A Week as "Guest Faculty"

November 21, 2008

I had the honor to be asked to serve as “guest faculty” at a Management Excellence event this week.

I learned as much, I think, as the participants. It was a terrific experience, and I got to practice some skills myself by virtue of knowing I should at many times listen to how things were said rather than what was said.

I also led some sessions. My first session was on managing up. I started with a scene from the movie Gettysburg — a film well worth watching in its entirety, BTW. In the scene, Southern General Longstreet — Lee’s #2 guy — orders General Hood to “take that mountain” (Little Round Top). Hood recognizes it is a poor tactic and proposes an alternative — a tactic Longstreet himself preferred. But Lee had ordered Longstreet specifically to capture the hill. And so Longstreet passes the order to Hood, who is later unable to execute successfully.

My obvious intent was to focus attention and to provide two examples of managing up, a direct one (Hood to Longstreet) and an indirect one (Longstreet reporting on his failure to convince Lee). We had a good discussion on the scene as metaphor that led to analysis of manage-up tactics, concepts, etc.

But what I found really interesting was the number of times later in the week I or others would refer to that scene. It became a metaphor for a number of items — management vs. leadership, the difference among mission, vision, and goals, and more.

It reminded me — again — of how powerful storytelling and metaphor are as management tools.

Leaders lead by telling stories — not battle stories, but personal tales of your vision, future histories of a better world. Steve Jobs is famous for his “reality distortion field,” but all leaders do it.

Think of Reagan and “morning again in America,” or Clinton and his “bridge to the 21st century.” They’re memorable phrases, but they stem from stories in which the speakers believed and wanted us to believe. And they’re powerful visual images, too.

Management may often be words and numbers, but leadership is pictures and vision. If visuals are a powerful teaching tool, as I rediscovered, think how much more powerful they are when they’re part of your story.

Oh — and if Lee had listened to Longstreet or Longstreet to his heart, all us Yankees might live in a narrower nation of but 35 states. (It makes an intriguing alternate-history debate over a few beers if you’re a history buff.)

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I’ll Give You 30 Minutes Back in Your Day With Just Two Mouse Clicks

October 30, 2008

You’ve got Outlook (or some other mail program) open, right?

Click File. Click Exit.

Now go and get some work done. Don’t reopen Outlook for at least three hours. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Context switching is expensive for an operating system: service one program for a bit, save its state, restore the state of a second program — oh, wait, that driver is requesting service, so put everything else on hold for a moment….

Context switching is even more expensive for a human being.

You rarely have to be on email. You’re addicted to it; many of us are.

Wean yourself. Start by turning off the new-mail sound and cursor flash. Then turn off the “toasts” (blue ghosties) that fade in and out of the bottom corner of the screen.

As a next step, put your mail program behind your other windows. Try it for 30 minutes, then for an hour, then for three hours.

If the world hasn’t ended, go for the big step — shut down your mail program.

Want to talk with someone on your hall? Get up and walk to their office. Or pick up the phone. Or simply hold your question for a bit.

I guarantee you’ll get more done. You’ll even feel better about your day, less stressed and rushed, once you get over the awful feeling that the world is going by without you.

It mostly goes by without you anyway. Email is just the illusion of control, of being in the center of things.

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The great benefit of Email from the start was its asynchronous nature.

The phone interrupts. Email waits patiently until you are ready.

At least that’s the way it was designed. Do you really want to turn Email into call-waiting? (“I don’t know who’s calling, but they’re more important than you are, which is why I’m putting you on hold to see who it is.”)

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What do you do with those 30+ minutes?

You can think. Put in concentrated time on a project. Really analyze a spreadsheet or report. Understand the invariably bogus statistics behind the substitute metrics in your scorecard. Learn more about the industry you’re a part of. Actually talk with your team and your peers. Take a walk. Go home early; play your guitar or play with the kids.

Or how about this: you work about 240 days a year, give or take. Gain 30 minutes a day, and that’s three full weeks a year. What would you give for three extra weeks vacation?

Three extra weeks of vacation without having to move to Europe. Two clicks.

Of course, you have to take that vacation half an hour at a time; on the other hand, you get a bit of vacation every day.

Now it’s time to go play with my kids. I’ll check Email after they go to bed… but not until then.

  — Steve

(After I wrote but before I posted this, the NYTimes published an article about the difficulty of human multitasking.)


Exploring Management Conference

October 24, 2008

Yesterday I had the honor of serving once again as “table coach” for five sessions at the Exploring Management Conference. (A table coach sits at a large table and leads a discussion on a given topic for about 20 minutes; then the attendees change tables and you do it again.)

First, I encourage any experienced manager to do this. If you’re at Microsoft in Redmond, participate in the formal Exploring Management sessions. Otherwise, gather a bunch of folks who wonder about moving into management and have an open, honest discussion about some of the pros and cons — and your experiences with them. You’ll learn as much as those you coach, not just about them but about yourself and your assumptions.

My topic this time was “Tradeoffs: Manager vs. Individual Contributor.” I’ve done considerable coaching on this topic with newer managers working for me.

One day some years ago, a new manager threw himself down on the couch I’ve squeezed into my office and asked, “Why do I feel so bad about my job as manager? I work hard, I like everyone I work with, I even like you, but at the end of the day I feel exhausted and like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Think about that for a minute. Have you been there?

We came to a realization through coaching. [My coaching technique is to pose clarifying questions to the person I’m working with and help them work out an answer — an answer that I myself may or may not know.]

  • – As an IC, you get a win every day. Tasks are bounded and relatively short. Code a function, contact a customer, prepare a report. Tasks usually have a clear beginning and, more importantly, a clear end, one at which you are present.
  • – Managerial problems beyond the administrative tend to be formless. They drift up on you, you work the levers of influence and coaching, and eventually there is improvement in the situation. You probably spend the same amount of time on a given task/problem, a day or two. But it’s discontinuous time. These tasks often lack a clear point marking the start of your ownership. And they almost never have a clear end, an “aha!” moment. Three weeks or three months later, you may notice the change, the improvement. But by then, a dozen other tasks and problems have drifted down on you.

In other words, a manager spends much of his or her time setting wheels in motion — but at the end of the day, she has dealt far more in moving problems along than in exulting in solutions. Closure is hard to come by.

And if you don’t recognize that, you go home miserable, sometimes kick-the-dog, hate-the-job miserable. Or you start doing more and more IC tasks to get those endorphins flowing — which deleverages you and makes your team wonder why you’re micromanaging.

That’s the cost; what does the manager get in return? I got a sense of pride in helping my team grow, and a sense of accomplishment in making progress on larger problems than I would normally see as an IC. But there were many days where I had to think about that consciously.

What’s your experience?

  — Steve