The Hard Thing About Simplicity

You know the conversation. To achieve X, we need to do Y. But to do Y, we have to do A, B, and maybe C. And if we do C, then we have to do K. But M also should be included and if M’s included, then O should be too. But that also means J should contribute to S which will be an input to Z, and then go back to Y. Once Y is done, it’s not really done because we’re actually trying to get Z done.

Follow that? Me either.

However, this was basically that status I received from another project manager whose effort, which most of the work was being done by a vendor. I was getting little bits of information as this person bounced from one topic to the next, then back again. I was lost. When they finally asked me if I followed, I said “This sounds complex as hell. Does you team understand this?” The answer was, “Pretty sure.” So, I asked one of the team members, to which they responded no. I asked another. Not really. Because I know the vendor, asked them. They knew their part, but didn’t have a clear view of the big picture.

Does this sound familiar? Yeah, a recipe for disaster!

Confucius says that life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. Humans are great at making things complex. Sometimes it’s to show we know a lot of information. Or we’re smart. Or we’re the “go to” person. Or maybe to mask that we don’t know something. Ever hear a marketing pitch with all sorts of stats and complexity we don’t understand and think, “Huh, these folks have their shit together.”? Whatever it is, we deal with it everyday.

As a project professional, you’re getting lots of information thrown at you. Updates and issues from the team. Stakeholder requests. You’re brought into random meetings and then asked to handle something. Emails. Instant messages. Texts. Phone calls. It’s never ending! And now, you have to take all this information and be able to communicate it clearly, and simply.

Here’s the thing about simplicity; IT’S DAMN HARD!! Think about it. We’re bombarded with information and stats. If we regurgitate that information to others, we may feel we come across as smart. But ultimately, we’re just repeating what they can probably already get. It becomes hard when you take all these bits of information, aggregate, and then communicate in a clear, concise manner that’s easy for others to understand.

The Search for Simplicity — Ian Symmonds & Associates

Let’s say you need to make a major decision on your project. You’re gathering information so you can have a discussion with the sponsor and any other necessary stakeholders. When the meeting starts, you throw out all types of bits of information and keep saying “And another thing…” repeatedly. The decision makers look confused. They pepper you with questions to which you respond “Uh, well, um…” Looks like you don’t have your shit together and either no decision is made, or worse, the wrong one.

Contrast that with starting out telling a story of what happened, what’s been done, and summarizing all the bits of information you’ve received. It’s not complex and everyone in the room understands what has lead up to this point. A few clarifying questions are asked as you lay out some easy to understand options and impacts. The decision is made and everyone moves on.

Which meeting do you think is better? The one where you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about or the one everyone understands and can make a decision? Which do you think happens more frequently?

Making the complex, simple is hard. Damn hard. It takes time. It takes concentration. It takes the ability to understand all those bits of information and turn them into a story. But, it’s also well worth it. Here’s to simplifying the complex!

Doing Work vs. Having Fun; A Double Sided Axe

As I walked my dog down a wooded trail towards the horse campground at a local state park, I enjoyed and appreciated the shade of the large cottonwood trees above me. The temperature was a 85 degrees, but with the humidity felt like 96. In the distance, progressively growing louder, I heard laughter accompanied by the occasional “thumping” sound. As I got closer to a clearing, I came upon five teenagers, somewhere in the 13-16 range, throwing double sided axes at logs. These roughly 18 inch long by 10 inch diameter logs were precariously laid at a 45 degree angle so thrown axes had the opportunity to hit their mark should the thrower toss on target.

Overseeing this maylay was a gentleman about my age (mid-40’s) who watched on with cautious amusement. He made sure the throwers were well distanced and gave feedback to ensure everyone stayed safe. The youth throwing were covered in sweat, but they didn’t seem to mind. This was fun! Judging by the large amount of sweat and very few split pieces of wood, they’d been at it awhile with little success.

The person overseeing the throwing noticed and invited me over for a closer look. He even offered up an axe, beckoning me to give it a try. I declined, but watched for a little bit at the determination on the young faces.

“Ya know,” the overseer said, “chopping your own wood will warm you twice. Once now, once tonight when the temp drops. At least with a few good double-sided axes, the kids can make the work, fun.”

Axe Throwing | Gränsfors Bruk Sweden

As a kid, I grew up in the southeastern part of Minnesota. Our early 1970’s built house had a fuel oil furnace augmented by two large fireplaces. My dad, every May, would identify a handful of trees for harvesting. Then, he’d invite a couple of his brothers or brothers in law over. They’d chainsaw the trees down, cut them into manageable logs, and sit on the tailgate of the truck and drink a couple beers. They would tell me and my cousins (if they showed up, otherwise it was me) to “Work harder, not smarter. Don’t think! It’ll make this worse and we haven’t got all day. Get it loaded into the trucks!”

Once wood was loaded in trucks and family members departed, my dad and I would back up to the wood pile and neatly heap the logs where the sun could dry them out. Within a few months, we were back out with the 8 pound splitting maul where we’d take turns reducing the size of the logs to burnable pieces. We’d then have to lug these a couple hundred yards uphill to an outside staging area, before bringing transferring into an inside wood bin. My dad would say “Wood warms you from the day you cut it down to the day you burn it up.” He couldn’t be more right.

Let’s be clear, I hated that job. I still get the willies when I have to split up wood to start a fire when camping. There was nothing fun about it (it’s probably why I have low back problems to this day!). It was a shitload of work! If you’ve never swung an 8 lbs chopping maul, go to your local hardware store and pick one up. Great workout, but going at it for hours hurts.

Best Axe for Splitting Wood on Any Tree! 2020 Review

But, work doesn’t have to be like an 8 lbs. splitting maul. Many see their jobs as having to lug a weight around and swing at a task in hopes of getting it done quickly. You dread it and hope it’d done quick.

Instead, think of it as the double sided ax. Sure, it’s work, but you can enjoy it, also. For example, I took over a project that had been going on 6 months. It was a hard project developing a new software platform for the company. The team was burned out and the area they worked quiet as a tomb. So to have a little fun, we created awards. The “Code Integrator Master”, which was an old Boy Scout trophy, was given to the person’s whose code merged without errors. In contrast, we had the “Dear Dumbass” trophy for whose code had the most errors. Ironically, it was a “Runner Up” bowling trophy from 1972. The team worked hard and there were moments when it felt like we were swinging an axe hard, but others where we had a lot of good laughs too!

So, what is work to you? Is it an 8 lbs. maul that’s a dread to swing? Or, is it a double bladed axe that is still work, but a little bit of fun also? It’s up to you to decide.

You Mean We’re Working From Home, Forever!?!?!

It felt like it all happened in the blink of an eye. We went from talking about “this Wuhan thing” (as one person in a meeting put it) to full-blown pandemic. Meeting in conference rooms moved to Zoom seemingly overnight. Large desks with multiple monitors in cubicles turned into laptops on beer-stained card tables in spare bedrooms. Getting booted off the network and then unable to reconnect due to not enough VPN licenses was the norm. Everyone had to adjust to change at breakneck speed.

Now that the initial push to get people working from home is done and the dust settling, a clearer picture of the future is coming into focus. Companies are finding their staff is just as productive, if not more, working from home than in the office. They’re also seeing a reduction in office-related costs. Employees are seeing cost savings related to not commuting and get more time back in their day not sitting in traffic.

Now there are decisions to be made. Will this work from home thing be temporary, a 1-2 year ordeal, or permanent? In recent weeks, I’ve seen small companies of less than 10 people to major companies, like Google and Twitter, announce that either all or some of their staff will permanently work from home. Some employees are excited. Some want that human interaction and are less than enthusiastic. But we all can agree, the changes are here to stay!

This was a topic between me and my neighbors as we sat around in chairs on my lawn one evening having a few, ever more difficult to find, BUUUUUSCH! Lite Apple beers. One neighbor, who works in Accounts Receivable, found out that day he’d be working from home through 2021, and maybe permanently. Another in technology & infrastructure support is being moved to 1 day a week in the office, by himself, rotating with others on his team, until February 2021. The other neighbor is in construction project management, who now permanently works from home with the closure of his company’s office, with on-site construction visits only when required. None had ever had to think about working from home long-term.

Having worked from home close to nine years, I’ve found some things that have worked for me to stay productive and engaged. They may not work for everyone, like they won’t all work for my neighbors as I talked about what I’ve done. But, my hope is you’ll glean a few tidbits from these.

Make your work area, yours. It’s time to ditch the shitty folding table and squeaky desk chair. Buy a desk. Get a nice chair that won’t hurt your back. Organize papers and notebooks. If needed, pick up a cheap printer. Hang a family picture. In the office, you had a setup and personal effects in your cube. At home, you can have all that and maybe a little more (I have a movie poster up in my home office). To work well at home, have a great place to work! Be sure to ask your employer if they offer a stipend for home office equipment.

Videoconferencing tips to weather coronavirus from the home office ...

Have family “signals.” With a spouse and two energetic boys also at home, the house can get noisy…real noisy. But, if my boys come screaming into the basement where I have my office and see my door closed, they know I’m on a call and to be quiet. If my wife’s on a call in her office on the upper floor of the house and things get loud, she stomps on the floor three times, letting us know to quiet down.

High Quality Working from home Blank Meme Template

Get away from your damn computer and shut down EOD! Some members on my team have never worked from home before. They get online early and stay on late. They’re always available. There’s a feeling because they’re at home, they need to be available 100% of the time. False. Get up. Take a walk. Have lunch at the dining room table or patio. Step outside for a few minutes. In the office, you went for coffee and chatted with coworkers. It’s OK to get away from your computer. At the end of the day, unless there’s something you’re expecting, shut down!

Be social. Chances are some of your coworkers are friends. Trusted confidants whom you’d talk about personal issues and share laughs with on a regular basis, are at home too. Face-to-face, in person interaction ceased. Instead, you’ll have to rely on Zoom calls, instant messaging, social media interactions, or other platforms to stay connected. If your company allows, experiment with different platforms to see which connects staff the best. Have team competitions for best home office, Monday bad hair day, or number of steps walked during lunch. These will help promote engagement amongst staff. And if possible, have people knock off early some night and sit socially distanced at a park enjoying a few beers.

Mind your mental health. Social isolation ain’t no joke! Even to you that say “I’m fine”, you’re probably feeling something. Being alone with what seems to be a steady stream of bad news in the media can take a toll. It’s OK not to be OK. Track your mood. Are there certain times or days you’re not feeling it? Is there support, friends, spouse, other family, or mental health professionals you can turn to? This may be a short-term issue as you adjust to a “new norm” at home, but don’t ignore it. Yes, even you tough guys; it’s OK to feel a little down.

Have a routine. I get up almost everyday, work out, have coffee, walk the dog, turn my computer on, check emails, have breakfast, and then really get rolling with work about 7:50. Wash, rinse, repeat. No, I don’t shower and get cleaned up for the day right away. Maybe around noon (though I do brush my teeth). If any of my morning routine doesn’t happen, my day can feel “off.” I usually take a quick walk at 10. Meeting dependent, lunch is “hey kids, whatcha want and I’ll just have some of that too?” Another quick walk at lunch and again around 2:30. By 4:30/5, I’m logging off. That routine feels good to me. Develop your own. Trust me, it helps break up the day.

Managing your daily routine during Covid-19 | Sport Ireland

As working from home becomes the new norm, you’ll find it can have its advantages and downfalls. Even if it’s not for you, you may have to do it given circumstances. But, by following these tips (which are my favorites) and others that can be found online, you too can create an environment that’s functional and helps you stay productive.

If You’re Wrong, Your Team Will Let You Know

I have a baseball analogy I’ve used for a number of years. Being a Minnesota Twins fan since I can remember, there are a handful of players I’ve enjoyed watching. Joe Mauer, the slugging left-handed catcher and first baseman, had a lifetime batting average of .306. In baseball terms, is very good.

What Happened To Joe Mauer? - Articles - Articles - Homepage ...

What does that mean? Out of 10 times up to bat, he was “right” (or got on base) 3 of those and was “wrong” (didn’t get on base) the other 7. He’ll probably make the hall of fame for being 30% accurate!

Why do I highlight baseball stats? Well, my job is to get those smarter than me to align on project goals and tasks, and drive those forward to completion. So as I sat in a meeting surrounded by PhD’s and those with master’s degrees in the human sciences, conversations turned technical as we explored options to resolve a problem. There were great conversations and ideas, but no solid path forward. Given it was a 30 minute meeting, I always reserved the last 5 minutes for decisions, next steps, owners and due dates.

In those last 5 minutes, I piped up and told everyone though the conversation was good, we needed to move on. “Here’s what I heard we’re going to do and who’s doing it. You need to tell me if I’m wrong!” I proceeded to give direction, who was going to do it and by when. As requested, they told me I was wrong! But, within those 5 minutes, we went from no decision, to me giving the wrong direction, to alignment. The wrong answer given by me facilitated the correct one by the team (even though they were a little upset with me).

This is just one example of where being wrong allowed the team to figure out what the right path was. Sometimes, your team won’t want to make a decision. Maybe they’re afraid of being wrong or viewed as “dumb” in front of their peers. In these instances, you’ll need to figure out a means to gain alignment. There are three ways I’ve done this.

  1. Maybe you know what next steps and owners are based on the conversation. Guess what? You’re Right! The team agrees, commits and delivers on agreed to tasks.
  2. Maybe you know what next steps and owners are based on the conversation. Guess what? You’re Wrong! The team corrects you, commits and delivers on agreed upon tasks.
  3. (Only use in rare instances) Based on the conversation, you knowingly give the Wrong answer understanding the team will disagree (plus maybe be a little pissed) with you and align with each other.

Whether you unintentionally give direction or say something wrong, or maybe do it intentionally, your goal is to have the team correct you and align on a path forward. It may take a variety of strategies to get this to happen, but ultimately, don’t take is personally if you’re corrected. Remember, a baseball player can be right 30% of the time and make the hall of fame. If you’re right 50%, well, I’d say that’s a really good day!!

MLB At Bat app gets major update, with DVR features and more - 9to5Mac

What Type Of Motivation Moves Your Team?

If you’re a runner and had a race calendar planned out for 2020, it probably fell apart sometime mid March to early April. Races postponed, postponed again, or outright cancelled. It’s sad, but a reality we all face.

The half marathon I’ve run every year since 2011 was initially postponed from May to August 29th. I planned to run it with a close friend who’s never ran a half before and was looking forward to helping her achieve her milestone. Well, with the rise in COVID cases, it too was cancelled this week. The race company that puts it on offered a few options, including a virtual run. Still get your swag, medal and a jacket! I’m in.

When my friend asked what we should do, I told her the race was cancelled, but our run was not. Keep training and on August 29th at 7:30, we’ll set off on a 13.1 run. We’re doing this!

As I read the online forums, there were a number of different reactions to the race cancellation. Most were understanding and supportive of a virtual run or deferring until 2021. Some were outraged. Others, indifferent.

But one comment stuck out; “I’ve done all this training and I should run this virtually! How am I supposed to run if no one’s there to cheer me on?”

Obviously, others noticed as well. Some runners slammed her for the comment. Others agreed. Some offered suggestions to get people on her route to cheer.

At first, even I was like “What the hell! Get out there and do it.” But the more I thought, the more I took a step back and looked at it from her point of view. Obviously, her motivation comes from extrinsic factors, whereas I know I’m intrinsically motivated. Even though the race was cancelled, I was going to run it anyway.

Intrinsic Motivation Vs Extrinsic Motivation - Top Education Hub

Why is it important to know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? As a leader, you’ll work with teams comprised of individuals. And because each person is unique, a one size fits all approach to motivation won’t work. Let’s look at each a little more.

Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in something because it’s rewarding to you personally. You do this for its own sake rather than a reward. In the running example, there are many, myself included, that want to just get out there and run. No one knows you’re out there. No onlookers. No medals. No selfies. Just two feet and a pair of shoes. The only reward we may get is achieving a fast time, essentially beating ourselves and the previous record we once held.

Extrinsic Motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when you engage in something to earn a reward or in some cases, avoid punishment. You may not enjoy the activity, but do it in order to get something in return. Continuing on running, these people may want onlookers to cheer and tell them good job. They want the medal and the half banana at the finish. Lots of selfies and likes on social media. Acceptance by someone who said you’d never do this.

Intrinsic VS. EXTRINSIC motivation

Let’s move this to the work setting. Usually, my team is a mix of motivation styles. One is not better than the other and they’re both important. Using both at the same time can yield great results. Those team members with a passion for what they do will be intrinsically motivated. They love the challenge of the project and want to know their contribution is making a difference. But, that won’t pay the mortgage. They need that extrinsic motivation (a salary) to compliment the internal drive. For those team members who like extrinsic motivation, a salary is great, but they also want recognition, usually more public, and maybe a bonus/gift of some sort. But, don’t make extrinsic factors the only reason someone show up for work.

One extrinsic motivator that backfires is threats. I was leading a team where our VP of technology came and said “If you don’t deliver, you’ll all be looking for new jobs!” That is extrinsic motivation to avoid punishment! Yes, we got the job done, but we really didn’t like the VP and it wasn’t long before people left the company. Extrinsic motivation to avoid punishment.

So as you move forward to either lead a team, run a race, tackle a new project, or whatever challenge you face, remember how you and others are motivated. Understand one’s not better than the other despite which direction you lean. Together, these motivators make a strong force!