Siren Songs

In Book 12 of the Odyssey there is a scene where Circe draws Odysseus away form the crew and warns him about the island of the Sirens who’s inhabitants have caused the ruin of many sailors.

Odysseus

I am reminded of this story whenever organizations are tempted to jump to technology solutions before thorough analysis of a process issue.  In situations where the stakes are high and there is pressure to solve the issue quickly it can be easy to be seduced by the possibility of time savings, but plenty of projects have suffered delays or failure from this temptation.

“If we do not understand the end we will make a wrong use of the means.” –Thomas Merton

20160105_111643Process problems can only be solved if there is careful and complete analysis.  Successful analysis depends on effective communication with all involved parties.

 

 

The dazzle of a new system or process can allow us to forget that processes and tools should serve the people doing the the work.  As the 1st principle of Agile asserts:  Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.  Remember this  when solving a process issue.

 

 

Teamwork

Every weekend I play pick up soccer with people from Africa, North/Central /South America, Europe, Asia and the mid east, no matter the weather.  I have wondered why this works.

It is not Elysium. There are  strong personalities, and conflicts emerge, yet they never disrupt the game.  Sure, its just a game where the results don’t really matter, but  I can assure you we would all stay home on those cold, winter days if it was not important.  (Yes, we have brought snow shovels and cleared a space to play.)

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Its ridiculously simple. We come together for a common purpose, and it is important enough to each of us to set aside egos, ideologies, belief systems and blame/shame habits to make this work.

As a company leader do you understand the organization’s purpose? Have you made it clear?  Would it be important to you if you were not the leader?

As an employee, have you taken the time to understand the organization’s purpose?  Is it important to you?

Setting Enhancement Priorities

first-pants-then-your-shoesYou have just implemented a system.   As always, the schedule forced the delay of some of the features and most are OK with that… for now.

The list of enhancements is long and includes both the requests of the patient user community, and the perhaps less patient executive team.  The executive list should get the same level of scrutiny as the user community list.  If there are objective measures behind all of the enhancements then it will make the conversation less tricky.  If not, then it is time for a Crucial Conversation.  If the executive list is implemented blindly without a comparative analysis of all of the enhancements, then there is a real risk of undermining the corporate objectives and any hope of confidence from the user community.

While you go about setting enhancement priorities, make sure the rigor behind the process of determining the priority is at the top of the list.

Valderrama: Model Consultant

carlos-valderrama-new-pink-curly-hairEven people who are not  soccer fans probably recognize this guy. For those who recognize his hair but not his name it is Carlos Valderrama.  And yes, his play was as impressive as his hair but not in the way you might expect.  In fact few may realize just what made him such a great soccer player and a model for consultants.

Valderrama scored relatively few goals (16) for a midfielder, but is the MLS league’s second all-time leader in assists (114) after Steve Ralston (121), a former teammate. In 2005, he was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI. He was also named one of the top players of the 20th century by Pelé in 1999.[9]. In 2000 Valderrama recorded the only 20+ assist season in MLS history—ending the season with 26—a record that remains intact today, and which MLS itself suggested was an “unbreakable” record in a 2012 article.[10].

Aside from his skill in holding the ball,  those who watched him will remember that he stationed himself at the center of the attack but frequently had his back to the opposing goal.  At first glance this seemed odd , but close inspection made it clear why he did it.  He is arguably the greatest play maker in the game.  He was constantly watching the movement of the players so that he could (and frequently did) make the perfect pass to a teammate who usually scored.  The most impressive example was in the 1990 World cup match against Germany where Columbia needed a tie to move to the next round. Germany scored in the 88th minute and it looked bleak for Columbia.  With only seconds remaining in extra time Valderrama delivered  a perfectly executed pass to Freddy Rincon who scored to tie the game.

To me he is the model for good consulting.  He was constantly watching the field like a good quarterback in football, looking for the opportunity.  When he saw it, he delivered the perfect pass that created opportunities for his team to win.

As consultants we are hired to see what might be hard for a client to see;  to see a way through challenges and obstacles and deliver solutions (sometimes in sudden death overtime) so the client can be successful.

If you are a consultant, I would not recommend a hairstyle change, but Valderrama is worth imitating.

New Year

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I am growing tired of the plethora of articles elucidating the 3, 5, 10 easy steps to getting yourself smarter, better, stronger, faster, more organized, richer, happier… Sure,  given the hackneyed New Years resolution rituals we engage in, it is understandable.  But really, given all the news stories indicating we will all fail on these resolutions I am not sure why anyone feels compelled to write about it.

I have come to a realization recently.  The one thing I try to do (and it is not a resolution) is to spend 20 minutes early in the day reading poetry.  Yep… I said it…   POETRY.  There could not be a more useless activity to engage in.  It is like an anti-resolution.   Sure it is an activity, but it is not a list packed with all of the frenetic anxiety of hurrying to get something done.

Why do I do this?   It acts like a physical exam for me.  It makes me slow down, and pay attention to things I routinely overlook.  I know my state of mind immediately.

One of the other utilitarian benefits is that it makes me think in analogies and similes.  Being able to use these in interactions with others has proven to be one of the most powerful communication tools available and it exercises my imagination which is the only way I have successfully solved any problem.

I am not suggesting to anyone that they go out and buy an anthology of poetry. I am sure that most are as sick of being told what to do at this time of year as I am.  But if it makes you curious,  go to the library and check out this book ; I never liked poetry until I read it.  Want to dive right in? Try this which should, if you are healthy, make you laugh. Or, if you want something to think about, this  he like (T.S. Eliot) was a business executive, living in the real world in addition to being a poet laureate.

When I am trying to gather my thoughts and plans for the new year this is the poem I read.  It helps me focus on the why more than the what.

THE GOLDFISH FLOATS TO THE TOP OF HIS LIFE
by Ted Kooser

The goldfish floats to the top of his life
and turns over, a shaving from somebody’s hobby.
So it is that men die at the whims of great companies,
their neckties pulling them slumped in the shower,
their hearts blown open like boiler doors.
In the night, again and again these men float
to the tops of their dreams to drift back
to their desks in the morning.  If you ask them,
they would prefer to have died in their sleep.

Mr. President, your desire to solve long term unemployment is noble but naïve.

Time is not on anybody’s side:

Although a business may have a cause they support, hiring the long-term unemployed is not one of them.  Sure the benefits could be enormous, but the pressures that drive every business will not allow the time for the benefits of this altruism to develop.

Companies do not have time to research why a person has been out of work.  They have enough trouble hiring effectively with people who are employed.  Invest time hiring long-term unemployed? “Aint nobody got time for that.”

We are becoming a disposable society:

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Almost everything in a business centers on efficiency and utility.  It is coloring our view of each other.   If people are objects whose only value is utility, it can be difficult to see them as anything more than a means to our ends; things to be used and discarded (like the e-mail they send us).  Dealing with the long-term unemployed could be complicated (like all real human interactions can be).  It is hard for people to see how any of this will help them efficiently or profitably achieve their individual work goals.

Solving the challenge of the long-term unemployed is laudable and necessary. My fear is that it’s an audacity that no one can spare the time to work on, let alone hope for.

Walter Mitty

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If you read the original short story written by James Thurber you will get a very different story than what you see in Ben Stiller’s movie version.  The original story leaves the reader wondering what kind of delusional looser Walter Mitty is.  He seems feckless and spineless and the story ends that way.  It’s as if his day dreams are a coping mechanism to stave off the feelings of guilt and shame at the life he has trapped himself in.

Not so with the movie.  Although Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty may look dispensable to the obnoxious frat boys who are brought in to transition LIFE Magazine to a digital publication, the viewer senses something deeper in his character.  As the story unfolds, one sees that the trauma Walter Mitty experienced earlier in his life may have driven him to create a world that is rich in imagination yet small and controllable.  As the interactions with his family indicate however, he is not a social misfit.  His world is not so small that he cannot provide for the various needs of his elderly mother and irresponsible sister.

In so many hero stories there is a point where the protagonist says “this far and no further”.  What was it for Walter Mitty?  It might have been the inspirational gift from the intrepid photographer played by Sean Penn.  Maybe it was the imminent demise of the work both of them were doing?   Whatever it was, the situation clearly presented a line Walter Mitty would not be pushed past and it awakened in him a part of himself long-buried.  You might say he was brought back to life.

“Be properly scared and go on doing what you need to do.” – Flannery O’Connor

Is there a point you will not be pushed past; so urgent that you stop living in your head?

Thomas Merton said that “A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live”.

Are you living?

Frozen Man

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James Taylor wrote a song in 1991 that he included on the “New Moon Shine” CD entitled “The Frozen Man”.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFvGq-52I8I.  It’s a song inspired by a National Geographic story on the lost Franklin Expedition which sought to discover a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  The article chronicles the subsequent expeditions that tried to find out why it failed. They found the remains of some of the members of the expedition amazingly well-preserved.  Taylor’s song goes on to imagine the fate of one of these men as he is, through the miracle of science, brought back to life.    He experiences a kind of second death in isolation and alienation from the modern world.

The bitter cold that had the average national temperature at 14 degrees last week had me thinking about this poor guy.    Not only is it a cautionary tale for those wanting to cryogenically preserve themselves (a la Ted Williams), it is also a warning about letting résumés and profiles go stale.

For many, this is the time of year to take stock of career paths and decide what changes ought to be made.  I wondered how many of us appear like John Torrington (frozen dude above) to the people who review our LinkedIn profiles or résumés.   I decided to put my own to the test.

I exhumed my résumé and was horrified. The summary contained at least 5 of the most overused words (to say nothing of the subjective descriptions), and there was nothing in it telling anyone what I am interested in doing going forward.   I am busy with salvage and reconstruction.

One of my favorite verses in the song is:

“It took a lot of money to start my heart

To peg my leg and to buy my eye

The newspapers call me state of the art

And the children, when they see me, cry”

It serves as a reminder that if I don’t regularly  review and update my work skills and interests, I will end up the functional equivalent of ‘the frozen man”.

Is your résumé a tombstone?

I found this website really helpful.  http://www.careerealism.com/

What a serial entrepreneur taught me about Christmas:

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Greg Boyle successfully launched 7 start-ups in one of the most gang ridden areas in the United States.

He is also one of my Heroes.

He is the founder of Homeboy Ministries, a series of start-up businesses designed to give former gang members something they are all desperate for:  a job, purpose and a meaningful life.  He wrote a book about it (Tattoos on the Heart) which I found fascinating for several reasons:

  1. He is a Catholic priest and a serial entrepreneur. (What?)
  2. It is likely he does not know what the phrase serial entrepreneur means.
  3. If reading his book does not make you shut up and quit whining about your work life, nothing will.

Why is this story so astonishing? It defies virtually every bit of business wisdom I know.

  1. Instead of  funding outcomes, they fund futures.  They “see in people what they don’t see in themselves”.
  2. Where businesses take calculated risks, they take enormous incalculable risks.
  3. They seek out  and hire the difficult and belligerent.
  4. Money is a tool for recreating people. People are not tools for creating money.

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http://www.homeboyindustries.org/

Granted, this is not a for profit business.  But I guess it depends on how you look at profit.  It is recognized as the most successful program for helping people leave gang life; period.  It saves the State of California millions of dollars in incarceration costs annually.  It helps people become productive, self-sufficient taxpaying citizens contributing to the economy.

In a lot of our business analysis we look only at the short-term ROI.  I find it interesting, that in this instance, the ROI is very hard to calculate, not because it is nebulous but because it is so vast. What is the value of a life restored?

If you find yourself in a less than joy filled mood this season look around.  This is just one example of a  “light shining in the darkness”.  Want to really change that mood? Become one of those lights.

Merry Christmas!

Best pitch advice ever: from my 10 year old

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When our children were young my wife and I agreed on a strategy: “Answer only the question they ask.”

Q: Where do babies come from?

A: The hospital.

Q: Does Santa Exist?

A: Yes. (Unless there is a follow up question on modes of existence, “zip it”.)

My wife was a lot more successful at this than I was (am).  But it has provided me with some powerful lessons.

We are all big fans of ‘The Far Side’ in our house.  After my son (then 10) asked me a question, and I was way too far down the road with way too much information, he interrupted me with a quote from The Far Side.  He said “Hey Dad… Blah, Blah, Blah, Ginger.”

It was hilarious and quite instructive.

When people ask me what I do, I try to remember Craig Wortmann’s advice: Keep it simple and clear; then shut up. 

Example: “We help X do Y by doing Z”.

If they don’t ask a follow up question remember: “Answer  only the question they ask.”


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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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