The Bloody Project – Another Lesson From the Course

I’m alright and nobody worry ’bout me

Why you got to gimme a fight, can’t you just let me be?

These are the unmistakable opening lines of the theme song to Caddyshack.  As a fan of slapstick comedy and of the game of golf, I have to rate it as one of the classic movies from the 80’s.

One of the  benefits of my recent career changes was to have a little more flexibility in my schedule; a flexibility that would allow me to spend more time with my family.  Last week, I had the chance to exercise that flexibility and booked a round of golf with my oldest daughter and one of her friends.  With my less than spectacular golf skills, I highly suspected there could be a slapstick moment on the course.

It was a typical winter day in Central Texas – sunny, not hot but not cold, not windy – a day my friends in northern climates couldn’t even imagine exists in late January.  After working from the world headquarters of Nice Socks Consulting for the morning, I headed to our home course at Avery Ranch Golf to meet them when they got out of school that afternoon.  I was excited to spend some quality time with her before she heads off to a college yet to be determined later this year.

The course was not busy so we were excited about enjoying a casual round without anyone pressing on us.  As we teed up on the first hole, little did I know that our round would be far from casual.  My daughter’s drive pushed a little right of the fairway, ending up on a slight slope near a small outcropping of limestone just to the front and right of where her ball landed. She was about 120 yards from the green and confident she could be on the green in regulation. Unfortunately, the 2nd shot did not go as planned.  Her ball hit the rock outcropping (yes, she let the club face open up) and bounced directly back, striking her in the head.

At first I was not sure what had just happened.  I was watching for the flight of the ball and when I did not see the ball in the air, turned around to see her kneeling on the ground.  She had her hand on her forehead and when she moved her hand, I saw the blood.  Lots of blood.  I ran to my cart and grabbed a golf towel to apply pressure and slow down the bleeding. I won’t go into the gory details of the next few hours.  However, I will let you know that after 7 stitches expertly applied by a plastic surgeon, she was all good.  No concussion. No life altering injury.  Just a nasty wound that will heal and hopefully leave nothing but a faint scar.

As I am apt to do, once I knew for certain that this incident was not going to result in long-lasting impact on my daughter’s health and well-being, I started to think about what I could learn from this life event.  At first my mind went to thinking about being prepared for the unexpected. However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see that the potential for a project management lesson to come out of this unfortunate event.  This angle is probably due to the fact that my first consulting engagement since going out on my own is focused on driving a significant solution platform rationalization project.

Most projects start off with a well thought out plan with well-defined milestones and details on the steps required to meet those milestones.  The approach to a round of golf is similar.  You know the par on each hole and know in general where you need each shot to go in order to meet or beat par.  But we all know that not everything goes according to plan on the course nor in the office.  Therefore, you have to be able to adjust as the round unfolds; you have to manage the round, just like you have to manage a project.

In the case of my daughter, she had planned for her tee shot to go up the right side of the fairway and land 100-110 yards from the middle of the green. She then planned to hit a nice easy approach shot into the green where she would do no worse than two putt and make par or better.  Instead her tee shot went a little further right than expected and landed in the rough, on uneven ground, near an outcropping of rock, about 10 yards shorter than expected.  Her second shot then proceeded to hit the rock outcropping and end her round prematurely after two strokes.

When assessing what to do after that first shot, she had five options. One option was to play the ball as is and go for the green to get back on plan. The second option was to chip out onto the fairway giving up distance to have a much better position for her next shot.  The other options (per rule 28 of the Rules of Golf) involved declaring the ball unplayable and 1) going back to point of her first shot and hit again under penalty of stroke and distance per rule 27-1; 2) taking a one stroke penalty and dropping a ball behind the point where the ball lay; or 3) taking a one stroke penalty and dropping a ball within two club-lengths of where the ball lay, but not nearer the hole.

The execution against her project plan for Hole #1 was off-track after her drive.  In this case, she decided to take an action to get back on plan with one swift action versus incurring an additional stroke.  I had seen her make similar shots  from similar positions on that very hole before, so in the moment I did not suggest she do otherwise. Sadly, that swift action ended the round and resulted in a trip to the ER.

In hindsight, the safer more practical play would have been to give up distance and punch it into the fairway to set-up her 3rd shot or perhaps declaring the ball unplayable and taking a drop with a penalty stroke.  In either scenario, she would have likely had a ball on the green sitting 3 with a chance to sink a putt for par or at worse bogey.

She made a decision to go for the green rather than take the less risky option of taking an extra stroke on the hole. While the reward for going for the green was large, so was the risks. They say hindsight is 20/20, and in this case I can’t help but second guess not suggesting she choose another option.

Those same decision points haunt project managers.  No matter how well-managed, there are usually issues arise that could potential get a project “off plan.”  Many of those issues are minor and can easily, without introducing more risks into the project, be identified and addressed quickly.  But at times the issues appear abruptly and are significant and can only be solved by either taking a risky bold action that could get your project back on plan in one swift action but also introduce risks of incurring further negative impact to the project (i.e. your project ends up in the ER); or taking a less risky action that has some short-term negative impact (i.e. you take another stroke on the hole) but sets your project up for long-term success.

In the early days of my career I was usually inclined to “go for the green” when faced with one of those decisions as a manager.  But as I gained experienced, I learned that sometimes taking the penalty stroke or just punching out to the fairway is the better course of action.  As a project manager (or any kind of manager for that matter) you have to assess the risks presented you and make a decision that gives you the best chance of achieving the ultimate objective of the project.  Sometimes that means going for the green and other times it means taking a penalty stroke.  The main thing is to keep yourself and your project out of the ER.

Fore!

 

 

Flashback: No Slam Dunks In IT

I was looking back through some of my early, circa 2012, musings and came across this gem. I can happily say that I survived my years of managing data centers without ever having to declare a disaster.  However, even with a constant focus on change management processes, I did see my fair share of self-inflicted outages.

I long ago learned that humans are fallible and that all the procedures in the world can’t prevent every mistake.  However, I still believe that following a structured change management process is critical to running a successful IT Operations function and that the key to a good change management process is communication.

While I am currently taking a break from being responsible for IT Operations, if I ever find myself back in that role, I for sure will subscribe to my: ” Plan –> Communicate –> Execute –> Test –> Communicate framework.

Here’s my original thoughts from 2012:

“There are No Slam Dunks in IT.”

That’s a saying I have thrown around for close to 10 years now. But one that I think too many people in technology fail to remember on a daily basis. They get caught up in the urgency of the moment, short cut change management procedures, fail to think about the downstream impact of what they see as a minor, isolated change. All too often the mindset of “the easy change,” “the lay-up,” or “the routine lazy fly ball” ends up as an unexpected outage. That break away slam dunk clanks off the rim and bounces out of bounds. That easy two points turns into a turnover.

As we kicked off 2012, a relatively new to the company network engineer noticed that a top of rack server switch had two fiber uplinks but only one was active. Anxious to make a good impression, he wanted to resolve that issue. It was an admiral thing to do. He was taking initiative to make things better. So one night during the first week of the fresh new year, he executed a change to bring up the second uplink. Things did not go well as the change, and I will not go into the gory technical details, brought down the entire data center network. It was after standard business hours – whatever that means in today’s 24×7 business world – but the impact of that 10 minutes outage was significant. A classic case of a self-inflicted wound from not following good change management procedures.

It was actually a frustrating incident for me, because as we put together the 2012 Business Plan for Corporate Technology Services, we were asked to list the keys to success for our operations and the actions we needed to take achieve success.

THE #1 key for success listed was: Avoid self-inflicted outages and issues that take away cycles from the planned efforts and cause unplanned unavailability of our client facing solutions.

So 30 days prior I had told our CEO, CFO and the rest of the executive management team that our #1 key to success in IT was to avoid such things, yet here I was four days into the new year staring at the carnage of a self-inflicted outage.

Outages are close to a given in the world of technology. Servers will crash, switches will randomly reboot, hard drives will fail, application will act weird, redundancy will fail, and there will be maintenance efforts that we know will cause outages. Given that, every IT organization must take steps to not be the cause of even more outages. Business leaders know that there will be some level of downtime with technology – have you ever seen a 100% SLA? Rarely. It is usually some 99.xx% number. But outages that are caused by the very people charged with keeping things running drives them nuts, and rightfully so.

The morning after that self-inflicted wound, I communicated out the following to every member of the IT organization:

We need to strive to make sure that we are not the cause of any unexpected outages. We must exercise good change management process and follow the five actions listed above. As our solutions and the underlying infrastructure become increasingly intertwined, we must make an extra effort to assess the potential unintended downstream (or upstream) impact as we plan the change.

When making a change we must always follow these steps:

Plan – make sure each change action/project we undertake is well thought out, steps are documented, risks are assessed. If disruption in service is expected, plan for when we make this change to limit the impact of the disruption.

Communicate – communicate each change action/project to the parties potentially impacted prior to executing the change

Execute – flawlessly execute according the plan developed

Test – test to make sure that the change executed resulted in the expected results and there are no unintended consequences from the change

Communicate – communicate to the potentially impacted parties that the change has been completed and tested

To keep this goal of avoiding self-inflicted outages top of mind, we implemented a ‘It’s Been X Days Since our Last Self-Inflicted Outage” counter. Basically taking a page out of the factory accident prevention playbook.

A Whole New World

A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us no
Or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming

I can still remember walking out of the church with my new bride on my arm to this song from Disney’s Aladdin movie back in the mid-90s.  That day was indeed the start to a whole new world; a world that continues to change to this day.

The latest change to that world came on December 2, 2016 when I walked out of a Harte Hanks office as an employee for the last time.  While leaving a company seems like a regular occurrence these days, for me it was a major decision for two reasons: 1) I had been at the company for 15 years, and 2) I was leaving to go out on my own.

I think back to the middle of 2001 when I was desperate to get out of the constant travel that accompanied my job as a Big 4 consultant. Travel that kept me away from my young and growing family.  Thanks to a former co-worker of my wife, I ended up with the inside track for a director level position at a company I had only vaguely heard of and in an industry that I knew absolutely nothing about.  But it was in Austin; had low travel requirements, and was at a comparable pay level.  I took the job thinking I would stick it out for a year while I found my dream job and more importantly enjoyed time with my family.

Fast forward 15 years and I was still at that company.  During that 15 years, I was exposed to all facets of what turns out to be a pretty fascinating world of data-driven marketing and customer support and was able to advanced my career to the point of being a corporate officer serving as the company’s CIO.  What started out as a somewhat desperate job move to get out of the misery of constant travel, actually turned into what many would consider a fantastic career.

However, the last four years of that “fantastic” career found me in the midst of massive change and upheaval in an 80 year old company – a company that was slow in some areas to latch onto the new digitally oriented marketing channels.  I’ll save the gory details of the change and upheaval for later posts, but in essence I was a part of multi-year turnaround effort that involved 3 different CEOs – 4 if you count an interim CEO.  While that type of environment is full of “professional life” lessons; it is also a pressure packed environment that can weigh on you mentally and physically.

They say that facing adversity and overcoming challenges “builds character”, but as a former colleague used to say after a streak of unfortunate events “I think we have enough character now.”  In mid-2016, I reached the conclusion that I had built up enough character from that extended turnaround effort and knew it was time to start the next chapter of my career.

While I was not a fan of the constant travel that went along with my first stint as a consultant, I did enjoy the work.  The idea of using my knowledge and experience to help others solve problems without getting sucked into the day-to-day administrative cycles that come with corporate leadership positions has always held an allure for me. Using that as a fundamental anchor, I set my sights on breaking free from the corporate leadership world and jumping back into consulting –  but not back into the world of major consulting firms.  This time I decided to make a run at being the independent consultant – a modern day version of the Lone Ranger.

Once again thanks to contacts I have made along the way, an opportunity to turn that idea into a reality presented itself.  So, I took that chance and gave up the “comforts” of corporate officer life.  In late November Nice Socks Consulting was born and on December 2, I took another walk “down the aisle” with that same Disney movie song playing in my head as I departed Harte Hanks for the final time.

A whole new world
(Every turn a surprise)
With new horizons to pursue
(Every moment, red-letter)

Business Performance: It Takes More Than Hard Work

I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks

Let’s make lots of money

You’ve got the brawn, I’ve got the brains

Let’s make lots of money

 

The Pet Shop Boys made it sound so simple back in the 80s.  But in the real world, achieving financial success in business is a little more complex.  I work for a publicly-traded company, so it is no secret that I am part of a leadership team at the helm of a company that has struggled to achieve the desired level of financial performance in recent times.

Leaders of companies that struggle to consistently show strong performance can become frustrated as they try and find the thing that will break the business free from the rut and set it upon a path of prosperity.  They constantly question what is at the root cause of the performance issues.  Is it the offerings or quality issues or economic headwinds or ineffective marketing or any one of a plethora of other reasons?  All too often one of the answers that pops up is “employee are not working hard enough.”

However, from what I observed at other companies and from what I have directly witnessed in my own career, the cause of financial performance struggles is rarely, if ever, the result of employees (at any level) not trying hard enough.    Several months back I ran into a former senior leader of my current company at a high school basketball game.  As we were talking he said “looks like you guys need to be working harder.”  I paused as he said that and then replied “if spectacular financial performance were as simple as having people work harder, I would have been able to retire years ago.”  He scratched his head for a moment and then told me I had a good point.

Unfortunately the premise of “we just need to have employees work harder” can easily lead to not recognizing and rewarding the work efforts of employees.  In fact during times of challenged performance, it common to see leaders blame employees’ lack of individual performance for the financial woes – alienating the very group of people that can get the company back on track.

One of the things I have been passionate about in recent years is making sure the recognition of employee efforts becomes and remains a part of the company culture.  Even in times when financial performance is not exactly celebration worthy, it is always time to celebrate the heroic efforts employees make to deliver for clients.  At the core of my current company’s employee recognition efforts is a quarterly awards program called “A Promise We Live.”  It is centered on the fact that we make promises to our clients and to each other to deliver what we sold; and that we have to live up to those promises every day.

The program involves employees submitting nominations for the efforts of their fellow employees. It is not a top down program where management determines those that are worthy of consideration; it is driven by employees recognizing the heroic efforts of their co-workers and taking the time to tell others about those efforts.  There is then a panel of managers that read and score the nominations using our published core values as the benchmark.  From that panel review, the best of the best efforts are selected as quarterly winners, but all those that were nominated are celebrated as well.

Each quarter I look forward to reading through the nominations to learn about the lengths our employees go to deliver on our promises.  I am constantly amazed at the level of dedication shown at all levels of staff and from all levels of tenure.  It reinforces for me the fact there are so many talented people throughout the organization and reminds me of all the early mornings, late nights, and week-ends employees sacrifice to service our clients.  It also provides data points that our issues are not caused by lack of effort by employees.  It were just about working harder, our stock price would be through the roof.

I may not have the brains (nor brawn) to know all the answers to all the questions about what holds back a company’s financial performance, but I have decided that simply imploring employees to work harder is not the solution.  I am also smart enough to know that taking the time to recognize and celebrate those truly heroic efforts made by employees every day is a key to performance success.

My closing thought to you is to recognize the extra efforts of those working around you.  Even if your employer does not have a formal recognition program in place, a simple “Thank You” can convey that efforts do not go unnoticed.

Time to Clear Out the Static

Getting nothing but static, getting nothing but static;  Static in my attic from Channel Z

Wow – it feels a little  like I have been living on Channel Z with the B-52s over the past year.  I know my blog has certainly been filled with static for way too long.

It has been right at 18 months since I last posted anything.  Life has been incredibly busy.  CEO changes and taking on new responsibilities at work have taken up much of my time and focus.  Throw in life with two teenagers at home and there has been no time and even less energy to sit down and write.

However, I can feel the itch to get back into the cycle of writing and posting coming on.  The good news is I have 18 months worth of random thoughts bouncing around my head that are begging to make it out.

Stay tuned…..

 

 

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Getting Retail Back to the Future

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. 

Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. 

Wouldn’t you like to get away? 

Sometimes you want to go  where everybody knows your name, 

And they’re always glad you came. 

You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows your name. 

You wanna go where people know,  people are all the same, 

You wanna go where everybody knows your name

This is the theme song to the 80s TV show Cheers about a group of people that form a friendship centered on a bar in Boston.  The idea of people knowing your name at a bar is not that far-fetched even in today’s world.  There was a time when this same concept held true in American retail.  Back when most retail, even high-end retail, was mainly local single location family-owned stores. In that environment, store owners and professional salespeople had a true personal connection with their customers.  Customer were known my name and retailers had detail knowledge of each customer. However, as retail in the United States has evolved that feeling of connection between retailer and customer seems to have dwindled.

I have found myself on a bit of a book reading binge in recent months, mixing in insight from Harvey Penick’s books on golf with several books about various retailers.  My latest read is Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus.  It is the story of the founding and growth of specialty retailer Neiman Marcus.  While the book was filled with all kinds of anecdotes of unique customers and sales that have passed through Neimans over the years, there was one specific quote from Stanley Marcus in the book that clicked with me:  “As long as the customer is alive, you have a prospect.”  As the CIO for a team of passionate marketing professionals this notion resonated strongly with me.

The book also highlighted that back in the days before computers Neiman Marcus provided each salesperson with a clientele book.  The salesperson was required to record all purchases for each customer in this book, as well as birthdays, anniversaries and other information that might provide useful in contacting the customer by letter or phone.  The idea was that if properly used, the customer purchase history would make it easy to relate new merchandise to things the customer already owned.  This insight could then be used to directly contact that customer to drive new sales.  That sounds a lot like the direct one-to-one communication that we hear retailers say they want to achieve with their marketing activities today.

Sadly it feels like retailers, like Neiman-Marcus, have lost sight and/or proper execution of this simple concept.  I asked my wife, an occasional shopper at Neiman Marcus, if she received the same type of one-to-one relevant communications from that store today.  Her response that while the salesperson at the store usually asked for her name at the point of sales counter, she rarely if ever receives any kind of communication from the store and certainly nothing that she would consider one-to-one. Perhaps the lack of communication is due to her historical low (or so she tells me) level of total  spend at that store or perhaps it is just a lack of understanding of the value of the information possessed or how to use the information to establish a one-to-one connection that could drive more sales.  In any case, the result is retailers missing out on the value of that one-to-one relationship Stanley Marcus so wisely observed fifty plus years ago.

I am only using Neiman Marcus as an example because it was the topic of the book that got my mind thinking about this idea.  But there are retailers everywhere that fail to take full advantage of the information they possess on their customers. I think my wife is a member of just about every retail loyalty program ever created but rarely do I see what looks like true one-to-one communication from those retailers.  At best, I see messaging that has dropped her into some large segmentation bucket and even that is not done on a regular occurrence.  This perplexes me as I know these businesses have a wealth of information about her and her purchase habits; information that could allow them to create that same in-store (or online) experience of having a personal connection to the customer, much like that which customers must have felt at the Neiman Marcus store in downtown Dallas back in the 1950s.

The data are there; the technology is there; and there are smart marketers out there that know how to combine that data and technology to create that personal connection.  While some might find it slightly creepy, I for one can’t wait for the day to return when the salesperson at Neiman Marcus knows my name when I walk through the door – it will be a back to the future moment.

Beware of the Lime Juice Ship

If you want to join a merchant ship and sail the sea at large
You’ll not have any trouble if you have a good discharge
Signed by the Board of Trade with everything exact
And then you’ll get your months advance according to the Act.

So haul boys your weather mainbrace and ease away your lee
Hoist jib and topsails lads and let the ship go free
Shout boys shout I tell you it’s a fact
There’s nothing done in Lime Juice ship contrary to the Act
Now when you join the ship me boys you’ll hear your articles read
They’ll tell you of your pork and beef your butter and your bread
Your coffee, tea and sugar boys your peas and beans exact
Your lime juice and your vinegar according to the Act

These are lyrics from an old sailor song called the Lime Juice Ship. I know this is a departure from my typical use of modern music, but bear with me. As usual there is a method to my madness.
For Father’s Day my children gave me a book of “useless facts.” I assume because they know how much I love boring them with stories about supposed randomness. I took the book on a recent vacation flight, and quickly read it from cover to cover. While it was a purely pleasure trip, my mind couldn’t help but think about the world of business while I amused myself reading utterly random factoids.

One of the stories in this book of useless facts was answering the question: “Why are the British referred to as limeys?” According to this book (and I have not done any independent research on this to confirm), it all has to do with scurvy and the British Navy. Apparently in the 17th to 18th centuries the greatest killer at sea was scurvy which is caused by the lack of ascorbic acid in the diet of a sailor. In 1753, a Scottish naval doctor, James Lind, recommend adding lemon juice, which contains ascorbic acid, to the sailors diet to prevent scurvy. Initially the British navy ignored the recommendation due to cost concerns, but by the late 1700s lemon juice was compulsory aboard British navy ships and scurvy ceased to be an issue. However, at some point in the 1800s the British navy switched to lower cost lime juice, only to see outbreaks of scurvy return to their ships. Turns out that limes have a lower content of ascorbic acid than lemons and thus were not as effective at fending off scurvy. Other countries stuck with higher cost lemons or even oranges and did not see the return of scurvy. Sailors from other countries, particularly the Americans and the Australians, poked fun at the British sailors by calling them “limeys.”
Like most people who have held a position within companies for more years than you care to admit, I have seen my share of business downturns – either firsthand, through experiences with business partners, anecdotally through IT peers and acquaintances, or reading business-related articles. These downturns may be result of worldwide, national or local economic problems; product relevance or reliability; price pressures; the poor execution of business plans; or a host of other reasons. Regardless of the driver, one of the most common reactions taken by the management team of the business is to cut costs.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love an ongoing strong dose of expense management. Building in a recurring examination of your business’s cost basis is a good thing. Businesses are dynamic; and employees at all levels of an organization should be evaluating and challenging business processes and costs associated with the business all the time. This leads to a business where the right people are doing the right things, following the right processes at the right times. This results in an efficient business operation, something that is key attribute of high performing companies. I like to think of this as “natural” expense management that happens as part of following strong fundamental business practices.
However, during business downturns, what I have seen and heard from others so many times is what I call “unnatural acts” of cost cutting. Much like some Royal Navy admiral requiring the use of limes instead of lemons to save a few British Pounds, CEOs and CFOs go to department heads requiring an arbitrary and immediate cost basis sacrifice – especially from departments that are seen as support functions or ones oddly enough that are focused on driving sales. While these actions can prop up financial performance in the short-term, they can also cause longer-term harm (perhaps not death like the actions of the British navy) to the business.
Ring, ring….”Hey VP of HR, this is your CFO calling on a Monday morning. Look I know our overall employee count is forecasted to remain flat for the coming 12 months, but I need you to scale back your HR department cost basis by 10% to help make up for the recent 5% price decrease we did on our flagship product. No rush, just let me know Wednesday what steps you are going to execute on Friday to achieve the target.”
Knock, knock….”Hey CMO, this is your CEO stopping by to talk about a problem. As you know, our sales numbers are trending down and the full year forecast is bleak. We just can’t seem to get sustained traction with our new product line. Our customers just don’t seem to be aware of all the great features we introduced with it. Let me know by the end of the week how we take $2 million out of product marketing for the remainder of the year.”
These are completely made up interactions to make a point about the short-term decisions that occur all too often in businesses today. The focus on beating financial performance over an arbitrary 90 day reporting period compared to a year ago seems to be the norm in many companies today, especially those that are publicly traded. This can result in executing actions that are not in the best long-term interest of any business stakeholders. It seems the notion of focusing on long-term sustainability of a business that benefits all the stakeholders in a business – investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities and beyond – is a forgotten idea.

Call me crazy, but I for one think we need to resurface that idea.


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