Big Thoughts in Thin Air

 This one’s from my first formal flying lesson.  After performing the preflight check, the instructor let me start the engine, taxi out to the runway and take off.  (Note: takeoff is real easy, landing is a little harder.)  Anyway, we’re puttering over the plains of north Texas at about 4000 feet when the instructor says “I bet you’re wondering what would happen if the engine died right now” and he shuts the engine off.  Well, I just looked at him waiting for the next piece of the lesson, and he was clearly disappointed that I wasn’t freaking out.

“Ok, smart-ass, so you’ve flown before.”  Yes, my dad had me in Piper Cubs as soon as a lap belt would keep me from sliding off the seat. “Look around and find a place to land”, he says.  So, with the altimeter spinning down from 4000ft toward ‘crash’, I look around and point to a big open field with a little row of shrubs at one end.  “There”, I say.  He has me restart the engine, with a bit of altitude to spare, and take the plane down to a few hundred feet off the ground.  Things looked a wee bit different here. The field was actually what I can only describe as “elephant grass”.  The stuff was thick and very tall.  And those tiny shrubs turned out to be small trees hiding a shallow ravine with a creek running through it.  The landing would not have been smooth.  The plane would probably have been totaled, with serious personal injuries to all on board.  The flying lesson of the day was “always try to land on a road”.

The management lesson

The management lesson of the day was “things always look a lot smoother from up high”.  A lot of times the big thoughts in the PowerPoint look really straightforward and easy to execute.  It’s fun and exciting to think up possibilities or concisely craft a general solution to a vexing problem.  It seems so easy.  “Why didn’t we think of this before.”  “We should have these meetings more often.”  The situation on the ground is always a bit more, shall we say, nuanced.

The Devil’s in the details

Often stated, yet oft treated lightly.  As easy as it seemed to draft the plan in the conference room, there’s not enough time or energy in that forum to flesh out the details.  The danger is in jumping ahead and delegating the implementation. What’s missing is the feedback loop from the implementers as to what challenges were inadvertently overlooked or minimized.  Most often, the main issue is counting on full participation of resources already fully committed.  Another frequent oversight is not  accounting for ‘dead time’ in handoffs, process transitions, or review/approval loops.  Then there there are the frictional losses of implementing a plan that hasn’t been sold to the organization, or includes contributors who aren’t committed or perhaps not even capable.


Why didn’t you say something?

You can’t always rely on the staff to automatically be the sanity check either.  Everyone wants to please the boss.  No one want’s to be seen as “Dr. No” for outlining all the possible contingencies with worst case implications.  Especially when the leadership expresses great excitement (read: emotional ownership) for the idea on the table.  Shooting the messenger is such a time honored tradition that it is a perceived threat even if it’s not a real threat.  The management team needs to reach out to the front line and not just ask for feedback, but explicitly state that “bad news is OK”.  And be on alert for body language or other behaviors that contradict that message. You rarely get a second chance at credibility.

Just add some pad and call it a day

On the other hand a blanket fudge factor without supporting analysis never really gets internalized or affects expectations.  Just throwing in a general “pad” to the cost/schedule formula doesn’t make it real.  (Although, I’m continually surprised at how often “twice the money and three times the time” works out forensically).  Somehow, even though we can latch onto a stated goal with insufficient backup, we are equally adept at discarding counterpoints based on the same level of supporting information.

Some meat on the bone

One way to flesh out the subsurface hazards is to poll the team on percentage likelihood of obtaining each milestone at the projected cost/schedule.  You can play around with the responses (e.g. average all entries for a given milestone, or drop the high and low if you have a large enough sample).  Then combine the probabilities and apply that to the planned goal.  The result will be illuminating, if not disconcerting, which may motivate all to dig a little deeper into the details. All the better to understand the realities of implementation. The pilot can usually change altitude to achieve a smoother flight, but the ground is not so easily modified.

Moving Toward Perfection

Moving Toward Perfection

I learned to drive in a car that didn’t have power steering. (Yes, I’m that old.) But that didn’t prepare me for my stint in the Air Force.  I was in a tactical unit, which meant we had to be ready to go anywhere and set up shop on short notice.  So all of our gear was either loaded on trucks or had wheels bolted on them.  And, since we had to be light and lean, we didn’t have a bunch of truck drivers on the team.  All us geeks had to pack and drive our own stuff.  That meant I had to learn drive a truck.  Two and a half tons to be exact.  “Deuce-and-a-Halfs” they were called.  And they didn’t have power steering either.

Without power steering

Now, I’m not a big guy.  About 120lbs at the time.  And messing with electronics doesn’t exactly build upper body strength.  So, as I sat in the driver’s seat and attempted to turn the wheel in preparation for backing out the parking spot, I promptly pulled myself off the seat onto the steering wheel – which hadn’t budged.  Ah, the seat belt! Silly me, I thought. I buckled up, tried again, and accomplished nothing more than severely compressing whatever it was I’d had for breakfast. The motor pool Sergeant, who had amused himself watching my antics, eventually filled me in that it’s a lot easier to steer when the truck is actually moving.  What a difference.  With the truck moving and the engine taking the work of rolling the tires holding up all that weight over the pavement, course correction was a modest increment of required force easily accomplished by a 120lb comms tech. Though, truth be told, I still needed the help of the seat belt.

The takeaway

It’s much easier to be agile when your moving. If you’re trying to write the perfect product spec or business plan you’ll never deliver. Look, no one’s saying to deliver crap, but perfection can’t be attained in isolation.  You can’t know everything about how your product will be expected to perform until it’s released into the wild.  Your customers can’t know all the ways they’re going to use it until the get their hands on it (or their kids get their hands on it) and kick it around a bit. Even if you manage to satisfy your hypercritical self, you’ll fall short of somebody’s expectations. The startup world has already learned this and turned it into a mantra, or mantras actually.  “Fail fast”, “Iterate often” all speak to the need to get a core offering out there and see where the user base wants to take it.

What could go wrong?

Release a product, get feed back, adjust, rinse and repeat. The hard part, of course, is figuring out what to fix and what to ignore.  Which customers are right, or represent the target market and which ones are niche interests or one-offs.  You still have to do a good job defining your goal.  If not, you’ll end up with ‘feature creep’ or ‘code bloat’. Without a clear target, you may end up with a product that most people think is ok, but no-one is particularly excited about.  More importantly, vet and remember your underlying assumptions.  Any time you wonder if the goal is still valid, recheck those assumptions as well. If the footings have shifted, then adjust. But, if the assumptions still hold, hold the goal as well and make your tradeoff decisions accordingly.

By the way, when your overarching goal is well defined and consistently applied, the process of working through adjustments and tradeoffs will be much quicker.  It’s a lot easier to get where you want to go when you’ve got the way points preloaded in the GPS.  Even if you don’t have power steering.

Team Building Is Shared Experience Under Pressure

Team Building Is Shared Experience Under Pressure

Ok, I went through military basic training, disaster drills, fraternity hell week, and more than my fair share of corporate-team-building-off-sites. And they all seemed pretty silly at the time. The hazing, the overblown strictness and protocols, the seemingly pointless exercises. It wasn’t until I spent time with combat veterans, first responders and, yes, even startup founders that it all started to make sense. The fundamental currency of teams is trust. And trust is formed through shared experience under pressure.

A Basic Training Story

Let me start with a basic training story. During one of the ubiquitous locker inspections, I watched my Training Instructor palm a small piece of paper and pull it out of the pocket of one of my dress uniform shirts. Failing inspection was a minor “Form 341” offense, but it was portrayed by my T.I. as the end of the world. It was a tense moment. He was truly in my face. “What’s this?” he yelled, so that all of Lackland AFB could hear. “Piece of paper, sir” I responded… a little more quietly. “What’s it doing here?” he yells back (at least the guy ate breath mints). Pause. “Guess I missed it, sir”. He took my Form 341, I got my demerit, it was over and he moved on to the next guy.

So What’s The Point?

So what was the point of all that? I could have called him on it, argued that I just checked my pockets prior to inspection… blah, blah, blah. He knew that I knew he put it there. First, I was the quiet under the radar guy who had, so far, stayed out of trouble and as a result was a bit separate from the team. Aloof might not be too strong a word. I hadn’t screwed up and endured the wrath. He knew a lot guys wouldn’t trust me because of that. And if I argued, the whole flight would have payed a price as well. I’d be throwing them under the bus to save my “spotless record”. Second, he needed to know if I would obey my superior under pressure, no questions asked, or if I would feel compelled to debate and discuss. In the heat of battle, you need to know your followers will follow. Period. Mistakes will be made, bad decisions happen. But as “E0” lowest level enlisted guy, you don’t know the whole story so you’re not the one to bring it up at that particular point in time. He was testing my reaction. And the rest of the flight probably guessed I didn’t leave that paper in the pocket, so they knew I took one for the team. The team dynamic changed palpably for me personally after that point.

Why The Pressure Part?

Why not just shared experience? Why the pressure part? Well, if you talk with someone who saw and enjoyed the same movie you did, you’d have a shared experience. You might even go see a another movie they liked based on that. But chances are that experience wouldn’t give you confidence to enter hostile territory with you watching one half and they responsible for the other. Chances are you wouldn’t automatically assume that, when all hell broke lose, they’d hop on the bus to the scene with you. And you’re not likely give this person part of your nest egg to start a business any more than they would you. There’s not a lot of depth/strength in plain shared experience.

Pressure creates stress and stress identifies weakness. A maintenance chief I once new was fond of saying: “If it doesn’t work, force it. If it breaks, it needed to be replaced anyway”. So the more weaknesses are identified and repaired or replaced, the higher the trust that things will work well when the pressure is on. Works with people too. It’s illuminating to see how folks react to being asked/told to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do in the interests of achieving a common goal – with not a lot of time to think about it. SEALs don’t keep a lot of earnest people around if they’re not fully capable and totally committed. They can’t afford the stakes.

It’s About Transitions

Fine, so what does that have to do with running a business? Everything. Businesses don’t always do such a great job of culling the herd. If your employees don’t trust one another – even if there’s just one person they don’t trust, you don’t have a team. You have a group of workers. When things are going ok, they’ll just be inefficient. When the crap hits the fan, you will fail because the distraction and friction from the lack of trust will cost you dearly at the worst possible time.

Worst possible times are usually transitions. Start of a new business, launching a new product or entering a new market are obvious transitions. Here, the consequences are repeatedly missed milestones, cost overruns and revenue shortfalls. The mother of all transitions is the merger or acquisition. Here you’re trying to merge two teams who have established, over time, a level of trust that is now being challenged. You will never dismantle the exiting informal team structures no matter how many one-on-ones, and craftily created org charts you devise. Unless you find a way to create new shared experiences under pressure you will endure inefficiencies at best and untold interpersonal dramas at worst. Strong, committed, respected leadership might be able to wrestle that through day-to-day operations, but finding a way to accelerate the process during the first 3-6 months is a more effective approach. Whether creating a new, jointly staffed internal project or rotating a series of mixed teams through some appropriate off site event, a new layer of trust must be formed quickly.