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.