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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?

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Swing, Batter-Batter-Batter! June 29, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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It’s easy to tell when a youth baseball team is struggling: they fall silent.  If the silence persists for any length of time, the coach (or a parent in the stands) will yell out, “Let’s hear a little chatter out there!”  This request hopefully refocuses the team as they start talking again.

Baseball chatter falls into two broad categories: inane repetitive noise and helpful advice between the players.  The inane noise is designed to annoy and distract the opposing team, especially the pitcher and batter as they duel at the plate.  The helpful advice is more important: players call out potential defensive plays, adjust coverage, warn about possible bunts or steals, and so forth.

The parallels for any support team, and especially IT organizations, is obvious.  A happy team is constantly communicating with themselves, in matters both large and small.  As changes occur and problems arise, they go out of their way to make sure people know what is going on.  The communication is fluid and consistent.  Ideally, most of the chatter should fall into the “helpful advice” category, although it could be fun to taunt your DBA during a big upgrade. (“Drop, table-table-table!”)

As a leader, are you listening for chatter in your team?  Are you even in a position to hear it?  Chatter is in the break room, the hallways, and the parking lot.  It’s both verbal and electronic, via Twitter, SMS, and instant messaging. Chatter isn’t in the formal memos, project charters, and design documents.  It may not even be in the general email flow.  In fact, formal communication is the enemy of chatter.

When teams get bogged down in Memos and Documents, they stop chattering.  They begin to formalize their communication, creating paper trails and looking to cover their read ends.  They think before sharing and selectively reveal information to suit their own agendas.  This kind of thinking, putting self before team, is disastrous for any group.  If it persists, the whole group will fail.

Leaders must create a culture that promotes chatter.  This includes both physical and cultural components:

  • Does the work environment provide places for people to gather and chatter?  Are teams co-located so they naturally interact?  Are there places for groups to meet informally?  Is it easy to see when people have gathered, so that others can join the conversation?
  • Are people inclined to chatter?  It’s easy for people to send email back and forth all day.  Do you encourage them to get up and actually engage in conversations?  Do you walk around and engage in conversations?  Do you provide positive feedback to groups when you see them gathering and chattering?  Do you use chatter to communicate to your direct reports?

Stuffy, staid environments inhibit chatter.  Do you work in such an environment?  Have you inadvertently created one?  Here’s an easy test: from your office, can you occasionally hear laughter?  If your people are not enjoying themselves to the point where they laugh every now and then, how can you expect them to chatter?  How often do you laugh with your team?

Our work teams are more complicated than a baseball team, but the core value of chatter is just as important.  We can’t simply call out and make them start chattering.  We have to build environments and foster cultures that make people chatter on their own.  Are your people chattering?

Scheduling Formal Fun June 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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When I inherited my current team, they had gone through an exercise in self-management wherein they formed various committees to address and improve different aspects of their work life.  These teams looked into things like meeting etiquette, time management, and internal training.  Many of these teams identified a problem, solved it, and eventually disbanded.  But one team, the most important one, has lasted for years.  That team is the Fun Committee.

All of our people work hard, especially in these times of tight budgets.  Long hours, tough projects, and high expectations put our people under stress that can tear a team apart.  The best way to alleviate that stress is to blow off some steam and have some fun with your coworkers.  My group thinks that this is so important that it cannot be left to chance.  Thus the Fun Committee was born, to make sure we have fun on a regular basis.

It may seem odd to formally schedule something that should happen spontaneously.  But if you don’t plan to have fun, you rarely will.  We get so caught up in our jobs that we won’t take time to relax a bit and enjoy each other’s company.

The events planned by the Fun Committee are not elaborate.  They provide a collective birthday cake each month, which takes all of thirty minutes.  There is typically an annual Halloween costume contest in the fall, and a Strawberry Festival each spring.  There are occasional unannounced events, drawing everyone to the break room for some small treat on the spur of the moment.

Even though these events are small, they bring our whole group together for a specifically non-business event.  We socialize a bit, celebrate the moment as needed, and return to our work a bit more energized.  We’ve come to expect these events, and they are a positive component of our team culture.

Most teams enjoy getting together and having these moments, but many groups never seem to make them happen.  Without a formal approach to scheduling fun, time slips away and the events never occur.  People regret not doing more with their group, but rarely act to change things.

I didn’t create the Fun Committee, but I have certainly come to appreciate what they do and I’d hate to see the Fun Committee disband.  That’s the best part: the committee is self-sustaining.  People stay on for a period of time and then rotate off, to be replaced by others.  The committee manages this process, and I’ve never been called on to keep the team alive.  It is truly on its own, sustained by the common desire to keep that social bond strong in the group.

As leaders, team morale is as much our responsibility as anything else.  How do you build and maintain morale in your group?  Do you have a Fun Committee?  Do you need one?

Comfort Zones May 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Last summer, I had the opportunity to watch a group of Boy Scouts go through a high-ropes team building exercise.  Beyond the fun of watching boys climb 50 feet in the air with nothing more than a safety rope hooked to their waist, I learned a clever trick about comfort zones.

High-ropes courses are all about getting out of your comfort zone.  I am very comfortable on the ground, enjoying the combination of gravity and my feet firmly planted on the earth.  Climbing a 40-foot ladder comprised solely of five planks at eight-foot intervals took me way out of my zone, to the point of near-frozen, knee-shaking fear at the top.  But I did it, and I’m better for it, if only to avoid embarrassment in front of 13-year-olds who scrambled to the top like monkeys.

There was a more subtle comfort zone that was shattered five minutes into the day.  When we arrived, the instructors asked the boys to pair up.  As you would expect, they found their best friends and quickly formed twosomes.  She then asked them to each assume a character, either SpongeBob or Patrick (remember the audience here).  They did so.  She then gathered all the SpongeBobs into one group, and all the Patricks into another.  One group headed to the ropes course, and the other to another exercise.

In one deft motion she separated every boy from his best friend! For the rest of the day, the boys worked without the comfort of their buddy, opening them to social opportunities they would never have had.  They still had fun, accomplished things, and grew a bit.  But they did it with a little more risk and became more open to partnering with others throughout the day.

I was so impressed by this trick that I asked the leader about it.  She shared that they had choices for any number of groups.  Need groups of three? Team them in trios and then ask them to become one of the Three Stooges.  Foursomes? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And so forth.  They had learned that boys know how to game the “count off” trick, positioning their best friends “n” people away to make sure they stayed together.  The character game took them by surprise, before they could figure out how to thwart the leader’s intent.

As adults, we probably won’t be asked to become a cartoon character (I’d pick SpongeBob, FYI). But, boy, do we need to be broken up and moved out of our social comfort zones!  How many times do you arrive at a networking event and look for the familiar faces?  I’m guilty of this, and I really enjoy working a room and getting to meet new people.  For the less gregarious among us, breaking out to meet strangers is a difficult exercise.

How many opportunities do we miss for fear of breaking away from our comfortable friends?  There is such value in meeting new people, expanding our horizons, and finding ways to help others.  Our reluctance to engage a stranger costs us so much.  As adults, we are supposed to know better and not require outside intervention to make us do the right thing.  Yet we still revert to old behaviors, rooted deep in our psyches.

We all own this problem.  At your next event, acknowledge the familiar faces and turn away to meet the strangers.  If your friends chase you down, gently aim them at others as well.  You may have to write “SpongeBob” on your name tag to make your point, but it will be worth the effort.

Achieving Critical Mass May 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In my most recent posting, I began by discussing the basic criteria for a successful nuclear explosion: getting the right material in the right place at the right time.  In a blinding flash of obviousness (obviosity?) I realized that this is true of so many things in life, particularly in the role we all seek to play as leaders.

It is a sad fact that those of us living towards the top of the org chart do very little real work.  Instead, we direct, manage, and inspire those below us who actually do productive things on a regular basis.  Our job is making sure the right people do the right things the right way and understand why. 

As leaders, it is not enough to simply spout some grand scheme and stand back and watch it unfold.  It is our job to make sure the right people come together at the right time with the right resources.  Our people often cannot bring all that together; they lack the authority or wherewithall to make it all happen.  Instead, they look to us to bridge those gaps, break down the barriers, and orchestrate the myriad of elements beyond their control that ensure their success.

It is easy to miss this critical aspect of our job.  Poor leaders often blame their teams for failing to bring it all together when they actually carry the responsibility for making their team successful.  In some cases, teams cannot see all the pieces of the puzzle, let alone figure out how to put them all together. We need to do that, and our teams need to trust that we are doing this for them.

This need not involve dramatic micromanagement or a heavy-handed approach.  Often, simply asking the right question at the right time is all it takes.  Questions that begin with “Did you consider…” or “Did you talk to…” or “Have you thought about…” may be enough to start a train of thought that leads to a better solution to a problem.

Truth be told, it’s fun and rewarding to see all those parts come together to create something great.  It may not be as cool as building your own nuclear weapon, but it is a real pleasure when a plan works just like you hoped it would.