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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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Hairdresser CRM September 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I get my hair cut about every six weeks or so.  I’ve been going to the same woman for about two years now.  Every time I show up, she picks up the conversation right where we left off, six weeks prior.  How does she do this?

She sees a hundred or more people in those intervening weeks.  She has similar, if not far more engaging, conversations with all those people than she has with me.  Yet she remembers everything we were talking about and is able to resume a pleasant conversation for thirty minutes or so.  She also remembers how I like my hair cut, and notices subtle changes in how it has grown (or not).

I am pretty sure that my local hair salon is not running Seibel unbeknownst to me.  I do not see the various stylists pulling up salesforce.com on their phones moments before engaging a client.  They don’t even write anything down, for heaven’s sake!  Yet they have an almost elephantine memory for details about their clients’ lives.  And this is not unique to my current stylist; this seems to be typical behavior among the vast majority of hairdressers in the world.

They realize, of course, that this intimacy and sustained attention is what provides them the repeat business they need to survive.  Whether they are born with the skill or develop it over time, successful stylists know how to draw out their clients and remember what they hear.  Darwinian selection weeds out the stylists with poor memories, I suppose.

We could all learn a thing or two from them.  The foundation of good IT service is that old maxim:

People don’t care what you know, they want to know that you care.

Showing that you care means listening and remembering things that are important to your customers.  Dale Carnegie knew it; much of his advice involves understanding what is really important to people and then providing it.

My best vendors have hairdresser-class people skills.  They have taken the time to get to know me and my company, and they prove it every time we get together.  I don’t know how they remember it; I do know that it makes sustaining our relationship across intermittent points of contact much easier.

Bad salespeople could never cut hair.  They don’t take the time to learn things, and don’t try to remember what they do learn.  I’ve had salespeople schedule time for an intro call and admit that they do not even know what my company does.  Really?  You couldn’t spend five minutes with Google before heading to my office?

Social media tools make this even easier for savvy salespeople.  Like many other people, I am throwing out bits of trivia about myself all the time, through this blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Facebook.  I have a Google-friendly name that makes web-based stalking easy.  It is not hard to put together a few facts to create the illusion of caring when you first meet me.

Cynical machinations aside, we would all do well to acquire the skills that are crucial to hairdressers.  Listening, remembering, and showing interest are the foundation of all our relationships, not just at the office.  Maybe your next leadership coaching session involves scissors and a smock.

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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?

Solutions Without Technology May 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Of the many aphorisms that I enjoy using, one of my favorites is

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I pull this one out when someone is using some system in an inappropriate way.  People get so comfortable with their favorite tools, they use them for everything even when a better solution is readily available.

This is an easy accusation for an IT person to make.  Most software systems are so complicated that it is easier for a user to twist an existing system into an unusual solution than it is to learn some completely arcane new system.  People just want to solve problems and get on with their jobs and lives.  I know this is hard to believe, but they don’t look forward to exploring and mastering that latest version of some new desktop application.

Those of us in IT would do well to listen to our own advice.

How many times, when asked to help solve some problem, do we immediately reach for a computer?  Typically, the answer is “all of the time.”  We’re in IT; we know how to make computers do interesting things; therefore every problem can be solved with some technology-based solution.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Many problems do not exist for want of a technology solution.  In fact, many of the day-to-day business problems we encounter are rooted in process, flow, and data collection.  While you can certainly throw software at all of those areas, you can also fix a lot of issues by talking to people, understanding their real needs, and proposing ways to change things in a non-technical way.

Within IT, we have developed a broad range of skills that are not rooted in technology.  Process analysis, data management, project management, user interface design, audit and compliance, risk management: the list is long.  Why, then, when someone is gracious enough to give us the opportunity to help, do we reach for the hardware?  We perpetuate the perception that we are nothing more than geeks, when if fact we have so much more to offer.

I’ve been on projects where the real solution was to have a user interface designer rework a paper form layout.  I’ve seen errant projects saved by sharing good project management skills.  I’ve seen business processes reworked by applying disaster recovery discipline.  In all of these cases, not a single line of code was written in pursuit of a solution.  Instead, IT people spent time listening, sharing, and collaborating to help users do their jobs more effectively.

People in IT chafe at being known solely for their technical expertise, yet we fall into our old habits when confronted with a problem.  We need to follow our own advice, set down the hammer of technology, and look for effective non-technical solutions to many of the problems we’re asked to solve.  We’ll grow in our ability to be of service, and we’ll begin to build a better reputation with our end users.

Absolute Guy In A Relative World May 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I like absolutes. Yes or no. Black or white. Right or wrong. No room for debate or equivocating; the answer is patently obvious to all concerned.

This is why computing is so appealing to me.  Strip away all the layers of abstraction, and computing is about getting a sequence of 1s and 0s in the right order.  If you get the right order, it’s correct.  Drop or flip a bit, and it’s not.  You may think you’re reading this blog; in fact, you are viewing an abstract representation of several billion bits arranged to appear as text on your screen.  If even one bit were wrong, these words would not be correct.  Simple: right or wrong.

Leadership is rarely about such absolutes.  When dealing with people and plans, there are a million shades of gray that must be weighed and blended to reach decisions.  From strategic planning to tactical choices, we have to function within a spectrum of relative values that are open to interpretation.

In many cases, relative judgments make life easier.  We often talk about being “good enough,” about applying the 80/20 rule, about knowing when to quit and move on to the next project.  In these cases, there is often a law of diminishing returns that make achieving an absolute result more expensive than the benefit derived.  Knowing when to stop is an important aspect of leadership, too.

With so much of our world based on a relative scale, it can be tempting to let everything shift to a relative scale.  I think it’s important to remember that some things are never relative.  Things like ethics, morals, trust, integrity, and reputation should never be viewed on a relative scale.  We should hold ourselves to absolute standards and never relax in our desire to achieve an absolute result in those areas.  Note that this doesn’t mean that we won’t have lapses, but those lapses can take a long time to overcome.  A tarnished reputation may take years to be restored, but the standard of a “good reputation” should not change; we simply need to work harder to achieve that standard.

I also have certain things, related to my IT background, that I always judge on an absolute scale. Data integrity is not a relative issue for me.  Data is either right or wrong, pure or corrupt.  Systems are either up or down, available or not.  Software features either work, or they don’t.  I tend to drive my team crazy with this stuff, but that doesn’t deter me from getting on my soapbox every now and again.

I find that I get a lot of reactions when I express this view.  Some people, it seems, will gauge almost anything on a relative scale.  There seems to be a general aversion to absolute anything. What do you hold to an absolute scale?  What do you shift to relative judgment?  Does it matter?