Changes

English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chlor...

English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) found in eastern Australia. Français : Litoria chloris, une grenouille arboricole de l’est australien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the story goes, if you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, the frog immediately realises the danger and jumps out. If, however, you put the frog in a pan of tepid water and apply heat to the pan until the water boils, the frog stays put and slowly cooks and dies. I’m not a chef or a reptologist and I certainly haven’t performed this experiment to check the results, but it’s a good analogy for resistance to change.

In some ways, the human psyche is hard-wired against change. The brain works on success strategies, and once it finds one that succeeds in a given situation, then that becomes the brain’s go to guy when those events arise. It’s a very successful method. We don’t need to touch a flame more than once to realise it’s going to hurt and we soon gain a healthy respect for heights after a few falls.

When it comes to our working lives, it works the same way. We work out how to speak to people to get results (although I think this particular skill peaks at the age of 4). We work out the best way to word an email, apply for a job and ask for a pay rise. It’s not usually particularly scientific. We rely on trial and error, but once we work out a winning formula, the brain locks in that strategy.

One of the worst things about the brain is that it is a creature of habit. Once it has picked up a way of behaving, it is highly reluctant to change. After all, if something’s worked loads of times before, why wouldn’t you trust it to work again?

This would all be great if nothing changed. Unfortunately, everything does.

People change. Not only do people join and leave organisations all the time, but even the people who don’t learn new skills or go through new experiences that change their outlook on life. Technology changes all the time. In a living breathing organisation, processes change. In society, expectations of what’s OK and what’s unacceptable change. Our perspective changes every time we learn more about everything around us. When you think about it, there is very little that doesn’t change, so the circumstances in which we learned our success strategies gradually are unlikely to be repeated.

It makes sense to ask yourself occasionally whether you feel like a boiling frog. Have you changed enough to cope with all that’s changed around you?

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Quality

English: A standard measuring tape.

English: A standard measuring tape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Your dad’s wasted his money.” came the solemn assessment from my uncle as he handed the package back to me.

His reaction puzzled me because dad was obviously very happy with his purchase. In the pack, there were a number of different tools; a hammer, a set of screwdrivers, a tape measure and various other tools. We were always struggling to find the right tool when we needed it and here we had a whole set in a purpose made carrying pouch. They were cheap too.

How could two people have such different reactions about the same item? It took a while before I understood that it was all down to quality. For a while, I thought that quality was an inherent feature of an item. Some items were of high quality, others were complete tat and everything else lay in between the two.

But quality is much more subtle than that. An item can be classed as a quality item if it conforms to the user’s requirements. So quality is not a feature of an item at all, it is much more related to the user and their requirements. Hence my uncle’s assessment differing from my dad’s.

My uncle was a tradesman. He used tools for a living, all day, every day. For him, two of his top requirements were durability and reliability. He needed his tools to last a long time and he needed them to work every single time.

Dad used tools occasionally when he was doing a bit of DIY around the house or when he had some flat packed furniture to assemble. His top requirements were value for money and comprehensiveness. If the tools let him down, it would not be the end of the world.

Understanding the requirements of the user is of vital importance in any project. If you don’t know what the user wants, how on Earth are you going to make sure you have met them? If the requirements are absent or incomplete, the temptation is to unconsciously use your own inbuilt requirements as a yardstick and they might be very different indeed.

This is hard enough in the world of the physical. When it comes to the ethereal world of computer systems, it is even more important to make sure that there is a set of comprehensive requirements describing what the user expects. After all, one man’s bug is another man’s feature.

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Bad news should travel FAST

ablaze

ablaze (Photo credit: zachstern)

One of the biggest man-made disasters I can remember is Chernobyl. I once read a book called “Ablaze” which told the story of the meltdown. The thing that shocked me to my core was how eager the protagonists were to cover things up. You’d think that when an alarm sounds at one of your biggest nuclear power stations, the temptation would be to err on the side of caution.

Instead, they called out the local fire brigade. They were equipped as you might imagine a 1980s Soviet fire crew would be. They had little or nothing in the way of protective clothing and the equivalent of a large tank of water on wheels. When they arrived, they did what they could. They pulled out their hoses and sprayed water on the exposed radioactive core. It was only when the brave firemen started keeling over that the men in charge thought to escalate things.

They called in helicopters to drop water and sand on the exposed core. Again, only when they started dropping like flies did the men in charge raise the alert level. I fully believe that they would have covered the whole thing up. It was only when a Scandinavian monitoring station picked up the elevated levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere did the Soviet authorities reluctantly come clean.

The temptation with any bad news is to suppress it. The fact is that bad news needs to be handled very carefully. You need to act F.A.S.T.

Firstly, get the (F)acts straight. What has gone wrong? Why did it go wrong? How will it be fixed? How long will it take? How can we be sure it won’t happen again?

Secondly, think about the (A)udience. Who are you going to tell about the situation? If you fart in church, you apologise to the man next door. You don’t stand up and announce it to the entire congregation. Nor do you take out an advert in the local paper.

The first person I would include in the audience is  your boss. Many would instinctively shy away from this, but the chances are, he’s either going to smell the shit on the fan or someone is going to point it out to him. The news is better coming from you. The other people I would include in the audience are any stakeholders who are about to be affected by the bad news.

Thirdly, (S)it down and take a deep breath. Things are going to get ugly. There will be a lot of emotion flying around. The best thing to do is make sure you keep coming back to the facts.

Lastly, (T)ell people what’s going on. Tell them early and tell them often. No communication is much, much worse than a short note to say we realise how serious things are and we are still working hard on the problem. They want to know you are treating it seriously and that they are in safe hands. Keep encouraging your team. They will be facing the pressure too. As much as possible, shield them from it. They will be the ones that get you through it.

And when it’s all over, take a moment to relax. You’ve earned it.

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What’s the hardest short word to say in the English language?

A moving GIF showing a basic 3 ball-cascade ju...

A moving GIF showing a basic 3 ball-cascade juggling pattern: good for juggling explanation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a short-term success strategy, going round saying yes to everything is hard to beat. Not only that, but it’s infectious as the more you get a reputation for saying yes, the more things come your way to say yes to. The guy asking you to do something walks away happy because he has someone to do his thing. You feel happy because you feel respected and liked.

But the worse thing you can do is to say yes to things and then not follow through. If you have too many balls in the air, then that’s what tends to happen. You’ve said yes to so much stuff that you can’t give any of them the attention they deserve. You end up half doing everything.

A better success strategy is to focus on the important things that you should be doing in your role and succeed at those so that the company prospers.

The first thing to ask when someone asks you to do something is should someone else be doing this. I’m not suggesting getting all slopey shouldered, but if you have a help desk, why is this person coming to you for help. If you have a sales force, why are they coming to you asking you to go out and sell something. In a small company it’s different, because everyone does anything. Any kind of scalable endeavour cannot rely on a hero culture.

They must be asking you because they know you can do it. But if someone else should be doing it, the crucial question is why. It could be because they lack confidence. It could be because they don’t know how to do the thing in question. It could be because they are lazy. Whatever the reason, the person in front of you wants help. Of course you can help him, but that doesn’t fix the problem. And guess where he’ll come next time.

The next question to ask is what needs to happen for the right person to do the job next time? And plan to put steps in place to make it happen.

How many times has someone come up to you late in the day because they have a demo / meeting / Powerpoint to get done / document they need (delete as appropriate). If someone does this to me, I try to establish whether this is something that has really come out of the blue or whether they knew about it some time ago. If it’s the former, I’ll help, assuming I don’t have my own personal emergency to take care of, but point out that I might be busy / on holiday / in a meeting next time and they really need to let me know as soon as possible so that together we can plan when it will happen.

If they make a habit of it, then it’s obvious which short word to use next; NO!

Decisions, decisions…

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Bro...

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Brown Bank Farm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The manager of a large organisation had a heart attack. The doctor told him to go to a farm for several weeks to relax.

At the farm, he became very bored, so he asked the farmer to give him some work to do. The farmer told him to clean out the cow sheds.

The farmer thought that someone used to working behind a desk would take over a week to finish the job, but to his surprise the manager finished the job in less than one day.

The next day the farmer gave the manager a more difficult job: to cut the heads of 500 chickens. The farmer was sure that the manager would not be able to do the job, but at the end of the day the work was done.

Next morning, as most of the jobs in the farm were done, the farmer asked the manager to divide a bag of potatoes in two boxes: one box with small potatoes, and one box with big potatoes. At the end of the day the farmer saw the manager sitting in front of the bag of potatoes, but the two boxes were empty.

The farmer asked “How is that you managed such difficult jobs earlier, and now you can’t do this simple job?”

He answered: “I’ve spent my whole life cutting heads and dealing with shit, but now you ask me to make decisions.”

Human beings make zillions of choices through their lives. What to eat or what to wear. What to read or what to watch. Usually it’s not a problem, but every so often, we have to make a hard decision. I’ve seen people literally paralysed with choice. Sometimes at the sandwich shop or choosing a bottle of wine in the supermarket. It usually happens because they’ve formed an idea of what they want and it’s not available. Maybe the sandwich shop has run out of their favourite sandwiches or there’s nothing they fancy. Maybe they are after a decent bottle of white wine for less than a fiver, but there’s nothing there that fits the bill.

But sometimes in business, leaders have to make really horrible decisions. Usually, they are choosing between a number of terrible options and they are trying to make the least bad choice. They will display the same behaviour as the wine picker or the sandwich muncher bouncing among the options, hoping that an optimal choice will become clear.

So how do you handle them? Firstly, if there is no downside to not making the decision, I would wait. The situation may change over time and the horrible decision may be avoided. Over time, more options may become available or the appeal of one option may change to make it the obvious choice.

If there is a downside to delaying and you really have to bite the bullet and make that decision, the key is to accept that there are no good options. Once you know that no perfect answer exists, it becomes easier to objectively look at the options and choose. Once you make the choice, don’t torture yourself with thoughts of whether you made the right decision or not. Move on and learn from the results.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made?

Walk a mile in my shoes

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we learnt about the birds and the bees in biology at school, our teacher explained one of the reasons that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. In the quest for love, there are stages, milestones almost, by which human beings judge their progress in a relationship and whether they are happy to make the next step.

The cause of much angst is that the number of steps for men is far fewer than the number for women. So, if a man has 3 romantic milestones hard-wired into his psyche, he’s thinking it’s only a couple of short steps to Nirvana. If the woman he is trying to woo has 11 such romantic milestones – he has a long way to go to win her heart. Both are likely to be frustrated by the other because of the difference in pace.

I faced a similar conundrum this week when I faced my first contract negotiation. To me, this was just another item on my to-do list. Something to get crossed off by lunchtime and I move onto the next item. However, our legal counsel had other ideas. The documents in question formed the last line of defence should something go wrong. I tried to get through it as quickly as possible. She went through in meticulous detail, questioning just about everything.

At first I was as frustrated as that man was in his courtship. Well – probably not that frustrated if I’m honest, but at first I thought she was being overly pernickety (or is it pedantic?)

When I sat back and reconsidered though, I realised it was me being difficult. If this contract was the suit of armour that was going to protect the company when things went wrong, it makes sense to craft the finest suit of armour we can. Also, this was my first contract negotiation. In her career, she has undoubtedly drafted a huge number. She’s undoubtedly been there in the thick of things when they had to be used in anger to protect the company.

I realised my mistake and adjusted my expectations of just how long this process would take.

When you’re at loggerheads with someone, it pays to take a moment to try to see things from their point of view. What’s important to you might be completely different to what’s important to them. Understanding that difference can be the key to resolving the dispute and moving on.

 

Expectations

Schoolchildren eating hot school lunches made ...

Schoolchildren eating hot school lunches made up primarily of food from the surplus commodities program. Taken at a school in Penasco, New Mexico, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The gleaming gold and metal badge on the outside of my school jumper said “PREFECT”. It was my first taste of responsibility.

My duties were legion and included such things as enforcing the “no running” rule in the corridors, making sure people went the right direction on the stairs, lining up the first years for assembly.

Heady stuff for someone who was only just a teenager. Even though we used to mock prefects behind our hands, I instantly thought respect came with the badge.

Rank was not without its privileges. One of them was the ability to get into lunch early. This was not to be sniffed at. The quality of the school meals degraded significantly the longer time went on and all the popular choices quickly disappear. It was during one of these lunch hours when I met my downfall.

I sat down for dinner with my school friends as usual. It was towards the end of term before the long Summer break and we all felt demob happy. We happily joked and told funny stories until our sides ached.

Unbeknownst to us, over at the next table, there were a bunch of first years. They were also feeling demob happy. However, instead of telling jokes and reminiscing like us, they chose to have a water fight. And after that a food fight.

A passing dinner lady spotted the two tables and came to the incorrect conclusion that the cause of our table’s mirth was the tomfoolery of the first years. She summoned a teacher and told him. Next thing we were in the headmaster’s office looking sheepishly at our shoes. I tried to defend us by protesting our innocence. It was no use. Detentions all round and as we filed out of the office feeling hard done by, the headmaster called me back.

“Badge please”

With a tear in my eye, I handed it over. It was all so unjust, but it didn’t seem to matter. It was a good job the dinner lady didn’t think I’d murdered someone.

It taught me a valuable lesson. Whenever you accept a new role, particularly one with some degree of responsibility, you need to look beyond the tasks and think about what’s really expected of you. If it’s not clear then ask. Then make sure you live up to that expectation. And avoid dinner ladies and first years like the plague!

Responsibility

English: A girl caresses a snail after having ...

English: A girl caresses a snail after having worked in the garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what the opposite of green fingered is – grey fingered? Whatever it is, that’s what I am. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the flora on our planet, after all, if it wasn’t around, we would soon run out of oxygen. It’s just that I don’t want the responsibility of looking after it.

It’s no great surprise that both our front garden and back garden are tiled over. No mowing the lawn for us. Although, there are still weeds that find their way through the cracks in the stones as if to mock us.

We have a neighbour, however, who adores her garden. Her front garden is set out in a Japanese style with a path that winds its way through to the front door. In her back garden, she likes to grow vegetables. She told me a gardening story today which tickled me and I just had to share it.

There is a 4-year-old boy who lives in the neighbourhood. He often appears when our neighbour is knee-deep in gardening, keen to help. Today was no exception. Our neighbour tended her garden and the boy kept watch. After a short delay, he spotted a snail crawling across her path and asked if he could take it. Our neighbour considered the request carefully. After all, in the past she saw him stamping on snails and throwing them into his pond.

“I’ll make you a deal. You can have the snail as long as you promise not to hurt it. No stamping on it and no drowning the poor thing.”

The boy’s face contorted as he weighed up the deal in front of him. On the one hand was the prize, a nice juicy, fat snail. On the other were the heady responsibilities it came with. After a short delay, he made up his mind and nodded vociferously. Our neighbour, duty bound by the agreement handed over the snail.

After a short delay, to her considerable dismay, she saw the boy cast the snail into his pond.

“I thought you promised not to drown the snail?” her challenge.

“What does drown mean?” his response.

The leadership lesson of the day is when you make any kind of agreement, make sure you understand what you are getting into. It’s also worthwhile making sure the other party understands their obligations too. Could save a lot of upset down the track.

Changing course

Brighton Beach

Brighton Beach (Photo credit: dogfrog)

I never turn down a learning opportunity. I have no idea how much training and education I’ve had in the two and a half decades or so of my career, but I know it’s a lot. BP allowed me to attend college one day a week for six years and I went through every training course in the book. Temenos allowed me to take Open University courses for a further three years.

Among all of them, there are two courses that stand out; courses that changed my life. The first of these was the first course I ever attended. The title of the course was Putting People First. The whole company had to attend the course and when it came to my turn, it was held in Brighton. Everyone from senior executives down to tanker drivers and clerks attended the course.

The course was all about the importance of everyone’s job and how your actions affect those around you. Misery and happiness are both contagious and I know which I’d rather catch. The trainer used anecdotes such as a man asking two builders what they did for a living. The first said that he stuck bricks together. The second described the magnificent cathedral he worked on. I know which builder I’d rather be.

The course changed my outlook on life. The first thing it taught me is that I didn’t want to do the job I currently had. I wanted to do something with more significance. I didn’t know what at the time, but I knew if I studied hard, I was bound to progress. The day I returned to the office, I spoke to my boss about going to college.

The second course that changed my life was 2 decades later. It was a leadership course. It taught me the nuances of communication. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it is very important. Your choice of words, the medium, tone of voice, tempo and posture all have an impact on how your message gets received.

It also taught me about what motivates people. Why people do (or don’t do) what you ask of them. The course also asked a question which, for me, had no obvious answer. What makes you happy? I know when I am happy and when I am not, but the question of what makes me happy had me stumped for a long time.

Try answering it yourself. It might just change your life.

Stress!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ask anyone if they think they lead a stressful life, the chances are a large proportion will say yes. With the hectic lifestyles of today, we put ourselves under enormous strain. The stress is not in the situation, however, it’s in the person. Two different people placed in an identical situation will experience different stress levels, based on their background, training and perception of the situation.

I received a salient lesson in stress once. I don’t mean the kind of stress that makes you want to throttle someone or the stress that gives you a slight headache. I mean the stress that keeps you awake at night, every night. The sort of stress that renders you close to tears the whole time. When you start to wonder if you can ever see the light at the end of the tunnel, stress starts morphing into a slow seeping despair.

I was project manager for a large software rollout. The project was in the late stages leading up to go live. In the closing stages of the project, my boss phoned me to tell me he was to step down and that I would have to fill his shoes. He had a lot of responsibility on his plate and this represented a doubling of my workload. At the same time, a couple who were close to us went through a messy separation.

These three things don’t seem like much when I write them down now, but at the time, each one was enormously stressful. Combined, they were too much for me to take. I didn’t realise at first. Stress makes a stealthy approach, crawling through the long grass before it pounces. Before I knew it I was wrestling with it and the damned thing was winning.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I learned a lot. If you don’t want to be kept awake at night, keep a to do list. Once you write something on this list, your brain will allow you to forget it. Otherwise, your brain will keep coming back to the problem, day or night. If you are struggling, ask for help. It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how many people struggle on when all they need is a nudge in the right direction or to share out some tasks.

Talk to someone about the stress you feel. It helps. Try and get a sense of perspective about what’s on your plate. If you don’t complete your work, will someone die? Will you go bankrupt? Will you lose your family? There are remarkably few situations when distilled down to their simplest are really that critical.

There is another remedy which I hesitate to relate.

As soon as my wife realised the stress I was under, she took me straight to the local spiritualist shop where she bought me some stones. She bought me a lump of quartz to stick on my desk (to absorb all the negative energy) and some bits of tourmaline to carry in my pocket to absorb all the stress. I don’t believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but I took the stones. I’m absolutely positive it’s a coincidence, but ever since, I have felt less stressed.

I don’t believe a word of it and yet, those stones are still there.