Work’s a Journey, Not a Destination

After 40 years of working at the same company, a friend of mine retired recently. During her farewell party, she commented how she felt like she was, “…watching my life be dismantled piece by piece…” during the transition phase leading up to her last day.

This reminded me of a similar feeling I had many years ago when I was moving to a new company and was hearing from friends how many of the systems I had put in place during my tenure were being retired for newer ones. The sense of pride I felt having taken that company’s fledgling network and boosted/ grown it over the five years I was there was turning into sadness that this “upstart” who was hired to replace me was suddenly veering into (in my opinion) the wrong direction.

He wasn’t the guy who nurtured those systems, who understood what was needed to keep it stable, who worked for years in actually stabilizing it, who took care and maintained it.  He was just some “new” guy with ideas of grandeur who was coming in to make his mark. And worst of all he wasn’t going to be sticking around!

It was then that I realized that my career was not about creating anything solid or long-lasting like houses or buildings, but that I was dealing with what I can only refer to as “VaporWare”.  I was building or creating technology systems and/or working with teams developing software that could only last a few years.  That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to technology. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t care about what they’re delivering, though.

Knowing that something won’t last means that you should accept the transient nature of the work.  Build the best thing you can without it consuming you or aiming for absolute perfection. Release it to the wild with the understanding that you will (and should) continue to tweak it, monitor it, boost it up, and make it better a bit at a time.  When the time comes that your system needs to be decommissioned, let it go. There will be other projects, other challenges, other teams.

In other words, build the best thing you can, but not at the expense of others.

The most important thing to remember is that the people you work with along the way, and how you treat them, will be what really continues to exist after the work is done. Those relationships you forged, or the ego battles you fought, will continue past the project and the company. The people you work with are what make your day and the time you spend at work bearable. Because of that, the best you should hope for is to make a positive impact in someone’s life.

I find the concept of “empire building” quite funny. I hear from people in various companies about some of the practices they have to put up with and I shake my head and snicker. It always amazes me when I hear of how one person is trying to push something through, or working to remove someone from their team, or trying to “amass power” in a way to move up in a company. Why go through all that effort?  Why dispense so much negative energy? Remember, Collaboration is the key to success.

Life is too short to spend your days arguing about things that will not stand the test of time. Those “empires” or victories will not keep you warm at night nor visit you when you’re on your deathbed.  And when the time comes, they will not raise a glass to your memory, either.

As a parting thought, I leave you with the conclusion to my friend’s speech.  She finished by saying, “…I realize now that it wasn’t about the work, it was all about you!”  Her daily work is over, but our friendships, memories, and new stories will continue. She couldn’t take her work with her now that she’s retiring, but she can definitely take our friendship. That’s exactly what I took with me when I left the company we were both working at, five years ago.

(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona still has a way to go before being able to retire, but when he does, he’s sure you’ll be able to read all about it… His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead. (and  at last check, more than 50% of the companies he worked or consulted at are now dead!))

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Why Sharing Praise Sparks Engagement and Innovation

I have always been a voracious reader, and by extension I guess I also spend a lot of time thinking. Most times, I think about ways experiences can be improved. It’s a simple motto of looking at any situation and asking the question of “what can we do that would make this better?”

When I was first starting out my career and had taken “ownership” for the local area network of the company I was at, I thought it would be really cool if the users logging in were greeted with a friendly message and/ or perhaps a little word of wisdom.  I went searching for quotes everywhere I could (not as easy as it is today) and started to incorporate them within the network login scripts.

I was quite proud of this accomplishment – even though today’s technology makes it all child’s play. At any rate, I used to get a big kick out of seeing those messages appear and the users loved it as well.

One morning, a few weeks later, I came across a message that was sent to my boss from a new employee extolling his wisdom at such a young age for being able to present such pearls of wisdom to everyone every morning. In his reply, he simply thanked her, and made no mention of my contribution or the fact that it was all my doing.  I was crestfallen.

This was my first experience with someone else taking credit for something I had done and it took my breath away like a powerhouse punch to the gut.

Why didn’t my boss say anything? Why is it not inherent in people to direct praise to those who specifically earned it? Forget not being fair, that was just downright wrong! My young self could not believe what had happened.

I have often said that one of my reasons for wanting to become a leader was to ensure that anyone reporting to me would be treated the way *I* wanted to be treated and this was definitely one of those defining moments.

The quickest way to lose employee engagement is to hold back the kudos they deserve for good work, especially if the praise comes from a third party. That is partially why I always make sure my employees know exactly how I feel about the great work they do. The other reason is actually quite simple: because they deserve to know when they’ve made a positive impact in the lives of others! They should know that their work matters!

No one is more willing to invest time and effort into something than when they know they are appreciated.

As for me, it wasn’t too long after that experience that the login greeting scripts I had created were slowly dismantled. It just wasn’t worth my time and effort to keep doing something that wasn’t strictly necessary, especially considering all my other work. Network logins went back to being what they were because no one else had the time to maintain it and I filed the experience away. Eventually, I did polish it off and reinstitute it again. At a new company, of course.


(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona fondly remembers those old Bulletin Board Systems and CompuServe Forums, but can’t deny the better on-line world of today. His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Transformation, Strengths, and Monstrous Changes

Every year, August slowly brings back that crisp morning air and the sense that Autumn is just around the corner.  With it, of course, comes the beautiful transformation of nature as we (at least here in Canada) begin to prepare for the coming winter. It is always during this point in time that I begin to reflect on my own transformation.  What has changed since the year began? Where do I need to adjust my course? Are the waters up ahead calm or am I headed for a storm?

I’m not a believer of “new year resolutions” but I am very much a believer of naturally taking stock of where you are and where you’re going, both in a personal and a professional way. And just as the new school year arrives every September offering new challenges and opportunities for learning to students, I try to peek around the corner and figure out “the shape of things to come” in my own life. It’s just an instinctive reaction I have to the changing of this season.

A few years ago, I was asked to go on camera and record my thoughts on what I thought about Transformation in business and the challenges that come with change. Never one to shy away from (a) sharing my thoughts or (b) being on camera, I readily agreed. The memory of the video came back to me recently while discussing Clifton StrengthsFinder with a friend and my approach to using it.

Change for change’s sake doesn’t work for me. If you’re going to invest time, money, and energy into something, it should be for a positive and rewarding experience. Often, just looking at a situation differently is enough to spark a change.  For example, I used to carry my personal motto with me to every meeting I went to.  A simple note of “Make it Happen” reminded me that nothing happens without someone to put things in motion. When I was given my first team, I made a small change to my saying and shared it with the team.  It became: “Make IT Happen”.  As Information Technologists, our job was to support our colleagues, our clients, and our company. There was no reason that we couldn’t do whatever it took. We just needed to take full ownership and get the job done.

Simplistic?  Yes.  Difficult?  Sometimes, yes, it was. When you are working in an environment that doesn’t empower employees to challenge the status quo, it’s easy to fall into a routine. Deciding that you will and CAN get the job done (and that you have the support to do so) changes the way you approach a problem. And when you’re working in a cohesive team, there are ample ideas to help you out if you get stuck.

As is the case with any new direction, not everyone bought in on the changes. Eventually, though, once the benefits started to materialize and people noticed the positive and impactful changes we had introduced, it became second nature. I’m proud to say that those employees quickly earned a reputation for being knowledgeable, trustworthy, efficient, and most importantly, dependable. They became known for getting IT done.

Let me wrap up this post by sharing the transcript of my recorded interview:

“Personally, there is a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes that sums up my feelings about Transformation. It is this: ‘We must sail sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it, but sail we must and not drift nor lie at anchor’.

The point, for me, is that we need to keep moving, keep adapting, keep looking for newer and better ways to use our skills, our talents, our people, in ways that empower them, make them accountable and get them energized by the possibilities that new ventures can bring us.

Transformation is all about taking a look at where we are and what is to come and finding ways to synergize the best of both worlds, keep us heading in the direction we need to go to reach our goals and just learn to steer our ship with more eloquence and speed with the whole team working together towards those goals.

It’s not about forgetting the old and blindly embracing the new, but about accepting, not resisting, what is to come and seeing how it can fit with what already is.

In other words, to use another quote, it’s about building a better tomorrow, today.”

(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona’s top Strength is Strategy, but he never imagined he would one day quote Monster’s Inc. during an interview on Business Transformation, even though that movie’s theme (now that he thinks about it) is all about changing a business model to survive!! His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Hiring for Passion, Leading by Trust

My wife forwarded me an awesome quote from Stephen R. Covey that went, “If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external.”

This struck a chord with me because I have often made a similar statement during recruitment drives around hiring candidates.  My point was always, “Give me a candidate with the right attitude and the desire to learn, rather than a candidate who just has the skills.” Learning, after all, is a great motivator. From my experience, workers shouldn’t want a job just to clock some hours, pull in a paycheque, and go home.  Sure, there are plenty that might fall into that mindset, but they’re not the ones who will become engaged employees or thrive in an environment of collaboration such as the one I choose to foster.

In other words, I want to work with employees that are excited by the possibilities of what we can accomplish together. That drive, that passion, energizes me and by extension it energizes their colleagues.  A group of collaborators working together to resolve issues or deliver solutions is an amazing force. And when they have reached a level of cooperation that allows them to literally hum with “power” it becomes a force to be reckoned with.  The team is able to motivate each other not just to keep going, keep building, but also to lend support and encouragement when a wall suddenly pops up in front of them.

It takes a lot of trust on the behalf of a Leader to help a team become self-motivating and self-sustaining, and it’s not one that comes easily to most. The fear of losing control is the biggest hindrance most Managers have in nurturing the right ember to get it to a full-blown fire. And yet, that’s what we want.  A fire that burns from within to motivate employees into giving their best. No, not just giving their best, but WANTING to give their best.

I’ve heard the comments so many times over the years that you can almost feel a mantra being built up around it:

  • “If I don’t track their hours, how do I know they’re actually working the amount of hours they’re supposed to?”
  • “If I don’t see them at their desk or in the office, how do I know they’re actually working from home/remotely and not just goofing off?”
  • “If I don’t tell them what to do, they’ll just work on the wrong priorities!”

I could go on, but why bother? I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this.  Fear of losing control brings on this huge lack of trust. If you meet with your team regularly enough, or even just communicate with them often enough (through whatever means, physical or electronic), then they should definitely know what’s important for you, your department, your business unit, your company.  You hired them to do a job, and your job is to ensure they’re on the right path, but you have got to give them the leeway to actually DO their jobs.

Here are questions to ask yourself: What’s more important to you/ your Business Unit/ your Company? The number of hours employees are AT work, or the amount of work that gets delivered?  One does not equal the other.  If I force my employee to commute 3 hours a day because I can’t allow them to work remotely on “bad” days (traffic, weather, health), then how effective will they be in the office? How much of those hours sitting at their desk will they be able to deliver anything?  Instead, how much more could they do if those 3 hours were used in an environment where they’re not feeling stressed about what they have to go through to get to the office?  How much more could they accomplish?

In the end, what matters is the quality of your offering. If your employees are engaged and have the drive to work collaboratively, they can deliver some pretty amazing things. Your leadership and trust will keep them focused on their target. They will strive to deliver their best because they have a passion for it, not because they were micromanaged into accounting for their time and presence.  To put it another way, as Dominic Covvey, a Professor of Health Informatics said to me last year during a lecture, “It doesn’t matter if you’re on time or on budget if you’re producing garbage.”

 

(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona has a Passion for Trust and Collaboration and an absolute hatred of traffic. He skipped the classes on “Management by Walking Around” but jumped right into “Let’s Be Great Together!” His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Non-Negotiables and Choosing Your Road during Job Searches

In the last few months, I found myself in a number of conversations with friends about what point is a non-negotiable must-have when it comes to their working for a company. A few of my friends have even called it their non-starter point on the topic of interviews. In other words, if the job is below a certain pay grade, or has expectations of a high percentage of travel (for example) then they weren’t going to waste their time going in for a formal interview because they would not (or could not) accept any offers.

This had me thinking about my own non-negotiables and wondering how (or if) that list has changed throughout the years.

When I finished college and started pounding the pavement looking for work in the “Computer Science” industry, it felt like trying to scale Mount Everest. The company I worked my Stage in were happy to keep me on, they just couldn’t pay me. Sadly, the prospects I came up against weren’t much better. One day, I received a call from IBM and immediately lined up an interview. They weren’t looking for a Programmer but I was open the idea of being an Operator for them. At least it was a position in IT!

I thought the interview went great and, in fact, the hiring manager and I hit it off so well that our conversation veered off when he learned about my interests in reading and writing. He told me of his favourite author (Spider Robinson) and shared what he liked so much about his work. I talked of the stuff I was creating and what I spent my time reading. Soon, the 30 minute interview went well into the hour range and upon realizing that, he stood up and gave me a tour of their server rooms and explained a bit more about the job.

Everything seemed good until he pointed out that his immediate need was for a Night Operator and that meant my shift would be something around supper time to early morning. Suddenly, I learned that I had a non-starter, non-negotiable item. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the idea of working a night shift that got to me, but the realization that if I took that job, I would no longer be able to have supper with my parents for the foreseeable future. This may seem strange for a young man in his early twenties to think about, but knowing that the day would come that “family time” would be over didn’t mean I was in a rush to make it happen. I also knew I didn’t have to sacrifice that “core” rule in order to get a good job.

In the end, I did not go further with the posting, but I did learn a very valuable lesson. One, I realized how much family really meant to me and that I was unwilling to do anything to impact it. Two, I found out how much I loved Spider Robinson’s work and became a big fan of his Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series!

A few months later I did get a job which started my journey to the career I’m living today. Also, because of my other passion, I got to meet and hang out with Spider Robinson numerous times a few years later due to a mutual friend. Spider definitely got a huge kick from my story about how I got exposed to his work and his laughter at my re-telling is a memory I cherish.

For me, the old adage was definitely true. You never know what the future will bring, but if you stick with your beliefs and core values, you can help shape where it will take you. Understanding the emotional consequence of any decision is just as important as calculating financial and social impacts and each should be weighed accordingly. Only you know what’s truly important to what you want to do, and where you want to go. Your non-starters are not there to prevent you from getting a job. They are there to ensure that you will be able to give your best to the one you do get. There are enough challenges in the work day without your regret at your own compromises being one of them.

(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona found himself in Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and learned that Shared Pain is Lessened, Shared Joy Increased. He also knows how easy it is to give fully to a company that matches your shared beliefs. His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Know Your Audience, Don’t Argue With Them

As a Writer, one of the biggest points brought about by Publishers and Editors is to Know Your Market.  After all, if you’re going to be spending time crafting a book for adults but your market is children, you’re going to find yourself with a lot of unsold books. I have found that the same focus is true/ required in the business world.

One of the biggest chasms that I’ve seen in my career is the one that divided the IT and Business teams.  IT generally expected the Business to be as up to date in Technology as they were, and the Business generally expected IT to understand exactly what the Business did and needed! Meetings often became mini Towers-of-Babel filled with IT folks not getting why the Business couldn’t use the technology as developed and the Business not getting why IT couldn’t see how the Business really worked!

Needless to say, an IT-to-Business Rosetta Stone would have made all the difference. Alternatively, just exercising Empathic Listening and attempting to understand what the other person is saying (and needs) could have made the experience more enjoyable and mutually beneficial.

Basically, here is what I suggest:

1- Leave the Ego at the door.  Don’t go into this thinking you know more than anyone else.  Go into the meeting certain that you don’t know the whole story.

2- Know your audience. If you don’t think you need to know all the tax laws by heart, then don’t expect them to know the latest core build or even the difference between right-and-left mouse clicks! (Yes, seriously.)

Of course, the point is not to speak to each other like children, but rather to remember why you are supposed to work together/ what you’re trying to solve. Technology alone can’t solve everything without understanding the process flow that makes up your Business Partner’s day. Collaboration begins with first understanding what the current process is, and then trying to understand what the “perfect end state” should be.  This is not a question of “what are you trying to DO?” but more a perfecting of “what are you trying to achieve?”

I explain it this way:  The Business is very unhappy with their coffee.  The IT Team comes up with all these awesome solutions around automated delivery of coffee that is triggered when the Business Partner sits at their desk, or a point-click-order system right off their monitor screen. The Business doesn’t understand why they have to invest in the time and money to put this new system in place and argue against it. “What if I don’t want a coffee when I sit down? What if my Monitor is not a touch-screen?”

Back and forth it goes, both sides getting more frustrated as one side tries to “sell” their vision to the other.  In the meantime, no one has gotten to the point of the meeting: what does the Business really want/ need to do?  If they had, perhaps they would have realized that it wasn’t the coffee that was the problem, or even the delivery system, but that nine times out of ten the fridge was out of milk!

This seems like a simplistic “problem” that I made up for the purposes of this post.  However, change the coffee for an Inventory Management system and milk for Excel and you might get closer to truth of where this story came from.

In the end, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about coming together to build a better mousetrap. And unless you are tasked with building a mousetrap to capture a bear, remember what I said in a previous post: if you want successful collaboration, it begins with communication. Listen to what your partners need, and explain your vision to them in a language they understand.  Respect each other’s opinions and try to see from what position they’re coming to you for help. When blocking points happen, it’s okay to take a break and meet again later.  You’re all in the same boat rowing to your destination. You’ll get there a lot faster if you row together.

 

 

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The Secret to Successful Collaboration? Communication!

If there was ever one truth about myself which pretty much drove all my career decisions, it was the need to know everything about what I was involved in. “Do this because I say so” has never been my style in either side (as a worker, or as a manager). I didn’t accept it, and I don’t deliver it. I find buy-in to be the biggest motivation. I want to do work because I believe in it, not because I was told to do it, and I want those who report to me to feel the same way.

If you invest in your work you become a much bigger part of the solution.

That bit of true-ism made all the difference to me when it came to delivering solutions.  Obviously I understood the need to “do my job” but I never considered myself a cog in a machine just playing my part.  I wanted to know how I fit into the big picture.  I wanted to understand how others could be helped by what I was doing. If I could “see” what we were trying to build/ deliver, it would help make decisions a lot easier.

It took over twenty years before I understood that this trait – which seemed to be one of the things that differentiated me from many others – was called Connectedness.  I need to feel connected to what I’m doing.  I need to understand the whole flow of what we’re building and this helps me easily see how each piece feeds the whole. That knowledge allows me to share a complete vision with everyone involved and brings about the best team discussions since we’re all “rowing together” towards the same destination.

If I apply this trait to my “natural” state of Agile, it would be akin to having a fully defined User Story.

For those who don’t know what a User Story is, there are plenty of definitions on the web.  Just Google “Define User Stories” and you’ll see what I mean. The way I summarize it is that a User Story defines what a “user” wants or needs, and why. The general statement I use follows this format:

As a PERSONA <client, user, etc.>, I want to <vision, idea> so that <business value>

In my experience, many teams tend to leave out the ‘business value’ of the statement because they want to focus on what they need to build. However, if you look at it logically, that ‘business value’ is the driving force and gives everyone a clear understanding of WHY something needs to be delivered. This value can then be compared against other deliverables in order to better prioritize what needs to be done first.

Going back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, letting me in on why something is required allows me to understand and appreciate the importance and value of the solution. With this information, it is a lot easier to get buy-in from the team tasked to delivering it. Finally, sharing that information with the team allows them to feel connected to the whole process and makes them feel valued and valuable to the process.

The result? Constant communication around delivering the right solution the best way possible.  And if you have a strong trust level in the team, that communication and sharing / challenging of ideas will bring about true collaboration.

Remember, “because I say so” will never get you the kind of results a true collaborative effort will. Explain what needs to be done, share the information you have, don’t be afraid to be challenged, and learn to listen to the opinions of others (especially if they are experienced in the matters at hand!). Make your team feel like they are part of the whole solution, and not just another widget-maker. You’ll be amazed at the magic that will come out of your sessions.

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