Don’t Praise Me, Bro

I have had the great fortune in the close to 12 years that I’ve been working at NC State of being able to do work that I enjoy, that I’m passionate about and I have had the great honor to have worked with a lot of smart, caring, involved, hard-working people that care about those around them.

Both of which mean that I’ve been, at times, in the right place at the right time to receive praise and recognition of the things I’ve worked on. It’s something I’ve never quite been entirely comfortable with.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enough of an ego that I don’t shirk away from being the center of attention. I have been known a time or two (cough) to take over a meeting, a forum, a discussion with long rambling soliloquies in one form or another. It’s not really a center of attention thing.

I like to think that I do good work. I certainly care very deeply about my work, and want it to be the best it can be, and jokes and sarcasm aside, I care very deeply that others can learn from, make use of, and benefit from that work. I’m sure I’d be lying to you and myself if I said that part of me doesn’t want some recognition of that.

But even given that, when it comes to praise and recognition, I always get a little embarrassed. I don’t really know how to take it. I’ve tried to learn more how to graciously accept it, because when you don’t have that skill, you can appear at best ungrateful, and at worse, you can insult the one providing the recognition, and you might cheapen the praise for others.

But still, I’ve been trying to put my finger on it – and I think it comes down to the old “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” line from American Bandstand I’m composing the metaphorical equivalent to the album, and I guess I’m the artist that wants a little more than “it’s got a good beat” – I’m not necessarily expecting the person hearing to have the faintest idea about how to compose music themselves (because I sure don’t know how – as my flawed metaphor will surely attest) – but to be interested enough in how it sounds to tell me they played it all night – and ask questions about that middle part – and let me tell them that I borrowed that classical part written for the glockenspiel and turned into an electrical guitar solo. Honestly, I’d feel that – or at least I hope that I could – handle the flipside – having someone come up and tell me out of the blue that they really didn’t like it and maybe had I used a part written for the violin instead of the glockenspiel, it would have been better.

Without that, praise and recognition sometimes feels like it’s not far removed from judgment. And maybe uninformed praise and recognition really isn’t that much different than uninformed judgment.

Maybe I really am an educator deep down. I’m not looking for praise or recognition – but for understanding

Work Wide Open

My boss, Kevin Gamble, has been actively brainstorming the concept of the Free Range Enterprise. It’s perhaps a new term to describe a known idea, and defining the term helps to set (perhaps even own) the discussion. Higher education is surprisingly rigid, particularly the closer you get to the areas that have been bureaucratized – it will be interesting to see where the discussion evolves.

There’s one aspect of it that I’ve been thinking about recently – Kevin calls it “radical transparency”.

I’m going to call it “Work Wide Open”

I’ve been in some form of IT my entire career, and as far as I can tell, there are few concepts that seem to scare IT more than “Work Wide Open.” Heck, I have been scared of it.

4 years ago, I asked the folks I worked with to blog our activity notes every week – wide open, to the world. I spent a lot of time debating it – mainly with myself – both for the tired old mantra of most IT organizations of “operational security” – but also out of the fear about exposing the tasks lists of what we do. An awful lot of people don’t understand what most IT organizations do – and there are people that understanding partially what we do and every one of them have an opinion on how we can be doing things better or how we can solve X with Y.

Opinions, well, everybody’s got them.

But the dirty little secret is that they really don’t care. Most of the people that we are all afraid of telling us how we could all do our jobs better aren’t going to be watching. And those that are watching, they actually don’t say much it turns out.

( And then when they do, it can be really useful actually, because contrary to our circling of the wagons in IT when those that know far less than we do raise questions – those questions actually have merit. The problems that others outside of IT will bring up aren’t often problems – but you can bet that there really is a problem, it’s just masquerading as something that isn’t. Try to answer them sometime, it’ll be eye-opening about what all you don’t really know and have been doing because of a bunch of false assumptions you made a long time ago and never questioned. )

So, extraordinarily long parenthetical aside, nobody really cares about the details of what you do (nobody outside your work team). So that means that the most important audience for being open is for you and by you – I mean you and your work team

You might think to yourself – in that case, why not just be open, but only with my work team?

That might be fine and all, and for most organizations it’s a big step up from where they were with not being open in the first place. But there’s two reasons that being open beyond the work team matters.

One, it helps to refocus what you write, and what you say. It lends itself to a bit more positivity. Sometimes it lends itself to being a little too generic (especially when something under that “security” banner is discussed) – but for the most part, being aware of a wider audience, real or imagined, helps you write in ways that are more clear, better defined, less likely to be “inside-only” information. This turns out to be enormously helpful – again for you particularly when you go back 6, 9, 12 months later to figure out what in the heck you were thinking when you implemented X in Y way to solve Z.

Second, somebody else is really going to read what you write in the open, Somebody like you, actually – in the same way you are looking for resources through feeds, search, forums, commits, source, etc. There are others doing the same. And like crazily phatic 140 character messages lead to greater personal understanding of colleagues, and help spread information – work wide open helps others understand what you do.

Four years later – I don’t know if the every week blog posts were successful or not. I know they are still done in that group today with my successor to the job asking the same of the people that work for him. And it’s useful, I still read them, and it has helped me on more than one occasion, seeing references to tools and solutions to problems I was having – or would soon have.

Others that went on to other jobs don’t do it, and I wish they did, they work on incredibly interesting projects that could be served well to have regular updates and highlights about what’s going on inside the project.

So, success or not, I don’t know. What I do know is those weekly status notes were a stepping stone. One small step in the direction of “work wide open”

Fast forward 4 years. New job, new boss, new work team. And a completely different way of working.

The same operational security fears are there – I won’t deny that having every last bit of your source code isn’t a bit disconcerting (in addition to being a developer, I’m also a system administrator – it’s part of my job to be a bit paranoid). And the same “is our work going to be questioned by those that don’t have a clue about what we do and how it works, but think that they do” fear still exists, in some forms.

But neither can overcome the incredible utility and usefulness, and maybe even flat out accountability of working in the open brings. And as a completely taxpayer-funded endeavor – really, isn’t our work supposed to be in the open? (okay, that’s a separate topic, but not by much)

My sourcecode (and that of my colleagues) is in the open. Our issue tracking and activity is in the open (all activity).

My contact information is public, as is my colleagues on our work team and my colleagues in the larger staff. Our meeting notes are public, both in the work team and within the larger staff.

Every edit and change in the staff wiki, public. Most of the documentation for the entire systems infrastructure, public.

On the perso-professional level, bookmarks, photos, silly phatic updates, and semi-serious phatic updates – all public – and that, plus a couple of blogs, get aggregated together in one public place, too

In addition to being a system administrator, I develop our identity/authentication/directory application – and that application tracks every login to every app, every edit in every app. All that activity is available, but it’s currently limited to viewing, closed down to only just over 8,000 of my Extension peers – but pretty soon, I’ll be coding in an option to make that public.

My work team does maintain a private mailing list – and doesn’t even archive the messages, there’s a place and time where some discussion needs to be frank, and private. But it’s open to our whole team, and I dare say that 90% or better of the emails that involve more than two or three people, go to our whole staff of 8, full time, temporary, part-time, etc. There are still a few systems-related things that aren’t in the open, particularly those that involve serial numbers, or cron processes that have embedded authentication tokens or passwords. But for the most part our work is completely open.

You know, one day, there will be some security issue I’m sure that comes from something we did in the open. But that’s one of those things that you deal with when it happens (and I quite imagine that I’ll do it quite publicly when it does). And I’m sure at some point there will be someone annoyed because we didn’t do their request, while we check in who-knows-how-many-changes for other requests. We’ll deal with that then too.

In the meantime, I can’t begin to tell you the benefits, how its brought our work team closer together, how every member of an 8 person team is as close as I’ve ever seen to being on the same page, aware of the team, and what they are doing as part of that team, and moving in the same direction – and doing so in a way that is in front of and interacting with peers in our system, at our University, and colleagues in other institutions. We are, I believe, extraordinarily efficient at what we do, I’ve rarely seen this many systems, and apps done by just 8 people, and the occasional contractor – and done in a way that keeps moving forward. We couldn’t do it if we weren’t open. There’s no excuse, particularly in a public-funded endeavor, to be anything different.

We don’t just value and talk transparency, we are transparent. We live it and breathe it. We are work wide open, taking a road less traveled by.

And it’s making all the difference.

Operator, can you help me place this call

I’ve always been pretty fascinated by the allegory within the Genesis story the Tower of Babel, particularly the confusion/division of human language.

I think it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by the human challenge of communication – and why something so seemingly simple and so core to the human experience, seem so incredibly difficult. Especially in the workplace.

I have never researched or studied much in the way of what scholars have to say about the subject – or business experts, I’ve just observed, contemplated, praised, opined, complained about the nature of communication of groups and larger organizations that I’ve been in.

Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of had what everyone terms a “communication problem” of some kind. Every larger organization that I’ve been a part of has had a situation where they acknowledge the problems/challenges/opportunities – and they’ll talk about working on it, doubling efforts, forming focus groups, task forces, tiger teams, etc. to study the problem, make recommendations, write reports whatever. And sometimes it changes, but normally it doesn’t. It’s just an endemic thing that happens with groups and communication.

I’d like to tell you I know how to solve communication problems in organizations. That I know some fundamental secrets to getting information flowing. I’d like to tell you, but I can’t – because honestly I haven’t the faintest clue how you solve problems with two different people walking away from a conversation with two completely different interpretations of what just was said. I don’t have the faintest clue about how you solve the “signal degradation” as the report of a conversation goes from person to person to person. Or the problem of custom vocabularies between teams and the use of the same words that mean different things. Or issues of pride and fear, where people will just stay quiet on unclear points to avoid looking like they don’t know things. Or any of the dozens of other communication challenges between folks. I know how it happens, I usually recognize it. But I can’t solve it, or tell you how. (and frankly the people that tell you they can are delusional at best, liars at worst). At best, there are mitigation strategies, but there’s not much in the way of solutions. It’s a human thing. It’s why every culture has some variant of a “Tower of Babel.”

I can tell you though, that if you can’t even get to those problems, you can’t get through those problems. If you aren’t talking in the first place, you can’t even begin to have all those vocabulary and interpretation issues.

I do have one secret. One management-consulting-like little mantra that gets to the heart of at least one of the fundamental problems. Of course it’s an over simplification of a complex problem. But that’s how we roll in the workplace.

Here’s the personal form:

Ask Questions, Give Answers

Here’s one for you leaders:

Expect Questions, Expect Answers

Here’s really what it boils down to:

Never leave a question unanswered.

Here’s an expanded version of the above:

Never, ever, ever, ever leave a question unanswered. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t give a flying damn how stupid the question is. I don’t care how many times it has been asked. I don’t care how many times it has been asked by the same person. I don’t care how much it ticks you off that you are being questioned. Go ahead and send the missive around to your peers that “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT QUESTION WAS ASKED AGAIN” Just answer the damn question. Period. End of Story. (p.s. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. “Because I said so” is not. Unless the questioner is 5 years old and only if they are asking why they can’t go to chuck-e-cheese for dinner for the 4th night in a row.)

Pretty much every successful communication exchange is about a question and an answer. But it’s not going to be successful if the question isn’t asked. And it’s sure not going to be successful if the answer isn’t given. I have seen over and over and over again that the questions don’t get asked. Or when they do, the questions are ignored. And worse, the questioner is treated like a pariah, and the flipside, the answer isn’t heard, or respected.

If your first response to all this is that I’m over-simplifying the issue – you’re right. And if you know me, I’m sure you can point out multiple times with me where I get annoyed as hell about being asked, or I give some gruff response about looking it up yourself. “Black” said the pot to the kettle.

But I do hope that you’ll have to look pretty hard for a time when I was responsible for being the person that gave the answer, that I didn’t give an answer (and in the process answered 50 other questions that you never had) And if I didn’t, or didn’t for a long time, where I didn’t apologize profusely for not doing so. It’s just something that’s pretty important to me, and it’s something I’ve found to be successful for making sure information is out there.

There’s a lot of other things you might be thinking. One I’ve run into a lot with leaders is that you might be thinking to yourself about that guy that you have in the group over in the corner, that you are completely afraid of your boss’s boss’s boss walking in because he’s going to ask some embarrassing question about some little minute detail that you think is too trivial to be asked. In that case you have a problem. No, not in your group. You have a problem. Your boss’s boss’s boss should know how to deal. And if they have a clue – they’ll say “I don’t know. But that’s a good question, I’ll get back to you on that, or make sure that someone does”

I’m not going to say that that you won’t have someone that does that. Especially if you are encouraging questions in your team. And you yourself are giving answers and asking questions. That’s life. There are ways to deal with that. But ignoring it isn’t one of them. When the answers stop, the questions stop, and when both stop, communication stops. And that’s the problem.

I’m not going to say that this isn’t a hard and time consuming thing to do. Answering some of the questions will take a tremendous amount of time and effort. Sometimes it’s hard, mainly because the questions themselves can require us to think and deal with things that we’d rather not.

But what things in life that are worth doing are easy or simple? Not many.

Ask Questions. Give Answers

You’ll be amazed how much the communication in your organization, your group, your team, maybe even your life improves.

Why ask why?

My mom has a running family joke that the first word I ever spoke was “Why?” I can’t ever really figure out if it’s a compliment – a celebration of natural curiosity, and a bent to wanting to know the nature of things, not just what they are, but why they are – or if it’s a bit of frustration about my predilection toward questioning the status quo – the other running family joke is that I’d argue with a signpost. I suspect it’s both – but maybe a bit more of the latter than the former.

I’ve been thinking a lot for the last few months about the (not-so) secrets to successful organizations. How they are led, how they are managed, maybe more importantly, how each person in the organization adds to it. The thoughts I have are most likely not all that original, but that doesn’t stop a whole cottage industry that writes leadership and management books.

I finally caught up on my Dilbert feeds yesterday, and the comic from 11/04/2007 has Wally saying:

“It’s better to have the right person ask the wrong question than the wrong person ask the right question”

That’s certainly been true in every organization I’ve been in – outside of my immediate work team. You might think that surprising for an University. But Universities are as bureaucratic as they come. One difference is that you don’t get fired for being the wrong person asking the question, you just get ignored.

Thankfully, almost every team I’ve been a part of directly has been the complete opposite of this. And maybe I have a little bit of rose-colored glasses involved, but I think that every team that I’ve worked with has had success in the domains in which that team had direct influence over. And one of attributes of each one of those teams is that the team members, not just me were a) oriented to asking “why?” and b) “why?” was absolutely encouraged on the part of the team leadership.

Let me pull that out again. One of the attributes of successful teams is that the leaders and members of the team strongly encourage the question “Why?”

“Why?” is a tough question. No one really relishes having their work questioned, not in the moment at least. But the individuals and teams that have the most success come to welcome the “why” questions from others, and to ask the questions themselves. “Why are we doing this?”, “Why did we do it that way?”, and best of all “Why don’t we try this?” The questions encourage curiosity, they gets teams communicating, they zero in on the things that matter, either to the team or the individual. If you can’t answer the “why?” questions – you aren’t ready to do what you are doing, whatever that may be.

That’s not to say that “why?” always has a definitive answer. The answer could be “because I have gut instinct about this, trust me” And that’s perfectly acceptable, especially when you have a track record for having answers to the “why” questions that have built that trust prior to now. Sometimes the answers to the “why” questions also require a common knowledge base, and if you ask those questions, and don’t have that knowledge, you better be willing to learn it (and those being asked better be willing to teach it).

It is never acceptable to ignore the “why” question or to play the “because I said so” card, or worse the “who are you to be asking this question” stance.

I am so very thankful that the managers (leaders) – I’ve had at the University, particularly Bill Padgett and Kevin Gamble accepted the why questions, often encouraging and outright expecting these questions both of their staffs, and themselves. It didn’t always make fans out of others on campus that didn’t care for the questions, but it sure has created loyalty and success within the individuals and teams on their staff.