Three Things Generated by Chaos

This is not intended to be a political post.  I find myself increasingly on the outside of political debate, waiting for a restoration of civility, statecraft and general good manners.  That is where I will remain for the foreseeable future.

If asked to describe our current social environment in one word, I would choose chaos.

chaos© Ginasanders | Dreamstime.com

During the 2016 debates it was suggested that our current President campaigned chaotically and that he would govern that same way.  That’s a fair observation.  It is also fair to say that current opposition to him has been and remains equally as chaotic.  I’ll let you decide whether that is good or bad.  To each their own.

There are numerous consequences to chaos.  I suggest that there are three notable things generated by chaos.

CHANGE

Chaos removes order.  It many cases it quickly results in the existence of a new order.  The event bringing about chaos can alter the way things have always been done; perhaps even render obsolete the traditional.  As a result, better ideas are generated.  Growth can occur.

I recently heard Dr. Leonard J. Marcus of Harvard University share the concept of Meta-Leadership.  He and fellow researchers developed and presented the idea of Swarm Intelligence as part of their study of responders during the Boston Marathon bombing.  I highly recommend a review of their material.

Change is not always productive.  Especially when it is done out of habit, without a specific purpose or to accomplish motives that are less than honorable.

CREATIVITY

Chaos can generate creativity, especially in situations such as the aforementioned crisis in Boston.  I admire firefighters.  One of my oldest friends is a battalion chief in the North Little Rock (Arkansas) Fire Department.  He is a most organized individual and always prepared.  People like Roger thrive on order.

Yet, when called to action, first responders know that each event is unique.  No two are alike.  Meta-leadership, as defined by the Harvard team, is the “ability to solve a problem by first understanding it.”  Creativity must be applied in order to solve the most pressing problem.

Can a person survive in that environment on a continual basis?  Probably not.  I’ve been told that a fire house is a pretty boring place between calls.  An environment that is permanently chaotic can lead to burnout and a loss of creative capacity.  That’s dangerous.

CONTROVERSY

Think about the things you find controversial.  Was the controversy generated by a wrong being committed?  Or was it brought about by a righteous action?  There is a fine line between those two things.

I’ve watched with great interest as the people of Romania have recently protested against government corruption.  They have every right to do so.  They are one generation removed from despotism.  Romanians understand the price of corruption.  Are their protests controversial?  Certainly – and depending on one’s point of view, they may be either right or wrong.

I like what IBM founder Thomas J. Watson once said, “Expose your ideas to the danger of controversy.”

Use chaos wisely, appropriately and in moderate doses.

NOTE:  The terms “Meta-Leadership” and “Swarm Intelligence” are copyrights held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Authors: Leonard J. Marcus, Ph.D.; Barry C. Dorn, M.D., M.H.C.M.; Eric J. McNulty, M.A.; and Joseph Henderson, M.P.A.  For details, see https://npli.sph.harvard.edu.

Three Things That Walls Cost Us

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace.  If you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  If you seek liberalization.  Come here to this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” – Ronald Reagan

berlin-wall

AFP Photo / Gunther Kern

Reagan spoke those words at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987.  Glimmers of light were beginning to appear through the cracks in the Iron Curtain.  Many of us were fascinated at what was happening in Europe.

My generation grew up in fear of those who lived on the other side of that Iron Curtain.  We were told that they were evil.  They were the enemy.  They hated us.  Without giving it a thought, I accepted that the figurative Iron Curtain and the literal Berlin Wall were good things.  They protected us and prevented bad things from happening to us.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I made my first trip to Romania in 1997 as part of a church mission team.  I vividly remember landing in Bucharest and being struck with irony that I was “on the other side of that curtain.”  A place I never thought I would be.  I returned home two weeks later a changed man.  What changed in me?  I learned that the Iron Curtain was costly.  It had cost me these three things.

Understanding

Twenty-six trips there have taught me much.  Romania is a cultural island, different from her neighbors.  Like America, her people struggle with ethnic prejudices.  Vlad Dracul was real, he was nothing like the movies and most Romanians are weary of having to explain that fact to silly American tourists.  When I stopped focusing on my home, I began to understand theirs.  I have a deep appreciation and love for their culture because I understand it.  As Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.”  That wall prevented me from understanding the people on the other side.

Friendship

I have friendships with Romanians that are impossible to describe; deep, abiding relationships.  Some are like family to me.  Technology makes it easier to stay in touch, but I still miss them greatly.  It’s hard for two people to establish and maintain a friendship if a wall exists between them.  Walls cost us friendships and that is a high price to pay.

Opportunity

That Iron Curtain – or Cortina de Fier, as my Romanian friends call it – fell in 1989.  Freedom brought opportunity.  It provided those on the eastern side of the wall with a chance to participate in democracy.  To speak up for change, as many Romanians have done in recent days to fight corruption in government.  The wall coming down gave me the opportunity to share my faith and build relationships there.  Opportunity is lost on either side of a wall.

Are walls needed?  In some cases, yes.  But, they always come with a price.  I hope that you will consider that price before you build a wall between yourself and someone else.  I also hope that you will make today great!  Just good days, folks!

Three Ways To Determine If You Are Brave Enough To Be a Leader

Brave men and women are not frightened by an obstacle, they are challenged by it.  Leadership requires bravery.  Not a blind and reckless nature, but the genuine courage needed for true, effective leadership.

The songs of Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark resonate with me.  One of my favorites is “The Cape” – the tale of a boy with a flour-sack cape tied around his neck who jumps off the garage in an attempt to fly.  The song follows him through life as he continues to bravely face life’s challenges with that same spirit.  It closes with the line, “He did not know that he could not fly and so he did.”

dreamstime_boy_in_cape

Here are three ways to determine if you are brave enough to lead.

Be brave enough to see the unseen.

William Faulkner said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”  Why is it so hard for us to lose sight of the shore?  Because the shore represents “the known.”  It represents safety and minimizes risk.  Leadership without risk is not leadership at all.  History’s most courageous leaders have envisioned a better world that is not yet present.  Lincoln saw an America without slavery.  The Wrights saw man taking flight.  Kennedy envisioned footprints on the moon.  Reagan saw a world without the walls that limited freedom.  Are you brave enough to see the unseen?

Be brave enough to see past the second-guessers.

We all have them.  They surround us.  I’m not talking about the people who provide sound advice and counsel; leaders actively seek those individuals.  A true leader will identify and limit the naysayer, even when it puts a relationship at risk.  Leadership is difficult enough without letting negative influences rob you of your emotional reserve.  Alter your reading habits and read positive text.  Change the subject when the conversation goes negative.  Block topics or people from your social media feed.  Most of all: don’t forget that second-guessing can often be self-inflicted.  Are you brave enough to see past the second-guessers?

Be brave enough to remain true to your principles.

Mark Twain said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”  That is certainly true today!  Today, principles are fluid and seem to be determined by the latest 140-character comment.  Do you possess a set of foundation principles on which your decision-making process rests?  We are often kind to political leaders because their adherence to principle, which was doubted in real-time, is understood to be right through the lens of history.  Leadership requires the development of foundation principles and the perseverance to stay true them in the face of adversity.

Are you brave enough to be like the boy in Clark’s song?  If so, tie on your cape, get a running start and fly toward greatness! Remember, folks, just good days!

Is Your PMO “Being Switzerland?”

How do you pick a project management methodology in an organization with diverse lines of business?  Some time ago, I was asked to consult as a company made such a decision.  Early in the process I cautioned that forcing the selection of a single project management methodology was similar to demanding that a parent choose a favorite child.  Regardless of how hard you force the issues, it just can’t be done.  It was clear, however, that the company needed a solution that would work for everyone.

Project management was needed to address three distinct business problems:

  1. External customer management. Customer service faced ever-increasing pressure to improve relationships.  They needed to deliver accurate and timely results; provide reliable and consistent status updates; and ensure that customers were satisfied financially with the service.
  1. Internal infrastructure projects. Support teams bore the burden of making sure downtime did not occur.  Availability and system performance were paramount.  Upgrades and changes to systems simply could not be disruptive and had to be inconspicuous to customers.
  1. Internal software and application development. The company’s foundation was built on the delivery of technology solutions, often on the leading-edge of innovation.  Being “first-to-market” meant that any process applied to developers was flexible and fast.

As you might expect, the organization was structured around those three core competencies.  The corporate culture and business model granted each division the freedom to establish their own project management office (PMO) and choose the standards that best fit their need.  While that approach felt judicious at implementation, it eventually widened the gap between departments and hindered efficiency.  It wasn’t long until camps were formed and battle lines were drawn.  The good of the company was being sacrificed as the debate raged on.

My recommendation was simple: a missing organizational layer desperately needed to be added.  I suggested the formation of a Program Management Office under the oversight of an officer of the company, as illustrated below:

PMO_1

This approach provides a number of advantages.  It gives project management the visibility that it deserves at the corporate level.  Metrics can be developed to ensure profitability and efficiency.

Perhaps most importantly, this approach allows someone to be Switzerland.  No single methodology wins at the expense of all others.  Departmental PMOs continue to exist using the methods they choose, but they also understand that there are certain things which must be provided to the Program Management Office.  Some of these are listed in the illustration below:

PMO_2

While the company in question was obviously a large one, my recommendations can be just as easily applied to a small business.  This can be accomplished by simply assigning individual project managers, all of whom report to a single manager, to functional areas within the business.  In a day and age when “compromise” seems to be a dirty word and the need to win is everything, give this some consideration.

As always, folks, make it a great day!

Customer Service Under Fire

An unusual travel experience recently taught me a lot about customer service. Shortly after we boarded the plane for a flight from Little Rock to Denver, the captain made a vague announcement that we were having issues and would need to deplane. He gave no indication as to what the issue might be. As an experienced flier that struck me as unusual. We returned to the gate and began our wait.

Sitting near the desk, we overheard the gate agent explaining the reason for our delay to her superior. During the boarding process a passenger jokingly asked a flight attendant if the flight crew was sober. She responded in a joking way that they had spent the morning in the bar. A second passenger, overhearing the exchange and apparently not appreciating the humor, escalated the issue to the airline. The result?  Our original flight crew was disqualified and a new crew had to be found. They were. Four hours later. To borrow from Dave Berry, I am not making this up.

During that 240-minute wait I learned a lot by observing the airline staff. In particular, from one awesome gate agent.

MAKE THOSE MOST OF A BAD SITUATION. A service provider’s worst nightmare is a self-inflicted problem. A client of mine who was coincidentally on the same flight mentioned how deeply the airline must have been impacted by such a delay. The chances of lost baggage probably rose dramatically. Arrangements had to be made for a replacement crew. Concessions were made for dozens of passengers who would miss connecting flights.

In the midst of all this chaos was this lone gate agent. Working by herself and delivering outstanding customer service. She effectively dealt with scores of upset passengers. Her attitude was exceptional. She defused angry customers with a smile and a sense of humor. She came close to losing her cool only once with a customer who deserved a rude response. When it comes to managing customers in a tough situation, I want to be like her when I grow up!

EMPATHY FOR THE CUSTOMER. As my wife and I were driving to the airport that morning, I commented that it was nice to be on a direct flight. We had no reason to be worry about a connection. No concern about our bags being transferred. I have to work hard at being patient, especially as a traveler. The pressure of meeting deadlines when I have no control unnerves me. But, I had allocated a full travel day ahead of my meeting. Unlike others on the flight, I had no deadline to meet. Instead of being upset, it was easy to feel sorry for those who were terribly inconvenienced. Considering how little I had really been impacted, it was easy to feel empathy for others.

That gate agent was well trained by someone. It might have been the airline, but her behavior was more likely the product of a good upbringing. As we would say down South, “Her mama raised her right.” It was obvious that she was motivated, in large part, by her empathy for the customer. She graciously listened to the circumstance of each customer and made sure that their needs were met.

CONSEQUENCES. That brings us to the poor flight attendant. A seemingly innocent, ridiculously-simple exchange had enormous consequence. The thought occurred to me that the airline probably updated their training manual that very day. Never joke about pilot sobriety. It reminded me how important it is to be continually aware of my remarks, especially when I am in a customer-facing situation. I’m certain that the flight attendant had no intention of ruining anyone’s day, but the consequences of her response certainly did.

When it comes to customer service, remember these three things.  View bad situations as an opportunity to deliver exceptional service. Empathize with your customer. Never forget that your communications have consequences – either good or bad.

Make this a great day!

The 21st Century Gold Rush!

Skagway, Alaska should be on your bucket list.  Nestled on the coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountain range, Skagway is a town of about 1,000 permanent residents.  Cruise ships arrive during the summer months adding 10,000 per day to that number.  A portion of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” is set in Skagway.  It is a beautiful place.

Skagway’s claim to fame?  It was one of launching points for prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.  An estimated one hundred thousand souls braved the harshest of conditions to carry 200 pounds of supplies across the mountain range to Dawson City.  It was there, at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, that they hoped to strike it rich.  Many had sold everything they possessed in order to fund this venture.  Of the 100,000 who made the journey only 4,000 ever found gold.  The other 96,000 lost everything.  No one got rich.

If you visit Skagway ride the train that runs along the White Pass Trail.  You can still see that trail walked by those thousands, packed so hard that it remains visible 120 years later.  This photo of prospectors walking the Chilkoot Trail, taken by George G. Cantwell in 1898, gives you an idea of the conditions.

ChilkootPass

You may say that those times don’t exist today.  There will never be another “gold rush.”  Before you draw that conclusion you must consider what is at the heart of a “gold rush.”  The desire to strike it rich and to do so quickly.  On the date of this post, January 13, 2016, a different sort of gold rush is underway.  A 21st Century version.  The Powerball Lottery jackpot stands at $1.5 billion dollars.  That’s billion – with a “b.”

What is the source of that sum?  A number that grew from $40 million in November to $800 million in late December to $1.5 billion today?  Unfortunately, a lot of it comes from the pockets of those who can least afford it.  Public polling suggests that the poorest among the population are contributing more than those with higher incomes.  One poll found that lottery participants with incomes of less than $20,000 annually spent an average of $46 per month playing the lottery.  That’s $552 per year.  In some cases that was more than double any other spending category.

A study conducted by the University of Buffalo in 2012 concluded that “increased levels of lottery play are linked with certain subgroups in the U.S. population — males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately, lotteries are conducted by a system that is monopolized and driven by those in political power.  They are often presented as something other than legalized gambling: in my state (Arkansas) it’s promoted as the “Scholarship Lottery.”  The marketers of this activity do their job very well.  They come up with slick slogans such as the one I found on Arkansas’ site: “Someone has to win.  It might was well be you!”  Some marketing is so effective that participants feel as if they are actually doing a service to their community by participating!

Each of us have the right to choose whether or not we’ll play.  I just ask that you keep in mind that your chances of winning are 1-in-292,000,000.  That’s roughly one person in the entire population of the United States.  Those odds are far less than the 4% chance of finding gold in the Yukon.

UtahLotteryPlayers

(Photo above shows Utah residents who drove across state lines to play Powerball in Idaho: Fox13 News in Salt Lake City, Utah)

I also ask that you keep in mind that the $1.5 billion was funded in large part by those who can afford it least.  Give that some thought before you jump in line to buy that ticket.

Whether you choose to play Powerball or not, I hope that today is a great one for you!  Remember: Just Good Days!

Fear Not in 2016!

Happy New Year, 2016!  So long, 2015!

For some, 2015 was a great year.  Still others may be thankful to see 2015 behind them.

Regardless of whether you consider the past year a success, a failure or somewhere in between, you must admit that we live in a fascinating time.

While perusing articles summarizing the year’s biggest news stories, I noticed two common themes that dominated the news.  The most noteworthy items were: terrorism and social unrest.

Terrorist attacks were numerous.  San Bernardino.  Chattanooga.  Charleston.  Roseburg.  Paris – TWICE.  There were others, but these come to mind.

Social unrest was evident in the U.S., as witnessed by the growing division along demographic and racial lines.  Law enforcement came under fire at unprecedented levels.  Distrust of authority seems to grow every day.  Politics feels as if we are experiencing all-time lows.

All of these things leave us tempted to BE AFRAID!  Watch an hour of news coverage and you may be tempted to find a hole and climb in.  Consider some of the events that occurred in 2015 and you may be tempted to avoid that large sporting event or concert.  You may be tempted to cancel that vacation abroad.

Let me challenge you to do this in 2016: FEAR NOT!  If we give in to that temptation and allow fear to drive us, then we LOSE.  We stand to lose those experiences that make life rewarding.  We lose the opportunity to develop new friendships.  We lose the chance to see beautiful things.  Our happiness is jeopardized.  Don’t allow that to happen!

If, like me, you are guided by Christian principles then you are probably aware that two of the most common phrases found throughout the Bible are “be not afraid” and “fear not.”  One of America’s greatest presidents – while leading us out of the depths of financial ruin – told us that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Living boldly, with all hope and without fear, is our path to victory over a world increasingly filled with darkness, hate and distrust.  FEAR NOT in 2016!  Great things are ahead!

And remember…JUST GOOD DAYS!