Eric D. Brown, D.Sc.

Data Science | Entrepreneurship | ..and sometimes Photography

Category: Management (page 2 of 12)

Tips for making good coffee (and building better teams)

2703412787_6446b4fba6_mThere are many ways to make coffee.   You’ve got your pre-ground coffee. You’re pre-packaged coffee. Whole Bean coffee.  Self-roasted coffee.  Instant coffee.

And as many types of coffee, there are just as many ways to make coffee.  Drip. French Press. Instant. Percolator. Etc etc.

For the purposes of this post, let’s look at three ways of making coffee:

  1. Buy a can of Folgers, dump the coffee into a drip coffee maker. Brew. Drink.
  2. Buy a pre-packaged coffee (Keurig, etc) . Stick a ‘pod/cup’ into the maker…make coffee.
  3. Buy whole bean coffee, grind it yourself every morning before brewing. Put it in a French Press. Boil Water to 199 degrees exactly.  Slowly pour heated water over grounds. Stir slowly. Let simmer for a few minutes.  Press the grounds out. Pour coffee. Drink. Enjoy a great cup of Joe.

Now…I’m not going to say which method is best…but a good cup of coffee made via French Press is hard to beat. If you like good coffee…try Method #3. If you want the cheapest coffee method, go for #1…it’s drinkable but not memorable.  Method #2 provides a decent cup of coffee and is relatively cheap and easy, but not always memorable.

Of course, there are other approaches to making coffee….but going into them will just confuse all of us…because this isn’t really about making coffee…its about building and leading a team of people.

In my experience, the majority of folks in the world of business take an approach to team building and leadership similar to Method #1 above. They take the ‘prepackaged’ approach by looking for the most cost effective approach to every problem while ignoring (or minimizing) quality. These folks build average teams and deliver average services / products to their clients. There are some leaders out there that are able to take approach #1 to build a quality team that builds / delivers quality products and services, but on average, most leaders taking this approach build teams that aren’t memorable.

There are other leaders who take the pre-packaged approach in method 2. They hire consultants as a ‘team’ to come in and build something. When that team is done…they move on. Then…another team has to be brought in to build something.   Rinse. Repeat.    Team A comes in, does X and leaves. Team B comes in, does Y and leaves.  Just like discarding the pre-packaged coffee pod after one use, these teams can be discarded upon completion. Knowledge transfer occurs at times..but other times it doesn’t.  Most times, these teams do good work…but something is lost over time. With this approach, the leader is able to keep an eye on costs and quality but over time they start to lose the ability to really understand what has been done and how its been done.

Then…there are the leaders that build  a team following an approach similar to method #3.  They find the best people they can find. They pay for those people. They take the time to prepare those people for their jobs and give them plenty of support. They monitor their teams to ensure things are moving along properly and do whatever they can do to help each employee reach their fullest potential. They provide feedback and motivation for these teams and watch as they build great products and services. These teams are the memorable teams that build memorable products and services.

There are times when each approach is valid of course. Sometimes you don’t know the ‘best’…sometimes you just need someone to make sure the lights are kept on…but if you are trying to build a team for the long haul – and one that you can use to beat your competition – you’d better be looking at an approach similar to the French Press approach.

To make a good cup of coffee, you need to focus on quality and preparatione.  To build a good team…focus on the same things. You’ll make a memorable cup of coffee – and a build a great team.

Image Credit: French Press Coffee I on flickr

Generalists are good, experts can be better (sometimes)

Trust us, we're expert By phauly on flickrEarlier this week I provided a rundown of my experience going through a sleep study in a post titled To manage it, measure it…but don’t destroy it in the process.

Turns out, I have sleep apnea based on the outcome of the sleep study.   So…I get to go back to do another sleep study with a CPAP machine.  Joy!

What I didn’t share in my earlier post was that, in addition to the sleep study, I’ve been having some other health issues.

A few weeks ago, I’d been noticing that my legs were feeling numb, tingling and just felt ‘weird’.  I attributed this  to the fact that I’d been doing a lot of ‘sitting’ lately with little exercise.

Here I am…a 37 year old male in OK health but I get little exercise due to a hectic work/school schedule.  I don’t get out into the ‘wild’ as much as for photography as I would like, which is about all the exercise i usually get.

So when my leg issues wouldn’t go away, I started researching what the troubles might be.  I started seeing things like ‘poor circulation’ and Multiple Sclerosis and Diabetes.  I started to get worried. Very worried.

I also noticed i was feeling a little fatigued. And I just generally felt ‘weird’.

I made an appointment to see my doctor and was told it would be a few days before they could get me in. I didn’t feel like it was an emergency so I didn’t bother pressing for a visit sooner.

I focused on these problems for days on end. I got myself pretty worked up about the health issues and I think I even got myself into a panic attack one day thinking I had some really wrong with me.

I searched Google. I searched WebMD.  I looked at all the info out there. I saw things about diabetes causing poor circulation. I saw all the heart troubles. I saw the many many health problems that all had symptoms like mine.

I don’t have to tell you that I was pretty worried. Downright scared even.

One day last week, I started feeling really weak. I started sweating and my chest felt tight. I was dizzy and just generally felt like poo.  I came very very close to droving myself to the emergency room that day but the feeling went away after I had some orange juice. Note: I’ve always had a low-blood sugar problem – if i don’t eat enough protein for breakfast, I have problems all day.

Once I settled myself down and started feeling better, I realized that it might be that I was worrying myself into poor health. Of course, my lovely wife told me the same thing…that it was all in my head….but did I listen to her?  No. (I do listen sometimes…just not this time.)

So i took a step back and thought about what got me to where I was.

I had a strange feeling in my legs. So….how did i get from that strange feeling in my legs to feeling like I was about to have a heart attack?

Simple…I was taking things into my own hands. I was googling. I was searching. I was picking and choosing symptoms. Heck…at one point, my symptoms pointed to menopause. MENOPAUSE dangit. I’m too young for that! (<~~~ that’s funny right there…because I’m a man.)

All the Google searches in the world won’t help. All the generalist knowledge I have or can obtain about medical issues means very little when it comes time to diagnose and treat those issues.

My doctor’s appointment came and went. He took blood and ran tests. He used his (and the medical lab’s) expertise to find out more specific information about what my problems might be.

Turns out – I don’t have poor circulation. I don’t have diabetes nor do I have any heart problems. What I do have is a bad back that is pinching my Sciatic nerve causing discomfort in my legs. In addition, I have a vitamin D deficiency and a very minor case of Polycythemia (too many red blood cells), which has some of the exact symptoms that I was experiencing. This Polycethemia is something that I’ve got to keep my eye on but isn’t anything to worry about right now as its very minor. The doctor told me to get some exercise and take baby aspirin. I love me some baby aspirin, so I’m good with that approach.

Now…I’m feeling fine. I know there is something wrong with me and I know what lies ahead, which is taking baby aspirin and exercising…horrible i know 🙂

There’s a lesson here though for those of us in business – that lesson is this: While generalists are good and can provide real value, sometimes you need specialists. Sometimes you need experts.

There are times that you have a problem that can’t be solved with your regular consultants or employees. Maybe the problem seems simple but turns out its difficult….but you keep throwing generalists at the issue.  There comes a time when you just have to stop searching and reach out to an expert to solve your problem. The key is knowing when to reach out for help…and who to reach out to.

I’m glad I decided to reach out when I did. At least I know now that I don’t have menopause. 🙂

Image credit: Trust us, we’re expert By phauly on flickr

 

To manage it, measure it…but don’t destroy it in the process

Tape Measure By dirkjankraan on flickrI’m a big believer in the mindset that you’ve got to measure it to manage it.

If you can’t measure something, its very difficult to manage that ‘something’.  If you want your websites to load faster, you need to know what ‘fast’ means and have something to compare past, present and future measurements too.

You must measure to manage…but I”m not a proponent of measuring every little detail.  I only want to measure what i need to measure (there’s a catch-22 here…do you know what you need to measure?).

I’ve known people / companies to go overboard on their measurements.

Some believe they need to measure their employees time in order to manage their workload properly.  I’ve known companies that have implemented time-tracking projects that require every employee to input their time in 5 minute increments and assign each 5 minute segment to a project cost center.  Those same companies have a hard time getting anything done too.Now…I’m not saying every company that tracks time like this cannot accomplish anything, but i can tell you the ones I worked with didn’t accomplish much.

A recent example

This past week, I went in for a sleep study. My doctor told me that he thought I had sleep apnea due to the way my throat looked.  He said my Uvula looked like it had taken quite the beating…I believe his exact words were “your throat looks like someone uses your uvula for a punching bag”.    So…he setup a sleep study for me.

During one of these sleep studies, a contraption (that’s the scientific word for it I think) is placed on that measures all sorts of things. Heart rate, eye movement, breathing, leg movement, chin movement, etc etc.  Go read more about it here and see what the contraption looks like here after its been placed on you (note: if you can’t tell, that is not me in the photo!).

My sleep study appointment day arrives off I go the sleep center at the appointed time. When I arrive, I’m shown my room and told that the technician will be in shortly to get me all ready for the study.  After a few minutes, a nice tech walks in and begins hooking me up. This process takes about 30 minutes and I end up with wires connected all over my body.

I immediately realize that I’m going to have a tough time sleeping this contraption.  I’m told that I can sleep in whatever position I choose, but they need me to sleep part of the night on my back…which is good because once I got into bed i couldn’t move into any position except for laying flat on my back.

Now…I’m sure I got some sleep that night, but I don’t really feel like I did. I was uncomfortable with all the wires, I was in a strange room and I was being watched via video camera.  Not exactly the most fun I’ve ever had, especially when you have to get up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom (because you are an idiot and drank a bottle of water before bed).  Did I mention that in order to get out of bed you have to call for the tech to come unhook you from the machine and re-hook you when done?  fun times.

My point of all this?  This sleep study was intrusive.  I’m sure there is useful data gathered this way but is it truly the best way to measure the things that need to be measured while a person sleeps?  Perhaps with current technology it is.

But in my case, and in many other people’s cases, the very thing that this sleep study was attempting to measure (sleep) was disrupted.  Was the data gathered that night in the sleep study true data? Is it really an accurate picture of how I sleep?  I don’t know.

But…what I do know is that the process of gathering the data just about destroyed the data.  I barely slept. It took me two days to recover from that night.

Measure it, but don’t destroy it

So my story is just a simple word of caution to everyone.

Sure…measure what you need to measure (again…do you know what you need to measure?).  But don’t destroy what you are measuring by the process of measuring it.

Find the simplest, least intrusive method of measuring what you need and use it.

Do you think the employees entering their time in 5 minute increments like their work? If you need to track their time in five minute increments…perhaps something is wrong with the culture of the organization. If you need to know what your employees are doing all day, ask them.

To manage it, you do need to measure it…but don’t destroy it in the process.

Image Credit: Tape Measure By dirkjankraan on flickr

How do we “fix” Project Failures?

Project FailureA few months ago I wrote a post titled Cognitive Dissonance & IT.

From that post, you’ll remember that cognitive dissonance is: an uncomfortable tension caused by holding contradictory thoughts simultaneously.

Cognitive Dissonance is everywhere in IT today, especially in the Project Management side of the house.

I think everyone would agree there are a lot of IT project failures.

Now…there are some arguments made by some about what ‘project failure’ means.  To me..failure means that the project didn’t fully realize the scope of the project, meet budget and/or meet the timeline.  Some argue that failure means only those projects that aren’t completed are failures while the others that don’t meet scope/budget/timeline are ‘challenged‘.   Regardless what term you give it, the fact is that something like 68% of IT projects either fail or are ‘challenged’. That’s 2/3’s of all IT projects that aren’t considered successful.

So….we have a 1/3 success rate in IT Projects….and we continue to follow the same project management processes and methodologies.  We continue to fund projects in similar ways.

That’s cognitive dissonance in action.

We continue to think that projects will succeed although we know that, statistically, the project is more apt to fail than succeed…yet we continue down the same path with an uneasy feeling.

The stakeholders know the project is most likely to fail. The CIO knows the project is most likely to fail.   Heck…many on the project team think the project is most likely to fail.

Michael Krigsman, who does a wonderful job dissecting and discussing project failure on his IT Project Failures blog, recently wrote a short article titled Three simple truths of failure.  The article is based on a Dilbert cartoon discussing complicated project plans and Michael dissects the cartoon perfectly…its woth the jump to read. In the cartoon & Michael’s analysis, the following three truths are provided:

  • Complicated plans don’t work
  • Wishful Thinking doesn’t work
  • The boss really doesn’t care

While I’d like to think that the boss does care, I’ve found that many times they don’t have the time to care.   I know one mid-sized IT group that had over 150 projects on their list…there’s no way the CIO had any knowledge or interest in all those projects.

More interesting than Michael’s article are the comments to the article….anyone with more than 6 months experience in the world of IT can empathize and understand exactly what the commenters are discussing, lamenting and describing….the world of IT Project Management is full of failures.

But…those failures shouldn’t be focused on a person or on a process (or lack of one).  Those failures exist because previous failures weren’t learned from and those lessons learned weren’t acted upon. Those failures exist because of poor leadership.

In an article titled When an IT Projects go right, its simple to make projects succeed…all you need is a clear vision, support and commitment of the stakeholders, an understanding of the problems to be solved and sufficient resources & staffing.

Wow….so THATS all we need to do to make IT projects succeed. 🙂

Those are very important aspects of good project management, but there has to be more to it, doesn’t there?

Do we implement a new project management process?  Get people trained in project management procedures?  Get people certified?  Hire more people?  Outsource the project?

I’ve seen organizations build project management groups and fill them with certified project managers…and fail miserably.  I’ve also seen IT groups bring in temporary project teams and/or project managers and succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

So what do we do?

Can it be as simple as clear vision, support, resources and proper understanding of project goals.

I think that’s where we have to start.

Make it clear what needs to be done. Make it clear what the people need to do.  Then make sure the necessary  resources and support are there.

Whether you use an agile approach to projects or the old tried-and-true waterfall approach, without proper vision, clarity of purpose and the proper support and resourcing, your project’s chances of success are approaching zero.

Maybe we don’t “fix” project failures…maybe we need to fix leadership within IT to ensure projects have a better chance of success.

What do you think?

Are we treating the symptoms, or the real problem?

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of knee pain.  For the last few months, its been constant and regular and seemed to get worse when I would spend a lot of time on my feet.  My initial thought was that my years of powerlifting in high school was finally catching up to me and I was finally seeing the response to have over 500 pounds of weight on my shoulders (I won the national powerlifting championship in 1990 at 16 with a 550 pound squat, 350 pound bench press and 500 pound deadlift). That’s a lot of weight to be on anyone’s shoulders, but probably worse for a developing young man.

I was about to resign myself to the fact that my knees would ache for the rest of my life or I’d have to have some form of knee surgery, until one day I happened to realize that my feet began to hurt a bit before my knees hurt.  It seemed that the foot pain was a precursor to the knee pain.

I did some research and found that when you’ve got bad foot support in shoes, it can cause knee pain.  About that same time, I saw the Dr. Scholl’s FootMapping Machine and its ability to ‘read’ your feet and tell you what type of orthotics to buy.   I found a machine at my local Wal-Mart and tried it out…sure enough, it told me that my low arches were forcing pressure on other parts of the feet, which is exactly what my research said would cause knee pain.

I bought the recommended orthotics and now…no knee pain.  I’ve been pain free for a few days now.

It would have been very easy for me to call up a Doctor and describe my knee pain and my history.  It would then have been just as easy for that Doctor to prescribe surgery for that knee pain.  And…it would have been easy for me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on medical expenses on something that turned out to be poor support for my feet.

Instead…because I spent some time research the issue, I found that I could solve my problem with a much simpler approach.  For $50 I was able to solve the real problem causing my knee pain.

Much like the current business environment isn’t it?

Many organizations today are in pain and are looking for solutions.  They’re patients looking for a good doctor.  They’ve got a lot of pain, and there’s a lot of people willing to offer medication or surgery for that pain, but very few people willing to treat the real problem(s).

Take social media as an example.  There are problems that social media can treat well.  But…there are a lot of people prescribing social media for many different ‘pains’ and ignore the underlying problems.

For instance…if your organization has a history of poor customer service, would you first take a look at the customer service organization, culture and processes for ways to improve? Or…do you do as many organizations are doing today and join twitter,  FaceBook and other social media platforms to ‘engage’ with your customers?

Many consultants & companies will tell you to ‘get out there’ on the social media platforms to engage with your customers.  These people are treating the symptoms rather than the real underlying causes.  The pain is the blow-back created by poor customer service and many people would argue that by ‘engaging’ with these customers, you’ll somehow magically improve service.

While this might be true in some instances…it doesn’t address the underlying problems. You may improve service for a few people (or few hundred people) using social media but the underlying problem still exists….the problem of poor customer service. Social Media won’t solve the underlying problem of poor service culture or processes.

Of course…treating the symptom works in many cases.  Have a headache…take an aspirin.  No more headache…for now.

But what happens when that headache isn’t the actual problem?

What if that headache is actually just a by-product of meningitis or a tumor?  Without taking the time to really understand all the symptoms, just treating the headache may not treat the real problem.

That aspirin would help the headache today…but it’ll return tomorrow.

So…next time you see a problem in your organization, take a good long look at it and make sure its the real problem before throwing money & bodies at it.

Make sure you’re solving the real problem…not just addressing the pain.

Small Business Technology Outsourcing

small business technologyI’ve been thinking about approaches to small business technology initiatives and whether it makes sense for small business to outsource a good portion of their IT infrastructure and platforms.

Most of the things I’ve read on the topic of small business IT outsourcing has been fairly light in terms of advice for small business owners. Most articles are written with the vendor in mind but there are a few focused on the small business owner who’s looking to outsource.

One of the better articles was found on Small Business Computing in an article titled “Ten Points to Ponder before you Outsource“. The “ten points” offered in the above article are quite good but I felt like they could be expanded a bit to include some examples.  Below is a summary of the ten points plus some additional discussion and examples.

Outsourcing Small Business IT & Technology – Key points to consider

  • Look at the big picture. Do you need to be focused on keeping an email server or web server running or focus on marketing and business development?   Should you be focused on keeping your small business technology running or growing your small business?  If you want to be around next year, you’d better focus on growing your small business.
  • Look at value over price. As a small business, you need to save as much money as possible whenever and wherever you can…but….you also get what you pay for.  If you pay someone for email service, do you pick the cheapest vendor that will setup a few email accounts for you and then never answer your phone calls….or do you pick the mid-tier vendor who asks for a bit more money and then holds your hand throughout migration process and offers 24/7 support?
  • Pay for expertise. If you are going to spend your hard earned money for something, you should get as much value as possible from that outsourced service/product/person.   Part of the decision making process for outsourcing should include the amount of expertise you are paying for.  For example, if you outsource your payroll, you sure as heck better get an expert payroll provider.
  • Stay on the cutting edge When you outsource your IT functions, do you want to give your business to someone who’s using yesterday’s technology or tomorrow’s?  Let’s look at a web developer as an example.  You need to outsource your new website…do you hire someone still using Frontpage to design/build websites or do you hire someone who can build a website using a much more modern technology/platform?  Hint: go with modern on this one.
  • Does the vendor have similar values as you? Have you ever hired someone to do some work for you and then found out that they didn’t have the work ethic you had?  That would be a huge issue for a small business owner outsourcing IT functions.  When looking to outsource, take some time to get to know your vendor(s) (and they should want to get to know you too) to make sure your values are their values…or at least that their values don’t clash with yours.
  • Meet the Vendor’s team before signing the contract.  While many people meet with the sales person or perhaps the vendor’s leadership team, I strongly suggest that you reach out and try to meet with the team that would be working on your project.  Sometimes this is impossible to get to know the whole team but if possible, do it.
  • Know what you’re getting.  This is a no-brainer on the surface. Let’s say you want to outsource the design/build of a new website.  You hire a firm to design and build your website and you expect them to completely migrate content and/or create content. Content is part of the website correct?  They sell you a design/build project without clearly stating that content migration isn’t included.  When they finish, you have a website that looks pretty and works well but with no content!  Now you’ve got to spend more money to get content into the website.  Not a good situation to be in.
  • Understand Responsibilities. While the deliverables of the service/product should be clearly outlined in any contract, you’ve also got to fully understand the responsibilities of each side.   This should be clearly stated in a scope of work document when working with a good vendor…but you need to be absolutely certain you know who’s doing what before signing the contract.
  • Should you outsource to a big player or small business? This is a personal decision for each business.  You can outsource your email service to Google or you can find a local small business that can do something very similar for you.   You’ll sometimes pay more to the local business, but you’ll also receive more personalized service from a good vendor.
  • Find a vendor that can educate. Ever talked to an IT person and heard lots of acronyms and technical mumbo-jumbo and had no clue what they were talking about?  Would you hire them to do your IT? Maybe you would…but you’d have a hard time understanding what they are doing or want to do for you.  Find a vendor that can speak to you in terms you can understand.  Find someone that can educate you along the way. That’s the person you want to hire.

Outsourcing anything, whether email, payroll or brochure design, takes the same type of thought process for small business owners.   While price is a consideration for you, there are many other items to think about when outsourcing part of your business.

Stay tuned for more small business technology related posts…looking to make this a regular feature.

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