Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anarchist Employee


Do you have experience managing an anarchist/anti-establishment type? I think there are some good qualities to foster from them (creativity, drive, initiative, curiosity, etc), but at the same time there are some bad qualities I’m trying to avoid spilling over into the rest of the team.
 
The biggest problem I’ve struggled with when confronted with people like that is my internal struggle.

Specifically, there is something about the anarchist that I can relate to—the courage to speak truth to power, to call bullshit, etc.

As a manager, anything that causes me to be more conscious of the fact that I am the manager—the pointy haired boss from Dilbert, the “Man”, the “Establishment”, the “bourgeois”—I will often respond with internal bias and try to move away from. A-la “Hey, I know I’m The Establishment, but I’m one of you, see!"

And that has caused me to take the wrong approach with “anarchists.” Flat out, I’ve failed here multiple times.

I approach them like this: “Hey, I love that you’re one of our best coders, you really get x, y, and z done well and help the team meet those objectives. And I know you’re super perturbed/annoyed/eschew of management/the system/etc. And mine, and the company’s value, is to never squash contrary opinions. We want to hear from everyone.”

…see what I just did there?

…I just screwed myself.

…because now I backed myself into a corner.

…by giving The Anarchist a huge out in my own psyche, which is, “Hey, you’re speaking truth to power, if I change that, I’m going against the perception and in fact silencing contrary opinions.”

Dumb me. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Here's an approach with more candor and context: “I love what you have to offer. And it’s often wrapped in a package that doesn’t move the team forward, but instead stalls people due to them starting to doubt the mission. And when you do that, you lose credibility. You, and I, want your expertise to be received and acted on and learned from as many people as possible. That isn’t happening when you say x and behave in {anarchist manner x, y, z}. I recommend instead you do {smiley, nice, good communication}. It’s going to be better for you and the group and help us all be more productive. This time next week we’re going to sit down and I want you to show me your plan for making that happen with deadlines. Let me know if you need some coaching on that.”

Want to have more discussions around topics like this? Check out Marcus Blankenship's tech leadership approach.

What's your anarchist employee story and how did you handle it? Share in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The sunset has secrets for you



August 1991, San Francisco State University.

We were working in the studio, hustling around to try to prepare for a big show with a musical guest. I was up on the lighting grid, adjusting a couple spotlights. I had a grip below me; a gaffer at the light board; the three camera operators were wheeling their cameras into place; the set designer was nailing up some last pieces; the audio operator was labeling the board and the audio assistant was taping cables down.

Our Professor, Charles “Buzz” Anderson, a regal, elegant, eccentric delight, glided into the studio and said, “Everyone exit the studio, now.”


Charles had retired from a very active and lucrative career as a television director to become a tenured professor. In his lifetime, his cameras had been focused on some of the top talent of the entertainment industry—Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Robert Redford, John Wayne, and many, many others.
In camera language, there is the wide shot, the medium shot, the close-up, and the extreme close-up. Film is the medium for landscapes—film lives for the wide shot. Majestic landscapes, and wide, expansive plains, are all beautifully shot and presented on film.
Television, conversely, is the medium of the close-up. Soap operas show how two people gaze longingly at each other. Debates and interviews show people looking at each other critically. Television news anchors are made to look more trustworthy because we can look right into their eyes and they look right back at us.
Zooming-in from a medium shot to an extreme close up, there are moments where the composition of the shot is bad. Maybe it looks awkward because it cuts off the subject’s ear, or her nose, or her neck. Most new directors stop a zoom-in at the close-up. The subject’s head is framed nicely from her shoulders to the top of her head, and from ear to ear with a little bit of look space between her eyes and the edge of the screen. It is a safe shot—close, but not too close. It will do in a pinch, and it will let you see the color of the eyes of the subject—and not much else.
Buzz taught his students—insisted, really—that they push past this point, into one of the most awkwardly framed shots that was the most convoluted of compositions. It looked horrible. It made a person uncomfortable just watching it. But Buzz demanded the students zoom-in past that awkward framing to a shot that was even closer—to the point where you could see the subject’s nose flaring, his eyes twitch and look away, the sweat drip down his brow. This was the place where you saw the soul of the subject. Anything wider was merely “looking at” the subject. At this extreme close up, Buzz knew we were now “looking into” the subject, as in the old adage, “the eyes are the window to the soul.”
Buzz had honed his eye to see beyond what the camera saw, into the very soul of the people sitting before him. It was his job and passion—he made sure the camera revealed that true nature of the subject. He taught his students with that same emotion and commitment. It was vitally important to him that no one come out from under his wing without a solid understanding of the moral and ethical responsibility to be true to those subjects. It was important to Buzz that his students know how to identify and, as best they could, reveal their subject’s inner monologue. This required venturing past the safe wide shot through the crappy semi-close shot into the extreme close-up. At that close you could catch a glimpse of the person’s soul.
But how do you teach this sort of sensibility and sensitivity?
Back in the studio, we detangled ourselves from whatever we were doing and filed out. Buzz made a point to close the door and lock it behind us. He walked upstairs to the control room, pulled its door closed, and locked it, too.
“Follow me outside,” he said, and pushed through the outer doors of the College of Creative Arts foyer into the crisp San Francisco air.
We all filed out behind him, wondering what he had in store for us.
“Observe if you will,” he said, with a flourish of his hand toward the sky, “the beautiful sunset. Look at it.”
It was a glorious smog-filled sunset that pulsed dark red hues, rich oranges, with streaks of purple and pink, splattered like a Jackson-Pollock across the blue sky dotted by Rorschach- shaped wisps of clouds. The yellow orb of the sun slowly disappeared behind the hills.
I took a deep breath and tried to take it all in, committing the entire vision to memory. I turned and looked back at Buzz. He was sitting at the edge of a planter and was pulling out a long, tan cigarette.
“Challenge yourself to really see this sunset. Examine it,” he said. “It is right in front of you, but are your eyes really open?”
I blinked incredulously at the deep concept.
“Continue to observe it until I finish this,” he waved the cigarette in the air, “and we will not go back inside until I take the last draw.”
I turned back to engage my being with the sunset to the best of my meager abilities.
Buzz slowly smoked his cigarette, giggling every few minutes at some concept that tickled him. Whether it was the absurdity of his naive students struggling so intently on such a peaceful scene, or some completely unrelated joke he was remembering—even then, he was paradoxically far away and so very, very present.
Do you have a favorite story from a treasured teacher? Share in the comments!
###

Monday, July 25, 2011

Team Gestalt and the 5 Dysfunctions



Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (here's the GetAbstract abstracted version) describes five Maslow-like pyramid levels of dysfunction of a team, from most basic to highest order: Trust, Fear of Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results.

To build a strong team, a good leader needs to bring counterpoints to each of these dysfunctions and build a culture that allows the team to bond and Gestalt, or become greater than the sum of the parts.

Management Zen Experienced During Television Production
My first career was in television production.  Multi-camera studio shoots.  When the noon news went live, our cameras were up and going, whether we were ready or not.  Every production was an opportunity to Gestalt--become more than just the production plan.  Every nerve was firing and everyone's senses were on high alert.

The productions that went without a flaw received many kudos, but the productions where we had to deal with unforseen circumstances in some brilliant way--if we got out of them with flying colors--we celebrated.  It was those productions, when we were up against the clock, in adverse conditions, where something unexpected happened, where we really came together to create miracles.

If daily you have an opportunity to enter that Gestalt state, where everything is clicking at an optimal level, then you know how to recognize what the feeling is and what you're trying to get back to.  Conversely, if you deal with long development cycles where you only enter do-or-die mode every 18 months or so--then chances are you have felt the Gestalt state, but it has been so few and far between that you don't remember it.

I assert that we, as Leaders of teams, should be focusing on how to bring our teams into that Gestalt state as often as possible.  It doesn't mean you need to manufacture fire drills, but it does mean you need to get the team exercising the "end game" skills more often than just the end game.  The more opportunities for flexing the muscles that can bind the team together and make them click--the more times it'll actually happen.

Gestalt and the Five Dysfunctions
To bring your team to a place where they can Gestalt requires a solid foundation that the team operates on.  This is where the five dysfunctions serve as good milestones on the path toward a Gestalt state.

Trust
The first level of dysfunction is around trust.  James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge (GetAbstract version), a seminal book on the five fundamentals of great leaders, write: "In almost every survey we've conducted, honesty [...] emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship." (p.32).

One of the outward manifestations of trust is the perception of a leader's honesty.  If a leader is exhibiting traits of honesty: genuineness, authenticity, and vulnerability, then the individuals interacting with that leader will report greater trust of that individual and their decisions.

Actions you can take: Repeated trustworthy behavior motivates.  Act in ways that are consistent with your ethical values; leaders go first, so be the first in on a risky item or controversial topic; show some vulnerability, and invite others to do so by example.  Then wash, rinse, repeat.

Fear of Conflict
The second level of dysfunction, once you get past trust, is calling bullshit.  You have to build a team ready to engage in constructive discord--a team willing to challenge each other in a way that is healthy and brings you to better solutions because you've identified pitfalls.

The problems people express today are the land mines you may hit on the road tomorrow.  Treat them seriously and engage the whole team in moving from acting like a patient--ouch, doctor, it hurts when I do that--to walking into your office as the doctor: "Here are the problems we've identified, and here are some ideas for how they could be resolved."

Conflict should be embraced courageously.  Meet it head on when it appears, with no after-the-fact passive-aggressiveness.  It also means giving personal feedback in private--some conflicts are inappropriate to air in front of the entire group.

Actions you can take: When your next big controversial issue comes up, don't shirk it, call it out right away and then reframe the problem in a positive context.  Instead of "Those designers are giving us horrible designs!" reframe and ask, "How can we be more clear about our customer needs and requirements?  How can we own this problem together as a team instead of making it an us versus them?"

Commitment
Lack of clarity or buy-in prevents decisions from sticking, because individuals aren't clear on what is specifically being required of them.

Steve Roesler's edited version of the Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership decision-making model: tell/sell/test/consult/join, is a useful approach to assuring commitment.

First, start with the actual perspective of the manager, yourself, who is coming to the team with an issue to resolve.  Then ask yourself where on the Tannenbaum/Schmidt model you can approach the team.  If you have an issue that the team truly has the ability to consider and not act on, then you can bring it to them as a join decision--where they can choose to take it on or not.  If you have an issue that they must take on, that's a tell.

I've observed this doesn't work: managers approach the team with a consult, but then devolve to a sell, and then further to a tell.  Those conversations leave most demotivated, with no clear commitment.

It's always better to sit down and make it clear exactly where you're at with an issue, "Hey folks, this is a tell right from the top, so get your gripes out now and then let's turn to discussing how to deal with this the most productively."

Actions you can take: Be candid, and honest, when an issue must be addressed, and call it that right away and move forward from there.  Look for other issues that truly are flexible and make sure to be clear to the team, "Hey, here's an issue we really can treat like a consult or a join..."  Otherwise, if you only ever call out your tells, your team may feel like those are the only times you're clear with communicating the priority and commitment level required for an issue.

Accountability
Four questions drive accountability: What are we accountable for?  Who is accountable?  To whom are they accountable?  And what are the consequences?  Some answers get us above the line--being accountable for results not just activities; understanding that delegating responsibility doesn't absolve us from accountability; being accountable first to ourselves, our ethics, our morals, then wrangling the other stakeholders; and delivering consequences that are in-line with the behaviors we want to incent.

Below-the-line behavior is blame and excuses.  The focus needs to be on results.

As individuals move up and master the art of delegation, a false assumption is that delegated activity then transfers accountability.  Ultimately, the individual made responsible for something is accountable to you, and you are accountable for the task as it was given to you by your boss.  Two different parties holding parties below them accountable, usually with different expectations.

Actions you can take: When trying to gain commitment of the team, be clear and use explicit language on who is accountable for what and to whom.  Then discuss what consequences will result from which outcomes, both positive and negative.  Encourage a team culture where individuals feel safe to step-up and take accountability for results, especially mistakes, and then make sure you follow-up to do the same for positive results, too.

Results
An individuals' career is ultimately their responsibility.  In the pursuit of advancing their status, it may erode the focus on collective results.  Ultimately, the team wins or loses together.  Having measurements and metrics that are focused (ex. 3 top issues, not 20) keeps the team clear on what results are expected.

In one of my first companies, I made the newbie management mistake of allowing every individual to work on their own pet projects, thinking each one could potentially be a goldmine.  Meanwhile, our only product that was out the door and making money was floundering due to sales leads that were going unattended to.  Having clear success measurements for results around the product and its sales, and holding the entire team accountable for that specific success, would have assured that all individuals would have turned their attention to the top priority and we would have had drastically better results.

Actions you can take: Whenever you have an assignment, specifically ask, "What will success look like here?  And how will we measure it?"  And have a board, even if its just a white board in the hallway, where you write the success measurement and its current status.  (Ie. Number of widgets upgraded: 1,000).

Finding Your Gestalt State
Once you've climbed and overcome the Five Dysfunctions of a Team pyramid, you're now in an optimal place for the team to reach their Gestalt state.  It will be brief interludes where you will really feel like everything's aligned, clicking, and you're meeting deadlines with flying colors.  Watch for it, see if you can call it out when it happens, and try to internalize what it looks like, and feels like, so you can encourage everyone to try to find that state again.  It's fleeting and impressive.  It will often happen when you end up with an emergency or hot issue that will require you to scramble.

Using transparent, open communication, with clear decision making and accountability, will get you to solving the problems ahead with greater alignment and quality of work--because you'll be able to spend more time on satisfying the customer need and less time on fixing team dynamics.

###

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CodeHawgs


Originally written: Mon 28 Apr 2003
From: Andrew Coven
Subject: The origin of CodeHawgs

I was asked for some graphics and background of CodeHawgs. I thought I'd include a few more of you so you could take a break from your hectic lives and enjoy a fun historical moment.

Back in 1997 when InDesign 1.0 and its SDK were under construction, we thought it would be clever to come up with a fictional company that you could follow their pursuits as they tried to create a set of plug-ins to help a client integrate their workflow with InDesign.

The original name was CodeDawgs, a fun play on words, since "Who let the dogs out?" was often slurred "Who let the dawgs out?" and was still a popular song. It also was sort of fun to think we're "tearing up code like frothing dogs." Kind of some nice high-throughput connotation. We liked it. We were, after all, geeks, with low humor thresholds.

So I engaged my friend Elena on the Photoshop QE team to do a mockup of a dog for the logo:


In the meantime, we came up with a funny slogan, "Our code smells like roses!":
We started legal on the trademark search to make sure we weren't completely stepping on someone.


Well, this was particularly funny to us geeks with that kinda humor, because the original insult is, "You think you're so good, that your poop smells like roses?" So the phrase "Our code smells like roses!" was a cute play on words to indicate we didn't take ourselves too seriously, since of course our code was going to be crappy sometimes and we never would think we're pristine code writers and could learn nothing from our external developers.

A humility I hope carries through the group to this day.

So I asked Elena to do a mockup of the dog taking a dump and pooping out code, perhaps 0's and 1's? She was confused, she didn't understand what I wanted to see. So I explained to her, "Make it like the 'No bullshit!' bumper sticker!"

"Huh?" she said. "What's that?"

"You know, a bull taking a dump with an international 'NO' sign over it?"

"Huh?" she said again, "Show me!"

She hadn't seen one before, so I quickly drew one up in Photoshop and sent it to her.



Once she saw that, she understood. And the poopin dog was born:



You'll note, she hadn't yet gotten the memo on the trademark (tm) symbol. More on that below.

Legal then got back to me with the inital results of the trademark search. Bad news. There was a software consortium in Cupertino called "CodeDogs", and trademark law indicates spoken similarities are just as important, conflict-wise, as written similarities. So the argument that CodeDawgs was distinct from CodeDogs completely falls apart when spoken. And a software consortium certainly is in the same venue as a software application development company.

So then we talked and came up with a clever alteration--CodeHawgs! Even funnier, because it suggests we're hogging all the code! Again, a play on our, of course, humbler side.

We're nothing, if not humble.

Trademark searches on CodeHawgs came up in the clear. We were good to go! Although, the legal searches always ended with an interesting caveat: Do NOT use (tm) after any "CodeHawgs" icon or name listing. Why? Because, while we didn't want to conflict with any known trademark, there was no one in their right mind that was going to PAY the USD$7,000 to trademark it. I mean, we had budget, but not THAT much budget. It wasn't THAT important.

We DID however grab www.codehawgs.com and www.codehawgs.org. I had hoped that someday we would be able to publish sample code and integration suggestions on a very special, fun section of our adobe web site (such as partners.adobe.com/indesign/sdk/codehawgs or something like that) that the www.codehawgs.com/.org domains would redirect to.

If you do a whois on codehawgs.com you'll see its still owned by Adobe. Unused, but we still got it.

While they checked the trademark on "CodeHawgs" I asked them to also include the check for "Our code smells like roses!" They did find a few "smells like roses" references, but never related to computers--another green light! Again, we didn't care enough to actually pay the money to trademark it, so we can't use "Our code smells like roses!"(tm), but we can use it--good enough.

Back to the drawing board Elena went, converting the poopin dog to a poopin pig, with our fancy approved slogan:


Note the removal of the (tm)'s.

Our current director, being a geek at heart, got a great chuckle out of the whole thing as he amassed the correct budget to put this stuff on hats and jackets (which took over a year. See final note below.) In a moment of clarity, he said to me, "Andy, why don't you run this logo by HR before we imprint it on anything?"

"HR? Why would we need to run anything by HR?" I asked.

"Just do it, just to cross all our t's, dot all our i's."

"Ohh, all right."

Off to HR I went, sending the details of the fictional company and logo and the graphic for, what I thought for sure would undoubtedly be a flippant, quick, dismissive-like approval.

After the HR person was done being completely flabbergasted, and explained to me how engineers aren't allowed to do marketing FOR A REASON, she concluded with the final nail-in-the-coffin remark:

"Scatalogical humor is NEVER appropriate at ANY company."

Hmm. Maybe she just didn't get it?

Dismissed with a sound, spanking-like rejection, we pondered, "Now what do we do?" Fortunately, the movie The Matrix had just come out and we were quite smitten with it.

Of course! NeoPig! A stroke of genious:


An e-mail and a phone call to Elena, and slap that baby over a green background, to simulate how it'll look on the jackets, and the CodeHawg was truly born.
I've also included the final of the back-jacket art, symbolizing the arduous mountain-climbing-like task it was to get InDesign 1.0 out the door. Elena and I chose to make the person explicitly gender-neutral so that it could be perceived as a male or female, since this was a multi-gender, multi-cultural accomplishment:


The final note, the jackets, at $300/piece, were the last expensive "Shipping gifts" ever given out by Adobe. Right after we got those, the official "Shipping gifts policy" became $25 per person.

It took exactly 1.25 years, from the moment I started politicking to get the hats and jackets into the budget, to the day the team received these awards with Thank You notes from John and Chuck.

And now you know The Rest Of The Story.

...A

Monday, December 14, 2009

Management Credo

A few years ago I completed an MBA from Santa Clara University's Executive Program. I had a great time and felt like the education I got was top notch, especially with it fitting into my very busy schedule of rebuilding my house (see previous post) and working full-time shipping Photoshop.

Dean Barry Posner, co-creator of the seminal Business Leadership book The Leadership Challenge was our Professor for the Leadership module, which was administered throughout the program as bookends at the beginning and end and then different assignments that were layered on top of the core curriculum over the 17 months the program progressed.

The "You've Been Called Away" Letter
One of the assignments was to write up a letter to the other leaders in your organization as if we were going to be out for some long but indeterminate amount of time. (A-la "I've been called away, I won't be back for 7-8 months, while I'm out, remember to...") One of Dean Posner's points was that you're not going to tell people, "Remember to fix bug 1112233.'  It's more like a eulogy; instead you're going to want to tell people large overarching values to go by.  So that they could channel you ("What would Andrew do?") while you're gone.
The "Expectations of a Manager" List
This assignment fit well with another thing I had done for a long time, which is produce a set of expectations for any new direct report of mine. I had two 30-bullet handouts, one titled, "My expectations of an admin" and the other titled, "My expectations of a manager." They each had simple rules such as, "Come to me early to renegotiate deadlines the moment you realize they won't be met" and "Present all your issues to me in the form of solutions that you've been pondering for the problems you're facing--don't just come to me with a gripe list."

This list was adopted from my first director at Adobe, Tracey Stewart. She was one of the exceptional people that influenced my career early on. One of her greatest lessons for me was when she reminded me that she preferred having people in positions they were positively challenged by than doing work they were great at but bored by. That resonates still today for me.

My re-crafted form of Tracey's "Expectations" list still lives on today. Adobe HR took a copy and created their own generic version that is given to all new managers to use for themselves and their directs.

I put Stewart's concept together with Posner's, and added one additional fundamental perspective. A question I challenge all manager's should be able to answer when the CEO asks them in the elevator ride up from the lobby to the 17th floor:

What's Your Management Philosophy?
Any manager should have a handful of descriptions that explain how they make decisions about their job and their conduct. "I believe in an inverted pyramid, where we all stand on each other's shoulders." "If I'm doing my job right, at least two people should be cursing my name because I'm unflinchingly demanding our peers meet our deadlines." Those sorts of things.

Management Credo
Combining all these elements results in what I call a "Management Credo". Like Posner, it's far-thinking and focused on my beliefs around leadership philosophies; like Stewart, it's a bullet-like list of my expectations both of ourselves and others; and like the management philosophy question, it's a group of elevator-conversation points that speak to who I am as a manager and a leader. Feel free to liberally steal, or comment on how this matches or mis-matches your own thoughts on leadership.

ANDREW COVEN'S MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY

Stand on the shoulders of giants.
Management is the bottom of an inverted triangle. We create the foundation that allows others to soar. Together we reach higher than we ever would alone.

Quality first.
Quality is the number one priority: Quality of life and quality of product. Quality trumps schedule, which trumps feature set.

To teach is to lead.
One of our company's core values--leadership can occur at all levels of the organization--is exhibited when you share, coach, teach, train, and mentor.

Be the teacher everyone loved but gave really hard tests.
Demand excellence from yourself, our colleagues, and our partners. Keep the bar high.

We are ethnographers, forensic scientists, and detectives.
Observe our customers and solve the mystery of what they really need with solutions that are elegant and thorough, fixing problems they did not know they had.

Leave it better than you found it.
Document complexities; re-factor spaghetti; clarify obscurities; clean up after yourself. It is good for the Earth and the product.

Walk into this office as the doctor, not the patient.
You have the power to fix problems. First identify where it hurts, then come discuss your solutions, no matter how controversial. Constructive discord is welcome here.

You are the company's greatest asset.
My greatest challenge is, and always will be, how to show you how valued you are--by me, our business unit, and the company.

Your ears should be ringing.
Whenever I am away I always tell others about what incredible people you are, and how lucky I am to work with you.

Have fun.
Smile a lot, and laugh even more.

…A
v9 4-Oct-2010

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Applied Media Aesthetics

Herbert Zettl, the creator of Sight Sound Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics once gave me a tremendous compliment. At the end of a talk I had created on Virtual Reality, he mentioned that I was one of the few people he's
interacted with in his entire time representing new media and new television technology that could take very complicated concepts and present them in a very reasonable, palatable manner.

I remember this compliment fondly as I launch this blog to discuss my thoughts on new media and the world of multimedia we now live in.