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Game Face January 6, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In the Autozone Liberty Bowl on January 2,  Arkansas and East Carolina University were locked in a 17-17 tie as the fourth quarter wound down. ECU’s kicker, Ben Hartman, missed two field goal attempts in the final few minutes that would have sealed a victory, and went on to miss a field goal attempt in overtime.  Arkansas then kicked a field goal to win.

My heart broke for this young man. Imagine missing not one, not two, but three field goals in five minutes, resulting in your team losing a bowl game. And no matter what words of condolence his teammates may offer him, I suspect Ben Hartman will blame himself for this loss for a long time.  The truth, of course, is that a football game is lost over the course of sixty minutes, not in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

As much as I agonized watching the kicker struggle, I was amazed to see how his coach, Skip Holtz, handled the situation.  This would have been a big win for Holtz and his team.  I’m sure there was bonus money on the table, and big career implications.  And how did Holtz handle the tense closing moments of the game?

He laughed.  He joked with his kicker.  He kept the mood light, even after two missed kicks and an ice-the-kicker timeout from Arkansas.  Understanding the pressure this young man was under, Holtz maintained his composure and did everything he knew to help his kicker succeed. Even the announcers were wondering what Holtz could possibly be saying to relieve the stress on Hartman.

I don’t know what Holtz said, but it was a classic example of a leader maintaining his composure during a tough situation.  While very few of us will have to lead a football team to a bowl victory, we will certainly have to guide our teams through difficult times to achieve important goals.  Understanding the stress and finding ways to distract your people from it are important parts of good leadership.

This aspect of leadership is important in both immediate and long-term situations.  Sometimes, a sudden problem explodes.  How you handle yourself on the spur of the moment will go a long way in helping your team confront and quell the issue at hand.  A light mood, a firm decision, and an upbeat approach can make a big difference.

Other times, you are confronted with a long-term, difficult problem.  A high-risk project can last for months, wearing out your team.  A difficult business climate puts people under stress week after week.  No matter what the cause, being able to sustain the right attitude as a leader is crucial.  No matter your personal concerns or stress, you must put on your game face each day and provide unwavering support to your team.

Leaders need to be able to handle both the quick-hit and long-term problems.  Your people will look to you as they form their own reactions to a problem.  If you, like Skip Holtz, can manage a joke and a smile as kick after kick sails wide, you’ll be doing your people a huge favor.

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Toddler Audit December 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As any parent can tell you, there comes a time in a child’s life when they seek to learn everything.  Around the age of three or so, children suddenly want to understand the reason for everything.  No matter what the issue, they ask one simple question, over and over again: “why?”

Parents are driven to distraction by this, as their children soon discover.  It’s tough to argue with a thirst for knowledge, though, so parents will tolerate a lot of questions before hiding behind the old stand-by of “because I said so.”

As leaders, we would do well to emulate toddlers on occasion, at least on the thirst-for-knowledge front. But don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that we go around asking other people “why?” They have enough  to do without our constant intrusion.  Instead, we need to spend time asking the question of ourselves.

The pace of leadership is ever-increasing, which forces us to make decisions rapidly.  We rely on instinct and history, letting our experience guide us.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; it’s why experience is so important in making successful decisions.

Even so, we need to stop periodically and make sure we understand why we are doing certain things certain ways.  And like that persistent toddler, we need to question each successive answer to drill into the foundations of our decisions.  If those foundations prove to be solid, then our decisions will be solid.  If you find yourself winding up with answers like “we’ve always done it that way” or “because so-and-so says so,” you may want to reconsider what you are doing.

This “Toddler Audit” is an obvious exercise when dissecting a technical decision.  Technical decisions have technical foundations, and it is relatively easy to get to the bottom of why you are selecting a tool or deploying a system.  A Toddler Audit can also be useful during a budgeting exercise as you seek to justify each item and confirm that you have a good number assigned to each expense or income item.

Toddler Audits get a bit trickier on the soft side of our business.  If you are figuring out how to challenge people, or divide up work, or expand an organization, the answers to “why” become much more subjective and soft.  That’s not to say that the process breaks down; you just need to be more thoughtful with your answers to make sure you are being honest with yourself.

Finally, Toddler Audits really help analyze what we are doing at any given point.  Here’s an interesting exercise: at random times during the day, stop and ask why you are doing whatever it is you are doing at that exact moment.  Is it the right thing to be doing?  Is it the most important?  Is it taking up too much time, or stealing your attention from something else?  All good questions, and you should have good answers.

If you survive a Toddler Audit, I suspect you’ll know a lot more about the foundations of your decision process, which should improve your decision making.  It may even prepare you for the dreaded Teenager Audit: “Why not?”

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There’s Not An App For That November 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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I’ve been in a few CIO briefings of late that have revolved around the topic of business process management.  There is little doubt that much value can be found in formally capturing, defining, and managing the hundreds of processes that keep our companies running.  Even the simplest processes can have costly inefficiencies that can make a big difference in delivering good service and maintaining efficient operations.  A good BPM exercise can find and eliminate those issues and yield a good return on the effort.

For many of these initiatives, much time is spent selecting and implementing the right tool.  Certainly, having a sound workflow system to drive your processes helps.  The right system can automate mundane tasks, track all sorts of things, and make sure people know who needs to do what when.

As with most tools, however, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the tool that you lose sight of the real goal: creating a better process.  While it may be fun to connect lots of boxes with lots of lines, you’re creating a monster, not a better way.

I was once a party to just such a monster, several years ago.  As part of a workflow design team, we were tasked to formalize and automate a process within  our company.  This process had several gates, at which point someone could reject the item and stop the process.  This had been a bit of a sore point in the past, so we were careful to design in ways for rejected applicants to appeal their rejection.

This quickly escalated into a multi-level appeal process, with committees and advisors and automatic hearings.  It looked great on paper and took seven pages to draw out all the various options and choices that could occur.  We were pretty proud of this “better” way of doing things.

Finally, we all came to the same conclusion: this was a disaster in the making.  First, it would be extremely difficult to implement.  Second, it attempted to automate tasks that really needed to be handled by people.  And third, it would cause confusion and chaos among the users.

The real answer to the problem was far simpler: when an item was rejected, the rejecting party was expected to call and explain the circumstances to the rejected party.  The whole group realized that actual communication had an important place in the automated workflow.

That lesson hasn’t changed.  Tools are useful, but they can only go so far.  We cannot automate the most important part of any business: the interaction between team members as they get work done.  We need to use tools to remove the drudgery so that people have more time for the high-value interaction that really counts.  Freed from mindlessly shuffling paper (or email), people can actually discuss issues and work things out.  Communication is the most important thing we do; unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that.

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What’s Your Iron Boat? November 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In planning for his great trek across the United States, Meriwether Lewis had a brilliant idea: a portable boat, made from a collapsible iron frame and covered in animal skins.  After leaving the Mississippi, his group would carry this boat until they reached the river rumored to extend to the Pacific, whereupon they would assemble the boat and sail away.  It was cutting edge technology for 1803 and Lewis absolutely loved the whole idea.

You can imagine what his men thought of it.  The boat frame was cast iron and weighed 176 pounds.  Fully assembled, it would be 42 feet long and could carry 8,000 pounds of men and equipment.  If you were one of the men assigned to lug the boat halfway across the United States, I’m guessing that you were not so enthused over the boss’ pet project.  You can almost hear the muttering and cursing as 176 pounds of iron were loaded up each morning and carried all day, day after day, across the continent.

Finally, the time came to assemble the boat.  Lewis had envisioned covering the boat in animal skins, sealing any holes with pine tar.  There were just two problems: they didn’t have enough animal skins, and there were no trees in the spot where they were building the boat.

For almost three weeks, from June 21 to July 9, 1805, Lewis directed his men to hunt elk and skin them.  It took a lot of elk to cover a 42-foot boat.  Every day, instead of heading west in the perfect weather of early summer, the men stayed in one place, shooting and skinning elk.  Lewis supervised, trying to figure out how to seal the boat without any tar.  Again, imagine the griping, growing each day, as the skins piled up and the boat slowly took form.

Finally it was time to put the boat in the water.  Within minutes, it sank.  Years of planning, months of dragging it across the country, weeks wasted for the skins, and the whole thing was over in an hour.  Lewis was embarrassed, certainly, and his men were vindicated.  Can’t you see them all at the river’s edge, biting their tongues and rolling their eyes, afraid to look at each other for fear of laughing at the boss?  I’ll bet no one could even say “boat” for the next week, without a lot of snickering from the back of crowd.

What is your iron boat?  What idea has captivated you, in spite of what your people are trying to tell you?  What bit of technology are you totally enamored of, regardless of its utter uselessness in the real world?  What piece of your plan made complete sense two years ago, but is now on the verge of sinking because you just won’t let it go?

Every leader has an iron boat, strapped to the backs of his or her team.  None of us can see the boat, but our people certainly can.  Are you listening for their feedback?  Do you trust them when they complain about your boat?  Are you humble enough to see your boat and let it go?

(I’m on hiatus this Thanksgiving week. This is a repost of one of my favorite articles from 2008. For more on the spectacular trip of Lewis and Clark, look for Undaunted Courage on my Books page)

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Fighting Fires November 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Few phrases will sharpen the mind of an IT professional more than “we have an outage.”  Outages are to be avoided at all costs, the bane of our existence.  We all work diligently to build systems that will never fail.  We build in redundancy so that users will never know that a particular piece of equipment went off-line, or that someone kicked a cable out of the wall.  We are definitely a belt-and-suspenders crowd.

In a sense, that’s a shame.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m certainly not advocating more frequent outages as a way to spice up our day-to-day lives. But if you never have an outage, you’re missing a big opportunity: the chance to see your staff really shine.

Good IT people rise to the challenge of an outage.  Mindful of the impact, not wanting to disappoint customers, challenged by the technical problems, a good operations team will do amazing things to get their systems back up and running. It is a privilege just to watch them in action.

As much as your people make things look easy when all is going well, you are quickly reminded of how complicated their world really is when things run off the rails.  The many levels of abstraction coupled with the intricate details make it almost impossible for any one person to fully understand how all the pieces fit together.  A good team will play off one another, sharing information and supplying clues that collectively solve the problem.

How does this happen?  It certainly isn’t by chance.  Good operations teams develop a deep sense of ownership for the systems they tend.  It isn’t “a system;” it is “their system.”  Typically, they built it from the ground up, know every bit of software installed on it, and configured most of the settings themselves.  Like a mechanic and an automobile, a systems administrator forms bonds with their systems that will pay off when the chips are down.

To outsiders, this sounds a bit odd and even creepy.  But anyone who has been in operations understands this completely.  Each system is special and requires specific attention in unique ways.  You cannot typically step up and just take control, you have to know how and why each component was added and maintained.  Great operations people have this knowledge and use it to their advantage when needed.

Make sure you give IT people the chance to own their systems.  They need to be included in the design and development early on, integral to the decisions that drive the system design.  As the systems mature and develop, your people will acquire the knowledge that will really make them shine when things go wrong.  And may you never have a chance to see your people at their very best, when they are digging out from a disaster.

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