the balance of the two jobs you have. This might alter the order of the things you do, and will likely affect their priority.

Then you do the work.

I do this a few times a week; when I start a new job, I do it at least once a day. Eventually I get into the rhythms of the day and need the list less often, but its always good to do it at least once a week to make sure that neither of your two jobs are suffering.

It's too easy to get distracted. Too easy to lose focus. Both jobs you do are very important. But its equally important that you stay focused, manage the work, and are ready for the camera and the lights at any time.





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Picking Your Battles: Letting things go v. lettings things drop

This may come as a surprise, but you cannot control everything.

I spend a lot of time each day desperately trying to remember that fact.

My weakness aside, a lot of stuff happens in a work day when you're the boss; a million little decisions need to be made, and you make them, sometimes aware of it, and sometimes not. Things are bound to irritate you. Over time, they may, in fact, fill you with wrath.

Rather than turn into a large green copyrighted character with anger management issues, you need to look at something no one ever really discussed with me about management: when to let things go as opposed to letting things drop.

Now, semantically, that sort of sounds the same. "Let it go" and "Drop it" both are things you tell a dog to do who has absconded with your fine silver ladle. For purposes of this article, we're not talking about a Great Dane and expensive silverware, we're looking at the concepts of what your ego can allow to pass over and through you, and what you know is important but is not as important as other things that you can drop.  In the first case, you're letting things go that aren't as important, in the second case, you're holding onto things so important that it's okay to let go of other important things.

Letting things go, of the two, is probably the easiest...when you're not emotionally engaged in the problem. For example: a team you depend on changes the code you depend on from them without telling you for the hundredth time. At this point, you're pretty sure they aren't thinking outside their own box, and it's probably pissing you off that you have to spend thirty minutes with the team figuring out that is actually the problem (and not your teams' recently checked in code), then another twenty minutes to an hour waiting for the folks on their team to get back to their desks from lunch or a meeting to discuss the issue, then another twenty or so minutes proving the problem is on their end, followed by a hasty apology and then code work on the part of both teams to resolve. Upon querying those involved, this is not malicious. Steps put in place to minimize this damage/time taken in this process is working. It's not legal to choke co-workers. 

You have to let it go.

If you can think of other ways to optimize the solution, great, implement them. But if you've done all you can, you cannot control everything...its going to happen again. Take a deep breath. Find a nice pillow. Scream into the pillow. Let it go.

The reason allowing things to drop is so much harder is because you have more of an illusion of control over the situation than you do in the "let it go" situation. Pretend, a moment, that what you're managing are fine china plates (I know, silverware, now plates, my brain is throwing a fancy cocktail party and apparently I'm not invited), and you're juggling those plates. Now imagine that a circumstance has occurred to throw in another, larger, but even more precious plate into your juggling routine--maybe your boss tells you this is "the highest priority!"; or the front end servers have crashed and the team that normally manages them isn't available, so your team is on point; or the freaking president of the company has his car here to test out your service first hand and your team needs to do the best possible job of their lives on changing his oil and rotating his tires. Well, not his, but his car's.

You didn't screw up. You were juggling what you were told to juggle. There's a wiggling voice in the back of your head that says "maybe I can juggle this one, too" while the reasonable voice is shrieking "let something drop before you break EVERYTHING."There's this feeling that, maybe, you can do this, too, when if you were advising a friend about such things you'd be unloading plates from her hand faster than she could grab them back from you because what she's suggesting is insane.

But if you don't have someone to help you balance the load, you are, at least figuratively, going to be dropping some things that, up until the crisis, you thought important. This may break those things--their deadlines will be missed, it will set the team back time as they transition between that item and others, an opportunity to provide information to get better or furhter sales might be lost--but a rational person would look at all the plates in the air and pick the one that you need to let go of, even if it might shatter, so you don't drop and shatter everything else.

This is balance for your team, of course; they have a finite amount they can work in a day or week. But this is also balance for YOU. As a manager, you often feel important because people treat you as an important person. But the reason you are important is because you make the hard decisions and have to stand by them. You make them with input from others (you'd be stupid not to), but you do make those decisions. You choose which plate drops so the other plates can keep being juggled safely.

This is very, very hard to do.

You can cushion the landing of an item you let drop by communicating like a crazy person, so that it comes as no surprise to all involved. You can create contingencies for when to recover from the risks created by dropping that item, and when you can pick it--or whatever it turns into--up again.

But you still have to figuratively have something in your hand that you open your fingers on and watch/hear plummet to the floor.

Letting things go is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to no control force your hand, and letting go of your emotional load related to that issue can make you happier and more capable. Dropping things is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to not control force your hand, but you have to pick which items you're working on suffer because of that interruption...and then let go of the emotional load related to the issue as it plummets so you can be happier and more capable.

Once you recognize these are things you will have to do--that you will disappoint someone (even and often yourself), you no longer have two brutal things happening to you at any time...you have two, brutal options to use to help make you and your team more effective.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Be Present in Your Managing

That sounds very Zen, and could mean anything. I'm going to try to extrapolate around the concept, though, so hang in for some meandering.

On a side note (see, meandering!), I've always believed the sound of one hand clapping was a slap in the face.

A slap in the face is pretty direct; the ripples from that are, literally, on the skin of the person being slapped and on your slapping implement of choice (I'm a open-hand slapper, and typically only slap people who get fresh with me).  Immediate repercussions are that the person being slapped doesn't think the Zen koan answer is very funny, and are likely to be pretty upset as a series of hormones are released into their system causing them to want to fight or flight. In the immediate span after that, you might get slapped back (no joke at all this time), or worse, depending on how healthy their fight reflex is. The less immediate ripples include the potential for broken friendships, explanations to management, HR involvement, police involvement (technically it's assault)...the list goes on.

So, what I mean is, be aware of the ripples your behavior creates. The above example is very easy to anticipate and think through (although when people typically resort to any kind of violence they aren't well known for thinking things through). But after some distance, you can look down the road and see that HR, police, or managerial visit coming (or trip to the marriage counselor, or return with lots of strong men to beat the guy up who earned the slap), etc.

A less obvious example is what ripples come out of you dealing with someone who does really good work and does that work really fast. You praise them. You appreciate them. You might even take them to lunch. But you're also going to give them more work and responsibility. Their reward for working harder and faster than everyone else is getting harder work and more of it. Not everyone finds that as rewarding as the verbal praise or the lunch out (unless you're buying them lunch every day). To help control the ripples, to reduce the radius, to keep that person happy and coming back for more, you have to think about what their good work means to you, and to your group, and then think about how to tell them that getting more work exposes them to more people, increases their chances of promotion and bonus, etc. You can stop after you've thrown the rock in the water; you need to cup your hands around the pool and help the ripples go where they suit everyone best; funneling towards improving that employees lot in life at the office. People will work hard for you because they like you, but they stop liking you so much when you don't think ahead to what they get out of working hard for you, besides you liking them back. You can stop ripples by having your employees' backs, being visible about it, and by showing them how their contributions are not only helping you, your team, and your company, but also helping them.

Another ripple example is all about you.  Everyone knows that when the manager changes behavior drastically SOMETHING is coming. Well, they all know that, but as the manager you may know that you slept funny last night and there's a hitch in your back so you're moving slower and sort of limping (newsflash: getting old sucks). A team newly forming or a tight knit group--it doesn't matter the state of the team--will be affected by the affect of the manager. Can't get too high, can't go too low, and you need to be reassuring. I find jokes work pretty well, and, when I don't feel like laughing, I hand out candy. Since I do that a lot when I am happy, they really don't know the difference, and never should: even if the whole team is being laid off tomorrow, there's no sense in their agonizing about it today.

This also goes for professional relationships, as the boss. For example, you can't not like anyone who works for you when you're the boss, even, and especially, if you really don't like someone. The team will notice you don't like a member. Factions will form--those who think its unfair you don't like that person, those who stand by you, those who don't want to be involved with the conflict, even though there actually isn't any conflict. People are not stupid, and, hopefully especially not the people who work for you. So, if you dislike someone or are unhappy with them, even if you're undergoing a performance plan with someone, no one should see you being down on that person. You should highlight them like you do all your employees. Greet them, small talk with them. Be human. It goes a long way towards reducing ripples that might otherwise overturn your work boat.

Finally, employees themselves can cause ripples; a divorce at home, a custody battle, a death in the family, a health issue...any and all these things (and more) could cause difference in behavior from what the team is used to. Many of them are in fact, NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, or that of the team to manage or untangle. But their behavior will create ripples that you will have to deal with. In this situation, talking to them, but not demanding they talk to you, is best. Explain the ripples, offer yourself, HR or any options the workplace may have as support (legal services, counseling, time off, etc.); when they begin to act out, change the subject and pull them aside to give them time to calm down. Each situation is different, but each employee can and will create ripples, and may or may not be in the head space to understand the repercussions of what they are doing.

In our daily lives we don't think about repercussions constantly; some people would never get into a car and drive if they really looked at vehicle accident statistics. As a manager, you need to set some time aside each week to look at yourself, at the team, at what is going on, and look for those ripples; you can trace them back to the source and reduce any additional damage if you take time to be present in your managing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Not to Make Other People Uncomfortable (Unless for some reason you want to)

In previous posts I've talked about some traumatizing stuff that has happened or I've had to deal with when I was an employee and as a manager. Today we're going to discuss how avoid that happening to you, or at least look at some basic guidelines on how not to creep other people out. In the blogosphere as a whole, there is a lot of discussion about Creepers; people creep other people out without actually recognizing, or in some rare cases, caring, that they are doing so.

As an employee, but especially as a manager, you are in hot water for even the appearance of creeping--perception is reality in the workplace. If any of your employees might be guilty of creepy behavior, or creeping, as a manager you get the extra special bonus of being liable for the discomfort their behavior may create.

What is Creeping? 
  • Creeping is making someone or someones who are not you uncomfortable with your presence and/or behavior. 
  • Creeping can be malicious, but is most often inadvertent--this is to say, the person being creepy may not understand he/she is being creepy. 
  • Creeping can be passive as well as active; its based on how a third party feels, not on how the creeper feels or what the creeper is doing. 
  • Creeping is subjective to those being creeped out. 
  • Creeping IS the problem of the person doing the creeping AND his/her manager, even if the perception of the issue is that the person in question isn't doing anything wrong. This is because, in the work place, expected duties include keeping everyone with whom you work and interact comfortable being in the work place, which falls on each individual to maintain for the group. 
  • Creeping can seem unfair; a person accused of creepy behavior might just be occasionally looking at the person who is complaining of being creeped out. A person accused of creeping may have committed one act that made someone uncomfortable by accident and never do it again, but keep the creeper title and have it communicated by others within the group that felt targeted by the behavior. 
  • Creeping can create a hostile work environment. 
Be Proactive about monitoring/preventing potential uncomfortable behavior:
  1. Know your team. Understand team dynamics. When a team is being formed, uncomfortable and awkward situations can arise as people determine the power structure within the group. These transitions need to be supervised and employees protected from feeling slighted or frightened. Employees who might be creeping others out specifically to achieve a particular position should be dealt with on an as-needed basis; the only common feature should be that they are denied whatever they attempted to achieve through creeping, and going to everything from informal conversation to formal reprimand (or worse) as the situation merits. 
  2. Do not expect that only women will be creeped out by men. While a large percentage of this type of issue occurs when a male colleague creeps out a female colleague, females may end up creepers to other females, males to other males, and females may creep out their male colleagues. 
  3. Creeping behaviors can seem very benign when they are not targeted at you.  Take any suggestion of uncomfortability by other employees very seriously. Initially talk to the person who feels uncomfortable to discuss what aspects make him or her uncomfortable. In talking to someone, you may encounter associated memories to that type of situation of which they are really uncomfortable, and not necessarily another employee. However, you might find that something you find normal or the person doing it finds normal to be culturally or personally inappropriate for the person complaining. The complaint should be taken seriously. Too often creeper behavior--in business and outside of it, say in a group of friends--is brushed aside; this can give the message to the creeper the behavior is okay, which you have someone literally telling you, that it is not. 
  4. Unlike may inner-office conflicts, being the victim of creeping makes it very hard to approach the creeper and ask for change. I often encourage my employees at conflict to talk to each other before they come to me, or to come to me together with my presence ensuring a fair discussion. However, when someone is that uncomfortable, its very difficult for them to communicate it to the source of their discomfort; they may be worried of embarrassing that person, making too big a "deal" out of things and losing support from other co-workers, worried that they may be considered "oversensitive" or have other fears triggered by a co-worker being told he/she is acting creepy and then them having a natural defensive response.  Where possible, men or women who are feeling uncomfortable should be asked to stand up for themselves as soon as the behavior starts; however, if they are unable to, accept that, as a manager or fellow co-worker, you may need to do so for them.
  5. Creeping needs to be stopped as it happens. Typically I recommend praising in public and punishing in private; however, if someone is creeping and someone else is uncomfortable, it needs to stop right then. This could be you removing the creeper from the situation and explaining it, or it could be just telling them to stop whatever behavior is triggering the issue. It can be as distinct as "Cut that out, John, it's creepy," to "John, why don't you and I change chairs so I can sit closer to Jane?" depending on how low key you need/want to keep the interchange. Whatever is done should be done immediately, however. Allowing inappropriate behavior while you are right there is effectively tacit approval
Recommendations to Creepers/People accused of Creeping that you can offer:
  • No touching other people.
  • Increase personal space boundaries around yourself and others (most people like 2-3 feet); always leave enough space someone can walk around you without touching you.
  • When people excuse themselves and leave, let them go away
  • Stop telling jokes for a while - work with the manager on what is, and is not funny
  • Don't stare at people
  • Test out any new tactics/behaviors to reduce creeping on you--the manager--before moving forward with any co-workers. 




Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Houston, I've published a book!

Ok, my entire team of friends and I have published a book. You can get details on my life outside of management (or inside of it outside the business world...running games is a lot like herding cats) here: http://www.dreamsofdeirdre.org/






You can get the print edition here and the electronic version here!

Thanks for your patience as I've been doing a lot of writing...just not necessarily in the blog...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This is a great article about the unifying voice in the brain that tries to make sense of things that we perceive and often confabulating the cause and effect to make things make more sense.

An excerpt to get the gist:


The "Interpreter" in Your Head Spins Stories to Make Sense of the World

...When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the desert of Southern California—out in the desert scrub and dry bunchgrass, surrounded by purple mountains, creosote bush, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. The reason I am still here today is because I have nonconscious processes that were honed by evolution.

I jumped out of the way of many a rattlesnake, but that is not all. I also jumped out of the way of grass that rustled in the wind. I jumped, that is, before I was consciously aware that it was the wind that rustled the grass, rather than a rattler. If I had had only my conscious processes to depend on, I probably would have jumped less but been bitten on more than one occasion.

Conscious processes are slow, as are conscious decisions. As a person is walking, sensory inputs from the visual and auditory systems go to the thalamus, a type of brain relay station. Then the impulses are sent to the processing areas in the cortex, next relayed to the frontal cortex. There they are integrated with other higher mental processes, and perhaps the information makes it into the stream of consciousness, which is when a person becomes consciously aware of the information (there is a snake!). In the case of the rattler, memory then kicks in the information that rattlesnakes are poisonous and what the consequences of a rattlesnake bite are. I make a decision (I don’t want it to bite me), quickly calculate how close I am to the snake, and answer a question: Do I need to change my current direction and speed? Yes, I should move back. A command is sent to put the muscles into gear, and they then do it.

All this processing takes a long time, up to a second or two. Luckily, all that doesn’t have to occur. The brain also takes a nonconscious shortcut through the amygdala, which sits under the thalamus and keeps track of everything. If a pattern associated with danger in the past is recognized by the amygdala, it sends an impulse along a direct connection to the brain stem, which activates the fight-or-flight response and rings the alarm. I automatically jump back before I realize why.

If you were to have asked me why I had jumped, I would have replied that I thought I’d seen a snake. The reality, however, is that I jumped way before I was conscious of the snake. My explanation is from post hoc information I have in my conscious system. When I answered that question, I was, in a sense, confabulating—giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true.

I confabulated because our human brains are driven to infer causality. They are driven to make sense out of scattered facts. The facts that my conscious brain had to work with were that I saw a snake, and I jumped. It did not register that I jumped before I was consciously aware of it...



What this means as a manager (or really, as a human being) is that people are literally telling themselves stories about what has happened, explaining things to themselves and to you. Which is why when you have two people having an argument, there are three actual sides to that argument: what each person interpreted happened, and what actually happened.

Quite frankly, even if a third party, not involved in the argument was present, they still wouldn't be able to tell you what ACTUALLY happened, though, for the same reason: their interpreter is giving them a story that explains what they are seeing, and may be "filling in" things that may or may not have happened, but they definitely remember because of this brain mechanism.

As a manager, this is of note when there are discrepancies between your experience and that of co-workers or employees. These discrepancies are often frustrating, and denying the reality that someone else has experienced--even if it was a story their brain was telling them instead of what actually happened--makes it harder to talk to and work with people.

Better to engage on a level of accepting individual experiences, and then collaborating with the folks involved to come up with a story that works for everyone, that accommodates the fact that different perspectives experience different things, but the end result is that you all agree on a resolution with which all stories may end collaboratively.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Everyday Isn't a Deathmarch: Injecting a Little Fun Into Your Managing Style without Terrifying Your Reports

Being a manager isn't all fun and games, but there's no reason being a manager can't include some fun and games.

Doing fun things takes little time, increases productivity, and bonds a team together better and more strongly than just working together would do. It can help remove some of the rough edges between relationships, but most of all, it really improves morale. They like each other better, and they like you, as their manager better after a little time to have some fun together.

Some companies will actually pony up cash to take a team out to lunch or pay for pizza, but most of the time you're doing your own morale stuff. With that in mind, you want to cover these bases when planning an event:

1) People actually want to do the event. They may not be up to their ears in stuff for your project, but they might be for other projects. Or they may not be comfortable with each other enough yet to want to spend time with their team when they could have that time to themselves, to go to the bank, and/or to leave early and be with their family or Xbox.

2) People can afford the event. If the company isn't ponying up, unless you're made of money, they are going to have to participate in the funding of the event. This means working on a budget and being careful; not everyone is paid the same and you really, really, don't want them to start talking about how they are paid for various HR and sanity related reasons. Also, some may have small kids and stay-at-home spouses or may be taking care of elderly relatives or have high medical bills...people don't like to advertise that they're short on cash or why. It's a delicate line to walk in terms of making sure everyone feels included but no one feels obligated or put upon financially.

3) People can actually attend the event. This includes the timing of an event (during a work day v. evening v. weekend), but it also includes cultural content of the event; I had some lovely Indian ladies who were pure vegetarians and therefore could not attend any events that involved food unless they were vegetarian, because the smell of the meat products on other people's plates made them ill. Sometimes it even includes the content of the potential allergic factors at an event: a co-worker with a nasty contact allergy to onions and garlic, for example, was only able to order a salad with no dressing when we all went to Olive Garden for a going away party because everything else on the menu had garlic and/or onion.

4) The company/your boss is okay with the event and the timing of the event. Some companies, for example, frown on teams going out for alcholic beverages, as it doesn't meet the standards of the company. This may mean if anyone on your team has so much as a beer at lunch, they cannot return to the office until the next day, or that upper management may decide on disciplinary action for you engaging an event such as this with your team (during company hours or not).

5) People can actually participate in the event comfortably. For whatever reason, the last couple of companies I've worked for have been hot under the collar to go do Paintball sessions with employees. I'm not fond of pretending to shoot my colleagues (no matter my occasional fantasy of doing so), and I certainly dont want them shooting me, paint or no. Some people may not be physically fit enough to do these types of events, or may have physical disabilities that they aren't eager for everyone to know about. Wine tasting might be out if you have folks that are, for example, recovering alcoholics or whose religion prohibits the consumption of alcohol. A lot of companies have wanted to take the teams out to baseball games, which seems very innocuous until you consider that even with sun screen my lily-white skin burns lobster red in just a few short hours--I'm the type that goes from pale to red, peels and looks like a burn victim, then returns to pale. Extended periods in the sun are not my cup of tea, let alone watching a bunch of guys with perfectly good bats not actually hitting each other with them.

Sad, right? As the manager, the fun in "fun" events is pretty much for the employees. Trust me, though, once you've got a handle on these items, the fact that they are happy will make you happy, too.

There are events that can cost little to nothing: two hours within the work day to watch a movie and eat popcorn in a conference room, for example. Playing group-oriented board games--one of my teams absolutely loved Apples-to-Apples, to the point where I had to monitor them carefully to avoid HR issues. Ordering pizzas and salds (to accomodate all tastes and dietary restrictions possible) and shooting the breeze. Going to a resteraunt the entire team can agree upon.

At one place I worked, we had a militant vegan. This is to say that she lectured on the problems with meat products of all varieties whenever we went out, and usually had a hard time finding things to eat (We also had to have a discussion about asking people how they enjoyed murder every time they took a bite of a burger). Solution: have her find several resteraunt choices and then orchestrate which one the team wanted to go to. She could go to resteraunts with "friendly" animal acquisition ("free range," for example) and which had plenty of vegan dishes she could enjoy. Also, a long talk about offering vegan options to the team rather than just throwing around terms like "murderer." This led to vegan cookies and cakes appearing in the office, and actually did change some behaviors on the team (according to them); they made different choices in the grocery store, for example, or snaked her cookie recipe and at least made one new dish without animal products. It turned into a bit of a win for her, and the rest of the team actually started enjoying it, too.

Once you've figured out what works when the sky is not falling, such as when you are in crunch mode, you can employ some of these when you are in crunch mode; knowing what pizza options are close by/deliver for folks working late or through lunch, for example, is invaluable. Knowing the team really enjoys movies during the work day means you can offer that to look forward to if they end up working on the weekend. These morale options don't make up for harsh realities of crunch time--in many cases they don't come even close. But, they do let your team know that you're trying to make it as good for them as you can, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel (that is not a train).

Morale and team building should be a tool in your managerial toolbox; carrots and sticks work well with teams. I prefer more carrot than stick, because people who believe you care about them and will take care of them will do far, far more for you than people who resent you or fear you. Including yourself in these exercises, as a member of the team and not the manager, humanizes you and makes you more approachable for things that may be outside of the morale event. Finally, if people like the people with whom they work, they are going to enjoy their work more and be more productive.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bonus Blog: Another funny job story

When I was working technical support as the supervisor, I had two more amazingly weird things happen.

The first started pretty normally: a woman called and had trouble with her game client download because she'd lost power and the download had stopped. Power was restored, and she needed help getting started again. I helped her.

A few calls later, she was back; power had been out again. I gave her the appropriate instructions, again, and she hung up.

The third time she called, I asked her what was up. I told her that it was bad for her computer to be exposed like this--stops and starts can fry things. She told me she was fine because she had a "power controller." I eventually found out she meant surge protector. I explained that most surge protectors were good for 3, maybe four power outtages and she should contact her electrical company about the outtages.

That's when she laughed and told me there wasn't anything they could do: Tropical Storm Andrew was responsible for the outtages. I asked if she was in the middle of a hurricane, and she said it wasn't a hurricane yet, and could I give her those instructions again? The room behind me went silent as I explained that it was very, very dangerous to operate electrical equipment such as computers and PHONES in a hurricane, and she should stop doing that and find shelter. I explained that lightening can sometimes travel through phone lines, and for both of our safety, she needed to get off the phone; I was pretty sure that, in the unlikely event her lines were struck my lightning I'd be okay, but it was the fact she could be putting me in danger that finally got her off the phone and the computer, and scurryng around unplugging all her other electrical devices. She was grumpy because she was going to "miss her shows" and I cheerfully wished her good luck, reminded her that 911 was an available emergency option, and got her off the phone. The stunned silence that had surrounded me erupted in clapping and laughing as people started repeating, "You mean you're in a hurricane?"

I already knew that people could be clueless, but it was reinforced that day, as well as the fact that people can actually DIE from being clueless.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Treasure the Worst Job You've Ever Had

...because it's always possible you'll get a worse job some day. On the bright side, as much as you learn from regular old failures, you can learn some amazing things from the spectacularly failed ones.

I used to think the worst job I ever had was when I was 17 and I worked at a toystore that is now (thankfully) out of business. The Assistant Manager had a god complex, and I have spatial awareness problems, so of course, we got on great. The hardest aisle in the place to clean at night was the board game aisle, as everything was stuck in tight, like a Jenga puzzle that's never supposed to fall down. When he figured out I couldn't do that aisle, it became my nightly job, and he kept me and everyone else well past closing until I finished it or he relented around midnight and let someone help me.

I think, as a boss, he had some deluded idea that annoying the rest of the staff and humiliating me might teach me spatial awareness. Or he was just a controlling asshole. What I learned from that job is that you can quit bad jobs. My father specifically asked me to resign because he was driving me home and he was tired of the guy keeping me so late. I never told my father why the guy kept me so late, as I assumed my father would punch him or something (The ImPerfect Manager is daddy's little girl, and will be until I'm 101...that is the only case where using "little girl" and my name or The ImPerfect Manager is appropriate, by the way, unless you want to see the ImPerfect Manager punch someone herself). The learning experience derived, however was that sometimes, the paycheck isn't worth it. You don't quit a job lightly, and despite the desire to do so, you don't burn bridges when you go. But you can go, and you can hold your head high (and sometimes that's easier to do when the Assistant Manager's face shows that he has just realized that being down a person means he has to do some chores now, too).

Several jobs later, the next job that I thought was the worst in the world was doing customer service for a popular metropolitan newspaper in the Bay Area (still in business). I wanted to be a reporter, so I walked in and asked if they had any jobs. I also needed a job, so the fact that they did have jobs, even non-reporting ones had some appeal. The manager treated all of us like we were 10 year olds trying to steal candy--from the girls my age paying their way through college to the retired ladies making a few extra bucks, none of us got any respect, at all. That wasn't the main problem, though.

The main problem was the customers. It's a newspaper, not a spleen. I never actually said that to people (nor liver nor heart nor brain, which some of them could have used). An example phone call was a woman that went off on me for 10 minutes, not cursing, but actively yelling (people who called frequently knew that they could be hung up on for cursing but not for yelling) about the fact her newspaper was stolen and how upset she was as a result. When she finally wound down I finally put the receiver back to my ear and calmly asked for her name and address so that I could rectify the issue for her, to which she calmly replied, "That's okay, I stole my neighbor's paper." I then had to ask for their address and dispatch a paper there and hope that no one else was talking to her neighbor in the meantime. Co-workers nearby began actively laughing, creating an issue as the lady on my phone and folks on with other reps were wondering if they were being laughed at, while our boss stormed in because enjoyment was something she was thoroughly opposed to while you were at work.

What I learned from that job is that you can give less than two weeks' notice. It's not polite. It's not professional, but some notice is better than no notice. Turnover in the department was 3-6 people per month in a department of 12. I lasted a little over a year. I gave my notice and the boss read me the riot act about not giving her two weeks'.

That was when I also learned that, yes, work can be a power struggle, but sometimes you are the one with the power.

I asked her, very politely, if that meant she wanted today to be my last day, or if she was okay with me working one more week, because those were her options. She was floored. She was used to having the power all the time. In a way, she had some: she could choose what my end date was, but I got to choose the options she could choose from; also an important lesson. Sometimes in life you don't get to make the actual choice, but you can shape the only available choices. My boss at the time chose the additional week. She was extremely kind to me for the first time I worked there for that week, somehow expecting that would cause me to stay. I was the highest productivity worker, and I earned awards for the department in preventing users from quitting the paper, so I could understand her reluctance at me going. She was, however, still a shrill, power-hungry person with poor people skills and no management skills, and the customers were still angry and/or lonely people, so I still quit on the prescribed day and never looked back.

Later I thought the worst was this tech support gig I had; I was the tech support supervisor, but this not-so-young upstart had moved in and was kissing up to the boss and going out of her way to make me look bad; okay, that sounds like paranoia, and maybe it was, but it didn't mean she wasn't out to get me. As the supervisor, I got all the escalations, the truly angry people that you could hear through the phone from across the room. After six or eight of those folks I was often shaking and red in the face, which would be when my co-worker felt the need to call the boss in to ask about things that she didn't need to call the boss in for. She was prompt at pointing out errors...to my boss, and not to me, often when they were resolved not as errors, when the boss was safely not present. She was a fun person.

We were still not supporting brain surgery, but people can be very passionate about video games. We had one lady go through each person in tech support over the course of a couple of weeks because she would eventually get fed up with them not helping her and declare they were part of the CIA conspiracy behind her being unable to play her games online. One day I was listening to her spout about the fact that her house was bugged and her internet was being deliberately disrupted through the use of aluminum foil when she interrupted herself to briefly say, "Bye honey, I love you" and kissed someone in the background. That day I learned that even crazy people can find love. This cheered me considerably. I, too, shortly thereafter found the love of my life. I don't think he believes in CIA conspiracies directly related to the Internet, but you never really know a person.

I also learned to document, document, document. When my co-worker attempted to usurp the job I was doing and my boss asked me what job I thought I was doing (as she suddenly couldn't remember), I pulled out the document I had her sign with my job description and duties. I found a nice job in QA at another company shortly thereafter, and in the pretense of good faith, gave her the template for my job description so she could promote my co-worker to that job, knowing in my heart of hearts that the co-worker actually didn't meet the requirements to do the job. Which I knew they would notice very shortly as she went through the "perfunctory" HR interview process. I didn't learn that revenge is a dish best served cold, but I did learn that revenge is a dish best served politely, with the rope that you've given the person in question that is the proper length with which to hang themselves.

Revenge in the work place, by the way, is not about revenge at the end of the day; people don't respect that, and you don't respect yourself (no matter how food it feels to get someone at first, you always know that you should have been professional). But comeuppance is an entirely different thing. Tattle tales do not prosper in business. People who are competent and shine brightly can't help but reveal the shadows around other people.

The next job, the QA job, was great for a long time. It was the Dot Com Boom, and I learned so many things and was so eager to come to work every day. It was only towards the end when my days were all 12 or 13 or 14 hours long that it became my latest "worst job ever." The team would meet and send in a sacrificial lamb to the boss's office which was right next to the door to get out of the building to the parking lot (and he had a large window on the parking lot itself). If no lamb was chosen, the first person that walked past his desk would get pulled in and persuaded to work longer. It took us a while, but eventually we took turns, most of us getting to go home after only 10-12 hours and the unlucky one staying at least another two. In this job I learned that while I love my work and my friends there, I love not working and my friends outside of work more. The boyfriend at the time (now husband) missed me, which was a unique feeling, both awesome and scary.

This job taught me that work-life balance was not just a set of buzzwords for Buzzword Bingo. If I didn't get enough down time my work suffered, and if my work suffered, the people who reported to me and depended on me suffered. I saw that directly, and I couldn't allow it to continue. So I eventually moved on to a more normalish 40-45 hour work week and the ability to have dinner at home every night.

The next worst job also started out well; I was working for a new Dot Com...and then the Dot Com crash happened. Of 130 people, I was one of 13 to actively help close the doors. For the last six weeks we were open, we couldn't touch the code, so the team came in and played Diablo 2 every day. That part was fun. But the looks on people's faces, the not knowing about their livelihoods as the desperately tried to sell the company...that taught me that my youth and work viability was probably not going to last forever. Which sucked, because Diable 2 is pretty fun if you're being paid to play it.

The company did eventually get bought out by another company (still in business today). One of the 13 was a strange little man who only got stranger. And stranger. Then creepy. Then legally harassing. You never want to know that a person at work wants to know what it would be like to stroke your hair. Or that he thinks your co-worker should jump out of a birthday cake in a bathing suit. Or that he wishes another co-worker would lie naked on a bear skin rug so he could observe. That dude creeped out everyone, and our bosses wouldn't do anything about it. They had a soft spot for socially awkward coders...and no respect at all for those of us being harassed.

I learned in this job that men and women can be sexually harassed and that being sexually harassed is very unpleasant. Eventually, my friend and I gathered the group, took statements, and wrote a nine page back and front single spaced document that we gave to the HR maven. This taught me that sometimes, you have to take things over your manager's head. I felt good about it. I felt empowered...only to learn that since our bosses had refused to address this problem with him, this was "technically" his first offense, which, pursuant to the HR handbook, meant they could not automatically fire him.

I had never thought the world was fair, but this job taught me that it could be really, really far from fair. Sometimes doing the right thing still ends up without a happy ending. This sounds so logical, and my thinking very Pollyanna, I'm sure, but when you have 9 front and back pages on disgusting behavior you kind of think you're going to win. We didn't.

This man who knew us and what we'd said about him remained, playing his music so loud the entire room could hear it through his earbuds, not talking to any of us directly, but leaving pictures of his hot Russian mail-order bride in various states of undress around (I wish I were making this up). It was a mercy when Microsoft hired me and moved me out of state.

A couple of jobs later was the death march project from hell. In interviews, when interviewers ask me about the worst project/things that went horribly wrong on projects, I mention this one. It is, to this day, still the worst job, ever.

I was a new project manager. I took what we were calling "The Boston Job." My first inclination this might not be good as that no one else wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. A 6 hour plane ride to Boston in the middle seat later, I met the nice people, laid out a backlog to use Scrum and set up sprint planning, and then spent another 6 hour uncomfortable plane ride back a few days later.

In the ensuing weeks, the project was transferred from the original team who contracted us to a small and growing fiefdom. The new owner wanted the entire consulting team to move to Boston for the six months of the project. That was danger sign #2. When we declined, he hired everyone with a pulse that could touch a keyboard in his native area. This was danger sign #3.

Things started out okay...we planned sprints and started working. He agreed to everything. He met on the phone for daily stand up meetings to discuss team progress and to agree to the day's work. Then he'd randomly order his team in Boston to do ANYTHING ELSE BUT WHAT WE AGREED. He called repeatedly to change things mid-sprint. Me, my mentor, my dev lead. I had to change the number for my dev lead (switch phones with a different group and take the dev lead's phone) to get him to stop calling the poor guy. This, at this point, was Danger sign #37 or so.

Then the daily calls about how I was a horrible project manager and person for not changing everything daily for him began, in addition to his calls to my boss and the daily stand ups where he pretended he was a normal human being. He began instructing his team to undo work my team had done (and he had actively paid us to do).

This was the first project where I understood the concept of "firing the customer." Sometimes, customers will price themselves right out of your working for them, not by the negotiation of a contract, but by the amount of money you end up spending trying to manage them. This project also taught me how to talk to upper management. I wasn't exactly confident all the time, but frustration can make you braver than you'd normally be.

The CEO, however, wouldn't let us end the contract, despite the customer actively working against us. The customer was not well liked within his organization; if we could complete this work, we'd look amazing to the rest of the org, who'd likely sign on to spite him and because if we could handle him, we could handle anything. He called it a "prestige" project. I did not tell him what I called it, as I maintain that swearing in front of senior management is a quick way to get fired.

So returned to my team with the news...and a bag of goodies. The customer's team would undo their work and write crappy, horrible, non-project related code in the morning well before my guys got in (they were in Boston, we were in Redmond). For every piece of code they had to undo, rollbacks they had to manage, thing they had to explain for the 10th time, whatever, they could reach into the bag and get a Starbuck's card, a Farside book, or a toy. I couldn't make the project less bad, but I could make their immediate circumstances less bad. I paid for a lot of lunches and listened to a lot of venting. Most of all, I kept the yelling at myself; the customer was hung up on when he started going off on the team. This did not make me more popular with the customer.

What I learned, though, is that if you put it all on the line for your team, they'll do the same for you. They worked longer hours. We worked on a continuous integration platform; if the builds were building right and the tests were passing, all the bars would come up green. This didn't happen because crazy people three timezones away were frequently breaking things (like the VPN connection to make this thing work). On the first day they got all green I was out sick; so they took a picture of themselves (all thumbs up and smiles) and the monitor in the background, with all the bars green.

I had always known that people are what make a job great. I just learned, in that moment, how great they could make a job.

Towards the last few months the customer was more and more irate, but I cut scope, re-arranged resources, and set the schedule. I suggested to the CEO and my mentor they tell the customer I'd been fired from the project to make him happy; in fact, it would have made me happy, too. They agreed to do it on the condition that I wasn't actually fired from the project. I'd keep doing my job, managing the project, but they'd let him think I was no longer on it; my mentor became the new face of the team. This thrilled the customer...until he learned my mentor wasn't any more maleable than I was. However, it bought us some time and good will.

We did it. On time. In budget. Within scope. We partied that day at lunch. I brought boardgames that afternoon. That weekend, I got a hoop permanently set into the top of my right ear to remind me of how bad this all was, and to be greatful for what I have now comparitively. I still reach up and touch it sometimes, and smile, because no matter how hectic things have become, no one was planning on calling me daily and telling me I was a bad person over it.

I learned from that project that I'm stronger than I thought I was. That a group of people is stronger than any individual. That in the midst of anger and frustration and chaos there are moments of magic and bonding. Most of all, I learned that being a manager--project or people or both--was what I loved more than anything else I'd ever done, and even the worst job I'd ever had didn't diminish that. Instead, it made it bigger and brighter.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Professionalism

There's a good chance I'll do more on this topic over the course of my blog. Dictionary.com defines professionalism as professional  character, spirit, or methods and 2. the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.

I think you can act like a professional whether you are one or not; which is not to suggest bursting into an operating room and just taking over on that lung surgery, but more about ethics and behavior in the workplace,

Yes, I said the "e" word. I'll say it (type it) again: ethics. Ethics in the workplace is also a much larger discussion. For the moment let's define being ethical as doing what movies would consider "the right thing" regardless of the fact that in real life the right thing can sometimes get you fired or defenestrated. Also, to clarify, I don't mean gangster or mobster movies, or movies where evil is the winning character.

Basically, professionalism in the workplace is behaving as people expect a professional to behave. Note the word "expect." People have expectations. They will vary between jobs, groups, and individuals. This, I think, just makes things interesting, but can throw you or others for a loop.

My basic, every day professionalism in the work place includes (but is not limited to):

1) Dressing appropriately. A lot of tech shops are cool with jeans and t-shirts, but some consulting gigs have you in suits and ties (and everything in between). Dress to the level of the person that is paying you/managing your reviews would prefer. Every once in a while, dress down to mingle more with other folks (and to keep from seeming like a suck up). But the gist is, T-shirts and jeans might be allowed, but ones with rips in them worn daily to the office produce a lower review score from a supervisor than clean ones with no holes.

A lot of people suggest to dress for the position you wish to have. This is interesting because it doesn't really include the full world of options of jobs you have v. jobs you wish to have. For example, if you're a member of the administrative team (customer facing) you're probably wearing very nice clothes daily. But if you are trying to move into the System Administration position within your company, they are wearing non-customer facing clothing like jeans. The Sys Admins may have to work at 2 am and something has gone wrong if they are meeting with customers, so typically the dress code between you and them will be very different, and dressing for the job you want could get you fired from the job you have.

This is why I recommend to dress as nicely as expected by your current boss. To move anywhere, you need their support (with very limited exceptions). This means you need them on your side and supporting you. Doing what they want, in something as simple as dressing, goes a long way, because most people don't think of what other people want very often.

Dressing appropriately is acting professionally because you are thinking about and reacting (hopefully properly) to what those other people think in a positive way. This is a sign of maturity in life, let alone in the office, and it sets a tone for professionalism that may help cancel out those bad days when you're short with people or your jeans rip on the way into the office.

2) Treat everyone you meet as if they're someone. I talk about this much earlier in this blog--Help People Even When it Doesn't Benefit You--and I stand by it. The person you're kind to today might turn out to be a VP at another company where you want to get hired tomorrow. To paraphrase the Bible, it says that you are judged by God in how you treat the least of his creations (Matthew 25:45). Religious or not, you are judged the same way by your co-workers, employers, and others every day, conciously or not, by how you treat the people they see you interacting with.

For example, you have two people scheduled for a job interview. There's a pan handler on the street outside your building. You can see out, people coming in cannot see in and probably think that no one can actually see them, anyway. Candidate one walks past the pan handler not making eye contact. Candidate two gives half the sandwich he/she is gulping down before the interview to the pan handler and exchanges a few polite words before coming in. Most people are going to be inclined to hire Candidate two before he/she even opens his/her mouth at the interview; random acts of kindness say a lot about a person, ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE IS NO BENEFIT OTHER THAN TO THE PERSON TO WHOM YOU ARE BEING KIND. People want to work with kind people, even in businesses that are fast paced and require a lot of shark-like behavior; you want to trust and like the people you work with. That means that you need to behave in a way that can be liked and trusted.

3) Don't swear. I don't care how nice your office is about it, don't do it. Unconciously, people put a check in the "not like so much" column when you swear. Things they hate about themselves when they swear get associated in the back of their head related to you when you swear. Many people don't like swearing, and they won't say anything, especially if the culture allows for it, which means you're burning relationship bridges by swearing and don't even know it.

Finally, I kind of think of swearing as a cop-out: I can be so much more creative with my language than what I am limited to by swear words. Call someone a shithead or let them know that you found the village where the idiot is missing and can give them a ride there, and I'll bet that people in the room will be way more amused by the second than the first.

4) Be amusing, not annoying. It's a fine line, but humor bonds people. Don't denigrate others, and ration self denigration sparingly (I use it to diffuse situations between two parties that are actively hostile towards one another; if they're laughing at me and not at each other, we've made our first step towards getting things sorted out). This also doesn't mean memorize knock knock jokes or anything. It means don't be afraid to make people smile; when they do, all kinds of awesome hormones are released, and when they smile and associate it with you, you are literally conditioning them to like you.

Yes, being amusing can be professional, by the way. Never work "blue" (off color or HR sensitive joking), and don't make everything a joke. But treating people well, like they are important, and making them happy in small bursts is professional behavior and it both benefits you and gets stuff done.

Watch the annoying part, by the way. Its not just a poorly told joke or bad timing when to try and make a funny. It's not being late to meetings, or apologizing when you are. A lot of places scheduled 10 am to 11 am and then your next meeting 11 am to 12 pm. You will be late to the second meeting unless you can teleport (or the meeting is in the same room). Apologize, let folks know the situation, and move forward. Don't keep people waiting.

Don't tease people. I know, I said humor was okay, and a lot of places allow for teasing. Being professional, however, doesn't allow for teasing. It is literally a time bomb in your hands; people might silently hate you for it (whether they're the object of the teasing or not), others might just find you a bore, and worst of all, someone might report you to HR for harassment. Just don't do it.

5) Do what you said you will do when you said you would do it, OR notify people as soon as you know otherwise that isn't going to happen. This means no lying. This also means not saying "yes" to everything that crosses your plate. It also means reviewing your workload and being honest with yourself about whether or not you can make your commitments and communicating if you cannot as soon as you find out (not after working a few late nights trying to fix the unfixable). This builds trust. Being trustworthy is being professional.

There are a lot more "secrets" to professionalism, and I'll go into them in future blogs. Start with these five, and you're well on your way.