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Partnering For Success September 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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1 comment so far

I do more than my fair share of beating up vendors for poor sales practices (to whit: regarding honesty, inappropriate emails, and unsolicited appointments).  It is only fair, then, to highlight a really good thing that happened recently with a few of my key vendors.

I like to meet with vendors on a quarterly basis.  We split the meeting in half, discussing everything new in their world, and then everything new in mine.  The idea is to keep everyone up-to-date and see what, if any, opportunities have arisen since our last meeting.  Sometimes actions arise out of the meeting, and sometimes we jsut agree to see each other in three months.  Either way, this method seems to work well in maintaining an appropriate relationship.

Recently, my VAR (Value Added Reseller) threw me a curve ball.  What if, they suggested, we brought three vendors in at once, and had a joint meeting? Each vendor would talk about their areas, of course, but we could also explore overlaps and potential synergies between the vendors as well.

Well.  I had never tried this before, and for the most part, neither had they.  So we decided to give it a try.  The vendors arrived, prepared to present using a pre-determined agenda.  My team attended, anxious to see what they had to say.

It was great! As each vendor got up to speak, we started deep conversations about their technology as it related to the other vendors.  In some cases, we jointly explored how this stuff might all work together.  In others, vendors had to address conflicts and points of competition with respect to their peers.

My team learned a lot more in this one session than we would have from three individual meetings.  I think the vendors got a better feel for how my group assesses technology as a whole, pulling from various vendors to create our solutions.  Best of all, we had substantive conversations that went well beyond traditional vendor presentations.

I applaud the salespeople that agreed to present within this structure.  They went out on a limb to take care of their customer, and we really appreciated it.  It would have been easy to pass on the opportunity, but they stepped up and did something a little out of the ordinary.  I also appreciate the efforts of my VAR who worked to arrange and coordinate the meeting.  That “V” stands for “value,” and they clearly brought it to us that day.

I could write dozens of “bad salesman” posts for this blog. That’s not fair to the many good salespeople out there who never get a mention. This time, I offer a heart-felt “thank you” to all those salespeople who work so hard to creatively serve their customers.  What’s the most creative thing you’ve had a salesperson do for you?  Share it so we can all appreciate what good salespeople do.

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Legs And Memory August 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My grandfather had a saying: “A weak memory makes strong legs.”  This seems to be coming to mind more often these days, as my short-term memory seems to expire faster than I can get the items I set out to retrieve.  Multiple trips ensue, helping my legs and overall cardiovascular health, but wasting time and energy.

Forgotten items create more work, both at home and on the job.  While personal memory problems may be inevitable as we become more, ahem, mature, organizational memory loss should be completely avoidable.  Unfortunately, almost everyone is terrible at capturing and using our organizational memory.

Everyone you work with has huge amounts of useful information stored in their heads.  From the moment you begin employment, you are gathering information about what you do, why you do it, for whom you do it, and how you do it.  When you start out, everything is new and you spend lots of time gathering data that everyone else long ago internalized.  Simple questions confront you all the time: who is in charge of that?  Which form do I need?  Why does this work that way?  Your coworkers patiently explain all this, bringing you up to speed in your new role.  After a while, you internalize this information as well, to the point that you stop thinking about it.

When the next new person arrives, they begin the same process.  It is highly unlikely that you documented everything you learned when you started (who has the time for that when you are just getting started?) so this poor soul goes through the same process.  Time is wasted as the weak organizational memory forces them to do a lot of walking.

I have been on teams that set out to solve this problem.  We created formal guides and detailed documentation for our organization in the hope that new hires would get up to speed faster and waste less time.  We tried to create an organizational memory but in the end, failed.  Why? Continuous change.

Capturing most of this information results in a snapshot of a continually evolving process.  That snapshot works for a short time, but eventually fades.  Even after a few weeks or months, there are enough blurry spots in that snapshot that people will once again have to manually fill in the blanks.  As soon as people lose faith in the documentation, they abandon it and go back to the manual process.

Like real memories, captured organizational memories fade rapidly over time.  To reinforce real memories, you must replay them in your mind.  To reinforce organizational memories, you must constantly revisit and update them.  This is time-consuming and expensive, and ultimately not cost effective.  Except for the most important processes that require rigid definition and oversight, most of our business rules exist in the (very) fluid minds of the participants.

The idea of easy, effective knowledge capture has been an ongoing goal for the past thirty years or more.  It has yet to become a reality.  Our collection tools are simply not capable of collecting all that we do and learn in real time.  Currently, people are looking to social media as the next magic bullet that will make this a reality.  As tempting as this sounds, I don’t think it will pan out from a data collection perspective.

The real answer, I think, is to accept that organizational memory is best retained in the heads of the people in the organization.  It may be that these social networking tools will allow us to find the person who knows what we need better than any previous tool.  It may be that capture has never been the problem, but that the connection network has been deficient.  Social networking may let us connect the perfect capture tools (our brains) in better ways than ever before.  As I’ve pointed out before, knowing who knows is the key to success in any field.  We may be on the verge of solving the problem of finding who knows better than ever before.  Memories may continue to fade, but the walking will be greatly reduced.  We can only hope.

Until then, I’ve got other problems.  Where did I put my keys?  Time to start walking…

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The Price Of Folly August 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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One of my favorite quotes is from Herbert Spencer:

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of their folly is to fill the world with fools.

Spencer was a Victorian-era English philosopher who focused much of his thought on evolution at a higher, social level.  He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was an very well-known thinker in his day.  It is safe to say that he would not suffer fools gladly, regardless of how they were produced.

Spencer’s quote was directed at some of the prevailing political ideas of his time and was intended to shape broad public opinion.  Regardless of how you define “folly” (or “fool,” for that matter), his quote is a cautionary one: do not protect people from their mistakes, thus preventing them from learning from them.

His advice is just as important in the day-to-day business world that we all manage.  Mistakes happen all the time, caused by hundreds of different reasons, let alone folly.  How we handle them not only says a lot about our leadership skills, but also dictates how our organization succeeds.

With the current emphasis on soft skills, many leaders try to soften the impact of a mistake.  Even when people are upset, we try to soothe them and diminish the impact of the error.  Our goal is noble, and we may make them feel better, but we also miss an opportunity for someone to really absorb the impact of their error.  Shielding a person from the impact of their mistake can be disastrous, leading them to believe that mistakes, although unpleasant, aren’t all that bad.

The opposite kind of leader is just as bad.  Ranting and raving may make you feel better, but you are not helping the person who made the mistake.  While Spencer may be happy that you have certainly not shielded them, it isn’t clear that you have helped them either.

There is a middle ground, of course, but it can be difficult to achieve.  I do believe that people need to understand the impact of their error.  Tiny errors at one level can cascade to become disasters later, and people need to come to terms with the magnitude of their mistakes.  I will often explain to a person all the potential issues their error could lead to, not to make them feel bad (they should anyway) but so that they understand the real price that others may pay for their lapse.

But you cannot stop there.  At that point, you must then work to find ways to keep that mistake from happening again.  The only bad mistake is the one you do not learn from, and the only unforgivable mistake is the one that keeps happening over and over.  As you analyze why a problem occurred, people may begin the process upset and remorseful, but they should emerge with a plan and a positive approach to make things better going forward.

You should apply this to yourself as well.  When you know you’ve screwed up, you should feel terrible about it.  But instead of wallowing in the remorse, figure out ways to keep it from happening again and move forward.

People don’t fail because they make mistakes.  People fail because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Here Or There? July 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I believe that a leader is responsible for the success of his or her people.  There are two simple rules to make sure that happens:

  1. Help everyone succeed.
  2. Hopefully, here.

Our job is to follow rule 1.  Through a combination of coaching, mentoring, challenging, prodding, wheedling, and cajoling, we want to make our people successful.

Ideally, we also want to achieve rule 2. We want our people to be successful while they are on our team.  Their individual success contributes to the team’s success, and that’s good for everyone. But the unfortunate reality is that most people will achieve rule 1 but break rule 2.  Why?

Sometimes, a member of your team is growing and succeeding faster than you can support them within your organization.  Particularly in these constrained times, there are few opportunities to create new positions to reward and challenge these high achievers.  In these cases, people may leave your organization to become even more successful somewhere else.  Ideally, you’ll help them find that new place, even if it means that you’ll lose a good person.

That’s a challenge to your leadership skills.  “A” leaders will help a high-flier move on, sad to lose a great person but happy to see them go on to bigger and better things.  “B” leaders hoard their best people, denying them the chance to excel by trapping them in their existing positions.  That’s a selfish way to run a business, and those good people will someday just quit anyway.

People need not leave your company to become successful.  They may need to leave your organization to grow and thrive in a different part of the company.  That’s a wonderful scenario for all concerned: the individual gets to succeed, the company retains a great employee, and you gain an ambassador for IT in a different part of the company.

This last benefit can be a huge one.  Very few people outside of IT understand how we really function.  This lack of understanding can lead to confusion, disappointment, and conflict.  By placing experienced IT people into other groups, you create an opportunity for others to learn more about IT, defusing those confrontations and gaining the trust of the business.

Even when good people must leave the company to move on, you should be happy to help them find success elsewhere.  While the future daily interaction with them will be far smaller, having good relationships with other companies always helps.  You never know when you might have to call on that person to assist with a problem, smooth a negotiation, or reach out to someone else.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of both of these scenarios.  It is rewarding to see IT people move on to successful roles elsewhere in the company, and to see how they bring positive benefits back to IT in their new position.  I’ve also mentored people who were struggling with a new opportunity, advising them to take it even when it meant they were leaving my company.  When I see them succeed in their new company, how could I have advised them any other way?  When they provided a beneficial connection to someone in their company, that’s just icing on the cake.

When all is said and done, all that matters is rule 1.  You must achieve rule 1, even at the expense of rule 2.  As a leader, are you ready to let your best people go to succeed somewhere else?

For Those About To Rock July 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My very first job as a software developer was as a compiler writer.  I worked at Harris Corporation as part of a team developing the compiler for the Harris Programming Language. HPL was designed in the days when having your own programming language made perfect sense, and it took a crew of us to maintain the seven-pass compiler that produced code to run on both IBM mainframes and 8086 microprocessors.

The compiler was written in HPL, of course, and I began writing toy programs to learn the new language.  In the course of my experiments, I uncovered dozens of bugs in the compiler. I dutifully recorded each and every one as an APAR (Authorized Program Analysis and Report).  Over a period of a week or so, I accumulated several dozen APARs.

At the end of my “training” I delivered my stack of APARs to my boss.  He flipped through them, commended me on my diligent and thorough work, and handed the stack back to me:  “Fix ’em!”

What?  Who could have predicted this unexpected turn of events? Here I was, heroically finding all sorts of flaws and gaps in their compiler, and this was my reward?

Fortunately, my teammates were forgiving of the enthusiastic, albeit selfishly misguided, newby and put up with my insulting list of APARs.  Those bugs weren’t news to anyone but me: the team knew that they existed but involved features that were unused by the developers, so the bugs never affected actual users. If I’d spent more time talking to the team instead of poking at their code, I’d have learned that.

Everyone on a team is in the same boat, for better or worse.  Someone decides where the boat is going and gets to steer.  Everyone else has a choice: rock the boat to express your displeasure at the chosen destination, or row as hard as you can to get there.

Choosing to rock can be a risky decision.  Sometimes, a little rocking gets the leader’s attention and results in a positive course change.  Sometimes you rock too hard and capsize the boat.  And sometimes the rocking scares everyone else in the boat, and they throw you overboard. Fortunately, I learned that my rocking was inappropriate, and I settled down to row.

Choosing to row is the safer path, but not always the wise one.  Helping the boat get to the wrong destination is never a good thing, but working with the team is important.  When you are sitting in the boat, you can’t see what the helmsman can see.  Unless you are sure he is headed for a rocky landing, your best bet may be to row as hard as you can.

As a leader with your hand on the tiller, are you paying attention to the crew or staring off at the horizon? Is someone gently rocking, trying to get your attention?  Is everyone pulling together to keep things moving? Only you can make that call, and only if you are keenly aware of each member in your crew.

Sometimes we rock, and often we row.  What’s your choice today?