Avoid Technical Extortion

tied-manHave you ever had the sick feeling of being held hostage by an outside expert? Perhaps you felt helpless that you couldn’t regain control of your project. Maybe you felt angry because the budget kept creeping upwards. You probably wanted a project-sized “undo” button!

In the course of a technical career spanning more than three decades, I have asked customers pay more than they expected for products that I delivered. They felt a bit ‘taken’ and I felt bad for putting them (or allowing them to put themselves) in that situation. We can find ourselves in this mess for a number of reasons.

Technical people tend to underestimate projects. It’s not that they don’t want to be accurate, but rather that estimating a complex project is difficult. It often feels more like a black art than science. I’ve seen it done well, fair, and poorly but I’ve never seen it done perfectly. Most experts agree that estimates are almost always wrong.

Another factor is impatience. As engineers, we like to give customers what they want right away, so we tend to rush the process. There is also a natural fear that if we don’t trim our bids to the bone we will not get the business. The net effect is that we sometimes disappoint customers later by failing to meet deadlines. Schedules slip and costs increase because development takes longer than planned.

Then there’s the whole client management challenge. We should always manage a customer’s expectations so that they are not surprised, but explaining to them that something they want will cost more or is “out of scope” can feel like intestinal suicide. We are not all people-pleasing cowards, mind you, but it can be very difficult to disappoint people. Avoiding confrontation, of course, is a great way to create unhappy customers later.

In addition to being the provider, I have also bought software, websites, and other technical products produced by others. I have been a victim and I know firsthand the pain of cost overruns, disappearing vendors, and shoddy workmanship. By and large, the vast majority of technical people you meet will have good skills, a genuine desire to please, and reasonable prices. That doesn’t mean that your project will succeed. As a buyer, you have a big part to play in creating a favorable outcome.

My hope is that the scar tissue that produced this article will help you to:

  • Plan better
  • Buy smarter
  • Succeed with projects

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You’re Not Listening!

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“You’re not listening to me!” she said, destroying his magazine reverie with a pillow.
“Of course I am,” he said with feigned annoyance.
“Oh, really? What was I just talking about?”
“You were complaining that your mother doesn’t plan ahead, which creates a crisis for you.”
“So you were listening. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You didn’t ask me a question.”
The guttural noise she made was inarticulate yet unmistakable.

This fellow was lucky enough to produce the right answer to her first question. Some of us don’t make it that far and suffer a hail of pillows or more serious repercussions.

So technically he was listening. Fine. But the way he was absorbing information was less than satisfying to her. He wasn’t engaged. He wasn’t interacting even at the most basic level with eye contact, a nod, the occasional, “yeah” or “wow.” He was giving her that percentage of his attention that a radio would receive — a device that has no expectations. It neither knows nor cares how you feel about what you hear.

This argument is easy to make for people in a committed love relationship. But what happens when your boss or coworker is equally disengaged? We all experience this. They keep their eyes glued to the laptop or dumb-thumb Facebook while listening to you talk. They may even be listening to a phone call on ear buds. In their mind, they are being efficient. They are consuming your audiovisual input as well as other content, allegedly killing two birds with one stone. Never mind that a new article appears every other day about how multitasking is not really possible and that our chronic task-switching leads to poor performance in everything measurable.

Humans need to be heard and understood. People want to know that they have connected with a human being, not just a recording device. Stephen Covey put it this way:

“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.”

We must dispossess ourselves of the toxic notion that consuming media is more important than the person before us. Don’t just pretend to listen. Engage.

image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/metrojp/92038203/

Show Up

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Have you ever left a restaurant smiling, talking about your server? I have. I sometimes rave about the man or woman who made my visit more enjoyable or somehow special.

If someone asked you casually what this person does, your simple reply might be, “He’s a waiter.” He or she may refer to their job that way too. But there is so much more to be said about what this person does, how they do it, how you feel about it, and what you take away from the encounter.

When someone treats me particularly well in a restaurant, I don’t just tip them better. I also circle their name on the check and write something like “Fantastic!” I want their manager (or at least their coworker who counts the drawer) to know that this person is special — that they had a positive impact on a customer.

Most encounters that I have in the food industry are not like this. That derives more from my restaurant selection and budget than anything else, but there are bright spots even in the run-of-the-mill lunch scene. When you find one, they really stand out against the canvas of average employees just trying to get through their day.

“Wherever you are – be all there.” ~ Jim Elliot

What does a waiter do, anyway? They take your order and bring you food, right? I mean, if they don’t do those two things, I’m pretty sure they fail at the mission for which they were hired. Beyond the basics, though, there are so many things that they can do:

  • Look happy to be there
  • Greet you pleasantly
  • Make eye contact
  • Explain the specials
  • Give you options
  • Chat about the weather/game/season
  • Find a way to connect with you
  • Glance in your direction
  • Check on your needs during the meal
  • Quickly fix what went wrong
  • Bring your check right away
  • Offer a to-go box
  • Care about your dining experience

You have felt the huge difference between an employee who brought their A-game and one who was simply there to collect a paycheck. It’s the difference between a waitress and a customer experience specialist. Don’t our customers deserve that same feeling? Show up for your customers.

Act on One Thing

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What do you remember from the last book that you read? How about the book before that? Glance at your bookshelf right now. Can you explain in one sentence the value you got from each book? My goal is never to memorize a book or write a novella of notes about it. Instead, I try to glean one or two helpful things from each book I read. Strong takeaways — principles or habits — that I can use tomorrow. Example: Purple Cow — Be remarkable or be invisible.

Reading for inspiration or pleasure is one thing. The benefit is energy that you can use for something else. But since there is no end to the books being published, reading how-to material and expecting to remember a lot of it or use it all is a fool’s errand. Even highly focused and insightful books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people cannot be applied all at once. You’ll choke on the volume if you try to change everything. No, pick one or two things to work on. Then build them immediately into your day or week. Don’t make a list of them. Engage the material. Think of them as tools or weapons to be used.

It’s much better to act on one thing you learned than to have ten neatly written bullets of the great ideas you read but never applied. They’ll gather dust in a notebook somewhere and you’ll be no better off than before. In fact, you might be  worse off for wasting time and money on a book that you didn’t benefit from. Start every non-fiction book with the goal of grabbing one thing you can use to make life better. Then do it. Act on that one thing.

 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/19779889@N00/16405450410/

Give and Take

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A good conversation is a bit like making love.
There is passion that drives one to the other in the first place.
There is giving and receiving.Talking is not always giving and listening is not always receiving.

Sometimes one needs an outlet and when you listen, you are giving.
Other times one needs input and then giving is talking.

Just as love would die without both giving and receiving, so conversation lives through both listening and talking.

Both are necessary, but in balance.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
~ Epictetus

Seek a healthy rhythm.
Give more than you receive.

Image credit: Karsten Bitter

Expel These Destructive Habits

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Certain symptoms arise repeatedly in the few people that I mentor. While most of my principles are stated in positive terms (do), there are a few negatives (don’t) that need to be set as boundaries — emotional guard rails, if you will.

DREDGING

Reaching into your past and reliving negative events is emotionally destructive. You not only grant your oppressor continued power but you actually damage your mind and body by doing this. If you share these stories (outside of a counselor’s office), you pass that negative energy along. Don’t give the evil people in your past one more second of your precious thought life. Cut them off now — *poof* — and they have no more power. Vent about pain today to someone close, but once it has passed, forget it and move on.

WORRY

Worry is the wrong use of our great gift of imagination. Planning is good. Worry is bad. Knowing that bad things *can* happen is mature. Worrying that they *will* happen is more than a waste of time. Worry robs energy from today and gives it to a fake tomorrow — a tomorrow that will likely never appear. Jesus told us it was useless (Matt 6:27). Mark Twain said it this way:

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Tell yourself right now that you have better things to do with your wonderful mind than manufacture stomach acid through worry.

ANCHORING

“That’s just the way I am.” You’ve heard people say it — usually talking about some negative trait like anger or impatience. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. It’s a lie. Personalities are given at birth. You are born talkative or outgoing or shy or musical or good with numbers. This is permanent and neither good nor bad. Character, however, is something that grows with experience and training. Angry people become calm. Impatient people enjoy anticipation. Trash talkers speak lovingly. This is called growing up. Sometimes this process takes a detour because of wrong modeling or teaching but we can get back on the right path to growth and develop a deep and lasting character. You will always be a work in progress, so never speak of your character in static terms.

photo credit: https://stocksnap.io/photo/S5UT5T2IE3

Focus

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If you want something badly enough, you will try to make it happen. Will you succeed? Our problem with underachievement is not usually a lack of knowledge or our circumstances, but rather our inability to focus.
A street lamp is considered harmless but useful — it can light up an entire cul-de-sac. Similar power focused tightly in the form of a laser can burn through steel. Same energy – different priority.

In order to make progress in an area that is difficult… we must say Yes to one thing and No to many other things. The point of having a specific direction in your life is to help you prioritize, set goals and stick to them. We often need help to get clear on what we want, to prioritize, to focus our energy, and persevere to the finish line. Are you showering everything with your limited light or are you focusing so that you can make an impact?

Positive Images

The mind cannot form a negative image of a physical idea. You cannot picture the idea “stop eating,” for example. Instead, your mind will envision a person who is eating. You can picture positive things — a fit person or a cool car or sitting on the beach because your business is doing so well.

It is crucial to want something to the degree that you can see it, taste it, smell it before it even exists. Crystallize it in your mind as a real thing. This is not some etheral visualization technique by which you ‘manifest’ something that doesn’t exist, thereby making it real. No, this is what successful people do when they plan — they form a vision of the future that is tangible —  something that matters to them — and they make it so clear that it drives lesser distractions out of the way. They focus. They go all in.

Tame Your Email

My email inbox is empty. No, really. There’s nothing in it. Does that mean I have nothing to do? Far from it. But that empty inbox is a sign. It’s a confirmation that my email has been and continues to be managed in a way that I control — a way that keeps me productive.

Do you have hours or days that seem to disappear into the black hole of your email inbox? Letting your email manage you instead of the other way around can render you ineffective. Here’s how I tame the email monster and stay productive.

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PRINCIPLES

To create any effective system, you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. I tend to think in terms of a hierarchy of principles. These are the principles apply in my email management system:

  • Do important things first
  • Avoid wasting time

PROCESS

To implement the principles above, I use the following process:

  1. Take control
  2. Reduce noise
  3. Prioritize
  4. Focus

TAKE CONTROL

Step 1: Don’t open your email. Unless you have absolutely nothing on your to-do list, don’t look in there first thing in the morning. Not yet. First, get something important done that is already on your list — something you decided was important enough to write down as a personal action item. Something that, if your day bursts into flames, you won’t get done. Getting things done is a function of planning and focus. Don’t jump right into reaction mode to begin your day. Check email on a schedule that suits your work habits. Reading email should not be your top priority. “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan…” ~ Jim Rohn

REDUCE NOISE

Put technology to work for you. Use automated rules to route incoming messages into appropriate folders. Segment them based on where they come from. You know that the system-generated update is not likely to be as important as an incoming email from an individual. Don’t let them land in the same place. Here are the folders into which I route mail using rules:

  • Confluence
  • JIRA
  • Newsletters
  • SystemAlerts

PRIORITIZE

Life is like this: Some things are more important than others. If you don’t order your tasks, you’ll spend your limited time on things that you shouldn’t. Now, you can really overthink this, so keep it simple. I use the ABC approach and create a folder for each one:

A — Important and urgent (that project email from the boss)
B — Important but not urgent (that license expiring in 30 days)
C — Everything else (that article I want to read)

Sorting messages into folders sounds simple but it takes self-restraint. It’s so tempting to open every email as you go along or process that urgent thing before finishing. Don’t do it! Put your items into the priority folders first. Skipping minor and trivial items helps you maximize the value you produce today. Email is not an emergency communication vehicle. That’s what phones are for. If you have a task that came to you by email, it can wait a few more minutes while you prioritize your work.

FOCUS

Now that you have quickly sorted items by importance, work the A folder. Simple, right? Here’s the kicker: Don’t look in the B folder until the A folder is empty or you are blocked on everything in it. Pick the most important item and answer it or make the call or move that task forward. If you are consistent about this, you will find items in your C folder growing mold. That’s OK. You put them where they belong in the first place, so don’t worry about them. They are not as important as the A and B folders.

Busyness is a major malady — we are always being flooded with new information and new tasks. None of us has enough time in a given day to do everything that we want to do.  Accepting this can give you a measure of peace if you know that you are working on the most important tasks. This simple system will help you do that.

Team Essentials

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When you press the skinny pedal on the right, your car speeds up. Why? Because all the parts of the car already know what to do. They do not have to schedule a meeting, analyze the request, build consensus, assign action items and agree to meet next week.

Does your team know what to do today? There are things that every team needs in order to accelerate…

CLARITY

What is the goal? Has it been made clear how to bring home a win? Have all stakeholders expressed their agreement? Have the requirements been nailed down?

PRIORITY

What are the most important things to be done? Projects always seem to run out of time. If that happens here, will the least important things fall off at the end?

FOCUS

What is happening today? This week? What can I say ‘No’ to in order to succeed? Is the leadership clearing the path of obstacles?

OWNERSHIP

What am I responsible for? How am I helping the team succeed? Do I believe that my contribution matters?

Projects must be delivered in a reasonable time frame and with acceptable quality. Make sure your team leader can focus members on what is important so that the product will be as complete as time and money will allow. Get clear before you get clobbered.

Image credit: Stocksnap.io

Degrees of Non-separation

Many people, including some developers, think of software as being an isolated technical function. Hardly. Think of all the people we need:

  • Project Managers to set schedules
  • Stakeholders to sponsor
  • Managers to approve projects
  • Customers to express their needs
  • Subject matter experts to consult
  • Analysis to drive clarity
  • Peers to collaborate with
  • Users to provide feedback
  • Testers to verify quality
  • Writers to capture the value
  • Trainers to distribute knowledge
  • Dev-Ops to deploy

Far from being isolated, ours is a world of constant communication in a web of necessary relationships. Communication is the rule, not the exception.