Archive for the ‘MOT’ Category

There is an old saying that “Numbers don’t lie”. Unfortunately, the assumptions used to generate them do! In todays “data analytics” driven world, this is an important issue to keep in mind. One of the most important things I had to learn as an early career manager was the lack of value that a financial model provides when decoupled from the assumptions it is based on. Really this goes for any model (at least any model of a real world issue).  The real value of most predictive models is actually in identifying the assumptions and clarifying their effects rather than providing a specific quantitative result. Much too often I have seen business plans and pro forma presented with vague assumptions that are discussed only in the small print or not at all. The primary discussion should actually center on the assumptions used to generate the financial model and how those assumptions will be tested and clarified moving forward. Without a very clear understanding of the underlying assumptions, a financial model just gives a false sense of security. In most situations, subtle changes to some of the assumptions can provide results that change a decision from a go to a no-go.  For Master of Engineering Management (MEM) graduates with strong quantitative backgrounds, it is especially important not to rely too heavily on the numbers generated by an impressive, complex model you have developed.  Rather, as an early career employee, one of your jobs should be highlighting the assumptions for decision-makers and clarifying where the assumptions are just educated guesses and where they have a high probability of being accurate. Be sure not to hide behind the numbers generated by an impressive model.  And follow-up with a plan for how the risk of a bad assumption will be managed and minimized over time. As a manager and decision maker, a significant part of the job is how to ask the right questions to ferret out bad assumptions or areas where the assumptions were implicit but not even identified. After all, if most situations were deterministic rather than probabilistic, gathering more information would make decisions easy and judgement would not be so important, just run a model for the answer!

A Blog by Greg Satell, Digital Toronto, has an excellent and more thorough discussion of “How Numbers Lie”.  I highly recommend it (along with many posts that Greg has written):


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There is an old saying, “For love of the game” made famous by a novel and film. For me, the phrase is an excellent summary of the struggle between motivations on opposite sides of the spectrum; for money or for love. This is highlighted in sports because the megabucks that professional athletes are paid stand in stark contrast to the ideal we hold for children regarding the passion and pure joy of playing sports “games”. But this same concept is a regular struggle for many of us in business during our career. If there is one thing I say over and over again to students and early career professionals it is (not unlike many career advisors); find something you love to do. Of course this is a common theme everywhere (“Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life” or “Find something you love to do and then figure out how to get paid for it”). A recent Blog Posting by Mitch Ditkoff (The Heart of Innovation) entitled “The Cult of Monetization“ (http://www.ideachampions.com/weblogs/archives/2015/06/the_m_word.shtml) is a wonderful perspective on this. It puts the issue in today’s business vernacular and we should all take heed.

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I received an interesting question from an alumnus not too long ago that went something like this;

If you are the champion for hiring someone, how much of an obligation do you have to them once they are actually on board? What if they don’t perform as well as expected?

What an interesting and subtle question. This sort of reminds me of the old proverb that; If you save someone’s life then you are responsible for, and even indebted to, them! Seems a bit backwards for western ways of thinking but makes perfect sense if you think about the greater good or society in general. So what about the person you bring into the company? I like to go back to the fundamental question: “What would add the most value to the organization?” This is a lot harder to answer than it seems at first because long term value is hard to determine. Also, subtle things that seem to be harsh on an individual can sometimes be good for the organization but not if they cause a toxic environment for others or make it more difficult to hire the best people (thus, the value of the “Best Places to Work” list for example). But tough, fair decisions need to be made that are best for the group, not always for each individual. And organizations make the mistake in both directions – being too accommodating for the individual or being too focused on the short term benefit of the company.

So back to this situation, I would actually treat the person in a similar manner as any other employee in that position after they have been hired. That means I would mentor and coach them when I thought it would be of value (to the organization!), just like other individuals but I would not give them special treatment. I have made plenty of hiring decisions that did not work out. If it was not working out and I gave them “special” assistance to help them succeed that was not available to others (beyond what I would do to have any person succeed in the position) then there are several issues. It would not be fair to others (remember we do not want equal treatment, but we do want fair treatment) and it could be perceived by my managers as “stacking the deck” to get the outcome I wanted, protecting my own ego. This could ultimately hinder the person’s ability to perform. It would also be taking time away from the activities that the organizations needs accomplished. But if I thought the organization could gain value by me mentoring the person then I would do it (just like anyone else in that position). The “system” needs to be optimized – i.e., the entire organization. I should also make it clear to my managers that it was the same as what I would do for anyone, not just for the case where I had brought someone into the organization. It definitely takes a lot of communication and a history of trust to make all that work (I like the book “The Speed of Trust”). So the bottom line is to treat the person fairly regardless of how they got into the position and just as importantly treat the rest of the employees fairly – by not giving special help to someone just because you lobbied for them as a good hire when in fact you were wrong! And remember that fair is not equal. An employee that is performing well should be rewarded for that performance, and an employee that is underperforming should be told so (constructively), no matter how they came to the organization. We all have an obligation to try to hire the best and brightest people for our organizations. We SHOULD advocate for people we think will be a good addition. When they don’t work out, be fair to everyone in the organization and give them the coaching and mentorship that provides the most value to the organization, no more and no less.

This also reminds me of a typical mistake that many early career managers make in how they talk about positions. Quite often we have contractors or part time employees helping our organizations. This can include the numerous internships that organizations provide to our students (and for which we are very grateful!). When we want to bring those employees on full-time or change their status from a contractor to an employee, I often here inexperienced managers say they want to give the employee a permanent position. That makes an HR attorney, and thus an experienced manager, cringe! Of course, we all know that no job is permanent (OK, some get close, like tenured faculty, but that is a problem to discuss in a future post). So what we really mean is we want the person to have a “regular” position. Keep this in mind as you talk with potential employees. Don’t call it permanent because nothing is and certainly if they do not perform, to be fair, they need to be moved out of the organization. And when that needs to happen, it almost always turns out better for them in the long run. Most of us need to be valued and performing up to our potential to be happy. That is not guaranteed to happen in all positions.

In summary, treat people fairly not equally and remember that positions in your organizations are regular not permanent.

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For the Jon Bon Jovi fans out there, you already know the punch line of this post because you know the song of the same name (although the best version of the song is the duet with Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland). I reflected on this over the weekend at the 50th Anniversary for the University of Virginia department where I conducted my PhD work. It has been almost 25 years and there were some people who I had not seen in that entire time. And memories being as fallible as they are, I did not remember everyone or every event that I would have hoped to. In fact, I think the intense, focused nature of the way I pursued my PhD degree reinforced the lapses in memory! Networking and team work were not in the vernacular for PhD students then; it was research, research, research. And of course there were many people whom I did not know from my time at UVa and just met at the celebration. So there were just a handful of people with whom I “reconnected” despite the fact that the activity involved well over 100 people. And yet it felt like a family reunion! Everyone I spoke with, old friend or not, was like a “reconnection” not a new acquaintance.

So I started thinking about how all this relates to engineering management and, in particular, networking. We were all coming together around an idea, not just a reunion. An idea that we should celebrate the fact that the UVa Materials Science and Engineering Department has been educating students for 50 years and we should envision the next 50! Thus, no person was a stranger in the sense that we all had a connection. This is a great learning for networking (i.e., building relationships). A very useful way to approach networking is to think about the common idea or connection you share with another individual. Even people you meet under entirely random circumstances will share something with you. You might guess at what that is or it might be obvious. At the very least, if you meet in-person you share the location, the weather, the traffic, the local news. Or if you meet at some type of event (a conference, a professional society meeting, etc.) then you share an interest in the topic or technology. This provides an easy platform for the beginning of a conversation which nucleates a relationship. Your first words in a conversation are generally aimed at building rapport and these common experiences or interests are an excellent way to do this. So the next time you find yourself in a situation where there are people you do not know, think about these commonalities and use them to strike up a conversation. (And let’s be frank, this happens all the time, from being in line at a Starbucks to the next time you board a plane).

So in summary, I was not really going “home” to UVa; my total time there was less than 5% of my time on earth to date! But it felt like going home because of a common idea that created a connection. We should all utilize these types of connections to build relationships, develop our network, add value to others and enhance our careers. It can be as deep a connection as a reunion for your school or as simple as a common interest in a particular technology or industry.

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Growing up, I played Little League baseball and football. Picture a bunch of 10 year olds on the field trying their hardest to look like they know what they are doing without betraying the underlying confusion they often feel. My coaches were usually my friend’s parents or someone else from my neighborhood. I didn’t really think much of it at the time but I learned a few things during those days that are relevant in my business life. Remember, this is in elementary school so it is reminiscent of the New York Times Best Seller “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten”. The particular learning I want to focus on here is the question “How coachable are you?” I distinctly remember coming back from a particularly rough Little League baseball game (rough for a 10-year-old anyway) and feeling pretty down about my performance. I played a couple of different positions but at this particular time I was a pitcher and, to put it frankly, I choked. This was a problem I often had. If I came in as a relief pitcher for someone else who was not doing so well I would do fine. On the other hand, if I started the game and it went well for a while I would often tense up and simply choke (we now understand a lot about why we choke, if you are interested see: http://gladwell.com/the-art-of-failure/). After this particular game, my coach (Mr. Wittman; my buddy Tim’s Dad) said something to my Mom about me being one of the most coachable kids he had worked with (he was usually yelling at us, deservedly so, thus this was high praise!). His coachable comment was in the context of something like “don’t worry, Jeff will get past this choking problem. He is very coachable”. So over the years my Mom, as mom’s everywhere tend to do, brings up this nice complement from my coach periodically, always making me feel good to know the I was a very coachable kid (I try not to think about the choking part!).

When I look back on this and think about how this relates to my business life, a couple of things come to mind. The first and most important is that, as a manager, one of THE MOST VALUABLE TRAITS which I look for in an employee is how coachable they are. Can they hear a suggestion or even a criticism and accept it, internalize it and use it to modify their behavior. This also implies that an employee can really listen to what a project manager needs and then deliver on it. It is being open all the time to colleagues’ opinions of how you can improve. Which brings me to the next most important relationship between your coachability and business life; how quickly you can learn. As I have written elsewhere in this blog and presented during graduation speeches, continuous learning is the hallmark of a successful career. Your formal education is just a platform and process for learning, not an end on its own. (As Newton D. Baker said, with slight paraphrasing: “The person who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.” http://izquotes.com/quote/290235). The more coachable you are, the more open you will be to learning and the more successful you will be throughout your career. You will have a focus on self-improvement and self-awareness; both important aspects of leadership. Finally, if you develop a mindset of being coachable, you will have a mindset of teamwork which, as we have heard constantly from our industrial advisors, is critical in today’s business world. The coaching ethos implies a culture of teamwork surrounding and supporting the coach-employee relationship.

In summary, be coachable. It is a skill and attitude you can develop.

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Happy 2015! My New Year’s resolution is to write more posts for this Blog by trying to write some short, simple observations for our MEM community. We’ll see how that goes. Now on to my current blog; I am already having trouble with the “shorter” part…..

For those of us old enough to remember the heyday of the former AT&T Bell Laboratories research machine, we think fondly of those days when a major laboratory could pursue paradigm-shifting inventions with no real knowledge of whether they would ever be profitable endeavors. The former AT&T Bell labs can take credit for such inventions as the transistor, cell phone technology, solar cells, the laser, communications satellites, digital switching, the fax machine and the list goes on. Bell Labs is responsible for some 33,000 patents and employed 12 Nobel Laureates with 7 Nobel Prizes going to Bell Labs inventions. Yet employment is now down from 30,000 at its peak to around 1,000 – ouch! (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_36/b4145036681619.htm). Clearly AT&T Bell Labs did not benefit commercially to the same extent they were successful scientifically (http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkanellos/2012/06/27/was-bell-labs-overrated/). So a key issue with all of these great inventions was that the company didn’t make sufficient money on them. It took decades for the inventions to make money and when they did, often it was from products that were not commercialized by AT&T. Over the years Bell Labs went through many transitions from splitting to being absorbed to being downsized but the overarching theme was “do more applied work that has shorter-term and more obvious market potential.” This trend has continued with many corporate research labs following suit, even when they weren’t as blue-sky oriented as Bell Labs. The same has even happened to university research although not to the extent that it has for industry. And I would argue that this has been beneficial for universities – they have also become more applied to fill the gap left by this industry transition but are now the primary long term research outlet. They have been able to work more closely with industry over the years and to be utilized as a key long term research arm for many companies and for government agencies (the “6.1” money).

So how does this relate to Google X? As I was driving along today on the highway watching a car in front of me drifting from side to side, not able to stay within the white lines (a texting driver perhaps?), I thought about the Google X driverless car (after backing far away from the drifting car!). It seems that this is another blue sky project decades away from any commercial value. Is it an old Bell Labs-like project? I went on to Google’s web site and found several more of these (space elevators, teleportation, hover boards and even a mosquito zapping laser to fight malaria! See: http://www.fastcompany.com/3028156/united-states-of-innovation/the-google-x-factor). Thus, is Google X the next Bell Labs and is that a good thing? Are they making up for the lack of blue sky research that went away when places like Bell Labs changed their culture? And perhaps more importantly, have they been able to do this without being part of a government lab or a regulated industry, like the old AT&T Bell Labs? I think the resounding answer to all these questions is YES!

So the point of all this is that we seem to have moved into an era of blue sky research that is built on the financial success of technology innovations and the associated billionaires (think Gates, Schmidt, Ellison, Bezos, Page, Dell). The billionaires of the world and their successful ventures are now putting money back into all kinds of crazy (in a good way) projects and basic research because they can! They have the financial strength. The ideas are born out of a deep knowledge of commercial success coupled with a passion for science and technology. These blue sky projects might be different than the old Bell Labs type and perhaps that means we need university science more than ever to build a pipeline of new research, but in any case, they are incredibly interesting and should excite any geek! What geek would not want to use lasers to zap a disease carrying insect? And for the basic science, these billionaires are teaming up with the universities (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/science/billionaires-with-big-ideas-are-privatizing-american-science.html?_r=0). It is a new, exciting era. Invention and the ensuing innovation pipeline are alive and well.

Footnote: I began to wonder if this AT&T Bell Labs-Google X comparison had already been written about and sure enough, see: http://www.wnyc.org/story/inside-google-x-bell-labs-today/!

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What is the most important activity for an early career professional? Probably exceeding expectations in the quality and quantity of your work product and making your boss look good. OK, the second most important activity? Building relationships and “networking”. I don’t need to repeat why this is critical for your career but in brief, you generally don’t get ahead without it. Meeting the right people and finding the opportunities before they are fully formed is the best way to help your career advancement and cultivating relationships is the best way to do that. There are lots of ways to do this and you should use many of them, finding the methods that suit you the best.

In this post I want to focus on one type of method; attending tradeshows, conferences and professional society meetings. These can be industry focused, market focused or technology focused. They can be small or massive. They usually include product announcements for companies. Sometimes they include job posting activities and interviews and sometimes they don’t. But by their fundamental definition, they always include networking. I can hear some of you thinking: “Conferences are for people who want to go into a technical field.” Not true. It took me less than 5 minutes to come up with these conferences for consultants: (i)http://www.imcusa.org/?IMC_Conference, (ii)http://www.nacva.com/conference.asp. And I am sure there are many more! I only use that example because it was the area I was most skeptical about having a relevant conference. After all, consultants work in all different industries and yet, there are conferences that bring them all together to learn best practices from each other – and to network.

Many of you have probably heard of the big consumer electronics or computer trade shows and conferences, often held in Las Vegas, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. For your own interest, do a few Google searches with your industry or functional area of interest coupled with conference, tradeshow, or professional society keywords and see what you come up with. I am certain there will be more than you will have time to study.

So what do you do at these conferences and trade shows? The key point is that in the space of a couple of days, you can get more informational interviews, new contacts and basic learning than in weeks of your daily routine. There are typically two basic formal activities – presentations in various sessions and trade booths showing off new products and services. Of course, there are also many social functions. All of these give the perfect opportunity to meet new people, learn about organizations and generally strengthen your professional network.

Going to talks helps you meet people. It is relatively easy to go up to a speaker after a talk and compliment them on the talk and ask a question that starts a dialogue. Remember that networking is about building relationships. You need to cultivate the relationships so it is not just about meeting as many new people as you can. Try to have lunch or dinner with someone new each day. Be sure to get their contact information. Walking the line between being proactive and being too pushy is important but most of us need to be more proactive.

At most conferences, the activities that are going on outside the talks and trade show are extensive and you should take advantage of them. From receptions to poster sessions to social activities to conference administration; all of them afford the opportunity to get to know the field and people in the field. Note that going to conferences is easier if you prepare and it gets easier with experience. Even going to the conference of a new society or topic can be challenging the first time because they all have their own way of doing things. By reading as much as possible about the venue and the activities before hand, it can really ease the burden while you are there. Look for talks and posters that fit your research and mark them. Most conferences have online apps to make this easier.

A corollary to all this discussion of conferences and tradeshows is the role of professional societies. Many times they will manage these events but beyond that they are themselves a great forum for networking. Smaller local events, online forums, social gatherings, etc. are all part of processional society activities. So be sure to join a couple of key professional societies as part of your networking activity.

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Each year I post my remarks from the MEM graduation ceremony. It is always a wonderful celebration. Here are my remarks from a few weeks ago at our 2014 ceremony…

MEM Graduation Remarks: Find Your Happy

I feel very fortunate to be able to participate in this celebration of a great accomplishment. In talking with some of you I have been struck by the profound desire you have to find the right job and career for yourselves and to strive to make things better; for your organizations, your families and yourselves. This is wonderful. Nowhere was this more obvious than when several of you told me about the MEM program the other day. I was pleased to hear that you praised it and talked about what a great experience it has been. But even more importantly, without missing a beat and with great passion, you also talked about how it can be better. This is fantastic. A positive, optimistic attitude coupled with a never ending search for improvement. This follows the “Ten Things We Know to Be True from Google.” Great just isn’t good enough.

Having said that, we also know that every decision is a choice; a trade-off of sorts. I strongly support this attitude that great is not good enough. But equally important is the idea that we all must find our fit; it will hard to be great in any organization if you have not found a good fit. The place where we are comfortable and at the same time challenged. Where our skills are appreciated and simultaneously not quite good enough. It is a dynamic positive tension so to speak. I believe that this is not in conflict with being happy and enjoying our time on this earth. In fact, it is not only consistent with being happy but it is probably a requirement if we are to optimize our enjoyment and happiness. So I’d like to call the next part of my two minutes in the sun here “Find Your Happy”.

The wide variety of likes and dislikes, skills and weaknesses, motivators and demotivators in our DNA are truly astounding. To be the most successful, not just in your work but in your life, you will need to Find Your Happy. Of course, this is a take-off on the Pharrell Williams academy award nominated song “Happy”. And I understand there was a hit MEM video – it may not win any academy awards but it is just as telling as the Academy Awards version. If you can find something to do every day, both in your personal life and your work life, that makes you feel like these folks look, then you are truly successful (Duke MEMP Happy Video).

While striving to Find Your Happy remember the famous quote about the future by William Gibson (and also utilized in my Innovation Management Class):

“The future is already here it is just unevenly distributed”.

In the context of Find Your Happy, this means that somewhere, someone is a great role model for you. You will be able to see your future through them! Look carefully for these mentors or coaches and study them. But the only way to find your own Happy is to find the right mentors and then look beyond them. You cannot look for some predetermined social definition of happy but truly must find your own. It’s hard. Especially if your idea of success is not the common, socially acceptable definition, you will question yourself and your decision. Don’t. Figure out what success means to you and follow your own happy. This is nowhere better stated than the fishermen story.

Many of you know the story of the Fisherman and the MBA meeting in a small coastal fishing village in Mexico. Well there is a lesser known but equally important encounter that occurred on a beach in the Florida Keys between an MEM alumnus and what appeared to be a beach bum; you know the type – a typical Jimmy Buffet fan. Here is how it went…..

An MEM Alumnus, Melvin E. Martin, was at the pier of a town in the Florida Keys when a small fishing boat captained by what appeared to be a beach bum pulled up. Low and behold the boat was full to the brim with Yellow Fin Tuna. What made this most remarkable is that Melvin had been watching boats for quite some time and this was the only boat that had caught any fish. The MEM alum asked the beach bum fisherman, let’s call him Bob, how long he had been out fishing and he replied, just a short time. So Melvin asked; Are you going out again? How often does this happen? What is your secret?

The Beach Bum said he was done for the day and probably for the week. He had plenty of fish to allow him to head to his favorite bar where there would be a band playing Jimmy Buffet music and plenty of beer on tap. When he was pressed for his secret about how he was so successful in his fishing he mentioned that he had invented a gadget integrated with a software algorithm many years before that let him see the fish. Not just the simple underwater radar that most boats had but a remote telemetry system with predictive capabilities that utilized data mining and machine learning to predict when and where the fish would be and even identify the type with 85% accuracy. So he could use this innovation to fish one day a week and spend the rest of his time hanging around the beach, chatting with his friends, listening to Jimmy Buffet music and even trying to learn how to play Jimmy Buffet songs on the guitar.

By now Mel, the MEM alumnus, was pretty excited. He was having flashbacks to Professor Holme’s course on Commercializing Technology Innovations and knew this technology was a winner. From his IP course he thought about all the claims that could be written up in a patent for this new technology. And of course he could give this inventor advice on how to lead a company to commercialize this technology given the skills he developed in Professor Ryan’s course. So he said to the inventor, why don’t you patent your technology, raise venture capital, set up a manufacturing facility, begin selling your gadget to all the fisherman in Florida and eventually up and down the East Coast and then across North America! Really, you can take it global after that!

Bob asked: How long will this take?

Mel: About fifteen years

Bob: Why would I want to do that?

MEM: You can build up the business and get a big equity stake in the company!

Bob: And what then?

Mel: You get to do an IPO and cash out on the millions of dollars you make!

Bob: And what then?

Mel: You get to retire to a beach town in a warm climate, do a little fishing, hang out with your friends, listen to Jimmy Buffet music and maybe learn to play the guitar!

Bob looked a bit funny at Mel but admired his enthusiasm.

Most people hear this story and think the moral is that we should have more balance in our lives, not work too hard, figure out what really matters to us. Those are not bad takeaways but there is another part to the conversation. Mel the MEM alumnus then used the emotional intelligence he learned from the program to discern that Bob was not really impressed with the idea of building a company, and was already doing what he loved to do. So his next words were.

“I have a better idea. How about I patent and commercialize your technology, you can advise me once a week while we are out on your boat fishing and we split the profits 50/50! We will both be doing what we love!”

So for me, the takeaway is – don’t wait until you retire to do what you love because as the famous Confucius saying goes:

“Choose a job you love and you will never need to work a day in your life.”

I see many of you doing this already. I congratulate you for that insight and wish you all the best as you begin your career pursuits.

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No, I do not mean a traditional gift for the holiday season (in fact, I don’t think holiday gifts are appropriate for most workplaces or corporate cultures but that is a topic for another post). I mean something that will be much more valuable for them – learn when to ask your boss for help. And a closely related corollary – know when to inform your boss. An underutilized value an employee can bring to their manager and their company is knowing when to ask for help. This seems fairly simple on the surface but in reality it is quite complex and subtle. The reason it is important is somewhat obvious. The more often you go to your manager then the more of her time you take up, decreasing both your efficiency and hers. Generally companies do not actually care about what you accomplish but rather they care what you accomplish per-unit-time. Efficiency is critical. Of course, if you don’t go to your manager often enough then your work product suffers, some work needs to be redone, and again, you generate inefficiencies. You may also make your manager look bad up the chain of command; never a great idea. So why do I assert that this is a complex and subtle issue?

First, every manager is different in what they “want to know”. Some of them want more detail and want to give more input than others. So right away you need to be able to judge your managers state of mind and needs. Even more subtle, these needs can vary depending on the project, the other activities your manager is involved in, and perhaps the phase of the moon! In addition, your manager is likely to be too busy, with multiple demands on his time and looming deadlines so even if you know it is a good idea to connect, it may take significant effort. It is easy to interpret this as an indication that your manager does not want to be informed or does need to have input. However, when the project does bubble up to the top of their to-do list, it will not matter how busy they were when you did not inform them of a problem or ask for their help when it was needed.

This issue is also subtle because there is rarely a clear “right answer”. You must have the confidence to know when consulting your manager is not necessary and the humility to know when it is. There is simply a large grey area so the decision is dependent on your skills, your self-awareness, and even your managers personality. I have seen that many times very good employees need too much handholding from their managers and I have seen average employees try to go-it alone too often. Thus, as with many issues of performance and becoming a leader, self-awareness and awareness of others, your boss in particular, is crucial.

So how do you strike the right balance? Improve your powers of observation and your powers of inquiry without going overboard. Initially, ask your manager at the end of your consultations if they would have preferred that you had gone further on your tasks before checking in. But be aware that even your managers may give you a less-than-direct answer. Perhaps they are not sure about their answer or do not want to diminish your performance. You need to read their body language, their tone, and the outcome of your actions on the project. Independent assessments from a trusted advisor or mentor can be very beneficial in this regard.

In summary, always consider the need to take up your managers time. Their need to be informed and your need to get advice are both important. Constantly ask yourself if your awareness of self and others is accurate. And in the end, be sure to learn from every interaction.

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Last year I wrote about some of the lessons that can be learned from a music festival called Floydfest in the Appalachian Mountains near Floyd, Virginia. This was illustrative of the more general point that we should always be learning and learning should happen everywhere. The festival was a role model for many business concepts (https://jeffglass-engineeringmanagementblog.com/2012/08/). This year, not so much. Of course the situation did not fundamentally change from last year to this year but some external events and internal decisions conspired to make the festival a real challenge this year. But the point is still the same as my blog post last year – you can learn from every experience! So what happened?

If you live on the East Coast, you know that the weather this past spring and early summer was not typical. The amount of rain we had was much, much greater than usual. As such, an outdoor music festival probably needs to consider this as a potential issue and have contingency plans for handling the crowds during a rainstorm. And to be fair, I am sure that Floydfest leadership did consider this as it has rained many times during the festival in the past. Thus, achieving safe electrical power in a rainstorm, stages that can protect people and equipment, and temporarily halting of the festival all seemed to be considered and utilized. But something that might be loosely considered a local “Black Swan” event occurred at this year’s Floydfest and it was not in the contingency plans. The concept of a Black Swan event involves an ultra-low probability event; an outlier. It is an event “that is unpredictable yet has wide-spread ramifications. Not only are Black Swan events difficult to predict, but [Nassim Nicholas] Taleb also argues that we human beings have certain psychological limitations and biases that prevent us from foreseeing these events, while also thinking that the events were perfectly predictable after they occur” (http://www.black-swans-explained.com/). There are many articles about Black Swan events so I will not try to cover them here (as recently as the terrible floods in Colorado last week and as general as “rogue waves”; phenomena have been described by the Black Swan concept). If you don’t know about Black Swan events, start reading up on them because every manager should be aware of this concept (rogue waves are pretty interesting too so you might want to check them out). My interpretation of this in an engineering management context is that we need to be careful about relying on our analytical tools when predicting the probability of an event. This is not related to the tool itself but, as always, it is the assumptions we use in the tool. For example, most of us have experienced a very surprising coincidence in our lives. Perhaps you meet someone from your home town on the other side of the world in an airport. The probability of such an event may seem vanishingly small, entirely unpredictable. However, if we consider the total number of possible encounters across the entire population and the amount of travel the entire population participates in, it is clear that someone at some point in time is going to run into someone from their home town somewhere on the other side of the world. It is just a matter of time. So when planning for the future as an engineering manager, one must consider not how to predict what ultra-low probability events will happen but rather are your processes robust and flexible enough to overcome a Black Swan event? Since the event is not predictable it is not useful to conduct scenario planning and try to have the right contingencies for the event. So how is all this related to Floydfest?

In the middle of the festival, on top of a ground that was already saturated and a water table that was likely higher than it had been in decades, a monumental rainstorm struck the area overnight during the festival. It rained for hours and turned fields being used for parking into literal mud-pits http://www.roanoke.com/living/music/2107669-12/rain-wreaks-muddy-havoc-at-floydfest.html). Even walking at the festival became impossible with mud up to a foot deep on the main walking path. In between almost falling multiple times and losing a shoe to the mud, I took the opportunity to do a little research during all this – i.e., I went people watching! But the main problem was the parking lots. Cars were stuck everywhere and numerous accidents littered the parking lots on festival grounds. Near misses of cars sliding into pedestrians made the situation undeniably dangerous. So leadership of the festival did the prudent thing; they shut down all parking near the site (including handicapped parking and prepaid expensive VIP parking). They began busing people to and from very remote (but relatively safe) parking lots up to an hour away, not including the wait times. The situation was so dire that volunteer workers were taking the buses into town to go to Laundromats to clean and dry their sleeping bags because their tents had filled up with mud! I spoke to some people who wasted more than 3 hours driving to the remote lots and waiting for buses to bring them to the festival. VIP customers that paid hundreds of dollars for special parking and closer access to the performers were being turned away from their usual parking areas and being told to drive up to 60 minutes away and then take a (yellow school) bus back to the festival were confused and frustrated (OK, they were angry!). What went wrong? Was it just bad luck or could it have been handled better?

If the rain and resulting “mudfest” was not really predictable, if it was a local, let’s say “mini-Black Swan,” event, what could the organizers have really done differently? It is all about process. That is, if the actual event is unpredictable then your processes must be set up to react quickly, flexibly and effectively in the event of a crisis. I think this also implies that you need to have a way to move from a decentralized empowered management style to a centralized, command and control style in short order. Exactly how centralized you need to be depends on the scale of the Black Swam event. If the entire festival is experiencing the crisis then control needs to go to the top; to those with the visibility to see the entire picture, from the venue to the artists to the vendors to the attendees. This change requires GREAT communication and clarity about how decisions will be made in a crisis. Your front-line staff that have the most interaction with the customer need to know what is going on, how their jobs have changed and how to respond to questions. I noticed that when staff were clear and empathetic, the customers were reasonably satisfied, even when being told very bad news. When the employees had an attitude of: “good luck, we don’t have any idea what is going on either” (yes, that is a quote) then the customers became rather belligerent. Staff had no directions to the new locations for parking, no idea which buses to take to get to the right parking area and in some cases, no idea that different parking solutions even existed! So it seems that the leadership did not disseminate the decisions effectively and did not train the staff how to manage customers in the face of bad news. In fact, why didn’t the leadership also communicate directly with the customers when they determined that the situation called for drastic measures? They had emails for all of the attendees and many of us were finding ways to check email during the concert (including a VIP booth just for that purpose and a special internet company tent that gave free Wi-Fi access that was full of attendees throughout the festival!).

In summary, analytics are great but they cannot predict everything. Understand that extremely low probability events can and do occur. Especially in the world of technology and engineering we should not fool ourselves that probabilities tell the whole story. Black swan events do happen. They are not predictable but you can still prepare for them by being flexible, responding quickly to your environment and developing a process for how to make and implement decisions in a crisis. Great communication will also be critical.

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