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What Are You Measuring? October 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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When you boil it all down, computing is about numbers.  Two of them, actually, 0 and 1.  Over the years, we’ve worked up from that, of course, so that you have to dig to find the 0s and 1s, but our obsession with numbers is deeply ingrained.  This has bad implications for those of who try to lead IT organizations.

Given our predilection for numbers, most people in IT like to collect them.  Storage usage, bandwidth, code size, database tables, and the like are obvious targets for the numerically fascinated.  But we also collect more abstracted numbers, like project success rates, hours spent doing things, call volumes, and satisfaction indices.  Sometimes, we place a lot of importance on these numbers and work hard to optimize them in some fashion.

Some numbers are necessary.  On the operations side of the house, disk utilization and processor loading are important metrics that drive good capacity planning models.  These numbers are easy to collect and understand because they relate back to physical resources that can be measured accurately.

Other numbers are a bit softer.  Many organizations try to quantify qualitative data, like customer satisfaction.  Gauging satisfaction is tough; there is no number that equates to “great” or “awful.”  That doesn’t stop us, however: our inherent love of numbers leads us to assign numbers to feelings and opinions. That’s not inherently bad when we make simple comparisons.  When one customer rates us a 9 and another decides we are a 1, there is a clear difference of opinion.

The problem with numbers is that they are so prone to manipulation.  Once you make the leap from adjective to value, it is way too easy to start doing arithmetic.  Suddenly, we are averaging those ratings, or worse, computing standard deviations and higher order statistical metrics.  These computed values are worthless, no matter how attractive they may seem.

Consider: if you are in a room with two people, one of which says “I love you” and another that says “I hate you,” the average in the room is not “We like you.” Depending on which way you turn, you are going to either get kicked or kissed.  Math and emotion simply do not mix.

In spite of this, many organizations use these numerical metrics to make business decisions and control compensation.  I’ve seen teams rejoice when customer satisfaction climbs from 3.3 to 3.5, as if the 0.2 difference has any significance.  They are beholden to the numbers and have lost track of the feelings and emotion behind them.

Part of being an expert with a tool is knowing when you shouldn’t use it.  We fancy ourselves to be experts with numbers; we should do a better job of applying them appropriately. In many parts of our businesses, we need to stop focusing on numbers and start listening to people. That’s where you’ll find the real answers and understand your real problems.

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Lessons From Broadway, Part 2 August 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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A recent opportunity to see three Broadway shows in three days has me finding leadership lessons on the Great White Way.  Here’s another.

One of the shows I got to see this summer was Mamma Mia!, a love story set to the music of Abba.   Mamma Mia! is a great show on several levels, despite the fact that it forces people to put an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence when they write about it.

The story is actually two stories: a young girl seeks to find her real father just before her marriage, while her mother comes to terms with the love she lost long ago.  As a result, the show has two casts: the young girl, her friends, and fiancé; and the mother, her friends, and previous lovers.  These groups interact, of course, but they also spend a lot of time on stage independently of one another.

While the show is wonderful, it quickly becomes clear that the older troupe can act and sing rings around the younger cast members.  Their timing, presence, and stage business is subtly better; they are more natural on stage and deliver a better performance.  The younger actors aren’t bad, but the older ones are better.

The younger group, on the other hand, can dance like there’s no tomorrow and get to engage in more physical numbers and a bit more shtick than the older group.  And irrespective of acting chops, spandex jumpsuits favor the young.

I’m hopeful that most of us do not deal with spandex at work, but almost all of us are dealing with a similar generational divide in our teams.  More than ever before, we have waves of younger employees coming into our businesses with distinctly different skills and approaches to life and work.

Much has been made of this Millennial Generation and how we need to reshape our world to accommodate their new ideas.  The more seasoned members of the team, naturally, are a bit put out by this approach and wonder why their ideas and approach are suddenly out of favor.

I’m not a big fan of turning our business world upside-down to make Millennials feel all warm and fuzzy at work.  But I’m also not convinced that the “old ways” are the only way.  The reality is that there are useful ideas on both sides of this generational divide, and we need to exploit them all to be successful.  Like the blended cast that makes Mamma Mia! successful, we need to draw from both groups to build a better whole.

The rapid changes that social media and web-based technology are bring to our world are important, if not fully understood.  The Millenial enthusiasm for that technology is important, and we need to harness it, no matter what the older curmudgeons say.  Conversely, with age comes perspective, and there are some real traps in those tools that are only understood by those who have been burned before.  The risk needs to be managed, despite the complaining of those young whippersnappers.

Where should the leaders be?  Right in the middle.  That’s why you need to engage this technology, not just read about it in an airplane magazine.  Most of us have the experience part, but we need to learn, first-hand, what these tools can and can’t do.  With real data in hand, we can speak to both sides of the issue and pull the best parts from each.  But that direct experience is crucial, allowing you to earn the respect that lets you speak credibly to your younger team members.

Each of us have to craft a successful show from all the actors at our disposal.  Find the best singers, dancers, and actors, and get them on the stage together.  But please, avoid the spandex.

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.

One Version Of The Truth August 3, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In the world of enterprise architecture, there is a practice called Master Data Management.  In short, MDM involves explicitly defining and maintaining precisely how your data is created, where it is kept, and when it is destroyed.  An important component of MDM is the concept of “one version of the truth:” that exactly one official instance of every data element in your company exists in one place, and that all other uses of that data are copies derived from that original “truth.”

IT folks tend to espouse MDM, along with one version of the truth, because it makes management of the data much easier.  Most companies do a less-than-adequate job of MDM, which makes it easy to poke holes in existing systems and call for review of existing  processes. IT often swoops into an organization, denounces the poor MDM practices it finds, and offers to “help.” If only we would apply the same standards to ourselves.

Compared to the rest of the company, IT doesn’t generate a lot of business data.  But we do produce a lot of information, in the form of policies, procedures, and end-user documentation.  We seem to have endless rules for everything, and an opinion on how to manage and use any device with moving electrons.  Do we do a good job in managing our information?

Short answer: usually not.  Our policies are captured in a variety of ways and stored in all sorts of places.  Documentation runs the gamut from hard-copy documents stored in a cabinet to PDFs strewn about in online repositories.  We’ve migrated across multiple systems throughout the years, leaving a trail of conflicting and overlapping paperwork behind.  How could anyone make sense of our world?

Even worse, we don’t consistently understand our policies so that we can articulate them to our customers.  When someone speaks to someone in your IT shop and asks a question, will they get the same answer from everyone?  If an IT employee doesn’t know the answer to a question, do they know which person that should be able to help?

Beyond operational data and policies, does everyone on your IT staff understand your strategic vision?  Can they articulate it at a high level and relate it to their immediate responsibilities?  Do they know why certain projects are being pursued and others are not? Can they explain how your top-level IT drivers relate to the business needs of the company?

All of these elements are part of the “data” that must be managed consistently for an IT group to be effective.  Missing or inconsistent documents and policies confuse and frustrate users.  Getting inconsistent or incorrect answers from your staff will drive people crazy.  And misunderstood strategies will waste time and resources as you constantly educate and align your staff.

What’s the answer? The same one we give to others outside of IT: discipline, focus, and constant communication.  We have to build the discipline to capture and manage our documents correctly and efficiently. But as IT leaders, we must constantly communicate our vision, its relation to our plans, and its impact on our company.  We must verify that the organization’s managers understand and communicate that vision in the same fashion, so that it gets heard at every level.

Master data management is hard, and that’s true for IT shops as well.  Before we start preaching to the rest of the company, we need to make sure that our one version of the truth is being managed well first.

Help Someone: Fire Them! July 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In my last post, I wrote about helping successful people succeed even more by finding them opportunities outside of your organization.We can’t always accommodate every successful person; good leaders help these high-achievers by letting them go to excel somewhere else.  It’s hard, but it’s necessary.

But what of those who are not succeeding in your team?  Ironically, you use the same solution: you let them go to excel somewhere else.  It may be even harder, but it’s certainly just as necessary.

Typically, a person is failing in your organization because they cannot handle their job.  We’ve all been in this position, recognizing that an employee simply is not going to be successful for a variety of reasons.  In these cases, after exhausting every way to make them successful in their current spot, we must find ways to make them successful somewhere else.

For people who truly want to succeed, this can ultimately be a rewarding experience.  I once had a person who worked for me as a Unix administrator.  Believe it or not, this was his dream job, but for everyone else it was a nightmare.  He was simply not cut out for the world of Unix systems administration.  As his performance declined, I finally had to sit this person down and give them the bad news: he was being removed from the Unix admin team.

Tears literally rolled down his cheeks as he saw his dream job disappear.  But we did not fire this person.  Recognizing the desire but acknowledging the skills mismatch, we moved him to the email management team.  And he thrived!  He became the greatest email admin ever, and grew to love that job.  Later, he shared with me that being cut from the Unix group as the best thing that ever happened to him. The pain of breaking his heart led to the joy of unforeseen success.

But what if you don’t have a great alternative position for someone who cannot handle their job?  You still must let them go, but it is up to them to find their new opportunity.  Even when we have to fire someone, it is still in their best interest.  Someone who is not succeeding in their current position is not happy.  That negative influence makes everyone unhappy.  By moving them out so they can find a place to be happy, everyone ultimately wins.

I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to fire a number of people. In almost every case, when they ask why, I explain how they will be incapable of succeeding in their current position.  I try to show them that moving to a new opportunity really is for the best, but that’s hard to see right away. But when that person moves on to some place new, where they can succeed and become happy, they will look back on being fired as a good thing.  Getting let go is always awful, but it can be the cathartic moment that leads to unimagined success.

Most people hate the thought of firing someone and will avoid doing it at almost any cost.  That’s a bad decision and the mark of a weak leader.  If you can honestly say that you have exhausted every tool at your disposal to help someone succeed, you have no choice but to let them go. Retaining poor performers to avoid an unpleasant confrontation hurts them, hurts your team, and ultimately hurts you.  Good leaders fire unsuccessful people.

And therein lies the importance of firing someone.  You are not punishing them for poor performance; you are releasing them to deliver a better performance somewhere else.  In these cases, the only true failure is the leader who does not have the wherewithal to fire someone so that they can succeed somewhere else.

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