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Being Remembered January 4, 2010

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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4 comments

During lunch with a friend last month, she noted that everyone dies two deaths.  Intrigued, I asked her to explain.  The first, she noted, was the physical death that we will all encounter.  The second, however, occurs the last time your name is spoken.  After that point, you are truly dead and forgotten.

What a concept! It immediately brings to mind those timeless names that will never die, those rare few that have had an eternal impact on our lives and society.  But it also leads us to reflect on the billions whose names have slipped into obscurity, and whose impact, however large or small, has stopped reverberating in this world.

This idea was brought into sharper focus for me last week when I learned of the death of Tim Hartselle, with whom I worked many years ago.  I’ve written before about Tim here, but did not mention him by name.  Tim once worked for me as a Unix administrator.  He wasn’t very good at Unix but found great success in email administration.  I often tell Tim’s story as an example of how seemingly difficult circumstances (losing his dream job of being a Unix admin) can lead to unexpected success in ways you never imagined.

Tim was a great, gentle man, with a ready smile and a sincere heart.  His first death came at 47, way too early.  So I mention his name here to do my part in forestalling his second passing.  If you ever need a story that demonstrates success borne of adversity, you may wish to use Tim’s name as well, extending that second demise.

It may seem odd to start a new year on such a somber note, but I prefer to see the opportunity that is presented.  With a fresh year spread before us, what will you do to make your name memorable?  I’m not thinking of notorious fame, either criminal or celebrity, but the kind of fame borne of doing good things on a continuous basis.

Most of us start the year pledging to lose weight, exercise more, and to cultivate more good habits than bad.  Most of those resolutions fall by the wayside, even with the best of intentions.  This year, take a different tack.  Resolve to do things this year in such a way that your name will be remembered, long after you are gone. Being remembered, in a good way, may yield a better year than any other resolution you can make.

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Lifetime Impact December 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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4 comments

Early in my career, I had the great good fortune to work with a pure research team.  The team had two distinct research areas: advanced digital communications and large-scale parallel processing.  The former was populated by absolute geniuses who, among other things, developed stuff  like 16 kilobit modems back in 1980, along with a nifty technology we now know as HDTV.  I was in the latter group; we were a bunch of young Unix hackers who tinkered with odd things like parallel processing, the internet, the web, and email.  It was a wonderful place to be, and I still have many fond memories of the people and the projects.

Last week I learned that one of the senior members of the communications group, Dan McRae, passed away.  Dan was a brilliant engineer, but he was also a kind, supportive mentor to many, many people.  As his coworkers learned of his passing, they began to share memories of Dan and the profound impact he had had on their lives.  Although I had only known Dan peripherally, those who had known and worked with him for decades echoed a common sentiment: he had made a profound difference in their lives.

Several people shared the same comment: that were it not for Dan, their lives would be dramatically different today.  His guidance and intervention at an early point in their career had led them to decisions that made a big difference for them and their families.

Dan did not set out to make a big difference.  Dan was being Dan, quietly inspiring people to do great things personally and professionally.  Yet the impact he had on so many people is immeasurable.

Thinking of Dan made me realize that to be remembered in this way may be the greatest achievement to which any of us could aspire.  Paradoxically, you cannot try to achieve this kind impact; rather, it occurs as a side effect of doing the right thing, all the time, for a long time.  I suspect that even if you had asked him, Dan could not have explained how he had this impact on people.

If you died today, would people say the same thing about you?  Do you live your life in a way that makes a profound difference to someone?  I hope that in the end, we will all be able to claim a similar legacy as Dan McRae.

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Social Spackle December 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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5 comments

It’s been a social media week for some reason, with many opportunities to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of all this new stuff with lots of folks.  Despite the attention that social media gets, and the adoption of the tools by some demographic groups, there is still a long way to go for some people to start using this stuff.

There’s a common refrain that permeates a lot of these discussions: “It might be useful for others, but I just don’t think it’s for me. Who cares what I’m doing or thinking?” I have a simple answer for that: “I do.”  And lots of other people as well.

The concept of social media is not new.  Years and years ago, social media went by different names.  We used to call it “talking,” or “writing a letter,” or “making a social call.” As technology advanced, it became “sending a telegram” and “making a phone call.” Now we call it “updating my status” or “sending a tweet.” Technology changes, but the goal remains the same.

The point is to keep in touch with people you care about, and for them to keep in touch with you.  These simple interactions with others build a rich fabric that connects you and keeps you close. While some people belittle the trivial information that often gets shared, it is that information, in fact, that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

In today’s world, we rarely cross paths with people and engage them in person.  When we do, we often spend time catching up: “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” We do it because we care, and the more we know about a person, the more we can connect and share.

Social media lets you share those little bits about yourself all the time.  Interested people can absorb them and keep up with you.  I call this information “social spackle.”  It is the stuff that fills in the cracks in our relationships and keep them strong. When you do finally meet someone, you are already up to speed on their life; you can have a richer and more valuable moment together.

Consider a simple example: an acquaintance tweets as he goes on a trip to visit his daughter and see his grandchildren.  Trivial data, he thinks; who would care about that?  But those who know him are glad to know it, and file it all away.  When we next meet, we have excited questions: How was your trip?  How are those grandkids? That little bit of social spackle strengthened our bond and made for a nicer moment.

Reluctant to try social media?  Don’t do it for you.  Do it for those who care about you.  Find ways to spread some social spackle and see what happens.  You will be surprised at the change in the richness and quality of your relationships, both with people you’ve known and the people you will meet.  What do you have to lose?

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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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3 comments

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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Infectious Diseases October 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
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10 comments

Many years ago, I worked with a group of software developers who were situated in a typical cube farm.  One day, a woman came to work clearly not feeling well.  As the morning progressed, her conditioned worsened, punctuated with repeated trips to the restroom.

Her cube neighbor was concerned that she might be carrying some infectious disease.  Sure enough, as time went by, he began to feel sick himself.  Soon he was running to the restroom as well, and by the end of the day they had both gone home.

It turns out that she was suffering from a bad bout of morning sickness.  Her coworker, it seemed, had contracted the rarest of all airborne maladies, psychosomatic male pregnancy.

While pregnancy is tough to catch at work, other diseases spread easily.  While diseases can usually be treated and disposed of, other infections can be much tougher.  These kinds of infections include attitude, ethics, and courtesy.

People tend to mirror those around them.  If the workplace is a sad, depressing, miserable place, everyone in it will be sad, miserable, and depressed.  Happy, upbeat, pleasant places create happy, upbeat, pleasant people.  The prevalent mood spreads quickly, one way or the other.

As leaders, we have tremendous control over what is in the air.  Our attitude sets the tone for the team.  We need to choose our attitude carefully, because it will be mimicked, consciously or unconsciously, by those around us.  While maintaining a continuously Pollyannish approach isn’t going to fool anyone, genuine confident enthusiasm is a good thing.

We also need to be sensitive to the “carriers” in the group, both good and bad.  Every group has a few people whose genuine positive spirit is always a welcome breath of fresh air.  Their approach lifts every project, enhances every meeting, and brightens your day.  These people are treasures and you need to specifically praise them for their good effect on the team.

Conversely, every group has a few Eeyores.  These people find the cloud around every silver lining, know exactly why every good idea will fail, and seem to find ways to bring even the happiest person down.  These people can be fatal to your organization.  Oddly, many of these people have excellent technical skills, so we overlook their attitude to take advantage of their ability.  We make excuses for their behavior, hoping that their technical contributions outweigh their social impact. You can do that in the short term, but you cannot tolerate it for long.  A person is a whole package, and attitude problems are no more or less serious than technical or ethical ones.

As leaders, we need to remove the infectious bad attitudes from our group and allow the good attitudes to more easily spread. Who are you infecting today?

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