Meaningless Buzzwords, Useful Concepts, and those caught in-between…

I have always been interested in how language is used and how it shapes reality*.  On a whim, I decided to create a list of common words or phrases you might hear around the technical side of a business, and survey people on which words are meaningless, which are actually useful, and which are both.

Of course this is not a scientific survey.  I sent it out over TwitterLinkedIn, Google+, and over Appirio’s internal Chatter, so the respondents probably have certain biases.  I only had 27 responses, which indicates the shocking revelation that out of the hundreds of people in my work-related social networks, not all of them are interested in taking surveys.  Also, my list of words were basically just a quick list of ones that came to mind, there are probably some good ones I missed.

On to the results!  Basically, all the “Meaningless Buzzword” responses I gave 0 points, all the “Both” answers 10, and the “Useful Concept” answers got 20.  I then took the mean score for each concept, ranked them 1-26, and graded on a curve.  I told you this was unscientific.

The Meaningless Buzzwords.

Web 2.0 (or 3.0) 2.31
Ideation 3.70
Mindshare 5.19
Synergy 7.41
Value-Add 7.41
Rockstar 8.08
Turnkey Solutions 8.15
Value Proposition 8.15

I have to agree with the respondents on this one, all these are pretty vile terms.  The nearly unanimous rage at Web 2.0 (or 3.0) was noteworthy.  I was pleased to see Rockstar on the list, mainly because I think it is a pretty bad metaphor for a “great employee”.  Have you ever met a real Rockstar?  Believe me, you would not want them working with you.

Both Meaningless Buzzwords AND Useful Concepts.

Outside the box thinking 8.52
Best Practices 8.52
Thought Leader 8.89
The Social Enterprise 9.26
Social Media 9.63
First Mover Advantage 10.00
Gamification 11.11
Diversity 11.48
Mission Statement 11.54
Stickiness 12.22

Looking at this list, it seems like a pretty decent representation of phrases that are useful depending on the context in which they are used.  Personally, the one I hate the most is “Outside the box thinking.”  It’s my opinion that thinking unconventional thoughts as an end in itself is useless until the conventional thoughts have been tried.  Diversity is another interesting phrase, one that in the span of my work life has evolved from a meaningless phrase that vaguely meant “a nice place to work” to an actual business strategy which creates better results.  And I must admit a love for the phrase “Stickiness” (forgive me), after I read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

And Finally…The Useful Concepts

Elevator Pitch 13.33
Brainstorming 13.70
Agile 13.70
Consumer-Driven 13.70
Cloud Computing 14.07
Core competency 15.93
Collaboration 16.30
Scalability 17.04

Given the audience, I was not surprised to see Cloud Computing on the list, but I was a bit surprised that Scalability was the big winner.  Brainstorming, in my opinion, is over-rated in usefulness, and I am not even sure what Consumer-Driven means, but as a consumer it seems kind of nice.  I love Agile (with a capital “A”), and I think the Elevator Pitch, which seems Buzz-wordy, is actually a useful thing in helping employees understand the core of the business (core competency?) and state it succinctly.

So this concludes my fun little experiment.  Now back to giving my clients some value-add by leveraging my core competencies.

* I have a degree in Communication Theory, for goodness sakes.  Of course that major was discontinued, perhaps having been recognized as a meaningless buzzword.

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What your IT department should be…

In fifteen years of consulting at firms all over the place, I have observed a steady change in the relationship between IT departments and the businesses they serve.  When I started, the IT departments were wizards bringing magical efficiency to eager businesses.  Now more often than not I see IT departments as a blunting force to progress.  The firms that are able to transform their IT department will be more competitive, but how should IT transform?  I made a list of my observations, answering the statement: Your IT department should be…

Embedded.  There are good reasons why news organizations want a reporter embedded with a military unit in war time.  They get to see the action with their own eyes, and not an interpreted version from the people in the battle.  This allows for a deeper understanding of what is going on, as well as an more objective interpretation of the action.

Many times the IT staff sit on their own floor, away from the business.  Sometimes they have their own building.  I am suggesting the IT staff needs to physically be embedded with the business, observing their day-to-day activity and following the same dress code.

Done with a task or not.  Many IT teams still use the percent complete to measure the done-ness of their activities.  What the hell does 85% complete mean?  I have no idea.  Can a car that is 85% complete be driven?  Maybe, if the 15% to be done is the paint job and the CD player. But if the 15% is a piston or a wheel, it definitely won’t get far.

Either a task is done or it is not.  Percent complete is nonsense.  There is somehow an impression that an 85% complete task is comforting, and objectively better than a 75% complete task.  But there is no comfort in that made-up statistic.  If you need to, break up the tasks into smaller ones, and if 9 out 10 are complete, you can say you are 90% done with the total, but having 10 out of 10 tasks 90% complete is useless.

Communicative.  It is a cliché that a business needs to increase communication to improve, but few people suggest how this communication should take place.  One thing I like to do is use an internal social network to share 1) What I have done the last 24 hours, 2) What I am doing the next 24 hours, and 3) What issues am I facing that is impeding my progress.  Most times I use Chatter, but any tool that facilitates internal communication can work, like Jive or Yammer or an openly shared Google doc.  The important thing is that it is visible to everybody.  This type of communication builds discipline and transparency.

Purposeful.  Every task being worked on by an IT person should easily be connected to a business strategy goal.  Every task should be moving the ball forward.  Yes, I am looking at you useless documentation.  You too, mindless staff meetings.  Many IT staffs are bogged down in writing documentation nobody is going to read for the sake of writing documentation.  I am all for writing documentation – but it has to have a clear purpose, clear audience, and a clear usefulness.  Same goes with meetings.

Mindful of technical debt.  Technical debt is a term we readily used on one of my projects to measure the risk we were incurring for the sake of expediency.  Technical debt consists of the QA tests that were not fully completed, the code that went undocumented, and the code that was made inflexible because of time pressure.  Like any debt, it adds up over time with interest and can be disastrous in the future.  It is important that IT departments move quickly, but it is also important that they recognize the debt they are incurring and to consciously pay it down as they go.

Having fun.  Going to work every day as an IT person should be fun and exciting.  Every day the staff should be stretching their skills and learning new things.  Every day should be a playful experience, where risks are encouraged to be taken and failures not punished but celebrated and examined.  True innovation comes from engaged and fearless workers who interact and play while keeping in mind the organization’s goals.  Managers need to facilitate a fun environment.

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Three lessons from a Washing Machine Repairman

Occasionally, when I am completing a hard day of work, my mind goes back to the first person I learned about hard work from: my Grandpa Joe.

Grandpa Joe was a hard working man.  Intelligent, but unable to seek further education because of family circumstances in the context of the Depression, Grandpa Joe worked fifty years of his life repairing washing machines.

Don’t look back at this story as a sad one, though.  Joe engaged his mind trying to solve problems.  Joe found solutions that moved technology, even in small ways, ahead.  Joe left for work in the morning and things were broken, and when he went home at night things were fixed.  And Grandpa Joe practiced “social business” before the concept was tweeted about; in fact, before anything was tweeted about.  Grandpa Joe enjoyed his customers, and his customers enjoyed him.  Also, this work brought him income through bad economies and good economies, and kept his family fed and comfortable.

I was going to say that “today we live in a different era,” but I am not sure if that is entirely true.  We have relatively high unemployment (not nearly Depression levels, but let’s face it, things are not great), and uncertain economic and political climates.

Those of us in the “cloud economy” are in our own high-growth world.  My company struggles to fill positions, and I am guessing the same is true for our competitors and partners.  We have more work than people.

These are certainly uncertain times, but really, I don’t think there are “certain times”.  If there are “Certain Times,” I am guessing they were incredibly dull and boring.  But I had three thoughts come to mind while contemplating our current era and in remembering my Grandpa Joe.  Take these for what they’re worth:

1. PLEASE create an atmosphere where your workers can accomplish something…every…day.  This is one thing I know my Grandpa Joe enjoyed: he went home at night, knowing he moved the ball a little bit forward.

2. Make your businesses social…truly social.  The conversations my Grandpa Joe had with his clients were personable.  He didn’t just stick with burned out motors and broken fan belts, but also conversed about the kids, the weather, the ball game, whatever.  At the same time I know he didn’t waste time, but his interactions were a genuine combination of business and human feeling.  I see some companies today wanting to implement a social business plan with no humanity, and I think this is a mistake.

3. Finally, give your workers some kind of stability.  Hire carefully, but be slow to let go.  There is a general acknowledgement in the world that the loyalty between firm and employee is lost, but it is my gut feeling that firms that can instill some kind of loyalty will have a competitive advantage.  I understand the economics of labor, and don’t believe companies “owe jobs” to people.  That said, genuine loyalty can pull us all through bad times, and keep great workers from leaving in good times.

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Damage, Incorporated: 6 Things Dreamforcers Should Know About Metallica

When I had heard Metallica was playing at Dreamforce, I thought it was a bit odd.  Metallica, of course,  is one of the music world’s premiere, classic heavy metal bands – a genre of music that doesn’t exactly have universal appeal.

I’m not a huge fan – I grew up more of a REM / U2 fan, preferring my rage to be more abstract and introspective than of the fist-pounding, head banging variety.  I actually did go to a Metallica show back in 2003 (the St. Anger tour).  I was on a PeopleSoft project in Germany, and they were playing in Mannheim.  I had a fantastic time.  And while their music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there is no denying they are excellent at what they do – and have been for over two decades.

There was an insightful documentary made about Metallica called Some Kind of Monster, which you really should see before Dreamforce.  We all work in teams, or are a part of a team, and this film is one of the best explorations of team dynamics I have ever seen.  I think most of it is available on YouTube.

So let’s say you are not a fan of Metallica.  Maybe your weird cousin is, or you are familiar with some of their more popular songs.  When you are at Dreamforce, and thinking about technology, change, the future, and so on, how should Metallica fit into your thoughts?  Let me give you six things to think about:

1) Dysfunctional teams can often be wildly successful despite themselves.  A great product and high talent can go a long way – but at some point there will be a reckoning (the documentary begins at that moment for Metallica).  At that point it takes real strength, courage, and vulnerability for the organization to survive.

2) Egos on a team can be poisonous, but are inevitable in a team of high-achievers.  A balance must be found of allowing people to explore their talents and yet submit to the greater vision of the team.

3) Teams excel when there is some healthy competition amongst themselves.

4) Working together in intense situations will always bring out negative emotions.  There are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with negative emotions.  It is essential we learn and practice these healthy methods, including:

  • Socializing, seeking comfort.
  • Exercising, relaxation techniques.
  • Finding meaning, and reappraising your situation.
  • Controlled venting (expressing yourself in socially acceptable ways)
  • Finding acceptance of your situation.

Managers should encourage their staff to participate in these activities regularly.  Unhealthy ways to deal with negative emotions are of course too many to mention, and can destroy a person and a team.  One thing that certainly doesn’t work is the suppression of negative emotions.

5) Creativity doesn’t always “just happen.”  In the documentary, we see Metallica struggling to cut an album.  They use several techniques for getting out of their rut, many of which are useful in business.  Teams should manipulate their environment to encourage creative problem solving.  Below I have a handy chart that displays “the levers” that contribute to creativity in the workplace:

6) Finally, one thing that we should learn from Metallica, is that when you have the privilege to work on a high-caliber team, treasure each other.  This will not last forever.  Back in 1986 Metallica lost their bass player, Cliff Burton, in a bus accident.  It is clear that the members of Metallica still mourn their teammate, and also regret they did not fully appreciate what they had when they were all together.

I am not sure if I will even see Metallica when I am at Dreamforce.  I may be just as happy having a glass of wine with a teammate or client or other Dreamforcer.  But if you do have a chance to see them, I would highly encourage it.  You will see a high-powered, successful team who has survived the years.  Inspiring!

Damage, Inc. reference below:

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Persuasion in consulting…

A Greek Sophist

The idea of being “persuasive” gets a bad name.  We imagine persuasive people as being shysters, as snake-oil salesmen, or worse yet, politicians.  Plato (and Socrates) warned us about the misuse of persuasion (or rhetoric, or sophistry).  The sophists were guilty of making “the lesser argument” seem like the better argument.

The right use of persuasion, however,  is to lead people to truth.  And in consulting, I have seen over and over again the need to use persuasion to help clients make good decisions.  Technical people don’t often see the need to lower ourselves to be “persuasive.”  To us, logic and reason should show the way.  If option A gets you good stuff, and option B causes problems, then option A should get selected.  But if you have consulted long enough, you of course know this doesn’t always happen.  Culture trumps reason.  “That’s how we do it” trumps reason.  Short-term thinking, the path of least resistance, trumps reason.

It’s a strange situation.  Many companies hire consultants, but actually want contractors.  Consultants are trusted advisors, guiding their clients to right decisions.  Contractors complete the work they are told to do.

I don’t write this blog post as someone who has successfully used persuasion to guide clients to good decisions, but as someone who has failed at it over and over again.  But I do write as someone seeking to improve, has studied the material, and is in the process of trying things out.  One of the great authorities on persuasion is Robert Cialdini (you may have heard of him).  I was first introduced to him in a management class at Chicago Booth.  His article “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion” from the Harvard Business Review in 2001 outlines six basic laws of persuasion that are easy to understand and incorporate into your consulting work.  For brevity sake I will just spell out the “Applications” of the six principles.

1) Liking: Uncover real similarities and offer genuine praise.

Consultants actually need to be liked, and it needs to be done pretty quickly.  Good consultants know how to build rapport immediately by highlighting similarities between themselves and their clients.  Genuine praise is also something that doesn’t always feel natural, but should come from the heart.  Look for the wise decisions and good work your client has already done, and show that you have noticed their unique talents.

The sad truth is that it is important to be likable.

2) Reciprocity: Give what you want to receive.

If you want your client to trust you, start by trusting them.  Share important information.  Give them your candor.  Ultimately, this is your best chance for getting trust, information, and candor when it is vitality important to the success of the project.

3) Social Proof: Use peer power when it’s available.

This is kind of a strange one, but we have all seen the power of testimonials from peers.  One thing a consultant can do is to openly praise their fellow consultants (if you are working on a team).  Another thing you can do is that if you have a great meeting with an employee at the client company, try to get that person to talk about that meeting openly.  The other employees will take note of that experience.  The testimony from a colleague will go a long way at making other interactions smoother.

4) Consistency: Make their commitments active, public, and voluntary.

When people make their commitments public, they are more likely to follow through with them.  If you need your client to adopt a new process or technology, have them write out what they are going to do in a public forum, like an email.

5) Authority: Expose your expertise; don’t assume it is self-evident.

Many consultants think that if they were hired to be a guest to a client site, then their expertise will just be taken for granted.  However, that’s not how the human mind works.  Do everyone a favor by tactfully establishing your credentials: your certifications, your education, and your experience.  I have been to enough clients to see the difference when I do this.  There is something about establishing your authority that makes people listen with more openness than they otherwise would

6) Scarcity: Highlight the benefits of exclusive information.

It’s a basic economic truth that scarce items are worth more than plentiful ones.  This is true with information as it is with oil or gold.  When you have exclusive information, even if it is not particularly profound, make sure you dish it out in a way that communicates the scarcity of this information.

The indispensable concept behind all six of these principles of persuasion is to be genuine.  People can see through phoniness pretty easily, but when you take the time to practice these concepts in a sincere and thoughtful way, I believe they can have a significant impact on the success of consulting projects.

We need to know as technical consultants that our job is not simply to install technical solutions.  All that is important, but without true consulting and persuasion, the best technology can still be implemented poorly.

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A Reflection: Making Collaborative Technology Beautiful, Worthwhile, and Lasting.

Barry Roth changed my life.  Professor Roth taught English Literature at Ohio University and was a preeminent Jane Austen scholar.  He was known for his brutal honesty; and was a Brooklyn-infused dose of realism in an otherwise fantasy world in rural southeast Ohio.  More than once I was the target of Barry Roth’s rants, and deep down I loved it, because I knew it was what I needed to hear.  Every quarter when the class schedules came out, the first thing I did was to look to see what class professor Roth was teaching.

During one of Professor Roth’s angry rants, he said something I will never forget. He said “Anything in life that is beautiful or worthwhile or lasting, can only be achieved with pain and suffering.” I forget a lot of the details of the literature I studied under Professor Roth, but I have never forgotten the truth he told.

My life today as a cloud computing consultant is far from my life as a student in Athens, Ohio in the early 90’s.  However, I occasionally get a glimpse of the same naive idealism of the students back then when I hear people talk about cloud computing. Indeed, cloud computing is changing the IT world. Projects that used to take months are now taking weeks, and that is a great thing.

Still, many times I feel like Barry Roth must have felt in a room full of excited people believing everything has been figured out. Cloud computing is a great thing, but it is not magic.  The excitement and idealism is even hotter with collaborative technology.

With Salesforce Chatter, I hear a lot of hype about how this “Facebook of the Enterprise” can change your business.  Just click a checkbox and you have an instant collaborative enterprise.  Not only instant, but for customers it’s free!  And we all know how easy Facebook is to use; grandmas and children all over the world use it with little to no training or support.

Of course, nothing beautiful, worthwhile, or lasting is this easy.  In my time of working with, studying and researching collaborative technology, I have honed in on some of issues organizations face.  Using a broad brush, here are some of my reflections:

– If your organization’s culture is crappy, your collaboration solution will only expose this, not fix it.

– Most of your users will not share anything useful unless they have incentive to do so.

– How to use collaboration technology will be obvious to some of your users, and mysterious to others.  An adoption plan has to recognize the different types of people in your audience.

– Most people have a problem with having too much information.  Your collaborative technology has the potential to make this worse, not better.

This is as much an advertisement for my services as it is a reminder to myself and my colleagues on why we do what we do, and to be a voice of reason to our customers.  Consultants should be the most realistic of people, but deep down we are as entranced by the potential of the technology as anyone.

Technology has made the efficiency, power, and fun of a collaborative enterprise more possible today than ever.  The organizations that harness this power will have a great strategic weapon for achieving their goals.  If you haven’t started thinking about making your organization collaborative, you need to start.

Nevertheless, harnessing collaborative technology takes strategic thinking, great execution, experimentation, having a plan B and C and D, and the willingness to embrace change.  This great technology can only be useful if we are willing to go through the pain and suffering to make it a reality.

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On Losing a Coworker…

An afternoon this past April we got a sudden invite for an “Important Meeting.”  This was a bit unusual, but perhaps not that out of the ordinary for a rapidly changing company.  Maybe there was a new policy, something to do with taxes, perhaps some important new acquisition.  It wasn’t any of these.

I sat in my cube at my client site, dressed in a suit, and listened for the news.  It wasn’t what I expected at all.  A friend and coworker had died.

I first thought about his family.  We had kids about the same age, and often at the end of an IM session or before a meeting we would swap stories.  I thought about their faces, and all my deep seated fears that come with fatherhood came to the surface.  I thought about his wife, and about the time he and I drank beers after work and talked about marriage, and the funny things we go through in marriage.

Thinking about his wife and children, I sat in my cube in despair.  There was really nothing else to do.  I then started to think about myself.  I tried to recall every conversation I had with him.

We tend to think of our work life as something separate from the rest of our life.  In our work life we do tasks to make money, for us and for our firm.  We make decisions, we design, we create, we talk, we have conflicts, we build teams, we grow.

If we think about it, our “non-work” life is the same.  Perhaps we are a bit sillier.  Perhaps it’s a bit more emotional.  I give the people in my non-work life warmer hugs.

But there is nothing less real about work life.  Our work life is as much a part of our life as anything else.  The people I work with are my family.  I may not read them a book before they go to bed, but I still care about them.  They are my brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.  And it hurts when they pass away.

I will never forget my friend.  We did good work together.  I am thankful for the time I had with him.

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