Trains, Then and Now

I've been an unreliable correspondent recently. Sorry. Busy. Jumped on a high speed train in December and haven't pulled into a station since. Need to find a new writing pattern. I figure that this slot, on the 6:05 from Smithtown to NY Penn Station, is likely what will work on a regular cadence, so here we go.

Back in the day, the Long Island Railroad's slogan was "The Route of the Dashing Dan." I remember that because the name my dad (a long time LIRR commuter) went by wasn't his first, Maurice, but his middle, Daniel. "Dan" to mom and his friends.

Before taking this job with NCR I used the train only occasionally. Not to say without impact however, since on one of those occasions I met my future wife, somewhere between Kings Park, where she boarded, and Jamaica, where we changed trains to catch the one bound for Penn. (In those days, before electrification was completed all the way to Port Jefferson, the eastern terminus of this line, you had to do that, since diesel locomotives couldn't travel through the tunnel under the East River.)

On that November day in 1976, a Saturday I think, I was headed into Manhattan to go to the ski show held at the beginning of each season to allow the industry to hawk its wares to enthusiasts (I was one) eager for a taste of their favorite sport after the long break.

I noticed Ellie right away when she took a seat directly in front of mine. Estee' Lauder's "Youth Dew" helped. Her mom worked there at the time, I learned sometime later that day.

It was only after we changed trains however, Ellie now sitting one row ahead and across the aisle, that I saw that she was reading a "how to" ski paperback. Fate… and all the encouragement I needed to overcome my shyness. I said something about where I was headed, Ellie said she was too, and asked if I knew how to get to the show.

The exuberant one word call that Marv Albert used when a NY Knick shot found the basket at a big moment, "YES!" came to mind, with both its connotations in play.

We spent the rest of the day together. By the time we parted company, we'd agreed to a follow-on date, specifics not set. Ellie thought I wouldn't call.

I did.

We had dinner at a restaurant then called "Gentleman Farmer" that later changed hands to become Casa Rustica, an Italian place that became a favorite for many years to come, and still one to this day. (It's now run by the son of one of the two then owners.)

This last September 2nd, Ellie and I celebrated our 31st anniversary.

And now, as we've heard happens by about this time in life, I'm becoming my father. Commenting on my three quarter profile from behind the other day, Ellie said, "You look just like dad from this angle." Shaving this morning, I realize that I look quite a bit like him head on as well. And now I catch the LIRR from Smithtown, (dad's station too) each morning for a job in the city, just like all the other later day Dashing Dans around me.

Lirr dashing dan

A Question for Leaders: Are Your Team’s Energies Spent on What Matters?

This is a topic likely of greater concern in larger enterprises than in their smaller brethren, but worth some consideration by all leaders.

The idea behind the title question of this post is simple: there are activities undertaken by your team that add significant value to your company but, almost certainly, others that don't. You clearly want to shift time and energies spent on the latter to the former.

Value creating tasks tend to be outward focused: meeting with customers to develop new opportunities, creating new products and services to bring to market, solving customer problems, communications with the people that influence your fortunes (customers, partners, press and analysts, investors…) and cultivating new partnerships aimed at enhancing your value to customers.

While there are important value creating inward directed activities (e.g. planning processes, meetings and other communications means aimed at ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction), it is very easy, especially in larger organizations, for an increasing proportion of available resource to be spent on activities that are entirely about "the inner life" of the organization:

  • Writing and reading internal emails that are too long, poorly focused, distributed too widely, or not directed at value-creating topics;
  • Sitting through endless meetings without clearly defined objectives or agenda, with too many people in the room;
  • Overly elaborate preparations for internal presentations (because they've become the cultural norm);
  • Dealing with the same old problem again and again, because of a culture too weak in candor and accountability or a reluctance to confront difficult people decisions;
  • Wasted time getting to a decision on action because the organization has too many layers, underdeveloped skills in fact-based decision making, not enough focus on the customer or a lack of sense of urgency;
  • Any process that exists more because "that's the way it's always been done" than because it serves a useful purpose today.

I'm sure that you can add many other items to this list. You get the idea.

It's not that anyone consciously sets out to create time-wasting activities. They just sort of happen, typically as organizations grow and mature. In some cases they exist because at some point in the past they added value. In others, they're protected by people whose jobs are linked to them. In many others, they exist only because they're under the radar screen. But they are likely sucking up a great deal of your team's available energy, every single day.

As a leader, it's your job to root them out.

It starts with awareness. That's why I'm writing this. Take another look at the list above. Recognize any of these things going on around you? I'll bet you do. Put a spotlight on them (so others will see the waste) and then put a stop sign in front of them.

[ Note: There are likely many not-so-obvious non-value-add practices scattered around your organization and its work flows. There are surely others that may be painfully apparent, but where the steps toward their effective elimination or retooling are not, or where side effect risks or implementation costs may be great. In all of these cases, you'll need to reach into the Continuous Improvement tool kit for one of the broad array of available structured problem solving techniques (DMAIC, Kaizen…). My notes today are directed at the simpler forms of waste. Those that are obvious to all (or at least most) and easy to eliminate with minimal complication or risk. I claim that dealing with these has great power precisely because they are so visible to everyone. Your tolerance of there continued existence is a tacit endorsement of waste that saps vigor from your team.]

If you focus on this and follow through with leadership action, your team will thank you and your organization will benefit from the application of freed up resource to the real work of your company: delivering value to your customers by making, selling and servicing great products.

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Turning his angular frame slowly away from the window's dark white scene and toward the fireplace, its screen of richly colored glass shapes illuminating the room with dancing light, Ralph relived the decisive moment when his world shifted its axis. And then to all of the alternative paths flowing from that time to the present that might have been. Finally to the looming matter before him now.

Allowing the large leather chair that he and the fire had warmed since 3:30 AM to envelop him once again, he lay his head back, closing his eyes to clear away the room's distractions, and began to assemble the details of his plan. That afternoon, time growing short, he stepped outside, toward its first crucial step.

After sweeping the overnight snow from the windshield with his sweatered arm, he pointed the Porsche down the long gravel drive, and toward town. She would be there by now, expectant, but not of what lay in store.

All through the hour it took to reach his destination, Ralph thought of the time they met, in the warm late afternoon Mediterranean sun, at a cafe near the harbor in Split, Croatia, and of how quickly their lives entangled thereafter.

She was there to negotiate the purchase of a yacht of considerable size for her client, he for a different sort of project altogether. Waiting a few tables apart for their respective guests, they looked past each other several times before glances met, first only in a brief pause, then again in something more. Interrupted by the arrival of his client, it might have progressed no further, but later, he saw her in the car park, looking about, and that was that.

Seventeen months later, consequence imposing its will, it came to this.

To be continued…

When Things Go Wrong

Many of you know that I enjoy photography. Others are aware that I have more than a passing interest in business.

Both of these fields, along with most everything else in life, have in common the fact that on occasion, despite all efforts to the contrary, things can go wrong.

A small story follows…

Following an intimate Christmas at home (just the two of us, on LI), I suggested to Ellie that a day trip to NYC would be a pleasant way to spend a rainy Saturday. She agreed, and yesterday off we went.

Our first destination: Bar Boulud (completing our circuit of the empire of the currently putative reigning king of all things culinary in NYC). Brunch met my expectations better than Ellie's. I'm a fan of charcuterie, El — not so much. But that's not my point here, so on…

The day was wet, windy and cold. Impossible to be comfortable outside.

So, on finishing brunch, we sought an indoor venue for the balance of the afternoon. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was our choice.

We arrived to find the grand hall chock-a-block with fellow weather refugees, but pressed on, figuring that we'd be able to find a quiet corner. Wrong. Hot and crowded here, and here, there and there.

Arriving at an out-of-the-way mezzanine gallery with an open bench, I set myself down for a few moments rest, and a photo opportunity. Pleased to find an evolving scene with agreeable views, I clicked away.

Rejuvenated, we moved on, and I kept shooting, thinking that despite the heat and crowding, a nice album would be a resulting record of our visit.

Wrong again. Turns out that on Christmas Eve, in handing the camera over to a gracious fellow diner to snap our photo…

2009-12-24 18-35-47

…he planted a large, barely transparent, fingerprint that covered the southeast corner of the lens.

Every shot that I took yesterday carried that watermark, the raw images unusable.

With a bit of Aperture, Photoshop and IMovie hand waving however, combined with a soundtrack graced by the playing of genius by another, it proved possible to produce something passable. See below.

My point: Things ALWAYS go wrong. Usually unexpectedly and badly wrong.

Your test: will you find a way through to a positive outcome, or something less?

Customers expect you to screw up; they choose their key partners based on which rise to the occasion and make things right in the end.

Team members don't expect perfection; they hope for grace and perseverance following setbacks.

Thoughts for a Sunday evening in December…

Met Sunday from Richard Bravman on Vimeo.

Do You Really Know What’s Going On?

This is an article primarily intended for leaders at or near the top of their organizations. The reason: the rest of you already know what I'm going to explain.

The more time I spend in business, the more amazed I am at how frequently and how badly leaders handicap themselves by not realizing a simple truth: the foundation for every aspect of their effectiveness is a firm grasp of what's really going on in their organizations. Not what they wish, plan, project or orate about — what's really happening, and not, "on the ground."

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics has likely heard how this is one of the challenges facing a President. How the layers of staff, security, protocol and process combine to insulate the holder of that office in what's sometime called a "bubble," other times an echo chamber.

The former connotes simple isolation, a cutting off from information flows about what's going on outside of the White House; the later layers on the additional distorting effect of the administration being fooled by listeing to itself talk.

You don't need to be the POTUS for this effect to complicate and compound your challenges as a leader. The head of an organization of any size bears the same risks, caused by some combination of the following:

  • Lower level staff being afraid to bring bad news up the organization;
  • The way the "telephone effect" adds incremental distortion with each retelling of a "fact" as it's passed up the line in a hierarchy;
  • Senior leaders failing to spend time with the ground troops, actively inquiring about realities and listening, actively, to what they hear;
  • Leaders who are so caught up in their own story lines and rhetoric that they form their own echo chamber in which all they hear, in effect, is themselves;
  • Leaders who desperately want to believe their plans are working, and are afraid to see if it's so;
  • Leaders who purposefully isolate themselves, retreating to their senior teams and executive suites because they're more comfortable there, in their familiar routines involving abstractions and numbers, than they are in the nitty gritty stuff of the business.

Whatever the causes, this behavior cripples effective leadership. How can you make sound judgments if you don't know the true facts of the situation? How can you lead if your credibility is undermined by the quiet snickering of your team as they realize you don't really know what's going on? You can't.

As vexing as this problem is, its solution is simple. Get out of your office and talk with all layers of your team, one-on-one and in small groups preferably, and engage in an honest two way dialogue about the business, as they see it. What's working? What's not? Why? Are things trending positive or negative? You may have to do this for a while before your team fully opens up and trusts, and you need to be careful not to cut the legs out from under your middle management, but this simple process works.

Not only will your decisions benefit from better information, and your credibility with the troops improve, your team will be and feel more engaged in the business.

While you've likely heard about this issue before, (it's behind the "Management by walking around" idea), I thought this reminder might be useful and timely.

Do you know what's going on? Really?

Snow! Snow.

"How perfect," I thought. Freshly back to the east coast, Christmas around the corner, and snow in the offing.

Better yet, it was perfectly timed, scheduled to arrive late on a Saturday. How much better does it get than a early Saturday dinner at an old favorite restaurant (now managed by the son of the owner in whose company we spent so many nights in the past), followed by a snowed-in Sunday, fireplace ablaze, football on, family gathered?

When snow first appeared, but then sputtered and stopped yesterday afternoon, it seemed that my idyllic weekend might not come to pass.

But, somewhere between antipasto and the double espresso, the snow returned in earnest. Some hours later, I awoke to this scene, viewed from our bedroom window.

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09 1

A foot or more of the stuff had fallen overnight, with a few flakes here and there still dancing earthward as the storm's parting gesture.

I think, "Great! Coffee, good book, rest of household awakes, watch the Sunday talking head shows, snow removal service clears driveway for son's arrival, football double header, dinner,conversation…

One problem though.

We learned, by their non-appearance, that the landscaping / snow removal service Ellie's parents had contracted had gone belly up sometime over the summer.

So, the hours between 10:00 and 2:45 were spent creating the minimalist work of art below:

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09 2

A couple of Alleves and a few hours later, I'm now ready to enjoy the Sunday I had originally envisioned. Good night and god bless.

Smithtown Blizzard 12 09

A Useful Exercise in Social (Network) Anthropology

One of my favorite truisms: it's not what you say that matters, it's what your audience hears.

Your audience reads, hears or sees you through a filter constructed over their entire lifetimes, aggregating inputs from their individual cultures, politics, languages, values, locales, experiences and so on. The words chosen by you with a certain intended connotation are heard by them through this filter. What they interpret from your words (and other non-verbal clues such as tone, body language and so on) may be quite different from your original intent.

It's easy to underestimate just how diverse and active the filters of those with whom you wish to communicate actually is. I propose an experiment. It's based on observing information flow in the opposite direction, inbound toward you rather than outbound to your audience, but I believe it illuminates the question at hand. Here's how…

If you're reading this, you likely have an account on one or more of the popular social networks: LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. (If you don't, get them; they're at worst painless and you can retreat to passivity or drop your account at your pleasure. Maximizing the experience while avoiding the pitfalls is the subject for a future post.) While this experiment can work on any of them, I believe it does best on Twitter, because of the frequency of posts and the way in which the 140 character limit condenses a certain "essential" aspect out of the authors' thoughts.

To do the experiment, you'll need to end up with a "Following" list that looks something like mine: a relatively large number of "discovered" / random participants beyond those that you've chosen because they're in your close circle of friends. It's the former group that's of interest. (For a while now I've been ignoring the "how to get ahead on Twitter" advice to keep your following list shorter than your followed list — which strikes me as silly, and adding a follow to just about any user that seems remotely interesting. I do avoid the online hookers, but even they would be useful for our purpose if they posted more than that one pathetic tweet!)

Now, finally, the experiment…

Take a half hour or so and watch the Twitter stream from your followed community. Look at the diversity of the posts, in terms of style, language, esthetics, topic, frequency, bellicosity and so on. Then try to peer through the patterns of those posts to the personality, character, interests and values of those people… As I've done that, I've found a cast of characters that include:

  • A young female writer at the New Yorker whose every other Tweet is peppered with profanity (what would Eustance Tilley think?);
  • A writer for the NY Times whose posts signal that his interests revolves around racial issues;
  • A famous pioneer in computer networking whose posts alternate between a logging of his current weight and aspirational goal (automated, via a WiFi scale no less) and conservative critiques of the Obama administration;
  • A well known IT marketer and pioneer blogger who's automated his tweets so that each hits three times, at eight hour intervals, so as to maximize the efficiency in driving readers to his blog (it seems to work, albeit at the cost of annoyance to some);
  • A health and fitness guru who informs us of her every workout completed, blueberry pancake breakfast consumed, departure for and arrival at work, and on and on;
  • The sports nut;
  • The narcissist twenty-something;
  • The expat transplant to an exotic corner of the Far East;
  • A  significant number of aggressive "ReTweeters" who scour the blogosphere and social network domains for interesting posts, and then send those out to their followers (so as to add value to their online presence);

I think you get the picture…

As you're watching your Twitter stream, ask yourself, "would I post those tweets, in just that way, with those words?" I suspect that you'll answer "no" in a large number of cases. Well, they did. There's a difference somewhere, right?

Now, thinking about the following list you've been watching, imagine that you're behind a podium, and that these folks are your audience. Can you imagine how differently each will perceive your message? Do you see the challenge here to effective communication? Can you see how easy it is for people to talk past each other, and for misunderstandings to occur, expand and fester? And, without veering off into politics, how the current distressing levels of polarization in our country are grounded in this phenomenon?

So, what to do about this?

Well, even the simple awareness of this filter effect will make you a better communicator, by instinct. You won't as easily as before assume that your audience is made up of folks "pretty much like me" that hear my words and get my intended meaning.

Beyond simply being sensitive to differences, I believe that there are a number of specifics that can help:

  • Use simple and direct language. (It's good practice anyway, but it also has a lower probability of being misunderstood.)
  • Excepting when in a known homogeneous group of peers, beware of language that is tied to your particular industry, country or culture. It might not be in their dictionaries.
  • Consider communicating your most important points in several different ways: straight exposition, example and / or story, graphically.
  • Test your draft communication by imagining  yourself a particular member of your audience — how does it sound?
  • Solicit feedback, real time if possible (easier in small meetings than in large groups or in writing), to confirm that they "got it", really.

Do you have other ideas that might help? If so, leave a comment here. Also, please feel free to let me know if I've fallen short of my own advice in this article. (Wouldn't be the first time.)

And remember, if you want to be a great communicator, you don't want to be heard… you want to be understood.

What does John Grisham know that can help us in business?

JohnGrisham-TheFirm He knows that it's critical to engage his audience immediately. His goal is to grab and thrust you into the action in the opening scene, providing momentum to be built on page after page. (Driving home yesterday, I heard him explain this exact point, in an NPR interview.)

While the best selling author's aims are to entertain, a "start strong, get to the point" imperative also applies to business communication of all types, even more so I believe.

When we open a book or sit down to watch a movie, we're planning to spend hours being diverted. No so when reading an email or report, participating in a meeting or training session, or listening to a conference speaker. Here, we expect to use our time efficiently toward the achievement of a goal: to gain information, frame and decide on a question or seek alignment with others.

But as we all know, our expectations are not always met. Too often we instead get:

  • "Long wind up" beginnings to meetings, training sessions and presentations that drag on before getting to the important meaty material;
  • Emails that you have to read two or three times to unearth the author's point or intent (all along wondering if he has one).

Don't make these mistakes next time you plan a meeting or write a memo. Think like Grisham. Make sure that you engage your audience right from the start, and get to the point, clearly and directly.

  • If your communication is about sharing information, say that, and then lay it out.
  • If you want a decision to be made in a meeting, make it clear up front that's your goal, lay out the choices, any required background (essential material only), make a recommendation and secure the decision.
  • If you're providing training, get right into it; no long preliminaries.

In all cases, remember that your audience are human beings, not machines. That means you need to engage their emotions to secure and hold their attention. At minimum, this requires explaining or giving evidence right up front as to why your topic matters to them, individually and as a team.

If at all possible, find a way to reinforce your key messages with a story, which has the dual and related benefits of engaging your audience's emotions and of being much more memorable than a dry recitation of facts.

Learn to communicate like Grisham and you'll be a more effective business person.

Whatever Begins, Also Ends (Seneca)

Earlier today, Ellie and I were visited by John, the owner of the contracting company that gave shape to our dreams of how this house in Carmel Valley could become our home a decade ago. Our purpose was to arrange some fix-ups prior to moving on. John became family when he and his crew were a fixture for the fourteen long months of renovation. The meeting had a decidedly "goodbye" feeling to it.

Endings, even when paired with exciting beginnings, as this one is, are always difficult.

Sitting now in our living room, facing eastward, the direction that life has declared as "forward" for it's next chapter. Bright washes of sun, slanting under clouds, warm the right side of my face. I gaze out on a view I've enjoyed, in all of its changeable aspects, for these past ten years.

Valley View 1

Below, a driver making his way from the adjacent valley to this one, pulls to the side of the road, gets out and takes in the scene framed from a prospect somewhat less advantaged than this and, after a time, moves on.

Valley View 6

I think of my great fortune in being able to partake of this view for so many years. I'm saddened by the reality that it will no longer be mine, but then realize that we never really "own" a pleasing glimpse of nature — we borrow it, reflect on it, and carry it as part of us for all the days that lie ahead, even as we dream of all the scenes we've yet to take in.

Valley View 9