Make things happen

You learn a lot by watching teams trying to get things done. What makes a team deliver while others fail? The answer is obviously complex enough to justify a whole industry of consultants, professional educators, books and the likes, so I'm not pretending to have found any Holy Grail here. But it is true that I've seen many people trying over the years and at least one particular pattern stands out.

The one thing that predicts the success of a team is the willingness of its leader to get into as much detail as necessary to resolve an issue (and as soon as possible.)

I am pretty sure not all successful projects meet this condition, therefore there are other factors that affect (obviously), but when I've seen this behavior, the projects hardly ever fail.

All endeavors face trouble, sooner or later, no matter how much planning you've made. As German marshal Helmuth von Moltke once said: "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Or even better, in one of the best lines ever: "Everyone has a plan until they're punched in the face (Mike Tyson.)" You will be punched in the face, of that you can be sure. And when it happens, what will you do?

The vast majority of us will: a) demand our teams to identify the root cause of the problem, and b) demand our teams to come up with a remediation plan. Then follow up closely that the plan is being executed. Classic. It may very well work... or not.

In truly effective teams, not only will the leader demand a root cause, but she will question it until she has understood it in its entirety, which is a completely different thing. Once there, she will join the effort to design a remediation plan, not only ask for one.

To illustrate this fact, years ago I saw a head of procurement of a Fortune 500 company deal with an issue in a project. Picture the guy: he is responsible for handling hundreds of millions in purchases, managing hundreds of people. Well, a guy like this spent 3 hours understanding why his team demanded 3 references per invoice in order to reconcile payments (something our system was not able to handle.) Then worked together with them to find a workaround. Project was a total success.

We may not like this gravitas towards the leader in a world where everyone must be empowered, but there are some subtle elements here beyond: one truly smart guy can solve everything.

When something wrong happens (and remember, you will be punched in the face) the dynamics of empowered teams change. People get nervous, fingers are pointed, and anxiety creeps in. Without proper leadership, the team may rush to get out of there by coming up with a root cause and remediation plan very quickly. If the exercise is too shallow, they may be worsening the situation. Leadership must turn that dynamic into true teamwork in difficult times. That's why they join the team and go down the details until every option has been considered. They become part of the team and flag a clear signal: we're here to solve the issue, not to manage it.

There's another factor: project leaders tend to have a broader perspective on the problem at hand, and can arbitrate effective solutions by compromising things that the team may not dare to. That perspective becomes a critical asset in difficult times, but it can only be exercised by true willingness to solve and compromise. It is perfectly useless when a project sponsor, coming from a business background, takes a stance like: "this is an IT problem, go figure it out." If that same guy goes into the details, 100% of the times the solution found is way better.

When you get punched in the face, there are no subject matter experts, there are no prohibited domains, there is just a problem to solve, and the willingness to make the effort, drill down, and help. This is, in my experience, the behavior that most accurately predicts success.

That was it. I'm going on annual leave this evening, so I'm really willing to unwind, rest, and spend time with my family. Don't worry though, I'll be back next Friday. Let's see what these days bring up. I will share with you then. Cheers.


Journal, for that matter

Journaling can change you. I started journaling about 5 years ago. A good friend told me that if someone close to you is fighting cancer, you'd better keep a journal. That fight is a roller coaster of emotions: good news are received with exhilaration, setbacks sink you in despair. The only way to keep some objectivity is to journal the process, and review it. I still keep those notes but have never read them again ever since.

But soon enough your objective log of events calls for something else. You dump your thoughts, your feelings, your ideas, your pending actions. I never got to do it regularly, but every now and then I feel the need to write. It degenerated into some form of free writing, straight from the brain into written words. I do it in the iPhone (Day One app is the best), I do it on paper, on my notebooks, on my little Hobonichi Techo daily planner. The liberating feeling of dumping your worries out in the open world is addictive. Liberation probably comes from the fact that, when read, those worries always seem much less daunting. But perhaps the biggest impact comes from reviewing your notes written one or two years ago.

My reaction is always the same. Many of my notes deal with issues at work that I needed to sort out and seemed life-or-death back in time. Invariably, all those things worked out just fine. "Hey, I remember this thing! Oh boy I was really stressed out back then, but in the end it was not such a big deal." Then I would read a note about my son, or my wife, or my friends... and it is still relevant, still touching. Reviewing my own notes gives me a sense of perspective that grounds me.

But this perspective has even a more subtle and positive side effect. When today I write in my journal I can't help thinking: "What will I think about myself when I read this 20 years from now?" So by judging my 5-years-ago self I also put myself in the mood of being judged by my 20-year-older self. You develop a sense, little by little, of what it would be like to look back in time and weight your time here. In most cases, your worries won't hold up.

So try it out. Do it for the relief and stay for what it teaches you.

Have a nice weekend and see you next Friday.


You don´t get it

WIRED magazine asked a neuroscientist to explain what a connectome is to 5 different levels of understanding: 5 year-old, 13 year-old, college student, neuroscience grad student and an expert neuroscientist. Check out how he does it:

I believe you can only do this when you truly understand the subject. I think we can all agree on that. The question I cannot get my head around is: is that the only condition to be able to do it? I mean, is it possible that someone understands fully a subject but still cannot give an explanation at different levels? In more simple words: is this a skill?

Probably yes. I face this challenge constantly at work. I need to understand topics that I know nothing about in a very short timeframe. Some people are very capable of introducing the topic in a way that I can grasp. Some others don't. When I don't get it, I've gone from: god, I shouldn't be doing this job, I'm just not ready for it, to: this guy just doesn´t understand it. There's a third option here: someone doesn't have the communication skills to abstract a topic and to simplify it to the right level of understanding.

So while it is tempting to stick to: if you can't teach it, you don't get it, it is probably safer to say: if you get it, then make sure you can also teach it. And certainly the ability to teach may well be one of the most important skills required to sell (and, yes, we may simplify many of the things we do as a form of selling.)

See you next week!