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What’s Your Iron Boat? December 8, 2008

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?

(For more on the spectacular trip of Lewis and Clark,
look for Undaunted Courage on my Books page)

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Know Who Knows November 24, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Early in my career, I worked with two mathematicians who had been in computing since the very beginning.  They had all these great stories about using Fortran for the first time, and drum memory, and mercury delay lines.  They were brilliant and eccentric and were both named George.  George Haynam was called “George” and George Petznick was called “GP” just to avoid confusion.

The neat thing about either George was that they did not immediately know the answer to most mathematical questions.  Instead, they knew how to derive the answer from first principles.  Once, I asked GP for the formula for standard deviation.  He stood up at his blackboard (a real blackboard with chalk and dust) and, recalling that the standard deviation is just the square root of the variance integrated about the center of mass of the sample space, quickly derived the discrete formula.  Simple!  The running joke in the department was that the Georges could figure out anything, starting with f=ma.

This all came back to me recently as I was discussing aspects of successful leaders.  I pointed out that, in most cases, I don’t need to know the answer to something.  I just need to know who knows, so I can get the answer from them.  If my network is robust and current, and I surround myself with people smarter than me (very easy to do), the “know who knows” model always works.

This is true for everyone, of course, but I don’t think we coach our teams to value and use this trick.  Instead, we have lots of people on our teams who try to be cowboys, singlehandedly trying to know everything and solve everything.  As they move up the management chain and realize they can’t know everything, they begin to adopt the “know who knows” approach.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to learn this lesson.  Some people never do.

People at every level can dramatically increase their value by developing their network of “people who know things” along with their collection of “things they know themselves.”  The sum of both parts is substantially larger than everything they can hope to know, but that lesson isn’t learned right away.

As effective leaders, we need to explicitly teach this lesson to our people and offer opportunities for them to build their networks of “people who know.”  Social tools help, of course, but so do real social interactions with experts: training, conferences, seminars, etc.  Force your people to engage others as they solve problems, and show them how to fall back on their networks early in the problem-solving process, not as a last resort.  That lesson, learned early, can make a huge difference in the course of a career.

There Are None So Blind November 12, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Sometimes the hardest part of solving a problem is getting the user to see your solution.

Many years ago, when I lived in Florida, a new mom-and-pop video store opened nearby.  This was before the consolidation by big chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and little video stores were fairly commonplace.

Their inventory management system was simple: when you rented a movie, they wrote out a receipt on three-part NCR paper.  One copy was your receipt, one copy was their receipt, and a third copy went into the “out on rental” stack.  This stack was used to account for movies as they were returned.

The first time I returned a movie, the girl behind the counter walked over to the rental stack and began to flip through the stack of slips.  After a long while, she located my rental slip and marked my movie as having been returned.

Always alert to process improvement opportunities (even then!), I was compelled to offer a better solution.

“You know, if you alphabetize that stack of rental slips, you’ll be able to find a customer’s slip much faster when they return their movie.”

She looked up at me, and then back at the slips.  She thought a bit, looked back at me, and replied, “But the customers don’t come in the store in alphabetical order.”

No.  No they don’t.

I didn’t say anything else.  There wasn’t much else to be said.

A High-Contact, Low-Touch World November 10, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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All these social networking tools are supposed to increase our interaction and communication with other people. For long-distance relationships, this is certainly true: I am sharing thoughts and ideas with people that I otherwise would never interact with on a regular basis.  From that perspective, social tools are improving those relationships and bringing depth and detail that would otherwise escape me.

For those folks that I see every day, tools like Twitter and Yammer can paradoxically create distance where it didn’t previously exist.  A coworker recently complained about this, pointing out that Yammer offers yet another way for people to hide in their office and text to each other, avoiding real, live conversations.  She’s absolutely right, and I don’t quite know how to solve the problem.

On the one hand, the message stream that is captured and shared by Yammer and Twitter is really useful, and allows many people to experience a single train of thought as it occurs.  On the other hand, people really need to look at each other and engage in actual interaction, as messy as it might be.

Sadly, the introverted world of IT makes this worse.  I am in the distinct, tiny minority of IT professionals that are extroverted.  Sometimes, I think the “I” in IT stands for “introverted.”  The synthetic, predictable world of computers provides a safe haven for those who are shy and allows those folks to succeed without ever developing some really important communication skills. Don’t misunderstand: many talented introverts achieve great success in IT, and that’s a good thing.  Were they to be thrust into sales or marketing, it would be painful and counter-productive.  The wardrobe errors alone would be overwhelming.

Nonetheless,  providing tools to these introverts that allow them to further withdraw and still be successful may be a mistake.  Teams succeed by communicating.  Good communication involves more than 140 characters of text and should include body language, voice tone, and facial expressions.  The elimination of direct engagement first began when people began hiding behind email and later learned how to use voice mail and call screening to their advantage.  The latest tools make it even easier to avoid other people and still get work done.

As leaders, and extroverted ones at that, we need to recognize that this is happening and force people to engage.  I will sometimes intervene when I see an email chain go on for too long and insist that the communicants actually gather and meet.  I also have a stock question when someone comes to me to complain about someone else: “Have you discussed this with this person?”  The first step to solving problems is to talk about them, and we need to gently encourage people to do this, in spite of the cool tools that tempt us otherwise.

My Book Signing October 29, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I once wrote a book called HTML: The Definitive Guide.  As the title implies, it is not so much as blockbuster bodice-ripper as it is a technical book.  It covers everything you ever wanted or needed to know about creating web pages using raw HTML.  When it first came out in 1996, HTML was all the rage and the book was favorably received among those who know their attributes from their end tags.

But this is not a tale of technology, but one of humility.

Needless to say, when my book was first published I was very excited.  The book even hit #1 on Amazon’s technology book charts for a while, which was kind of cool.  So you can imagine my excitement when my publisher, O’Reilly & Associates, called to say that my local bookstore wanted to sponsor a book signing.

A book signing!  This was the real deal! I imagined sitting at a table, a stack of books to the side, a line of people trailing off into the store, engaging in brief but fascinating small talk as each prospective web author came up to get their book signed by the Author.

So the big day came.  I arrived at the store and found that they even had a sign announcing the big event.  Wow!  There was my table, and a stack of books, and a few pens.  I took a seat and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And no one came.  No one.  I sat and smiled, hands neatly folded on the table, as shoppers came and went, buying real books that they would actually read.  For over an hour, I sat.  Most people awkwardly looked the other way as they passed by my table.

And then, a woman approached.  Yes!  She paused, looked at my sign, and asked, “Is your book about the Internet?”

“Yes!  Yes it is!” (sort of, but at this point, my book would be anything she needed)

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Absolutely!  How can I help you?”  (By now, I actually had a pen in hand)

“I have a computer at home, and it has one of those modem cards in it.  And on the back of my computer, where the card is, there are two places to plug in the phone wire.  One is labeled ‘Line’ and the other is labeled ‘Phone.’  Which one do I plug the wire from the wall into?”

“You should plug it into the one labeled ‘Line.'”

“Oh.  OK.  Thanks!”

And she was gone.  I put down my pen.

No one else came.  I never signed a single book that night.

Sometimes things that mean a lot to us don’t mean so much to everyone else.  And sometimes things that mean very little to us mean a whole lot to someone else. And sometimes we can have a very difficult time telling which is which.