Listening turns out to be the most important skill that I continue to attempt to master. Hearing what someone has to say, especially when they are seeking advice to solve a problem, is always a challenge. It’s not just listening to the words and holding off formulating suggestions before the story is complete or even asking the right follow up questions to understand the situation completely, but also ‘hearing between the lines’ to get to the emotional root of someone’s questions.
Sailing at Sunset in Maui
I find there are nearly always 2 parts to many requests for help. The first is the tangible part of the question. Often this has to do with an interaction with another team or team member – a request to help solve a problem that is impacting being able to do a good job. Those can be complex and difficult by themselves. The second is an underlying plea for a more personal or emotional discourse. I don’t profess to be an expert in human nature and certainly not a psychiatrist by a long stretch, but I have grown to understand some of the basic needs we human animals tend to want fulfilled. I work hard to hear these subtle undercurrents as we work together to solve business problems. More often than not I find people want to feel significant in a team or social situation. When that significance is marginalized we feel a loss that often negatively impacts the way we interact with others. Many of the business problems we solve come along with a deeper solution to a personal need. Sometimes I can offer that directly by listening and showing understanding and empathy. Better yet, if we can find a way to make the business solution also a personal solution, then we have a more lasting ‘win – win’ situation. This often involves getting people to understand each other better. Sometimes a simple discussion to hear multiple viewpoints and offering a possible consensus is all that is needed to bridge a gap. Back this up with some ongoing reminders to everyone, that each person in our business (or personal) sphere has a valuable contribution to make.
Listening well to get to the tangible and intangible is always the first step to deeper, more meaningful conclusions to conflicts in our lives. As much as we might want to keep emotions out of the business discourse, feeling better about yourself and those you interact with every day is paramount to good business and satisfying lives.
Grand Canyon FogScape
I had a friend at work approach me last week with some photography questions. His wife had just bought a new digital SLR camera and wanted some advice about taking better photographs. My head filled with a hundred of the most important things to impart about better pictures using a new DSLR. Poor guy, my brain opened up and a dozen things started to come out. I covered f-stop and depth of field to ISO and white balance before stopping myself and doing a reality check. Any information imparted has to be suited to the audience to be relevant. Any expert in their field has two dozen chapters to fill with their wisdom, but none of it counts if the audience fails to connect. What is f-stop or shutter speed to a new photographer who has been using an i-phone or a Point-and-Shoot?… Nothing. So I stopped myself and thought hard about the number one thing. Much like trying to decide what to build first – what is my biggest return on investment? So for learning photography, mine was ‘take your camera off AUTO mode’. Shoot manually. Become immersed in the work. If you are forced to make adjustments yourself, then you have to learn something about your new tool. Don’t get me wrong, automation is a thing of beauty. I use every tool and feature at my disposal in our new world to make things easy. Maybe it is just the Luddite in me talking, but I still believe that doing the math, long hand, is the best way to understand the real fundamentals of how things work. So, my advice was ‘take it off auto mode’ and figure out the rest. Poor woman, she is probably cursing me now, wondering why all her photos look like crap or maybe she has gone back to auto and is happily shooting mediocre (still fun but less artsy) pictures of the kids (which is great by the way). Point is, I was so excited to have someone come to me, recognizing me as some expert, to get my advice. I had to really stop myself and focus (work through the myriad of noise in my head) to offer some relevant bit of wisdom that might make sense to anyone beginning a new journey. Sharing is indeed caring, but only if you get it right.
Been thinking lots recently about managing complex business systems and getting real value from teams and individuals. As business gets more complex, management tends to add the wrong structures or methodologies to manage that complexity. The first tendency is to add layers of procedure or controls (like modes of measurement – KPIs or metrics). These only add to complexity and shelter business units from the real issues. Worse yet, add some extra management personnel or functions to the company or department to try and get a handle on complexity. Terrible answer. Now you have another silo to manage. The second mode is to try some soft team building measures; offsite get togethers, pizza parties, team building workshops. These are aimed at trying to get everyone to like each other. Basically a worthless strategy. Both approaches are equally outdated.
In today’s workplace we need better answers.
We need to focus on the connections between business units or discreet functions. Forget the individual pieces and think about the interactions between the pieces. Get the individual units talking and understanding what the other is doing. Empower individuals to cooperate and learn each other’s business. For example, when the software (or any product) development team understand the quality assurance team’s job then they can anticipate outcomes of their actions better. We added a QA person to our development teams using agile principals and forged early collaboration between the two groups. The outcome was early intervention in the process to build test scenarios and drive development from the quality perspective. In turn, the QA group gained access to finished product sooner and could point out defects early. We also gave power to the teams to make decisions. The more autonomy and authority the team has the more they will become engaged. Teams begin to seek out answers to difficult problems on their own and not just to solve business or product issues but organizational challenges as well. We were allowed to enact change in processes and organizational structure to enable even better understanding of the interactions between business groups. Instead of a spiral toward greater complexity, we moved and continue to move toward simplification of our organization and business processes. Getting a better product to market sooner was almost a byproduct of the new paradigm.
Fern Just Getting Started – Hawaii
The opportunity to start fresh is a rare and wonderful thing.
I had that opportunity a few years ago when a new company, that rose from the ashes of a bankruptcy and acquisition, hired me to direct their Information Technology department. We dove in – to building a great company, mostly unencumbered by old baggage. The great people stayed and the no-so-great found new paths. We were fortunate to find some excellent people to fill key positions and set about growing a culture of empowerment. I have never turned over responsibility and authority quite so completely. Those individuals that stepped up to assume that responsibility knew that it was their call and their decisions that would make the difference in the company’s success. There were no promises of bonuses (though they did come later) or pay for performance (a really bad idea in creative or highly technical roles) but they acted as if the company belonged to them. It is amazing how empowerment breeds a sense of inclusion and ownership. I was left with the enviable role of expressing vision and setting out goals without dictating the means to reach those goals. Without even asking, the team consistently brought me excellent solutions to go with each challenge or crisis that arose. Sure, some solutions weren’t approved for budgetary or feasibility reasons, but not many. As expectations became well understood the solutions became better and better suited to the situations at hand. It felt like management by suggestion and approval. Well thought out ideas were approved and solid plans for implementation developed. The IT effort thrived and the company prospered.
Now I try to begin every day with that feeling that there is always a way to find a fresh start.
Mount Whitney through Mobius Arch
Often photographed scenes can easily be just another mundane shot. It took some extra effort to capture this image of Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills area of California. Only 100 miles from Badwater in Death Valley, Mount Whitney looms in the distance. The tallest point in the continental US lies so close to the lowest point it seems impossible. This scene has been photographed thousands of times. Most good images show the peak lit by the morning sun with the arch filling the frame. It can be a stunning sight. (I have one of those too.)
To get a different mood I chose the image taken well before sunrise. In the late fall it can be quite cold in the eastern Sierras so it wasn’t the most comfortable shoot prior to sunrise. (I won’t complain since we landscape photographers go through much worse to get a great image.) I scouted the location the day before, found the trail and calculated where the sun would be the next morning. I checked possible vantage points, looking for something different from the many images I have seen. I did not anticipate the pastel nature of the light the next morning and I am delighted with the somber mood of the photograph. Making the arch and the smooth rock textures of the Alabama Hills the focus makes the image stand out from its peers yet still captures the spectacle of the high country in the background.
Taking the time and effort to get a different perspective pays off in my photography work and in most every aspect of my life. Great results seldom come from the easy stuff.
We all know that to build great things we build great teams. Most of us have been involved in some sort of team building exercise, offsite celebration, symposium, pep talk or just a good dressing down to motivate and invigorate us. Most of us have rolled our eyes or simply endured so we could get back to business as usual. It would be a perfect world if we could build a great company or team culture each time we start a project – assembly some fresh minds, set up an excellent environment and set a positive, constructive tone. Unfortunately those opportunities are pretty rare. Existing culture is hard to shift. It seems few of us love change. So how do we turn the corporate (or for that matter an individual) ship to a new positive direction. Here are my top 3:
1. Build trust. Do what you say, don’t break a promise, be honest, be fair, let the people around you know that they can count on you. It is an every day, every moment job. Being consistently trustworthy is a huge step to building a great team relationship
2. Guide rather than direct. No one wants to be managed. Autonomy is one of the great motivators in technical or creative roles. Most of us would rather follow a great suggestion than be told what and how to do something. Keep the people that thrive in these environments.
3. Make work enjoyable and let people find satisfaction in being really good at something. (okay that is really 2 things) Creative, smart, driven people do the darndest things for free. They build open source operating systems, manage and publish the worlds largest encyclopedia, learn to play a guitar (just for the sake of contributing to something great and mastering a skill). The drive for mastery and contribution to lofty, worthy goals are great motivators. Find ways to let people gain satisfaction while mastering their skills. It is a win-win for everyone. We get happy people that want to come to work and they are becoming exceptional people – and part of your great team.
The realm of project management has been sliced and diced into enumerable pieces. We have espoused the virtues of any number of ‘tried and true’ to new age methodologies and detailed the intricacies of every nuance of the trade. As with any profession the sheer volume of information on the subject enlightens and confounds each and all of us. The experts abound, from professors to preachers. There are many praise worthy professionals out there with deep knowledge and exceptional skills – some of whom I am proud to know. We still manage complicated projects – often as amateurs – myself included. For all the knowledge and resources available we sometimes fall short, not with just a deadline or a budget but with the opportunity to build something brilliant. The biggest truth I carry home each night is that an engaged team with great communication skills wins the game every time. So, pick your plan and master your methodology but watch for those team members that are listening. Look for understanding in their eyes. Get them to voice their consensus. Before they head off to work, be it to write a test script or a set of acceptance criteria or a line of code, look for the smiles and nods, showing they understand the goal and the means to get there. If you don’t see it, get them to look more – at the problem before them. Help them to turn it to another angle, dig a little deeper, shed some extra light, for it is that engagement and understanding that foretells team success and ultimately project success.