Category Archives: Teamwork

Overcoming the Weed-Out

They’re called weed-out classes.  The classes in every major designed to weed-out the pretenders, the students who can’t hack it, the ones who just don’t have what it takes.

They usually come around the third year…just when you think you’re pretty good at this stuff, and after you’ve committed two-plus years of your life to this major.

There were a couple of doozies in my major, Computer Information Systems.  But, none compared to CIS 324—Database Programming.  On the first day of class, Dr. Stumpf said he wouldn’t be surprised if we’d be in the computer lab 40-60 hours per week, just to complete the four main programming projects.  We’d also have a mid-term and a final that covered all the database theory we were supposed to be learning while completing the projects.

To make things tougher, each project picked up where the last one left off.  So, if you stumbled on the first project, you were setting yourself up for a potentially unrecoverable torture test in the second, third, and fourth projects.

It didn’t matter that you had other classes, or that you had a life that included working 30-40 hours per week.  This was CIS 324.  The weed-out class.

There were 26 of us in class that first day.  I remember the number because two people wanted to add the class, and Dr. Stumpf was concerned because we only had 24 chairs in the classroom.  That wouldn’t be a problem for long.

Five weeks and two projects later, there were 18 of us in class.  The others had dropped.

Seven weeks and three projects later, we were down to 11.  This was long before Survivor, but students voted themselves off the island nearly every week.

Dr. Stumpf took it all in stride.  This type of attrition was normal.  The students who didn’t make it would try again next quarter, or they’d re-evaluate their choice of major and never be back.

In the tenth week as we handed-in our last project and prepared to take the final exam, there were only 9 of us.  By now, we knew each other well.  We had spent many hours together in one of the computer labs (this was a bit before the days when you could use your PC to connect remotely).  We were in every class, pulling for each other.

We were part of this small band of students about to make it through Dr. Stumpf’s CIS 324 class.

Looking back at those ten weeks, I don’t remember much detail about the projects.  I remember the long nights in the computer lab, the endless diagrams, and lines of code.  There was an amazing vending machine just outside the lab that dispensed ice cream bars for 30 cents apiece.  I lived on ice cream bars and Mountain Dew that quarter.

I remember coming to each class, especially on the days our projects were due, wondering who’d be there and who’d be gone.  I remember Dr. Stumpf congratulating each of us when we handed in our final exams on the last day of class.

Since CIS 324, I’ve faced lots of “weed-out” tests, whether I knew it or not.  I’ve taken on projects that were way over my head.  I’ve asked myself to deliver “the impossible” more than a few times.

Were these real-life weed-out situations harder than my CIS 324 experience?  Definitely.  And, many lasted a lot longer than ten weeks.

But, the experience of overcoming my first weed-out test made it easier to pass the next one.  And, passing the second weed-out made it easier to pass the third.

Overcoming all these weed-out tests had five things in common:

  1. If I focused on the ultimate and final deliverable on the first day, I would have given up. The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  It’s the same with overwhelming challenges.  Break them down to their next indicated step and take that step with confidence and an open mind. That will lead to the next step…
  1. It’s easy to feel alone in these weed-out tests. But, I was never alone, even when it felt that way.  I found allies, sounding boards, mentors, people willing to join my cause, people I could trust.  These people made all the difference.
  1. Related to the above: Never forget the people who helped when you needed it most.  Make sure they know how grateful you are for their help.  Be there for them.  They’re facing weed-out tests of their own and can use your help.
  1. No matter how unique you think your weed-out situation is, it isn’t. Someone else has probably faced a similar challenge and lived to tell about it.  Take the time to review what others have learned and apply it to the test you’re facing.
  1. Don’t let your success on this test go to your head. Sure, it’s a great achievement.  Have a nice dinner to celebrate.  Enjoy the accomplishment.  But, stay humble.  Humility is the foundation for overcoming your next big, scary weed-out test.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

When we take the time to temper that strength with humility, we’re preparing ourselves to take on the next weed-out challenge that’s surely coming our way.

Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

 

The Pebble

As in the small rock that somehow slipped into your hiking boot.

Can you give your boot a quick wiggle and move that pebble out from under your foot?  Maybe, but guess what.  It’ll find it’s way back under your heal in no time.  They always do.

Does it matter that you’re making great time up the mountain, and have lots of momentum on your side?  Nope.  That little pebble demands attention.

That’s the way of the small irritant.  It’s there and it won’t be leaving on its own.  It will start to cause damage, become more distracting, and take more of your attention.  Try as you might, there’s no way to ignore it.

The only thing you can do is stop and take off your pack, then take off your boot and dump that little pebble out.

Eliminate the irritant and get refocused on the trail ahead.

Sure, it’s annoying to stop.  But, the alternative is far worse.

Photo by Aneta Ivanova on Unsplash

 

All We Need to Know

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to request that for those of you where Phoenix is your final destination, you remain seated to allow those passengers with connections to other flights to make their exit as quickly as possible.  We apologize for our flight delay and hope you can help us with this situation.”

What happened next was truly amazing, and a little inspiring.

But first, a little backstory.

We were on a full flight from Orange County to Phoenix.  For me, the same flight I take home every-other-week.  After we’d all boarded by group, and dealt with the overhead bin space getting filled to capacity, everyone was seated and buckled-in.  The Captain came on, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain.  We’re waiting for a maintenance check and some paperwork to be completed.  I should have another update in 15 minutes.”  And so, it began…

The Captain came on every 15 minutes to let us know that there was some progress, but that we weren’t ready to leave the gate.  Luckily, this process only lasted an hour (I’ve seen this type of delay last a lot longer), and then we were ready to depart.

As I Iooked up from my movie (hey, I suddenly had more than the usual 54 minutes for this flight, so I was pretty settled-in to a nice movie even before we took off), I could see people around me checking their phones, assessing the delay time, and trying to figure out if they could still make their connection in Phoenix.

Other than ordering my standard Cran-Apple beverage, I didn’t pay much attention to anything but my movie until we were on final approach.  Noise-cancelling earbuds sure are nice.

That’s when the request came: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to request that for those of you where Phoenix is your final destination, you remain seated to allow those passengers with connections to other flights to make their exit as quickly as possible.  We apologize for our flight delay and hope you can help us out.  Please ask your neighbor if they’re connecting and if they are, let’s try to do everything we can to help them get off the plane and make it to their connection.”

As we taxied, I asked my neighbor if he was connecting.  “Yep, I’m heading to Des Moines.”  I overheard a few others were headed to Minneapolis.  One couple was heading for Albuquerque.

A plane full of passengers who’d basically ignored each other for the entire flight were talking and strategizing about how to help the “connectors” get off the plane.  The conversations were happening all around me.

The true test came when we came to a complete stop at the gate.  Would this new-found camaraderie lead to a change in the normal “airplane exit” behavior?  Indeed, it did.

Row by row, the “connectors” were identified and shuffled to the aisle.  We didn’t know anything about these passengers, other than their status as a “connector.”  It turns out that some of them had stowed their bags in overhead bins that were many rows behind their seat (remember the full flight, full bin issue).  This meant that their luggage had to be retrieved and shuttled forward through a very crowded plane.  No problem.  The requests were carried back, the bags identified, and then quickly shuttled forward by passing the bag from one passenger to another.  An amazing feat of cooperation.

The “connectors” were exiting, bags in hand.  Cries of “Save travels,” or “Good luck,” were heard all over the plane.  As quickly as the exit process had started, the last of the “connectors,” who happened to be seated in the last row, made his way off the plane.

The exit aisle was empty, and we all sat, looking around to make sure we hadn’t missed anyone.  The plane was still about two-thirds full.

The flight attendant came on, “That was amazing!  Thank you all for helping your fellow passengers make their connections.”  Satisfied smiles and little nods between passengers acknowledged what we’d just accomplished.

I don’t know if everyone made their connections, but I do know that they had a fighting chance because a group of people they didn’t know banded together and got them off that plane.

Scan the news and you’ll find examples of this happening every day.  Complete strangers coming to the aid of other strangers, sometimes risking their lives in the process.

There are countless groups of strangers who come together to serve another, less fortunate, group of strangers.  They may not make the news, but they make a difference.

For those brief moments, strangers become neighbors.  They become honorary members of our family.  Our focus is on solving the problem, rendering aid, lending a hand, or merely providing comfort.

We love them as we love ourselves.

It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the people we’re helping.  They need our help and that’s all we need to know.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

 

 

The Cow Stuck in the Mud

“How did that cow get there?”

“Why wasn’t the mud bog fenced off?”

“Who was supposed to turn off the sprinklers before this place got all muddy?”

“Why do we have cows in this area anyway?”

“Can you believe that this cow just walked right into that mud and got herself stuck?”

“What was that cow thinking?”

“I told you this could happen, and now it has!”

“There’s no way you’re gonna pin this on me.  I never told that cow to go there.”

“We’ll need some pretty heavy equipment to get this cow out, and that’s going to be expensive.”

 

I’ve never seen a real cow stuck in real mud.

But, I’ve seen lots of metaphorical cows stuck in deep metaphorical mud.

The dialogue about the cow usually revolves around how the cow got there, who should have prevented it, who’s to blame, and the costs.

The one thing that’s usually missing from the conversation is how we’re going to get that cow out of the mud, clean her up, and send her on her way.

All the talking in the world isn’t going to get that cow out of the mud.  In fact, the longer the cow is stuck, the more risk there is that the cow will get seriously hurt.

That cow will remain there until you take action.  Enlist the help of others.  Then, work creatively and diligently to get that cow out of the mud.

There’s plenty of time to discuss all the why’s, how’s, and whose at fault…after you save the cow.

Stop talking, stop pointing blame, stop finding excuses.

Get to work and rescue that cow!

 

Photo Credit:  Joshua De @unsplash.com

 

No Surprises…the Secret to Managing Up

“I love spontaneity, as long as it’s well-planned.”  –Says nearly everyone in business

Surprises can be great.

We love surprises when they bring unexpected wealth, unexpected fun, or unexpected comfort.

Sadly, surprises aren’t always good news:

  • Surprise! The IRS just sent you an audit letter.
  • Surprise! That small mole on your cheek is melanoma.
  • Surprise! That neighbor you thought was a nice guy is wanted in another state for armed robbery.
  • Surprise! Microsoft just added a feature to their operating system that makes your profitable utility app obsolete.
  • Surprise! Your private financial and credit information was just hacked at Equifax (well, that type of thing shouldn’t really be a surprise nowadays).
  • Surprise! Your most promising employee is leaving your company…to join your competition!
  • Surprise! The executive that “owns” your company’s contract and projects just got fired.

Surprises in business are rarely the good kind.

In fact, a “good” surprise in business can become a nightmare if you’re not prepared.

Think about that sudden and unexpected increase in demand for your service or product.  Great news!  But, now your staff is feeling overworked and things are starting to break under the pressure of all this new business.

How does all of this connect with managing up?

The number one thing your boss, and your boss’s boss (and so on) need from you is to minimize the surprises that come their way.

Does this mean you should keep information away from them?  Of course not!

It means creating an open and thorough communication path between you and your boss.

It means anticipating surprises before they happen.  Preparing for the unexpected, since you can always expect it.  I’ve seen lots of surprises that shouldn’t have been surprises at all.

Your boss needs to know when something is wrong, or about to go wrong.

Your boss needs you to be honest.  Always. Even if you’re the one causing the surprise.

If you, or someone in your organization, make an expensive mistake, your boss needs to know about it.  Now.  More importantly, your boss needs to know how you plan to learn from that mistake, and avoid a similar mistake like this one in the future.

If you see or hear something in the marketplace that can help (or hurt) your organization, your boss needs to hear from you.  Now.

The last thing you want is for your boss to learn about a problem (or a surprise, which may be the same thing) within your organization from someone else.  This does two things:

  1. Lets your boss know that you may not understand that something is going wrong, and
  2. Makes your boss wonder if you’re hiding bad news and if you can be trusted.

When I was a kid, we lived in a small 3-bedroom house.  We had a hallway that got pitch black when all the doors were shut.  Even when your eyes adjusted, there was almost no light to see where you were going.  I always had this (unfounded) fear that I might run into something, hit my head, or crack my shins on some unseen edge.

Your boss might as well be walking in that same dark hallway, whether he or she realizes it.  It’s tough to see what’s coming, and in the real world, that fear of being hit by something in the darkness is often justified.

Many of the lessons we learn from the “school of hard knocks” begin as surprises.

Lesson One:  expect the unexpected.

Lesson Two:  make sure your boss knows what’s coming.

Lesson Three:  don’t ever forget about Lesson Two, and you’ll be doing a great job of “managing up” in the process.

 

 

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

Lessons from SpaceTeam!

I’ve never been much of a gamer.  The idea of more computer time at night, after spending an entire work day on a computer has little appeal for me.

Until I saw, or more accurately, heard, SpaceTeam.  My little cousins were gathered in a circle, yelling out commands to each other, swiping their devices, and pushing toward the elusive goal of HYPERSPACE.

Set the Duotronic Capacitor to 2!

They’re all on a malfunctioning spaceship, attempting to escape from a black hole.  The only way they will survive is to work together.

It’s called a collaborative shouting game for phones and tablets.

Commands whiz across each players’ device, but here’s the tricky part:  their fellow players are the only ones who can carry out those commands.  And, there’s a time crunch since the black hole is pulling at the ship the entire time!

Calibrate the Hypersonic Thrusters to 3!

Each player has to see their own commands, yell out those commands for their fellow players to execute, and also be listening to the other players’ commands that they can execute on their device.

Disengage the Warp Transponders!

As I watched them play, I thought the game looked like a fun way to practice reading, and learn about team work…and have some fun.

Then, they asked me to play.

My first thought was, “I’m not much of a gamer.  I probably have something else I should be doing.”  But, when do I get an opportunity to play a game with my cousins (who range in age from 5 to 11 years old)…especially where they’re teaching me how to play.

Remember to remove the slime!

Did I mention the slime?  As the game progresses, minor problems start to impact your device.  The game controls come unhinged and swing on the screen.  Slime oozes across the controls.  The slime can be cleared by swiping it away, but that distracts from reading your commands.  It also distracts from hearing your teammates’ commands and executing them as quickly as possible.

This game is a lot harder than it looks!  Like most things in life, spectating is much easier than playing.

Set the Flux Beam to 2!

Luckily, my team is strong and capable.  While I’m distracted with slime and repairing my control screen, they’re executing commands flawlessly.  I can hear the patience in their voices as they repeat their commands.  A sense of calm hovers over us amidst the yelling of commands.  We just might make it to HYPERSPACE!

Disengage the Tripolimer Conduits!

Do the commands have any rhyme or reason?  Does it really matter?  This is a crisis!  We don’t have time!  Our survival is at stake!

Sci-fi fans will recognize many of the words, but that won’t help you.  Your ability to quiet your mind, focus on your screen, and listen to your teammates will determine your success.  That and your teammates’ ability to do the same thing.

You win as a team and lose as a team.  Sound familiar?

If one player is weaker than the others, it’s up to the team to deal with it by executing what they can as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Deploy the Solar Sail!

Do you work with and trust others to achieve your goals?

Do you find a sense of calm and confidence when relying on your teammates to perform?

Are you dealing with “slime” in your life as you work to achieve your goals?

Are you called upon to deliver results without enough time, even when things are a little chaotic and difficult?

Do you allow yourself to be lifted-up by your team when you fall short of their expectations?

SpaceTeam will give you practice on all of these questions…and it’s lots of fun!

HYPERSPACE!

How’d we do?  I’m pretty sure I was the weak link.  We made it to HYPERSPACE anyway.  It pays to be on a strong team!  We didn’t get to play a second round because the evil Schedule Monster emerged from the shadows to remind us about the event we were attending.

I look forward to playing again!

 

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

 

 

Cage Fights, Roulette and the Law of Large Numbers

unsplash-joshua-clay-1

When you enter the octagon (speaking metaphorically, but maybe literally), it’s just you and your opponent. Only your strength, skill, speed, luck, stamina, cunning, toughness and courage will help you find victory.

If you play roulette, the chance that the ball will land on red or black is the same…a little over 47%. Remember the green 0 is in there to mess things up.

But, what if you only have the time and money to play roulette for ten spins?  Will the distribution of red and black numbers come out to just over 47% each?  Maybe, but probably not.

What if you could spin the wheel 1,000 times?  Would the distribution of red and black approach 47% each?  That’s much more likely.  In fact, the Law of Large Numbers says as much.

What about that cage fight?  Theoretically, you have a 50% chance of winning, all things being equal.

Of course, all things are never equal in a cage fight (or real life).

The other guy is meaner, stronger, faster, and more skilled.  You didn’t sleep well last night, you have that nagging knee injury that always shows itself at the wrong time.  You don’t punch very hard, and you’ve heard that he has a great ground game.  You have no idea what having a great ground game means, but it sounds dangerous, and that was the sound of the bell.

How’s that 50% chance looking?  More like 5%, or maybe 1%.

What if you could fight the guy 1,000 times?  Would your chances improve?  Would you ever approach the 50% mark?  Would you survive to find out?  Probably not.

The good news is we don’t have to count on the Law of Large Numbers.  And, while it’s nice to say that we can count on ourselves, it’s even better to know that we can count on our family, friends, associates, co-workers, teammates, competitors (yes, indeed), and countless others to help us achieve our victories.

You don’t have family, friends, associates, co-workers, teammates, competitors or countless others who can help you?

Then, your cage match is going to be all about how you become one or more of these things for someone else.  Look around for who you can help.  Who can you befriend?  Who can you support?  Who can you encourage?

In life, the largest number in the Law of Large Numbers is you and your tireless and relentless effort to make a difference for someone else.

Each of us has our own cage match to fight, often with ourselves.  Wouldn’t it be great to see what you can do to help someone else win theirs?

Trust me.  You’ll find your own path to victory along the way.

P.S.  There’s not much anyone can do to help you win at roulette, but I always recommend 32 red.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Joshua Clay

 

The Puzzles We Build

 

jigsaw-puzzle_pieces

When was the last time you assembled a puzzle?

Did you do it yourself, or did you have help?

How long did it take to assemble?  Minutes?  Hours?  Days?

In our house, whenever we started a puzzle, it was an “all-hands-on-deck” affair.  We’d all start working it.  Some of us would focus on organizing the pieces to make them visible.  Others would dive right in and start putting pieces together.

I worked the edges.  It’s the only thing that helped me get my bearings on the puzzle.  Start with the flat sides and establish a border…then work into the middle.  Working from the middle, out, was way too random for me.

“Hey, does anyone want some hot chocolate?” always seemed like a good question for me to ask after about a half-hour of diligent work.  With marshmallows.  Without looking up, I’d get some slow yesses and a few grunts.  By the time I came back with the hot chocolate, I was always amazed at the progress.

I’d get back to working the edges.

Each of us had our specialty and our own pace.  Some of us were easily distracted (me).  My wife would stay focused for hours…one piece at a time.

“Hey, who’s up for a break from the puzzle?  Maybe we can hit it again in a couple of hours with fresh eyes.”  I was always a proponent of fresh eyes.

But, then we’d get most of the edges completed.  I’d get my own personal rhythm, and I could start to see the patterns.  The puzzle started to take shape.  First, in my mind and then on the table.  My perspective on the puzzle and my ability to add value to it changed as the image emerged from all the pieces.

I don’t know if my wife and daughters (or anyone else who’d stop by and get sucked into the assembly project) went through the same evolution in their perspective as I did.

Our latest puzzle is a new business (actually, an existing business that we recently purchased).  Once again, our family is building a puzzle together.  This time, it’s not at the dining room table with a clear picture of the final product.  In fact, new pieces are being added to this puzzle all the time.

Once again, we’re each approaching the puzzle in our own way.  Center-out.  Edges-in.

Distractions?  Definitely.

Is an image beginning to emerge?  Yes.

The best (and most challenging) aspect of this puzzle is that it’s never finished.  It grows and evolves.  It occasionally leaves us feeling a bit perplexed.  But, it also takes beautiful shape before our eyes as we continue to build, one piece at a time.

Anyone up for some hot chocolate?  We’re gonna be here a while!

 

 

Microwaves and Slow Cookers

I recently heard someone make reference to their art not being microwaved.  Their art is the kind that comes from a slow-cooker.

An interesting concept.

The food (or drink) that we place in a microwave is already mostly prepared.  We aren’t interested in the process.  We just want it to be hot, and we’ve relied on someone else to handle the actual work of preparation.

With the slow cooker, it’s up to us.  We choose the ingredients.  We do the preparation.  Separately, the ingredients just sit there…waiting to be part of something.  But, blended properly, with the right amount of time and heat (energy), those separate ingredients (hopefully) combine to create something unique and tasty.

The microwave measures its cooking time in 30-second increments.  Hot dogs wrapped in a damp napkin take about a minute.  Popcorn takes three to four minutes.  Organic brown rice from Trader Joe’s takes four minutes.

Slow-cooking time is measured in hours.  Six hours is usually too short.  Eight to ten hours gets it right.

And, what about the accompaniments?  With a microwave cooking cycle, there’s only time to get your plate ready, find a clean fork, and maybe pour a glass of your favorite beverage.  Linear and task-focused.

Slow-cooking provides time for the cook to consider what goes best with the main dish.  What shall we have for dessert?  Would a loaf of fresh French bread go well with this stew?  The fullness of the dining experience is in play.

Neither method is perfect.

Ever burn popcorn in the microwave?  If so, you know how quickly it can happen.  Something so simple becomes a lump of smoking charcoal.

Slow-cooking disasters are equally possible.  Your reward for that ten-hour wait may be something that’s not even edible (at least for anyone who has taste buds).

Both methods have their place.  Both carry risk.

The question is how are you deciding which parts of your life to microwave, and which parts to slow-cook?

A tougher question might be:  Are you making the choice, or allowing someone else to make the choice for you?

There are no self-driving…

Airplanes have auto-pilot.  Cars are getting closer to self-driving.  In fact, I just saw a headline about a police officer pulling over a self-driving Google car (not sure who gets the ticket in that situation).

As Aldous Huxley said in his 1931 book, it’s a brave new world.

Auto-pilot and self-driving systems have one thing in common:  they know where they’re going.  Actually, the systems don’t know.  The operator who is (ostensibly) in control knows the starting point, and the destination.

Real life doesn’t work that way.

There are no self-driving:

Friendships.  We don’t know when a new friendship will start, we surely don’t know where it’s going, and we hope it never ends.  The journey is what makes it so good.  Have you put any of your friendships in self-drive mode?  It’s a conscious decision, even when you act like you didn’t notice.  Here’s the good news.  In most friendships, you can switch out of self-drive mode and restart the journey.  Your only decision is when to flip that switch.

Projects.  We usually know when a project starts, and when it’s supposed to end.  We have plans, resources, and our schedules.  We (should) know what defines success in a project, and what the end result needs to be.  That’s all the ingredients a project needs to switch to auto-pilot.  Right?  Not so fast!  Show me a project that’s out of control, off schedule, costing more than expected, and I’ll show you a project that went on auto-pilot while nobody was looking.

Parenting.  We know when parenting starts, and that’s about it.  Parents understand that every day with their kids is an adventure.  It’s an adventure they hope never ends.  There are days when they’d like to go on auto-pilot, but those are the days when they should be most engaged.

Companies.  It doesn’t matter what size they are, or how long they’ve been around.  If people inside a company start to “mail it in,” stop caring, assume someone else is asking the tough questions, assume someone else is making the hard choices; that’s the beginning of the end.  It may take some time, but the end is baked-in the moment self-drive mode is engaged.  It’s just a question of when, and it’s never pretty when the end arrives.

Marriages.  We certainly know when marriages begin.  Sadly, some marriages have ended, yet the people involved don’t even realize it.  Why?  Self-drive.  One or both have engaged the self-drive button and decided that they’re just along for the ride.  Only together can a married couple steer, accelerate, hit the brakes, seek out new routes, find shortcuts, or just enjoy the scenery.  It takes constant work, endless attention, and unending love to share this most important steering wheel.  There’s no room for self-drive in the front seat of a marriage.

Self-drive may seem easier, but its sole focus is the start and the end.  These are only two points on the journey.

The part in the middle is the real reward.  Engage self-drive and you will miss it.