Being Busy vs. Being Productive

When I decided to go back to school while continuing to work, I knew I was going to be busy, and I was right.  Matters became hectic very quickly.  I knew if I was going to continue what I wanted to do, there were going to have to be changes. So I decided on doing some life spring cleaning.

The first thing I did was look at my calendar and start asking myself some questions.  Why am I doing this?  Am I pleasing myself by taking on this task, or am I pleasing someone else, and why?  Is the amount of energy I am putting into this worth the results? Am I focusing on important tasks, or those that are urgent? Finally, are the things I am doing really a reflection of my personal values or am I doing these things because everyone else is?

What came out of this is that I realized that I had a difficult time at saying no. I was basically allowing other people to guide my life. It isn’t easy, but saying yes to our own priorities sometimes means saying no to someone else’s priorities. Saying no is a superpower we can all develop. It’s just takes some practice.

What I found was by taking control, I had more purpose and focus. I changed up my morning tasks before I left for work.  I eliminated the time I was spending focusing on social media after waking up and replaced it with a first thing in the morning workout routine.  This allowed me to concentrate better throughout the day as well as feeling more energized physically.  By working out in the morning, my time after work was freed up to focus on school. My grades improved. I was able to go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep.

At work, I started saying no to extraneous added tasks and concentrating on the matters that were truly important to my team, like communicating with them and trusting them to take the lead as a way of training.  This allowed me to start to work on root cause problems – those matters that everyone puts off because there doesn’t seem to be enough time. Work life improved.  I could actually take a lunch break without worrying about what went wrong while I was gone.

Working full time and going to school full time soon became less stressful and more purposeful. People starting asking me how the heck I was able to do it. Last year, I had a health situation which required nine and a half weeks of radiation treatments.  If I hadn’t changed my approach earlier, I most likely would not have been able to handle it.  As it stood, I was in good physical shape and my schedule had been honed well enough for me to be able to plow through everything and only take two sick days.

It is always good to look at your daily routines and rituals and ask if they are still relevant. Sometimes they are, sometimes you find you have the opportunity to clear out non-productive things.  Letting out your inner three year old and saying NO has its advantages as well.  It allows you and those around you know that when you say Yes to something that you know that you can devote time and energy to it.  That makes you dependable. the key is realizing what is working for you and what your limits are.  None of us are Superman, but saying no is sometimes the only superpower we need.


Culture Shock – The Local Edition

You have probably heard the story – . You are a project manager who is managing a large project with multi-national subproject managers under you. Many of your subproject managers are from countries other than your own. You hold a project management meeting and require all the subproject managers to attend. One of the team members from America, who is working in Turkey, seems to be despondent and depressed. You talk to him afterwards and come to the conclusion that he is suffering from Culture Shock; that is what occurs when a person is working in an unfamiliar environment and their experiences and the actions of others around them are not as they expect.  This often happens when people are sent outside of their home country.  The country, difference in languages, customs, religions can be disorienting to a fairly large degree.

But what about when a person is sent to a different region of the country they were raised in?  It happens more than you would think.  Take for example, someone going from a relatively conservative area, say, Virginia, to a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural city like Miami, Florida?  One might think that there should not be a shift, but there is.  The same applies to someone from Miami going to work in Virginia. There is a shift in tempo, in attitude and local customs that can be as disorienting as our proverbial American in Turkey, with the same results: depression, disorientation, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, sometimes the inability to solve simple problems.

So what do you do?  First, be aware of it.  There is no place like home, is more than just a pop culture phrase – it is the honest truth.  Be open about it.  Keep a sense of humor and realize that while Virginia does not have Cuban Sandwiches, they do have excellent seafood.  Find a place where you feel comfortable and spend some time there.  Ask yourself, “What did I expect? Why? Was my expectation reasonable?”

You will eventually grow accustomed to the area and the tempo, just as you would when you are sent to another country.  But realize each region of the US is slightly different from the others in both good and other ways.  Learn from it.

Why Your Team Hates You

I have a friend who, when we were working for the same company,  had a manager who was the walking definition of the Peter Principle.  I will admit, I had never seen someone fail upward as quickly as he.  And when he failed upward once again (this time to another company), he asked my friend to recommend him on a hiring site.  So she did.  Now if you know my friend as long as I have, you realize that for her, sarcasm was more than an art; it was a contact sport.  So, she was honest. She simply said that she worked as hard for him as he did for her.

While that statement can be taken in two different ways, you need to ask yourself, how would your team say it?  If you conclude that your team would say it the way my friend meant it, then you’re in big trouble. So what are you doing or not doing to have your team actually work as hard for you as you do for them?

  1. You Treat Them Like Employees. If you know nothing about your team as people, they know it. One of the best leaders I have ever worked under had a knack for knowing what was going on in the lives of, not just her immediate reports, but even people working the front line. When the Senior vice president knows your mom is sick and is asking how she is, how would you feel?  Now, I’m not saying you should know everything about everyone, but, try to get to know your team.  You cannot fake this.
  2. You Don’t Fight For Them. When you don’t stand up for people, you lose their trust. Your team just pulled out a project that was “doomed”? Are you letting the world know about it?  A member of your team just graduated Summa Cum Laude and you haven’t congratulated them? You notice that the most productive person on your team hasn’t received a raise in two years?  Why are you not championing getting  them a deserved increase?
  3. You Don’t Prioritize If everything is important, the team can’t focus on critical tasks.  Force yourself to rank each task, dividing them evenly between high medium, and low. Honor that list. And when customers tell you that everything is top priority, then guess what?  YOU get to choose what is most important to you. That helps focus your customer.
  4. You Don’t Model Balance.  You say weekends are precious for families, then bombard them with email on Sunday afternoon. You say that you appreciate a work/life balance, then continually make your team work 12 hour days. Which is it? Take a day off – or learn how to do “delayed send” so your messages won’t go out until Monday morning. As for the other, either learn to estimate better or hire more staff.
  5. You Micromanage They have no room to make decisions on their own. Just stop it.  You have a team that knows how to do the job. Don’t believe it? Pick a few low risk projects; commit to doing nothing unless being asked for help. The are multiple ways up the mountain.  Your way may not be the best.
  6. You’re great at assigning work. Doing work? Not so much. I know, you’re a manager.  There’s a lot on your plate.  Getting in the trenches with the team is not something you can always do.  But set aside some time to do it. You might be amazed at what your team will tell you.
  7. You’re A Suck-up. Deadly, this is. Do this, you should not. This shows a lack of spine – and could mean you expect the same from them. Try problems go up, complements come down. You are not expected to win every battle.  But you are not expected to fold like a cheap suit at every turn, either.
  8. You are indecisive.  Stop trying to hedge your bets. Your team needs to know which way to go. Make the choice and go.  You may be wrong.  Own it. At least you have made the decision. Being a waffle is not being a leader.

These are all little things. But they do add up over time.  It is said that people do not leave bad companies, they leave bad bosses. Don’t let your people leave you because of you. Work harder for them as they do for you, and you will have a team that will stick together.

The Price of Paying Attention

Time management doesn’t really work for most of us.  Sure, we can plan out our day, but then life intrudes at every turn and by the end of it the day is done and if we have check off anything on the list, we consider ourselves lucky.

So what do we do?  According to Maura Thomas, we can plan the day just fine; we are horrible about managing the distractions that crop up.  As she quotes William James, the author of a 19th century tome, The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1, he states simply; “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” In other words, if you can control the distractions, you can control your project.  Or even, your life.

When working with “Attention Management”, as Thomas calls it, you deliberately control both internal and external factors.   First, the internal.  Only one task at a time.  Yes, this flys in the face of multitasking, but I would rather do one job well, than four jobs haphazardly.  And spare me your comments about your ability to multitask.  You can’t.  Studies have proven it. Takes breaks from your technology.  Your phone and all the apps is designed to prevent you from accomplishing anything, unless you are getting paid to Instagram your food.

The other area concerns controlling your thoughts.  My mind wanders.  Boy, does it wander.  That five page paper took me 20 minutes to crank out, but three hours to get there. Yes, it is hard for many of us to focus.  But I am working at it.

The external factors are also difficult.  Remember what I just said about your phone?  Yeah, I do come from a mythical time, when a phone was tied to a wall and was used to call people. Period.  Controlling your technology is difficult for some of us, but as Miss Piggy famously once said, “If it’s important, they’ll leave a message for moi.”  That goes for texts, social media postings and the like.  If you HAD to be there to get the joke, it wasn’t that important. Important stuff is when someone has to alert the media.

Finally, controlling your environment.  I’ll say at this moment, whoever thought of the “no-cube wall” approach should be shot on sight. Not everything can be done by collaboration. We need privacy at times to take in everything and put it together for our understanding.  We need to be able to think without interruption, without having to overhear about Betty’s Yankee Pot Roast recipe. Use headphones,  or “Do not Disturb” signs.  Go to other areas of the building if you can, but focus. being alone with your thoughts is a wonderful luxury that people seem genuinely afraid of.

Not every distraction should demand your attention. being able to manage distractions allows you to be able to accomplish what you need to do and enjoy life at the same time.  It does not cost much to pay attention to the things you need to pay attention to.  But paying attention to the things you don’t need will cost you greatly in the end.


Thomas, M. (n.d.). Attention Management™ is the new path to productivity. Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

The Door Works Both Ways

“Open Door” policies should always have air quotes around them because that is what they are – full of nothing but air.  You know it, I know it.  It was a cliche when it arrived in the 1980’s and has devolved into farce ever since then.

I know, except yours.  I understand that the intent is meant to be sincere, but face it, boss, you know very few people are going to step up and walk in.  You know what would help?  If you stepped out and engaged your staff, because the door works both ways.

So, how do you grow openness and communication? You have to demonstrate transparency, accessibility, and collaboration. When you demonstrate to your staff that they can come to you at any time — they’ll start to do it.

First, share the plans

My previous CIO was constantly telling us what he saw and where we were going.  When someone pointed out rather cynically that he didn’t know how he were going to do that, he countered with “That’s why I hired the best people I could find to tell me that.  So tell me.” It made the day to day mean something to us.  It was a direction and we knew what that direction was.  It was up to us to get us there.  It had meaning.  We had meaning.

Stay curious

You have experts working for you.  Ever wonder how they came up with what they came up with?  Ask them!  You are not expected to be a genius, you are expected to be a leader.  A leader asks his people questions.  Not to point out where things are wrong, but to genuinely be interested in what they do.  Take advantage of all your communication streams.

Be honest and recognize effort

Feedback is great, but if something happening is immediate, be clear and specific in what you need to see.  I need to have A, B and C done by the end of the week, and if you run into a roadblock, you need to let me know immediately lays the groundwork clearly.  And make sure you give credit where it is due.  It’s not meant to fill someone’s ego, but to recognize the moment.  Someone just figured out a way to make an application process faster, or the tasks in a sprint were completed ahead of time?  Yes, they deserve the praise.

You work for them as well

Make sure you respond to your staff’s questions quickly.  That is why the door is supposedly open. It builds trust that if you don’t know, you can find out. Like above, if you tell someone they need to let you know if there is a roadblock, when they tell you there is a roadblock and what it is, they are expecting something more from you than “figure it out”. They are expecting some collaboration in seeing a way around it. Maybe you need to discuss the roadblock with someone higher who can help move it out of the way.

Now, do this consistently.  You soon see that people will not be afraid to enter you office, because they understand the door opens both ways.

The Health of your Fiscal Accounts = The Accounting of Your Physical Health

There are two stories this week that are totally unrelated, yet they are totally related. First, a sad tale.  Construction worker wins a million dollars in the lottery. One of the first things he does is go see a doctor, because he finally has money to do so.  The man finds out he has stage 4 cancer and dies three weeks after hitting the big time.

The second story is that this week three of the biggest names in American business: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase – announced a new venture to provide better, cheaper health care for their employees. A fundamental problem with today’s system, according to the three multi-nationals is that patients lack knowledge and control. Access to data can bestow both.

Now while the second story is full of promise to “be disruptive” in the health care sector, access to data would not have solved the gentleman’s problem in the first story.  Most people have that gut feeling that something is wrong when they hit stage three on the cancer scale.  You know, weight loss, feeling of being tired all the time, things like that. Cancer is not like the flu; you live with it for a while  The problem is not knowing something is wrong, the problem is being able to do something about it once you know. Taking care of that problem most likely would have taken the gentleman’s winnings and still left him tragically in debt.  Perhaps, cynically, dying actually left his family in a better condition.

Unfortunately, that is where we stand.  We have all various types of technology that are being developed to help us understand what our bodies are doing.  There is promise, no doubt about that. But we still have yet to come to terms with how we can afford to take care of ourselves once the technology finds something.  Data is one thing.  The ability to act on that data is where we lose the game.

The Central Intelligence (Art) Agency

This needs to be made into a movie.  It has everything: Spies, art, and probably a great bit of humor as well.  According to an article in the Independent, the Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art – including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as a weapon in the Cold War.

Why would the CIA want to promote Abstract Expressionism, especially when most Americans at the time thought the art form was against everything the country stood for?   Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, called “Social Realism” was strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, and could not compete. This also helped the US consolidate the cultural shift from Paris to New York.

The CIA used what was called a “long leash” approach; instead of direct patronage, there had to be distance between the agency and the artist.  Most artist of the times would never have accepted such an arrangement if it were known who was actually behind it; this was the era of Joe McCarthy, after all.  And this is what makes the story all that more interesting.  That while McCarthy was railing against anything avant-garde or unorthodox, the CIA was actually doing their best to support and exploit it.  Tom Braden, first chief of the CIA’s International Organizations Division, explained to the Independent:

“We wanted to unite all the people who were writers, who were musicians, who were artists, to demonstrate that the West and the United States was devoted to freedom of expression and to intellectual achievement, without any rigid barriers as to what you must write, and what you must say, and what you must do, and what you must paint, which was what was going on in the Soviet Union. I think it was the most important division that the agency had, and I think that it played an enormous role in the Cold War.”

And so it went, until both Abstract Expressionism and Socialist Realism’s fame outlived the Cold War itself, becoming models of excellence for any Art History 101 student. Does the fact that the former’s popularity owes at least partially to a desire to destroy Russia compromise its integrity as an artform? According to the CIA gents behind the plot, it shouldn’t.  So Mr. Clooney, here’s your next movie.

What Learning Does For Me

I’ve been back at school for a while now and considering that I am an older student surrounded by 20-somethings, I posed a question to my classmates about what learning does for them.  Some of the answer I received back were in the vein of  “I can make more knowledgeable choices”, “It allows me to find answers to problems faster” and “It has broadened my horizon on how to resolve issues at work and come up with new and fresh solutions.”

All these are great answers. Mine, is a little different.  Learning has slowed me down and caused me to question myself more. It has certainly allowed me to bring up information to support my case faster, but overall, it has forced me to look at how I put things together, and what that means, not only to me but to the matter that I am working on.

It has also stripped away any notion that there is one way of accomplishing something. I have found that at work, I am much more open to asking questions and opinions.  My decisions are still mine to make; however, I am more interested in other people’s stories and how they work through matters.  I am not so quick to dismiss.  I am also more confident with the decisions that I make.

It is said that knowledge is wisdom, but I would counter that understanding knowledge and how it works is wisdom.  I have met professors who know quite a bit, but are far from wise and a few of my cohorts who are wise beyond their years. I certainly have more faith in the next generation than I did going into this.  It’s not what you learn, it what you make of it.

Always Know Where the Emergency Exits Are

margarine4_thumb.jpgLet us say that something horrible has happened to every application you have.  And let us say that something horrible happened to all of your backups at the same time.

Armegeddon?  Yeah, maybe.  But what do you do?  Well, you have to rebuild from the ground up.  But how?

There is one thing, that if you have it, can mean the difference between rebuilding and sitting in the ashes of your company and cursing whatever higher being that happens to be available at the moment.  And that is a runbook.

A runbook is very simple and yet you’d be amazed at the number of places that A) don’t have one or B) never keep it up.  A runbook is basically instructions for the morons in Operations (like me) to rebuild your application from the ground up.  Simple as that. You make a change to your application, the record of the change goes in the runbook.  You move to a new server, the notation goes in the runbook.  You do anything to your application, it needs to be noted in the runbook. That way, if disaster strikes you have an ace in the whole.

So who creates and updates the runbook?  The development team.  And who houses the runbook?  Operations. Why?  Operations houses it because we are going to be the ones who need it should something happen.  Because Operations has multiple applications to watch.  We do not know the intricacies of your application like the people who created it.   So do not ask Operations if what is in the runbook everything we need.  Short answer: we don’t know. It’s your application.  You hand us the runbook with the understanding that you have put YOUR knowledge into it.  Now when a change goes into the runbook, it is operations responsibility to note the change went in and when.  But if you decide to move to a new server or make major structural changes, again, it is the development team’s responsibility to update.

And that is where the problems with runbooks lie. Everyone is pressed for time, no one ever has a technical writer when needed and all of us have a tendency to say “We’ll work on that tomorrow”.

And sometimes, tomorrow is not exactly what you expect.



Your business unit has decided that everything must go.  There’s a new logo that must be on everything.  They hate the interface; it looks dated.  Animation?  Ugh.  Nothing works right on their phones.  They need apps, for God’s sake.  Reports are not giving them the information they need.  And who the hell approved that lime green color everywhere?

To paraphrase Bowie, “I’m quite aware of what you’re going through.”

But before you start changing everything, you first need to plan this out.  You know that.  I know that.  That is what a change ticket is all about.  Once you have your business needs arranged and know what has to be where and why, then you need to fill out a change form and have change management have a look at it.  You need to do this before you drop the first keystroke of coding.  Why?  Not all change happens in a vacuum.  What you change may well affect another user or business group.  As change manager, I need to know what you are planning on doing.  I may be aware of something else that is going on that may conflict with your plans.  If you are upgrading, I need to know in advance so I can start to update information.  You may have to make some alterations dependent upon what is going on, and it is better to have that information up front, rather than the day you want to deploy.  And if I know in advance I can make sure that everything is ready for you.  Change Management is your partner, not your adversary.

Cue the sax solo…