Sometimes when the building is on fire...

Wouldn't it be great if "everything" worked out perfectly one hundred percent of the time... all of the time?

Well we know that doesn't happen; the same as we know that "everything" doesn't work zero percent of the time. On average I would say the range is somewhere between 60% and 80%; yes it may venture below or above once in a while, but this is a pretty good range on a daily basis. I also know I'm not presenting any science or hard data to support what I say, but I suspect you are probably thinking to yourself, "That sounds about right"

As I suggested, sometimes it goes "really right", and the celebrations and accolades commence... but sometimes it goes really wrong, and that is a much different story — Anger, blame, despair, confusion, finger pointing, did I mention anger, and of course frustration. Sometimes it is just so broken it can't be easily fixed.

A number of years ago, in one of my various professional iterations, I found myself involved with a very messy transition where two fundamentally different companies were coming together; different systems, different cultures, different products, and different leadership philosophies — There were many things going on and much to do. In one of the more trying periods of this transition, a leader was offering a perspective on the situation to his team and was trying to alleviate the growing state of frustration in the group. He was the king of the analogy, and as he was offering insight as to how to work through the situation he said,

"Sometimes when the building is on fire you let it burn and move on to something that you can fix."

By no means was he advocating giving up or not taking on the difficult challenges — What he was saying was sometimes when it is so broken (or dysfunctional), it is best to recognize it for what it is, minimize it's impact, and move onto something you can fix. By doing this you:

  • Identify and escalate the really big issues and problems in which good resources are being thrown after bad. This forces the need to step back and reassess the situation.
  • Keep people focused on situations that can actually be fixed, and in doing so "move the needle forward".
  • Prevent people from focusing on the negatives, and get them looking towards the positive energy of accomplishment.
  • Remind everyone that it's all about prioritization and almost always about the net gain. In the end some fires will rage on, but more will have been put out.

It also should go without saying that you should not play with fire unless you have to because if you aren't very careful you can get burned.

Prevention, as they say, is everything.



A Story of Catching the Wind... and maybe a metaphor for success.

The following is the original and the rewrite can be found by clicking here

Is there anything that invites nostalgia more than the thought of a spring fed pond? Long carefree days filled with the sounds of laughter and the endless escape into the cool water from the hot summer sun; a harmonious balance with nature - Except when it isn't. 

It seems a pond is a dynamic creature with thermal layers, aerobic and anaerobic bacteria, a constant amount of "nature" going in, and unpredictable movement; all of which can lead to an overgrowth of algae and pond scum if not in balance, and this was very much my pond.

In looking for a root cause, it seemed to be an imbalance between aerobic and anaerobic bacteria; as oxygen in the water is depleted, the anaerobic bacteria flourishes and creates ideal conditions for algae, pond scum and bad smelling water. The solution it seems is to simply put oxygen back into the pond that encourages the aerobic bacteria to restore the harmonious balance of nature.

So, with an environmentally friendly windmill to aerate a pond on order, the Story of Catching the Wind begins.

An unassembled sixteen foot windmill comes in six boxes that includes a compressor, a large number of galvanized metal pieces, what seems to be a countless number of bolts, nuts and washers, and an abundance of one off parts. Also included is one very detailed twenty-five page manual to aid with assembly. 

There was never any doubt that I would do the work myself; with the help of Big Red and a long in the tooth Toyota Tercel named Doris we planned to start early Saturday morning, under what turned out to be a cloudless sky. I suppose I could have hired someone but skills and competencies are developed when you do it yourself; to truly understand something, including yourself, you have to become a practitioner - In the end, this windmill (as well as catching the wind) was an exercise in patience and perseverance.

The assembly process was systematic and not to be deviated from; the legs, cross supports, bolts, washers and nuts were put together but left loose; as the tower took shape, the holes did not always align, necessitating the need for shear muscle to coerce the bolt through the hole. With the sun high in the sky, we were now able to divide and conquer with Big Red working on the blade assembly and I (awash with déjà vu) readdressed the nuts and bolts of the tower to fully tightening them. With the tower and blade assembly complete, that left us just with the compressor assembly and then final windmill assembly. 

The compressor housing assembly consisted of inserting a pivot tube through two holes in the compressor housing (and fastening it) and then sliding a brass bushing over the pivot tube. What we quickly discovered was the pivot tube too large to go through the holes of the housing and the brass bushing was too small to go over the pivot tube. Two and a half hours later (after some cursing, creativity, tools used outside their design specification and lots of muscle and sweat) the "what should have been a 15-minute" task was complete.  

With the top of the tower now resting at a 15 degree angle on a bench, the pivot tube was greased and inserted into the hole at the top, the blades were attached to the compressor shaft (involving the ongoing equal tightening of bolts and nuts until the blades were balanced) and the tubing that would carry the air to the pond was secured - With he windmill now fully assembled, all we had to do was get it vertical! After two failed attempts to lift the windmill into place and the shadows around us started to get long, the possibility of leaving the windmill lying on its side was a real and would be a monument to our failure.

Now enter the ever-dependable Doris whose only desire is to help you get from here to there. With Big Red behind the wheel, Doris strapped to the windmill, and me guiding and directing progress, the windmill started to rise. There was a moment where it almost fell over onto Doris and then back onto the ground but in the end the windmill settled majestically into its new surroundings. After celebrating a little, we secured the windmill to the ground, attached the air tube to the air diffuser and sank the diffuser in the middle of the pond. We were now set; in theory the wind would turn the windmill, the windmill would pump air into the pond, and the diffuser would inject micro-bubbles of oxygen into the water.

As we looked at the water and then at each other, we slowly looked up at the windmill with the realization that the early evening air was dead still - The windmill was motionless. Our day was now done, so we packed up and left the property to its own devices. In the end, the 16-hour day positioned us to "catch the wind" and that was all right by me. Literally it is about being in the right place at the right time and I knew the wind will come. 

Metaphorically speaking in a professional sense, "Catching the Wind" (or "catching the wave" if you identify with surfing) means you are in the right place at the right time to catch the energy of the "moment" to propel yourself fast and far in your career. Metaphorically speaking, the assembly of the windmill that day was a reminder of what it takes to position yourself to "Catch the Wind that propels your career far": 

  • Depending what you are positioning yourself for, it may come with any steps and some are such that you just can't "skip over" them - Know what you need to do.
  • You can't do it alone, and you need good people to help you along the way - Their support is crucial to learn, to develop and motivate you.
  • It is hard work. Don't think otherwise.
  • Unforeseen problems will arise and they have to be solved before you can continue - This will most likely take creativity and perseverance to work through them.
  • The only one stopping you from quitting is you - Don't quit!
  • Sometimes the wind just isn't blowing. Make sure you are positioned in the right place and have a little patience.

So my windmill is ever vigil and waits to catch the wind.

So does my pond for that matter.


Let the challenging begin...

The following is the original and the rewrite can be found by clicking here.

The other night an old colleague was telling me about a new leader who asked his team why everyone was "playing so nice". The day after that, I found myself discussing a situation where we couldn't agree and finally decided to "agree to disagree"; amid all the discussion though, we at least agreed how important it was that we felt comfortable enough to challenge each other's thinking - We knew that in the end a better understanding of the situation and a better solution would be born from it; all of which were very good things.

Was this universal coincidence? My humble experience "thinks not"

I've found over my short tenure on this fine planet that when the universe wants to get involved, it usually has an important point to make and really, really wants you to listen; my experience has also shown it sometimes can be really, really hard to figure out what it's trying to say. Since I've taken us this far, I guess I'll take a shot as to where this was coming from... universally speaking.

Was the universe trying to re-enforce the truism that when you bring constructive perspectives and thinking together in an environment of respect and trust, with a common goal in mind, you will always get a better result solving even the most "M.C. Escher"* like situations? Although this is crucially important, I don't think this was it. 

I think what the universe had in mind lies with the question posed in that story (over a beer) about someone I most likely will never meet - "Why are you playing so nice?". The universe wanted to give me a simple heads up for my day to come, as well as remind me of what can compromise idea generation, problem solving, and planning... as well as make those "Escheresque situations" much less fun.

Since the universe brought it up we should start with "playing nice", for no other reason than it is the "frickin'" universe and deserves our respect.

"Are you playing too nice?" - This is not to suggest unleashing a no hold bars blood sport where the victor takes all but rather to say if you want better answers and solutions you need to stop agreeing, stop avoiding the elephant in the room, or stay silent because what you have to say is unpopular. In turn, "not playing nice" doesn't mean you don't have to be respectful, listen, and appreciate the participation around the table - The meaning is it's important to challenge what is being said with other thoughts, perspectives and views.

And along the same vein we have - 

Are all agendas and goals around the table aligned? -  Everyone has egos and personal agendas but it is crucial that everyone "checks it" at the door and aligns to the single goal of dealing with the situation at hand. You can pick your ego and agenda back up on the way out and continue on your merry way. This is all figurative of course, but no less important because if you don't align then nothing will every get done except for an endless number of unproductive meetings.

If you are not participating what value are you bringing? - This is more or less self explanatory, but it should be mentioned that participating does not mean listening to yourself speak by echoing thoughts that are already out on the table or aligning what you say for reasons other than dealing with the situation at hand. (See above)

How come everyone around the table isn't taking the opportunity to be a leader? - Yes there is ultimately someone around the table who gets to throw the "czar card" for a final decision, but everyone around the table has the same opportunity to shape the conversation, the thinking, the direction of the final decision, and rally everyone to a vision - And isn't that what leadership is all about?

And there you have it, my most recent universal coincidence. Can I say for sure this was the point it was trying to make; probably not, but what I can say is when the universe wants to tell me something I listen really, really hard. After all, it is the "frinkin' universe".


* The best way to explain the genius of M.C. Escher is by  sending you to his website where I hope this all makes sense.