Monday, May 23, 2016

Five phrases

A great article at Fast Company discusses the words we use at work, and how those words impact our influence and relationships.

You've probably experienced poor word choice by others. In a meeting or in a discussion, you may have observed someone really flub a point by using wrong language. Maybe it comes off as too forceful, or too autocratic. And that changes the tone of the discussion. Poor word choice can turn a conversation's focus from "collaborate" to "dictate."

In the Fast Company article, Bernard Roth of Stanford University's discusses the 5 Words And Phrases That Can Transform Your Work Life. Quoting from the article:

"But" is probably the most limiting word in our vocabulary. The use of "but" closes off the conversation space, while ‘and’ opens it up. When you open up the dialogue with "and," your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence.
Needing to complete work is one of the most common situations in which we say we "have to" do something. By saying you "have to" take it, you set up a situation as a burden. By simply swapping out "have to" with "want to," you will more readily make it seem like less of a burden, and indeed, more of something to look forward to.
When we say we "can’t" do something, that is almost always not actually the case. By exchanging "can’t" for "won’t," we realize that an inability to currently do something is a choice, not a physical impossibility. The simple change of ‘can’t’ to ‘won’t’ is often empowering. "Can’t" implies helplessness; "won’t" signifies volition and choice.
"I’m afraid to" is about the most blocking phrase there is. It acknowledges the person’s fear instead of their desire. Phrasing your want as "I’d like to" acknowledges your desire, and desire is usually associated with positive, pleasant thoughts.
The word "help" is often associated with "helplessness" in our minds. Helplessness implies someone is incapable of achieving something without someone else stepping in to do it for them. However, when we swap "help" with "assist," we set ourselves up to see that we are an important and capable part of the solution.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Meeting with customers

Relationships are an important part of getting things done in any organization. Whether you work in IT or some other unit, who you know can sometimes be just as important as what you are trying to accomplish. If you have connections with business partners inside the organization, you can leverage these relationships to help you meet goals and drive innovation.

But relationships aren't just for getting things done. You can't just build relationships for the sake of driving work. You also need to have business relationships with your customers.

IDG Enterprise discussed this topic in their editorial article Why it pays to meet your customers. They identify the benefits through numbers:

You could argue that, outside of sales and marketing, IT is the business division for which it is most important to meet with external customers. To further put some numbers around why it is so beneficial for IT to meet with customers, consider this: Of the 2016 State of the CIO survey respondents who said that they regularly meet with customers, 57% report directly to the CEO, versus 46% of all survey respondents. Additionally, 41% of CIOs who have regular contact with customers spend their time on highly strategic activities, such as driving innovation, developing new go-to-market strategies and technologies, and studying market trends for commercial opportunities. In contrast, just 19% of CIOs who seldom or never meet with customers engage in strategic activities such as those.

In IDG's view, meeting with customers is the best way for CIOs to stay focused on strategic needs of the organization.

I agree. The CIO needs to stay connected with the organization and its customers. The IDG article makes the case that the CIO should meet with the external customers—the people paying for services. But what if your organization is like higher ed or government, where you don't have "paying customers" in the traditional sense? In my view, it doesn't matter.

It's still important for the CIO to meet with the units served directly by the IT department. In higher ed, I regularly set aside time to meet with division chairs and unit directors. Twice each year, I also arranged formal IT input cycles, where I led discussions around the future IT needs of the institution.

I've only been in local government for a short time (three and a half months, if you're counting) but even so, I recognize the need to meet with the units I serve so I can stay connected. I've arranged meet-and-greets with several groups within the County, and I look forward to meeting more of my colleagues. By staying connected and building these relationships, IT will be a partner to our customers, rather than a mere service provider.

I believe so strongly in the need to stay connected with customers that I am creating a new, expanded "IS Liaison" position. We are a large county—at over half a million people, we are the second most-populous county in the state. So it's not feasible for me to meet individually with each of my customers. I need some help to get that done. The Liaison position will become the primary contact point for our customers.

The Liaison won't replace my need to meet with customers, but the position will allow me to stay connected while focusing on the strategic needs of the county. The Liaison will meet with our customers in an ongoing basis, likely twice each year, to discuss IT needs and to preview what's coming up with each of our customers. Let's set the clock ahead by six months or twelve months, and ask "What's happening in your unit over that time?"

I hope the Liaison will hear about projects with IT needs: "We're looking to purchase X system, and we'll need IT to help us with that." But the Liaison will also look for projects that have hidden or unrecognized IT roles: "We're going to be moving to a new building in ten months, but we don't think IT will need to do anything with that." (What about network, phones, computer moves? Let's partner with you on your move so the IT stuff gets dealt with.)

Over time, I hope the Liaison will become an integrated partner with our customers, providing a focus point for questions and issues, and serving as a mechanism to get "stuck" items moving again.
image: reynermedia/Flickr (cc-by)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Politely bringing someone down

Last week, I mentioned the five levels of performance:

  1. Unconsciously under-performing
  2. Consciously under-performing
  3. Consciously performing
  4. Unconsciously performing
  5. Super-performing

That's an important scale to use to help your team members—and your organization as a whole—to improve. But just as we can use the five levels of performance to help an organization or a team member to improve, to raise their game, you can just as easily (perhaps mistakenly) bring someone down.

So yes, you can also use this for eeevil. I don't espouse this kind of behavior, but I think it's important to remember that the five levels of performance might (sometimes) have a negative impact:
Someone who is unconsciously performing is doing an excellent job without realizing that they are at a higher levels than others. Someone who is super-performing is "in the zone," like a baseball pitcher throwing a no-hit game.

And that's where eeevil people can do harm. When a pitcher is throwing that no-hit game, taunting them won't impact the pitcher's performance. Professional sports players ignore that kind of thing. And it's rude, anyway. But if you politely recognize recognize the pitcher for the great game, talk specifically about their unhittable slider, how their curve ball really does seem to move on its own, how every third pitch is a fastball … Whether or not it's true, be specific and be polite. The goal here is to raise self-awareness of performance and knock the pitcher "out of the zone."

The pitcher is still throwing a good game, but now the pitcher is thinking about what they are doing, how they are selecting their pitches, how they are throwing the ball. The pitcher becomes consciously aware of their performance, and shifts from "Super-performing" or "Unconsciously performing" to "Consciously performing." That's a lower performance level. And at this lower performance level, the pitcher is more likely to over-think their performance and make mistakes. Maybe the pitcher will start to second guess themselves, wondering "Am I doing this right?" This can shift the pitcher further from "Consciously performing" to "Consciously under-performing."

So simply by politely calling out all the great things the pitcher is doing in that no-hit game, you have changed the behavior. Just don't use this to help your kid win their little league game. That would be using this knowledge for eeevil.

Instead, take this as a warning for how you apply the five levels of performance. When you have someone on your team who is at "Unconsciously performing" or "Super-performing," be careful about how and when you recognize them. With the "baseball pitcher" scenario in mind, do you really want to interrupt your star performer who is "in the zone" to tell them what a great job they are doing? Will your well-intentioned on-the-spot recognition take that person out of the moment, so they start to think about what they are doing and how they are doing it?

Choose your moment carefully so you don't accidentally take your super-performer down to a lower performance level simply by telling them what a great job they are doing. Find a way to thank them indirectly, then wait until they don't need to be "in the zone" to properly recognize them and highlight their superlative performance. You don't always need to recognize excellent performance when you see it. Instead, say "thank you" then circle back at the end of the day for a more specific appreciation of their work.
image: Bryce Edwards/Flickr (cc-by)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Five levels of performance

At what level is your organization performing? Are you exceeding expectations? Falling below expectations? Or just meeting the expectations?

Some experts refer to four levels of performance, originally credited as the "Four stages of competence." Others refer to five levels, with the fifth level indicating either an ability to instill performance in others, or a "super-performance" level. I prefer the latter.

These five levels of performance apply to both individuals and organizations. They are:

Unconsciously under-performing
The organization is not meeting the needs of their customers and is not performing at an acceptable level. At the same time, there is no awareness in the organization that they are not meeting expectations. They don't know that they aren't doing well.
Consciously under-performing
The organization is not meeting the needs of customers and is not performing well. But the organization is aware of the problem. They know they aren't doing well, but don't know how to fix it.
Consciously performing
The organization is performing at an acceptable level and meeting goals and addressing customer needs. They are doing well and they know it.
Unconsciously performing
The organization is meeting customer needs and accomplishing goals, but is doing so without a general awareness of their superior performance level. They are working well, yet no one really realizes it.
The organization is performing at the highest level, constantly and consistently delivering their "A" game. They are "in the zone."

Where does your organization fit on this performance model? Consider that different parts of your organization might be at different levels. Is your unit doing well, and they know it? Or is your unit not doing well, and they are blissfully unaware?

I use this same model when I evaluate the performance of team members. I might have one person who is doing very well, delivering great work products, meeting expectations. Are they having to stop to make a plan of what to do, and how to do it, in order to reach this performance level? (Consciously performing.) Or is this a "star performer" who seems to have an innate ability to do an excellent job all the time? (Unconsciously performing.)

I've had team members at every level on this performance model. It's been a true pleasure to have someone who is at the "super-performing" level. And I have had a few in my career, although it's rare. These people always do a great job, always outperform everyone around them. But they do this not because they are trying to show anyone up, and not because they are bucking for a raise or a promotion. They do a superlative job because they get "in the zone" and do their job at an excellent level.

Whether I have someone who is super-performing or unconsciously performing, I am careful to avoid knocking them out of that top level. They are doing a great job without having to stop and think about it. The moment you cause them to reflect on what they are doing that's helping them to outperform, you immediately bring them to the "consciously performing" level. And while that's still a great place to be, you have also taken them "out of the zone" to perform at a lower level.

So if I have someone who is super-performing, I might recognize them in different or indirect ways. Stopping to say "thanks!" or "good job!" is positive recognition without bringing them to that lower performance level. Bringing in food (pizza!) can be enough. When they no longer need to be "in the zone," I'll call out the great work they are doing and specifically recognize their efforts.

At the other end of the scale, if you have someone who is unconsciously under-performing, the you must recognize that they have been doing their job without realizing that they aren't meeting expectations. At this level, they need help to realize their sub-par performance, that they need to raise the bar and meet a higher level. Find a way to have that conversation and raise awareness. This brings them into the "consciously under-performing zone, which you can leverage for further improvement.

Those who are consciously under-performing are generally aware that they aren't doing the best job they can, but they don't understand how to reach the next level. A constructive performance plan can help. As their manager, you will need to work with them to identify how they can do their job better. Be specific about how they can improve. If you only highlight the deficiencies, you aren't helping; they need your help to reach the next level. Map out a plan for these team members, and identify specific things they might do differently to improve efficiency and increase their productivity. It might be as simple as rearranging their work area, or moving their work space to somewhere with less distracting foot traffic.

Understanding how your organization is doing is critical to performance management. You want to do well so you can better serve the entire organization.
image: Clip Art Best (free)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Email and spam

Email is always a difficult balance for me. Email provides a method for communicating issues and needs, and for collaborating on projects and work efforts.

But email can also be a distraction. I get a lot of emails, and I rely on my inbox to keep me up-to-date on the goings-on at work. When I get off-topic emails, or spam, I look for ways to get rid of it.

I used to try to do the "right" thing and redirect these vendor solicitation emails to the right person in my organization, or email the vendor back to point them in the right direction. I figured I was doing myself a favor by letting vendors know that I wasn't the right person, so they could be more effective in their marketing.

But I eventually realized that I'm just making the problem worse for myself. I'm encouraging these vendors to send me "blind" emails to reach out to me on random topics, with the hope that I'll buy something. And when I reply, my standard email footer includes my contact information, so eventually these vendors start "cold calling" my phone. Now I have two problems: email I don't want, and phone calls I don't want.

And I've decided to be very judicious in marking email as spam. My rule is simple: if a message is a vendor "cold call" email, and I didn't ask for it, the message is spam. This rule has saved me so much time.

There's a neat feature in most email systems to mark a message as spam. Over time, your email system learns from you, and gets better at categorizing emails as spam and moving them out of your primary inbox so you can stay focused on your work—and deal with the spam at a later time. Or in my case, to delete at a later time.

Don't let email become a burden. Give yourself permission to delete the emails you don't need, and to take yourself off mailing lists you don't participate in. Let your email system mark messages as spam so they don't clutter your inbox.
photo: Kim Love/Flickr (cc by-sa)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Avoiding decision fatigue and preserving creative energy

Here's something you may not know about me: Every weekend, as I do laundry, I "pre-load" my closet: I hang my shirts with the suits I'm going to wear that week, in order by day.

I do this because I learned that making these decisions in advance helps me to avoid decision fatigue. I'm involved in a lot of decisions every day, and the last decision I want to spend any time on is "what am I going to wear to work?" So I make that decision in advance. Every morning, I just grab the next shirt and suit on the rack, and put it on.

I'm not the only person to simplify my wardrobe for this reason. President Barack Obama says he wears pretty much the same two suits, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously wore only a black mock turtleneck and jeans, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does the same with his grey hoodie and jeans.

It helps that all of my suits are variations of "charcoal grey" so pretty much everything I have goes with everything else. My concessions to avoid monotony include wearing a different tie and cufflinks to work. But do I really want to make that creative decision in the morning—even a small creative decision? I want to preserve my creative energy for the things that matter.

So that's why over the weekend, I spend a little time as I hang each clean shirt to put in the right set of cufflinks and hang an appropriately matching tie on the hanger. Do I have a board meeting this week? I'll queue up a white shirt and red tie for that day. Do I have a governance meeting coming up? I'll make sure to put a blue tie and appropriate shirt into the rotation.

For each day, I also match a set of cufflinks suitable for the meetings I'll have. If I have meetings with the board or the County Manager, I'll choose something with a classic and professional look. No meetings? I'll add some whimsical cufflinks, like the ones that light up or the ones with little penguins.

By "pre-loading" my closet for the week, and by making these "little decisions" in advance, I find I can direct my energy to the important decisions. As I "gear up" for my workday each morning, I maintain my work focus on the things I need to get done. I don't have to "change gears" to make a decision about this or that tie, these or those cufflinks. I just reach for the next shirt and suit in the closet, put them on, and go to work.

I realize this may be something of an extreme. You don't have to go this far. You might simply pair up shirts and pants for the week, or define a personal "uniform" so you can grab anything of that type from your closet. If you're like me, you may find you preserve your creative energy for making the larger decisions later in the day. Avoid making the little decisions that, though small, do wear away at decision fatigue.
photo: Matthew Yohe/Wikimedia (cc-by)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Why executives use Powerpoint

I sometime repeat this joke, stolen from a friend of mine:
What's the difference between an introvert and an extrovert? The introvert thinks before he speaks.

(I pause, and let the audience "get" it. They assume the extrovert thinks afterwards. But that's not true, I say. The extrovert thinks as she speaks.)
I'm just over three months into my new CIO role, and I've noticed something interesting about how I work. I rarely have time to write documents anymore.

When I worked as the campus CIO in higher ed, we were a small campus, and I had a small IT team. So it wasn't very difficult to carve out time from my day to write a strategy document, or a framing document, or an organizational document. I wrote a lot of documents as campus CIO.

In my new CIO role, I'm in a much larger organization. I'm always meeting with people. That in-person contact is very important to me; I like to build relationships with those I work with, as a way to get things done. When I'm not in a one-on-one meeting, I'm usually in a committee meeting or a steering committee meeting or a governance meeting. These are important meetings too; they are the mechanics of projects.

But the side-effect of all those meetings is that I rarely have time to write documents. So instead of writing documents, I prepare a Powerpoint slide deck, and I speak to those issues when I'm making my presentation.

That's when I realized why so many executives rely on Powerpoint. If you're like me, and you're short on time but you can compose well while speaking, it takes less time to create a few Powerpoint slides and talk about your topic than it does to write a document and edit it.

So if you're at the contributor level or manager level and you wonder why the executives always seem to be using Powerpoint, that might be the reason.

But even though I use Powerpoint more frequently now, I always follow my own advice about presentations:

If you don't have to use Powerpoint, don't use Powerpoint.
Not all presentations require slides. Sometimes, you only need to reference something that already exists. In these cases, you may not even need Powerpoint. Don't use Powerpoint as a crutch. Because if you can avoid using Powerpoint, you should.
Think about the questions you can ask your audience to help them get down the road.
What questions will engage your audience, to start them thinking more deeply about the topic? What will "hook" them?
Leverage polling or some other technique to disarm the audience.
In my meetings, I have used affinity exercises and "dot" voting to great effect. Anonymous polling allows the group to quickly reach a consensus, and they are more likely to ask follow up questions.
Don't make Powerpoint the star of the show.
If you must use Powerpoint, at least don't make your slides distracting, or you risk losing your audience. Focus on your content. Use slides that are visual, not wordy. Leave room to talk around the bullet points.
Tell a story.
The best presentations don't rely on slides; they leverage a "story" to engage the audience. A great speaker doesn't need much in the way of slides or materials to convey a message. Instead, find ways to tell a story around your presentation. Use examples drawn from real life to make your presentation more concrete.
image: Wikimedia/Onlysee (cc by-sa)