collaboration

Never Panic!

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Regardless of your position or role, panic is not a good problem-solving tool. It is especially bad when you are in charge of people, or when you are brought in for your expertise. Panic leads to a myopic view of the problem, and that hinders creativity.

The point in my career when this became readily apparent is when I was working for a small software company. We had a new product (Warehouse Management System) and were launching our third deployment. This one was more complicated than the rest because it was for a pharmaceutical company. In addition to requirements like refrigeration and lot control, there was a mix of FDA-controlled items requiring various forms of auditing and security as well as storage areas that were significantly smaller than previous installations. It was a challenge to be sure.

A pictures of three ice cubes, stacked, and melting slightly.

During this implementation, a critical component, “Location Search,” failed. There were about 10-12 people in the “war room” when my boss, the VP of Development, began to panic. He was an extremely talented person who normally did an excellent job, but his reaction began negatively affecting the others in the room. The mood quickly worsened.

Partly because I did not want to be stuck there all weekend, and mostly because I wanted this implementation to be a success, I jumped in and took over. I asked my boss to go out and get a bunch of pizzas. Next, I organized a short meeting to review what we knew, what was different from our prior tests and asked for speculation about the root cause of this problem. The team came up with two potential causes and one potential workaround. Everyone organized into three teams and we began attacking each item independently. 

We ended up identifying the root cause which led to an ideal fix a few days later, as well as a work-around that allowed us to finish the user acceptance testing and go live the following day. A change in mindset fostered the collaboration and problem-solving needed to move forward.

But, this isn’t just limited to groups. I was once working at a large insurance company where I was on a team redesigning their Risk Management system. We were using new software and wanted to be sure that the proper environment variables were set during the Unix login process for this new system. I volunteered to create an external function that was executed as part of the login process. Trying to maintain clean code, I had an “exit” at the end of the function. It worked well during testing but immediately logged people out as they were attempting to log into the system.

As you can imagine, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. How could I have missed this? This was a newer system deployed just for this risk management application so there were no other privileged users logged in at the time. Then, I remembered reading about a Unix “work” that used FTP to infiltrate systems. The article stated that FTP bypassed the standard login process. This allowed me to FTP into the system and then delete the offending function. In less than 5 minutes everything was back to normal.

A related lesson learned was to make key people aware of what just happened, noting first that the problem had been resolved and that there was no lasting damage. Hiding mistakes kills careers. Then, we created a “Lessons Learned” log, with this as the first entry, to foster the idea of sharing mistakes as a way to avoid them in the future. Understanding that mistakes can happen to anyone turns out to be a good way to get people to plan better and then keep them from panicking when problems occur. 

Staying calm and focused on resolving the problem is a much better approach than worrying about blame and the implication of those actions. And, most people appreciate the honesty.

Diamonds or just Shiny Rocks?

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During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time (the CEO of the company) made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.

For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: 1) People who want to make things better; 2) People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; 3) People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and 4) People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything.  This opinion is based on a working and consulting at many companies over a few decades.

A recent Gallup Poll stated Worldwide only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”).  This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it may be highly skewed by region or industry, and therefore not indicative of what is typical across the board. Those results were not completely aligned with my thinking, but was interesting nonetheless.

So, back to the story…

Prior to working at this company I had run my own business for nearly a decade, and was a consultant for 15 years working at both large corporations and startups. I am used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and engagements, and then incorporating them into our own business practices to improve and foster growth.

I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” optimized and working in harmony. Improvements in one area ultimately have a positive impact in other areas of the business.

While I was trying to be helpful, I was being insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” stepped on other people’s toes, and that was creating frustration for the people that I was intending to help. By providing simple solutions to their problems it reflected poorly on my peers. In hindsight this should have led to increased collaboration among the executive team.

Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their aspect of the business. The resulting friction was very noticeable to my boss.

Had I been an external consultant, those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered. But as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over).

Perception is reality, and my attempts to help were hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback early in this position and was able to turn those perceptions around.

What are the morals of this story?

First, people who are engaged have the greatest potential to make a difference. Part of being a business leader is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges, motivates, and fosters growth and accountability. 

Disengaged employees or people who are unwilling or unable to work with/collaborate with others may not be your best choices regardless of how talented they may be. They could actually be detrimental to the overall team dynamics.

Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way to approach something. Being sensitive of the big picture and testing whether or your input is being viewed as constructive was a big lesson learned for me. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.

And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand potential solutions to problems in a non-threatening way. Let them make the connection to their own problems, thereby helping them become more effective and allowing them to save face. It is not a competition. And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them through collaboration. In the end it should be more about effectiveness, growth, and achievement of business goals than who gets the most credit.

While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that perspective.

My biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Focus on understanding the situation and its dynamics in order to employ the best techniques, as that is ultimately critical to the success of the team or organization.

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…