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?

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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.

There’s no excuse for a crap presentation

Microsoft PowerPoint

Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fact of life that anyone who works in any kind of professional environment has a lifetime of powerpoint presentations ahead of them.

Some of them will be really good. Unfortunately, these will be in a minority. Most of them will be average and some of them will be absolutely atrocious. We forget the mediocre in a heartbeat, but the atrocious and the very best will stick in our minds.

There are many reasons for giving a powerpoint presentation. Some are given to inspire people. Some are to explain concepts or teach people. Some are to make people laugh. What they all have in common is communication. If you want people to remember your performance, you need to be either very good or very bad. The only way to get people to remember what you said is to be among the best – no pressure then.

The first thing to think about is the structure of your presentation. A lack of structure is one of the main reasons for poor presentations. If you don’t know what you want to say or how you want to say it, how on earth will your audience grasp your point. Remembering a poorly structured presentation is hard and difficult to prepare. You are also more likely to overrun or under run your time slot.

People like stories, so a structure that tells the audience where we are today, where we want to get to, how we’re going to get there and what it will be like at the end of a journey will naturally appeal. Another structure that works well is to tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them again. Then there is the old favourite that follows the PREP acronym; make your (P)oint, give them the (R)eason for the point, then show them the (E)vidence and then remake your (P)oint.

The exact structure you choose doesn’t matter so much as long as you’ve got one and it suits your subject material. As a rule of thumb, I spend most of my time thinking about the structure and what I want to say.

Then you will need some slides. I’m fairly anal about slides. I try to keep text to a minimum and I have a special hatred for bullet points. Words are for manuscripts and blog posts, pictures are for presentations. Every slide should communicate a single concept. Once you have a concept – a Google image search or a chart should be enough to get that concept across. In the later versions of powerpoint, you can even recolour your images so that they all match.

Once you have your slide deck, go through it a few times. I guarantee you’ll see some mistakes. You will also see the best place to break up your presentation with some chapter heading slides. There will also be the occasional slide that appears in the wrong place. A good few passes through remove any howlers and to make the deck flow better.

Then practise. I’m not wildly passionate about practise because if you overdo it, you will lose any spontaneity. The first thing I do is go through the deck and count how many slides are in each section. I write out each slide title and write a bubble around each section of slides with the count next door. So for example, my list might look like this;

  • Intro (4 slides)
  • Where are we now (5 slides)
  • Where do we want to be (4 slides)
  • How we’re going to get there (6 slides)
  • What will it be like (3 slides)
  • Conclusion (3 slides)

I run through that a few times until I can write the section / slide counts out from memory. I then learn the slides at the end of every section so that I’m never taken by surprise when I switch from one chapter to another. Once you can remember that much, it’s only a short leap to being able to write out your entire 25 slide deck from memory.

If you can do that, the presentation itself will be a breeze.

I love it when a plan comes together…

The main cast of The A-Team. Clockwise from to...

The main cast of The A-Team. Clockwise from top: H. M. Murdock, B. A. Baracus, Hannibal Smith and Templeton “Face” Peck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Required viewing for children young and old used to be the A team. It was fairly formulaic. Within an hour, you knew that B. A. Barracus would refuse to get on a plane, only to be tricked or sedated by the others in the team.

Howling Mad Murdoch would get to jump into some kind of plane or helicopter and pilot it with ease. Faceman would use his charisma to acquire whatever the team needed at the time.

My favourite bit was where the team would be trapped somewhere in an old factory or barn with a clapped out vehicle of some sort. The iconic music would burst into life as they welded and bolted unlikely looking accoutrements onto their battle wagon of choice before going out and blitzing the bad guys. Zillions of bullets would fly off in every direction and miraculously, no-one would be killed.

And at the end of it all, Colonel Hannibal Smith would utter those immortal words “I love it when a plan comes together”. The irony of course was that he never, ever seemed to have a plan up front.

The truth is, however, that no endeavour of any substance is likely to succeed without a plan and the bedrock of any plan is formed by the estimates for each task.

I still remember the first programming estimate I ever made. It was for a survey that was to be sent out to loads of people on floppy disk. The recipients would put the disk into their computers and answer questions, saving the answers back onto the disk before returning it. I was young, overconfident and lacking experience. I sucked my breath through my teeth (because that’s what I thought people did when estimating) and came up with my answer; a day. One working day. Utter madness. The design alone would take longer than a day.

Her Majesty’s Royal Artillery know that their entire craft is based on estimation. The forward observer has to estimate where he is on a map. He radios in the grid co-ordinates of where he estimates he wants the barrage of artillery to land. The guy in charge of the battery has to estimate the atmospheric conditions and wind speed before the gun fires an initial sighting round.

If all goes to plan, the forward observer will see where the shot lands and radio back with feedback. Another shot follows and so it continues until the forward observer has seen sighting shots on both sides of the target, at which point he radios a single word; “bracketed”.

The battery fires another shot exactly between the two which is hopefully direct on target, at which point the forward observer radios back “fire for effect!” This innocuous three word command results in all hell being let loose on the poor target.

This protocol is the only way to get a programmer to give a good estimate. Programmers hate giving estimates because it creates an expectation. Understandably so, because the craft of computer programming is complex and you  don’t know everything up front. You need a couple of sighting rounds to get on target.

Firstly, ask them if they can think of a similar task that took less than the task in question and how long that took. Then a similar task that took longer. If the guy’s worth his salt, these two extremes won’t be too far apart. Bracketed! The estimate you’re looking for must lie between the two. Once you have these estimates from everyone in the project, fire for effect!

The numbers don’t lie

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This ph...

English: Captain Smith of the Titanic. This photo appeard in the New York Times some days after his death in the sinking of the Titanic. Français : La capitaine Edward John Smith, mort à bord du Titanic. La photo a été publiée dans le New York Times peu après le naufrage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commander Edward John Smith had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. He had been a sailor for over 30 years and had been a captain for nearly a quarter of a century. He was decorated and saw service briefly in the Boer War. Whenever his company had a new high-profile assignment, he was the natural choice. He ran his vessels like clockwork. Every man was left in no doubt as to where he should be and what he should be doing. He established a routine, such that anything out of the ordinary would stick out like a sore thumb.

The chief stoker below decks carefully monitored the instruments showing the head of steam and made sure that the stokers shoveled just the right amount of coal into the fireboxes. The men on the bridge knew how many knots the ship should be making and which heading they should be on. They were trained to tap their instruments occasionally to make sure that the sensitive needles, being mechanical in nature, did not get stuck in any one position.

All this so that Commander Edward John Smith could spend time with his passengers, making sure that their voyage was the best it could be. One particularly cold and foggy night, a night that has become an immutable historic event, Commander Edward John Smith’s vessel struck an iceberg and sank. Right up until the moment of collision, the readings on all the instruments were perfectly OK.

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Ar...

English: Space Shuttle Columbia memorial in Arlington National Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NASA is an incredible organization, started over 50 years ago by the US Government in order to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. In that time they have spent nearly a trillion dollars in today’s money exploring the near and far reaches of outer space. Space exploration is a risky business, so they have had their fair share of mishaps and in this kind of endeavour, they are usually fatal. One such accident was the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which a number of astronauts lost their life when their craft exploded and broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA knew that the space shuttle was not perfect. They knew that the heat-resistant tiles had a habit of falling off under the stress of the mission and they had a system in place to deal with it. When the space shuttle reached its destination (usually the International Space Station), the number, position and types of tile that had come off were recorded in a spreadsheet and a model used to decide whether the damage was severe enough that it needed repairs or whether the mission could carry on regardless. On the mission in question, the missing tiles were recorded, the numbers crunched in Excel, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. There was no need to undertake expensive and time-consuming repairs, the shuttle was safe to continue. Unfortunately, as we all know, it wasn’t.

There are many well documented cases where spreadsheet mistakes have had catastrophic results (http://www.eusprig.org/horror-stories.htm) and indeed, there are several scholarly articles which give sage advice about the risk of relying on spreadsheets and yet they are almost universally relied upon. They have a habit of multiplying because people take copies of spreadsheets and make their own changes to do their own analysis. They have a habit of networking with other spreadsheets and then feeding into spreadsheets into still more spreadsheets.

All of this means that a single mistake in a spreadsheet can have a wide-ranging effect. And because spreadsheets tend to be appended to, the effect of such a mistake can multiply over time. Given the potential for error – why do we do it ?

There is no arguing that a spreadsheet is a powerful tool, and it’s precisely that power that is so enticing. It draws us in with its ease of use. The way that seas of figures can be magically crunched in the blink of an eye means that they are tremendous labour-saving devices. Beautiful three-dimensional graphics turn the boring figures into extremely persuasive visual metaphors for the point that we are trying to argue. But you must always be on your guard, for they are constantly trying to lure you over to the dark side….

They want you to take their figures at face value. They want you to trust them. Once it is in a spreadsheet – then surely it must be the truth, and it is. The spreadsheet contains the exact results of all the numbers in the spreadsheet after the formulae have been applied (assuming your hardware is all in order http://www.willamette.edu/~mjaneba/pentprob.html). It only takes one number or one formula to be wrong and your numbers cease to be reliable.

Just remember, when all your numbers look OK – look up now and then to make sure you’re not heading for an iceberg…

First I was afraid, I was petrified…

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007

Keynote speak at TechEd EMEA 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seemed like a long time before I heard my introduction. I threaded my way through the round tables surrounded by delegates. I took special care when I stepped up onto the stage. The last thing I wanted to do was fall over and make a tit of myself in front of hundreds of people. I took my place and turned to face the audience. They stretched off into the distance. Behind me were giant screens showing my presentation and I had a gizmo in my hand to work the slide deck.

I started my presentation. I could hear my voice, small and trembling, amplified by the lapel microphone. Why was my voice trembling? My heart started to bounce around my ribcage at alarming speed. words tumbled out at a million miles an hour. It was only then I realised how nervous I was. Although I was no stranger to presentations, my subconscious mind decided that this one was different and a sensible survival strategy was escape at the earliest opportunity.

This was the first presentation I gave to a large audience and as I made the long walk back to my seat, I convinced myself that I made a mess of it. During the breakout session afterwards, someone sought me out and congratulated me for doing a good job. I gracefully accepted her praise, but inside I was far from convinced. But she wasn’t alone. By the end of the day, I had praise from quite a few.

This taught me a few things. Firstly, no matter how nervous you are, it never looks as bad as you think to your audience. Despite the little voice inside your head telling you otherwise, they are not waiting for you to make a fool of yourself. They want you to succeed. Even if they do detect any nerves, they are more interested in what you have to say. The other thing I learned that day is to never, ever let your boss persuade you to ditch the presentation you prepared and practised to rewrite it the night before showtime.

As soon as another opportunity to present to a large audience came up, I grabbed it. It was important to me that I improved. My voice still trembled, and so did my hand which wasn’t good because I had a hand-held microphone this time. It was most disconcerting to see it wobbling around right in front of me. I managed to slow down though and I was much happier with the presentation.

Nowadays – I’m relaxed about presenting on stage to large audiences. I still get nervous and I think I always will, but it all adds to the spice of life.

Why be a leader?

Why

Why (Photo credit: banoootah_qtr)

Close to a battlefield over 200 years ago, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small group of exhausted battle-weary soldiers digging an obviously important defensive position. The section leader, making no effort to help, was shouting orders, threatening punishment if the work was not completed within the hour.

“Why are you are not helping?” asked the stranger on horseback.

“I am in charge. The men do as I tell them,” said the section leader, adding, “Help them yourself if you feel strongly about it.”

To the section leader’s surprise the stranger dismounted and helped the men until the job was finished. Before leaving the stranger congratulated the men for their work, and approached the puzzled section leader.

“You should notify top command next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men – and I will provide a more permanent solution,” said the stranger. Up close, the section leader now recognised General Washington, and also the lesson he’d just been taught.

Why would anyone want to be a leader? For close on a dozen years, I have led teams of people in Temenos. When I speak to people about leadership, there are people who say that they could never take on the responsibility. There is a lot of responsibility, but I don’t think it’s where people think it is.

Many people think that the main responsibility you take on is to get stuff done. I would argue that this is indeed important, but I think it is a side effect of the real responsibility of leadership. The true responsibility of leaders is to create an environment in which your people are happy and productive, which is not always easy.

If you are a leader for any length of time, you will go through ups and downs. In my 12 years, I have faced a lot of downs. The most reliable people in the world will occasionally let you down. Often it will be at the worst possible moment and after you have backed that person to the hilt. That’s pretty tough to deal with.

Sometimes, you will have someone who simply stops performing. Maybe their attendance goes down the tubes or they are not pulling their weight. Then it’s the slow painful treadmill of performance management. You hope against hope that the person steps off the treadmill, but all too often, the treadmill leads out the door. That’s pretty depressing.

There are even harder things still. Sometimes tragedy or serious illness will strike. Sometimes you have to tell your team that the cupboard is bare. Sometimes you have to let some of them go. I don’t have any children, but the experience is as close as I can imagine to choosing which of them to lose. It is something I will never, ever get used to.

So why would anyone want to be a leader ? I can tell you, it’s not the financial reward. The answer is that there is nothing like the feeling of watching your team succeed. When your team make you proud, you want everyone to know. When you see a member of your team grow as a person, it makes all the downs pale in comparison.

So my advice – if you want to get things done – stop focussing on the things and start focussing on the team and the things will take care of themselves.