All posts by Robin K. Lowe

About Robin K. Lowe

ITIL trained Operations Manager. I came up through Development Hell and now I make sure it all runs right. I try to make sure I can laugh about it, because no matter how well you make the mousetrap, someone makes a better mouse.

Welcome to Stasi-Mart

Let’s state the obvious first: working retail sucks. I know, I did it when I was younger.  Being a cashier is even worse.  You’re on you feet all day, and you meet so many different people with one thing in common – none of them want to be there. But there you are, trying to maintain a smile, attempting to be friendly with someone who is probably a serial killer on his day off.  What can make this little slice of heaven even worse?  Having you boss constantly watch you.  Every single minute. And that is coming soon to a Walmart near you.

You see, Walmart just patented an audio surveillance system, appropriately called “Listening to the Front End”.  In the patent, the abstract describes this as:

“In some embodiments, apparatuses, and methods are provided herein pertaining to sound analysis in a shopping facility. In some embodiments, a system comprises one or more sound sensors distributed throughout at least a portion of a shopping facility and configured to receive at least sounds resulting from activity in the shopping facility and a control circuit, the control circuit configured to receive, from at least one of the one or more sound sensors, audio data, receive an indication of an employee, correlate the audio data and in the indication of the employee, and determine, based at least in part on the audio data and the indication of the employee, a performance metric for the employee. ” (United States of America Patent No. 10,020,004 B2, 2018).

You see, management needs performance metrics. The system is composed of several sensors that can collect audio data, including beeps and the rustling of bags. Any data gathered could be used to assess employee performance — for example, the sounds items make when they’re placed inside a bag can tell the company how efficient someone is at bagging purchases. Customers’ voices can also indicate how long a line is and how quickly a cashier can get through all of them.

As BuzzFeed News points out, though, the most invasive feature is the system’s ability to understand conversations and use them to judge an employee’s performance: “If however the performance metric is based on the content of the conversation (e.g., was a specific greeting used or script followed), the system can process the audio detected by the sound sensors 102 (e.g., using speech recognition) to determine the performance metric.” (O’Donovan, 2018). You friendly and helpful with your customers?  You could find yourself in trouble.

Granted, this raises questions of privacy, and how much is expected and where.  You want to make sure that customers are being checked out by shiny, happy people, but one point that Walmart usually overlooks is when it is after church on Sunday and you have 24 checkout lines, but only three of them are open, do not expect the cashier to be happy, nor the customers who have been waiting in line for 20 minutes. Plus you do have the idea of working in a surveillance state, which never works out well – just ask someone who was living in East Germany in the 1980’s. Suddenly the idea of letting customer bag it themselves make more sense.

References

Jones, N. A., Vasgaard, A. J., Taylor, R. J., & Jones, M. A. (2018). United States of America Patent No. 10,020,004 B2.

O’Donovan, C. (2018, July 11). Walmart’s Newly Patented Technology For Eavesdropping On Workers Presents Privacy Concerns. Retrieved from BuzzFeed.com: https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/walmart-just-patented-audio-surveillance-technology-for?utm_term=.hgBrjVg8r#.ktLQEv0wQ

 

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Decisions, Decisions…

Are you the type that hates making a decision, one that makes a decisions and then agonizes over it, or someone who makes a decision and sticks with it? Most folks are going to fall into the first two categories, and that’s OK. The last thing you want to do is to be indecisive.  But how do you get to that third land, that of making a decision and going with it?

Decisions are the first step in any plan.  Before you do something you have to to decide to do it.  So think of making a decision the some way that one plans something.  A plan needs to have a definition – what am I doing? A plan needs to have a result – what am I going to accomplish?  Finally, a plan needs a time frame – how long is this going to take?

So what to do?  First, you need to have space and time to focus on the decision at hand.  The bigger the decision, the more time you’ll need.  No one should feel like they need to make a decision without first thinking about it.  Some decisions may not need all day, while other decisions may take a couple of weeks.  “Should I move cross country to take a job” is a decision that will take longer than “Should the team do a second pass over the risk assessment”.

Next up, gather your materials and define exactly what it is you’re deciding. This can be tough, because sometimes the apparent reason for a decision is not the real reason; it does require some personal honesty. Answering the question “Why am I looking for a new job?” may expose some points that you realize could be fixed if you you can tweak some points where you currently are. Going forward with a new product may not be the case if data points to simply improving what is currently there. If the positives all point to something outside the status quo, then you need to find out what those positives and and compare them to what the status quo offers.  Decisions are usually about staying comfortable or venturing into the unknown, but you need to be honest with yourself as to what both sides offers.

Once you have that, then you can start to listen to the voices in your head.  If you know someone who can be a sounding board, talk it out.  Ask yourself what is the best and what is the worst that can happen.  In some cases, like the proverbial new job in a new town, just visiting where you would be can make or break the decision. If you are used to a fast paced urban life and the new location is anything but, you know that there will be a period of personal displacement – can you handle that?

Finally, when you have looked at everything involved, as yourself what you want to happen and what would you need to do to make that happen.  If everything looks good, then your decision has been made.  The same if it looks like you would not be able to handle it.  One point – that is perfectly OK as well.  Knowing yourself and being honest in that knowledge allows you to push yourself and it also allows you to know if you would be setting yourself up for failure. If you are still in between, then go with the way you want to go with.  Tossing a coin mean nothing, if you have a predisposition to one side of the coin. You can at least say you had the data and you went with what looked good to you.  You may be wrong, but we have all been there.

Life is full of tough choices, but laying a strong foundation for making choices can benefit you in the long run and keep the indecision at bay.

Summer Reads

I know, summer is already halfway gone, but there are a couple of books that I am plowing through that should be on your reading list.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci

This is a great book with some very useful insights on how power is being exercised and transformed through networked communication infrastructures. Tufekci starts by presenting how political power of informal social groups can increase through leveraged forms of networked organization. She also demonstrates how this leverage can be one of their vulnerabilities if the social group grows to fast to strategize or to make crucial decisions without formal structures, established norms or strong social ties. Tufekci then demonstrates how governments and institutions have learned to exploit these weaknesses to retain power by delaying, distracting and deflecting social movements with widespread disinformation campaigns. These major themes are examined through detailed and compelling case studies written clearly. The book should be required reading for any activist, journalist, politician or academic.

Interesting Times by Nathan J. Robinson

A series of essays on a variety of topics that were originally published in Current Affairs magazine. Robinson’s writing provides a very refreshing reprieve from the wasteland of NYT op-eds and dense academic theory, and can present socialistic theory and philosophy in a manner that even your most reactionary uncle may find persuasive.

How to Create a Mind: The Secret World of Human Thought by Ray Kurzweil

It’s Kurzweil, the futurist who can explain anything to anyone. In this case, he presents the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM), which describes the basic algorithm of the neocortex (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking). It is his contention that the brain can be reverse engineered due to the power of its simplicity and such knowledge would allow us to create true artificial intelligence. Light reading. If you can find it, you should follow this up with Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. by Jeremy Leven.

Happy reading

Open and Shut Spaces

Oh, the wide open office – that space where there are literally no walls. It’s open, free, ready for the collaboration of a lifetime. Where CEO’s rub shoulders with the masses.  A magnificent Utopia of transparency, a place where everyone is truly equal and wonderful ideas bounce off of each other like superballs.

Yeah, and it’s also a total lie. It’s loud, so you need noise cancelling headphones or else you really are unable to do the work after the wonders of collaboration.  And it’s also difficult to be there collaborating with your team when every other team is right up next to you. And if you’re a CEO, well, guess what? Everyone is watching you, taking their cues from you and, well, overreacting if you come in looking bummed from the night before and wondering what’s up when you don’t show up. Imagine being an A-List star and every one of your employees is a member of the paparazzo.

It’s a wonder work gets done at all.

Nearly 70% of U.S. office spaces are open-concept, according to the International Facility Management Association, compared with 64% two decades ago (Fuhrmans, 2017).  Led by startups which usually had everyone around the same table, as the CEO was usually one of the engineers on the team, the idea grew; Google, Zappos and other companies started to expand until it became de riguer to be completely open.  It is also cost efficient, as there is no money spent on building walls, which also makes configuration and flexibility of the space a valuable asset. Yes, communication, which is the lifeblood of a company is increased.  According to Samantha Pena on WeWork.com, “Employees are more likely to communicate with one another and work as a team. Naturally, improved communication boosts collaboration efforts between various levels of employees, so even a manager can feel more approachable” (Pena, 2017).

However, many times, creativity needs a quantum of solace in order to take something from idea into reality.  It is one reason why, some companies use the main open office for meeting and collaboration and working from home to hone and develop ideas.  After open spaces started to catch on, many companies started to install areas for employees to “focus”, which are generally off the main open area and quieter than the rest of the office.  Needless to say, these areas become the most valuable real estate in the office.

So what about the next generation of CEO’s those that have started with the open office and worked through them?  Many are opting for walls and a door. But this is not about status; this is about a space to do work without having everyone around.  And to point out – there is plenty of work that should not be public. Negotiating seed money and determining a company’s next steps in to the market need to be made without distractions. There are some conversations that are and should be confidential in nature. Playing your work life out in public sometimes does not do anyone any good. Leaders know that the timing of announcements can either bring a team together or split it apart.  A private space and a door can be the difference.

So if you have commandeered an empty conference room to try to figure out what needs to be in your PowerPoint presentation or cursing the battery life in you headphones, remember, you are not alone.

References

Fuhrmans, V. (2017, May 22). CEOs Want Their Offices Back. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/ceos-want-their-offices-back-1495445400?mod=djcm_OBV1_092216&utm_source=taboola&utm_medium=referral

Pena, S. (2017, April 28). Pros and Cons Of An Open Office. Retreived from WeWork.com: https://www.wework.com/creator/how-to-guides/pros-cons-open-office/

 

Hope for Grumps Everywhere

I am usually what some may call a Grump at work.  I am not the eternal optimist; I am realistic. I do this, not because I want to see the organization suffer, but because I am skeptical about most things.  This can cause some to feel like I am working at odds against them. That may be, however, playing the Devil’s advocate is a position that must be played in order to prove an approach is the one that will actually work.  I do tend to relish it though.

So this morning has given me some hope: speaking at a Chicago conference for the Society of Human Resources, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant stated that my cheerful and always sunny co-workers may not be the most valuable in an organization.  That prize might be me, the Grump.

Grant states he separates workers along two axes: agreeable and disagreeable, takers and givers.  Givers share of themselves and make their colleagues better, while takers are selfish and focused only on their own interests. The agreeable/disagreeable spectrum is what it sounds like: some workers are friendly, some are grouchy. The matrix looks as such:

Givers Takers
Agreeable Agreeable givers Agreeable takers
Disagreeable Disagreeable givers Disagreeable takers

Grant has found there’s no correlation between being friendly and being a giver, nor being a grump and a taker. Givers and takers both can be either agreeable or disagreeable.

What companies do not need are takers.  Agreeable takers are deceptively terrible, fooling colleagues into thinking they’re generous while secretly undermining the organization. Disagreeable takers simply want to destroy what they can and take what they will in the chaos of destruction. Grant compared them to the vicious Lannisters on Game of Thrones.  There are other analogues as well.

So companies need to focus on givers, but here is the catch; agreeable folks, those shiny happy people generally avoid conflict, which means that they are eager to agree on everything.  However, the grumps, like me, can provide real value because we can be a real pain in the butt. We fight for what we think is right for the organization.  We force management to see the other side, we are not afraid of looking like the bad guy, if it means the organization can be better for it. Oscar the Grouch is saying that your plan looks good? When you receive that, it isn’t flattery – you can trust that he means it.

So, grumps and grouches, continue to play the Devil’s advocate.  The point is, your organization needs you to continue to do so.

 

Reference

Staley, O. (2018, June 20). The best employees are not the agreeable ones, according to Adam Grant. Retrieved from Quartz at Work: https://work.qz.com/1309735/adam-grant-the-best-employees-are-not-the-agreeable-ones/

 

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.

References

Thomas, M. (n.d.). Attention Management™ is the new path to productivity. Retrieved March 18, 2018, from MauraThomas.com: https://maurathomas.com/empowered-productivity/attention-management/

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.