Now Boarding

It sounded so cool when you were in college…. Business Travel. “You mean, I’ll get paid to travel?” you mused. That first trip was a memorable one. From the airport, to the rental car, to checking into the hotel…you were on cloud nine. “This is amazing!” you thought. On the flight home you felt good about yourself; ”Wow, my value add at that meeting must be worth the cost of all these travel expenses.” Yes, you finally made it to the big leagues…

My, how time flies and that naiveté retreats. It doesn’t take long before the mystique of business travel wears thin and the cattle car realities take over. One day, it dawns on you, as you look around the airport and pity at all those zombie business travelers with their little black roller bags, cell phones, iPods, and lattes… ..that you are one of them now. You realize this business travel thing isn’t all it was cracked up to be. You know you have been doing it a while when you no longer have to follow the exit signs out of the rental car maze, you know the best restrooms to use in most major airports, hotel rooms no longer impress you, and the free cocktails at dinner no longer turn your crank.

It is part of the job, and bearable. That is, except for those four words. Four words that strike panic into tall travelers everywhere. The power of these words is astounding. This oxymoron is uttered just after takeoff by the flight attendant…”Sit Back and Relax”. With the plane still accelerating upward, and gravity pulling at the hefty person in the seat in front of you, these words trigger a pavlovian response causing them to unconsciously reach for the dreaded button. The combination of the acceleration, the upward angle of the plane, and the pull of gravity, slam the seat with amazing force into your waiting kneecaps. There is nothing “Relaxing” about that!

Fortunately, neither the cracking sound, nor the yelp of pain can be heard over the roar of the engines as they strain to hurl the human sardine can skyward.
Some people attempt to soften the blow by having their laptop computer open. This way, when the seat is slammed backward the screen is crushed, softening the patella impact …kind of like the crush zone on the Honda Civic. Totally oblivious and disappointed with the reclining distance, larger people will often bounce back in the seat a number of times to make sure they have gotten everything out of the reclining position. These little love taps are always appreciated to help modulate the pain in the already Advil craving crushed joints.

If you are fortunate enough to be in the middle seat, you can enjoy the rest of the trip playing the Armrest Elbow Challenge. In this neat little pastime, travelers jockey for elbow position on the shared armrest. Of most interest is when this game moves to the challenge round in which participants attempt to eat or use a computer (if it still has a working screen) while in the middle seat. For extra points, travelers can board the plane late so that the overhead storage is full and your bag must be stowed under the seat in front of you. (Technically this means it can be under your seat since the seat in front of you is in your lap).

“Dong”. There it is! Finally, the long awaited cackle over the loudspeaker. The words you love to hear. The nightmare is over. ”Please return your seatbacks to the full upright position.”… Life is good again.

A Box Office Hit

In business school, Project Management covers things like Pert charts, Gantt charts, critical paths, resource buffers, contingency plans and risk mitigation. A successful project is one that is based on a sound plan and a judicious schedule. In practice however, corporate application erodes this academic philosophy like the Colorado river through the Arizona desert.

The first time functional manager energetically responds to the request for a project plan for their piece of a multifunctional project. The motivated manager pulls the experts of their team together to work out a precise plan covering the needed requirements, work estimates, planned milestones, deliverables and checkpoints. The team emerges from the intense session with a sound project plan.

Unfortunately, the completion date for the plan is long after the desired delivery date. The manager is rewarded with the task of reworking the plan in order to “pull in the schedule.” This demand is usually delivered with the helpful direction to “go back and sharpen your pencil.” (translated : "not the answer I was looking for...try again.")

Fortunately, executive project leaders offer many sharpening tools. First of all, since we want to plan for success and don’t want to plan for failure, any risk mitigation can be removed from the schedule. That should pull it in a couple of weeks. If we remove testing (since there is some chance, however small, that it will work the first time) we can save a couple more weeks. If we assume that resources are not an issue, then we should be able to cut the schedule in half (something about nine women and child birth comes to mind). And finally, if we would have started sooner, we would be several weeks ahead of where we are now. There....if you add all that up, we can meet the desired date! This is known as the “movie plan” (as in “Mission Impossible” and “Back to the Future”).

Astute managers realize that a request for a schedule is not intended to find out how long a project will take, but is instead a request for a “plan” to complete the work by the desired date. Managers are smart and quickly adapt; rather than wasting effort, the savvy manager asks for the desired date at the outset and then puts together a “plan” to deliver on that date. Never mind that there is no basis for the schedule. The other functions have clearly done the same...and chances are that someone else will be late. Now that is what I call a plan!

Need Oxygen

It is called the Peter Principle. Employees rise to their level of incompetence. The interesting thing is that only those below them on the org-chart are capable of seeing the incompetence play out. Amazingly, the incompetence is rewarded by someone higher up and obviously a practicing “peter” themselves.
This phenomenon is never more clear than when executives present their vision to their underlings. The farther one climbs up the proverbial corporate ladder, the more worthless their visions become. They offer direction such as:
“What we need is a widget that has better performance, lower cost, is smaller, lighter and uses less power than the previous model.”

Wow! Now that is insightful... What a vision! Endowed with such perspicacity we will stop heading down the lower performance and higher cost path.

Those even higher up the ladder are impressed. “We should promote this leader; they have a remarkable acumen in business matters. “ “Success now depends upon how well the rank and file carry out the execution of that extraordinary vision.”
Sadly humorous is their self perception that what they say actually adds value and makes them worthy of the obscene salary and bonuses bestowed upon them.
Clearly the air is thin near the top of the ladder.

Can you hear me now?

You used to see them in airports, parking lots and street corners. The phone booth is a thing of the past. As a matter of fact, it is getting downright difficult to find a public phone these days. Actually, the pay phone has evolved from inside booths, to hanging on the wall, and now has found its way into our pockets. Today’s “pay” phones come with cool features like cameras, music players and expensive monthly “calling plans”…and do we pay!
The proliferation of mobile phones into our society today has made the traditional pay phone go the way of vinyl readers and VHS. But make no mistake; we still pay for these phones. Just ask anyone with a teen in the household.
The good thing about mobile phones is that they work everywhere (at least that is what the TV commercials boast). The problem with mobile phones is that they work everywhere…including restaurants, airplanes, churches, libraries, lobbies and any other public places. People take and make calls in places and at times most inappropriate. Somehow, the person on the other end of the phone is more important than anyone nearby. People respond to their disruptive polyphonic ring tones, taking calls at inopportune times and places such as during meetings, in the middle of conversations, in quiet public places and in very close proximity to strangers.
Disturbing also, is the volume in which people speak on the mobile phone. Something about speaking into a small electronic device and the physical distance to the person on the other end cause people to speak much louder than they normally would. People can be sitting in a restaurant speaking with an individual at their table quietly as to not interfere with others (or to not be heard by others). Once the mobile phone is in use, that all flies out the window and everyone in the entire restaurant is privy to the entire vociferous confab. Airplanes are just as bad; I really don’t care that the guy in seat 21C just landed and will be home in about an hour (well, unless I am in seat 21C).
Of most concern is the trend that people seem to speak louder the smaller the phone. As if the small device needs extra help to shoot the words all the way to the far away person on the other end. Now that Apple is in the phone business we could be in trouble. If the Apple phones shrink like the iPod we are in for some noisy times. I think it is time to bring back phone booths. Besides, Superman needs a place to change.

What a Vacation!

In the military it is called “R and R”; Rest and Relaxation. In the corporate world we take vacation. This is the time that we remove ourselves from work to travel, spend time with family and rejuvenate ourselves. In order to take a week long vacation, one must take steps to prepare for their absence in the workplace. The preparation the week before a vacation is typically quite stressful and amounts to a significant amount of extra work. Meetings must be rescheduled until after your return, any items due during the vacation week must be prepared in advance, and coverage for responsibilities must be delegated.
Similarly, the week after vacation is exceptionally arduous. One must catch up on the voice mail box that filled the first day of your absence, weed through the mountain of email, attend all the rescheduled meetings, and take care of all the issues that everyone “put on hold until your return.” This week is arguably one of the most stressful in one’s calendar. When the actual work is tallied, you realize that you didn’t actually do any less work, but rather just pushed it to the two weeks abutting the week off.

Ah, but at least you had a relaxing vacation. It all started by bolting from work to pick up the family and sweep them off to the airport where your excited crew waited patiently through check in lines, security lines, food court lines, boarding lines and finally settled in to the sardine can seating in the back of the plane. Now, finally you can relax. Well, not exactly; the kid in front of you slams his seat back into your vulnerable knee caps and the rather large gentleman next to you is oozing into your seat. Soon, you arrive at your destination, where your wait for checked luggage ends up in the customer service line to describe your missing bag (who, by the way, signs up for that job?). Now it is off to the rental car line, a frustrating drive in the never-been-in-before city, and finally to the check in desk in the hotel. Whew. Now vacation can begin! Well, it is up early and off to the attraction, along with half of the vacationers in North America. Guess what?...More lines! The pattern repeats, long line, short ride, quick dart to the next long line, then long wait in line. Get in a bite to eat (of course there is a long line for that too). You are exhausted at the end of the day. Good news!...Tomorrow you can do it again! The pattern goes all week, and then you get to experience the all too familiar joy of travel on our way back home. You arrive home late, get a few winks, and it is back to work to start to dig out. Makes you wonder why we do it.
In a weird, paradoxical way, it is these experiences that make the time together with our families memorable. I think it is worth it.

Follow the Code

Okay, I did not want to have to venture back into the restroom, but I am afraid that things have just gone too far. While I cannot comment on the situation in the ladies room, I am all too familiar with the complete breach of etiquette in the men’s room.

It seems strange that it must be explicitly stated, but apparently, it is not obvious to all. So here goes: People, please do not use your mobile phones while in the office bathroom.

It is uncomfortable enough to have conversations while taking care of one's personal business, but there is something very unsettling about someone carrying on a conference call while seated on the can. For those offenders that have no clue, let me assure you, that while the stall may provide some visual solitude, it really provides no privacy for any of the other senses. Besides, it is really creepy when you consider the poor folks on the other end of the line. I know that I really don’t need the distraction of awkward mental images conjured up during a call when strange noises permeate over the air waves. Are you really so busy that you cannot afford two minutes to take care of your personal biological needs? The restroom is a very personal and private place; please keep your mobile phone conversations to yourself.
Recently, the hands free in-the-ear devices have allowed code violations to spread from the stall to the urinal.

I was minding my own business, eyes forward, quiet and focused, when a gentleman began to use the facility next to me. He seemed to be humming to himself – “Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmmm” (this is not, in itself, a technical violation of the code). Unknown to me, he was actually on a hands free call, responding to the long winded speaker on the other end. The real problem occurred when he began to speak. I, of course, though he was talking to me…a clear violation of the code! I couldn’t believe my ears when he said “Yes, that is a nice package.” Out of sheer surprise, I myself broke the code. With a look of disgust and shock on my face, I snapped my head to look in surprise at this obviously demented individual. The abrupt motion caused my neighbor to look over at me, he too surprised by the breach of etiquette. Totally clueless, and clearly confused by my actions and the look on my face, he looked at me with disgust. It was not until this moment that I noticed the over the ear wireless device he was wearing. I humbly returned to my business…silently. He avoids me now.

Let's Get Started

Remember back in High School, the bell would ring, you would leave class, visit your locker then head off to your next class. There was a five minute “passing period” that gave you time to move from one class to another, along with a few minutes to go to the restroom, kibitz with friends and maybe even get a peek at that cute boy or girl that you were sweet on. Then we moved on to college. A similar structure was in place. Courses were timed to start ten minutes or so after the end of the previous hour’s classes. This was to give time to transport one’s self from one part of campus to another. We used bikes, skateboards or our feet to quickly zip to the next class.
For some reason this concept never made it out of academia and in into the corporate world. The scheduling of meetings is typically done on hour boundaries. Meetings are scheduled from the top of the hour to the top of the hour. Now, as smart as we are in our financial, technological and business aspects of our endeavors, we somehow fail to acknowledge that it actually takes time to physically move from one location to another. As a result of this, no one actually makes it to a meeting on time. Of course, those that were not in a meeting the previous hour have too many times arrived long before the other participants, so they purposefully arrive about ten minutes after the hour. The 10:00 meeting has a quorum and can begin around 10:10.
Well...not exactly. We first must include offsite participants via a conference call. To do this we call a “bridge number” where we are greeted with a very friendly automated female voice that welcomes us to the conference. We are politely instructed enter a series of numbers that no one in attendance remembered to bring. Eventually, the numbers are located and entered. Next, the host of the meeting must enter some super secret number that proves this meeting is legit. Often times it is not clear who is actually hosting the meeting so everyone sits patiently waiting for the “host to arrive”. After much fiddling with number entry, just when it appears that the meeting is about to get underway, the friendly automated operator informs us that a security code is required. This is in case someone who somehow navigated the first three secret numbers might be attempting to listen in... a fourth number would surely prevent unwanted listening in. Ok, all the numbers are entered and we are ready to begin. Before the actual connection is made however, as a courtesy, the voice kindly reminds us that we can always “press star zero at any time for assistance” and, that we can “press star nine for more volume” and, that we can “press star eight to pause” , and, that we can “press star seven if we want to check our horoscope”,. Star six is for a free quote to refinance our mortgage, star five is to order prescription drugs over the internet.... We will now be placed into the conference. Whew!. Oh, there is a final parting shot from the automated attendant informing us that this is a “Quick Start Conference”; implying that we should not even consider complaining or else next time we may have to go through some lengthy start process.

Ok, so it is now 10:30 but we have everyone together and connected. The first item of business is to go over the agenda. It should be displayed so that all can follow along. This used to be as simple as turning on a light switch in the overhead projector and slapping a transparency on the glass. Now it is a delicate sequencing process that requires connection to a source computer, the warming up of the projector itself, location of the file, and the input selection on the projector. The first three steps, while slow, are straight forward; the last remains a mystery. Once connected, there is a little kabuki dance that must be performed with the function key(s) of the host computer to shoot the display information out the external port to the projector. This is always an enjoyable part of the meeting because everyone in the room knows how to do it except the person driving. Comments fly around the room like “press it again”...” you need to toggle it” ...and “how many engineers does it take to turn on a projector.” Finally, the picture is brightly displayed on the screen for all to see.

It is now 10:45 and you are now ready to begin... except that the remote participants cannot see the display. We will need to start an internet meeting. This begins a ten minute process of identifying who is hosting, making connections, sharing the application, and readjusting the screen resolution four times to get the presentation material to display properly at the remote sites. At 10:55 you proudly declare that we are ready to get started. The agenda is now shared by all. The first item is: “Agenda Review”, allocated five minutes. Well, it looks like we will have to pick up here next week because we are out of time. Speaking of which , I gotta run... I am late for a meeting....

Good, or Really Good?

For children, there is back to school, Christmas, and summer break. These annual events bring back memories of the past, and expectations for the future. Sometimes anticipated, other times thrust upon them, the children re-trace the events of the given season…shopping for school supplies and new clothes, exchanging holiday gifts and heading to the pool. As adults, annual events have morphed to tax time, spring cleaning, and winterizing of the sprinklers. Somehow these events are less anticipated and more misery than merriment. Corporately, we experience similar annual events, from annual benefits enrollment and adjustments, to the annual performance reviews.

Ahhh…annual review time… it is the manager’s most dreaded period on the corporate calendar. As review time approaches, managers start to sweat as they realize their headcount and tally up the number of essays they have to write. Of course, there are some guidelines one must follow when preparing reviews. First, any negative reviews will require a significant amount of additional work by the manager. A sub-par rating will automatically kick in a series of dictated procedures to be performed by the manager to right the situation (obviously, if the employee is getting a low rating it is due to poor management). Second, low ratings hurt morale more than good ratings improve morale. Third, managers themselves are reviewed. The performance of their employees is a reflection of their management abilities – usually under the category “Staffing”, “Team Building” or “Talent Development”. And finally, communicating bad reviews can be uncomfortable.

As a result of these realities, many managers, go the way of the electron, and take the easiest path. That is, they simply write nice stuff and give good ratings to all their employees. (This usually begins after a manager’s first year experiencing the full wrath of the human resource review tax.). The result is rating inflation. This volley by the managers launches the ball back in the court of the human resources department (HR). In true Wimbledon fashion, HR swings back with a series of strokes that keep the ball in play. The first response is to change the ratings systems from letters to numbers (or from numbers to letters) – this gives the appearance that something is being done to address rating inflation. In fact this does nothing to change the ratings. This is the way a 5 point scale works: Do not give the lowest two ratings because they require additional work (plans, tracking reports etc). Since being average is a dig to an employee, 3’s are only given to indicate sub-par performance. A “4” is better than average and still allows for the “5” to be given for outstanding performance. So almost everyone gets a 4 rating. This system is thrown out for being too quantitative.

The next step in the rating evolution is to change to a qualitative system... aka... the “vowel rating system”. In this system, employees are rated as (O) for outstanding, (E) for effective, (U) for under-perform, or (I) for incompetent….No…Wait…I think it was (O) for overrated, (E) for excellent, (I) for incredible and (A) for awful. Or was it (A) for awesome… Anyway, this confusing system is ultimately thrown out in favor of simplicity. The ratings are reduced to simply “Bad” or “Good” (of course no one will rate anyone Bad, so it is quickly changed to Good and Really Good.). And, to stay one step ahead of those lazy managers, a rule is set to limit “Really Good” ratings to 10% of the staff. Unfortunately, managers now have to turn away “Really Good” recruits to maintain their allotment. Instead they are forced to hunt for duds. Hmmm…I wonder if anyone in HR would like to transfer….

How Was Your Weekend?

You’ve worked hard. It is time to take a break. That is why we have weekends. These coveted jewels of the week are not only the end of the work week, they are the end for which the paycheck is the means. We work to survive certainly, but we work to live a certain lifestyle. As we plod through the work week, we look forward to the personal experiences of the weekend: soccer games, swim meets, fishing, camping, skiing, work around the house, gardening, worshipping name it. Our lives are full. It is during the weekend that we can spend time with our families, visit relatives, volunteer, and take care of personal lives. This time tested design works well. Five days is about as long as intensity and focus can remain at high levels. The human mind can focus intensely but desires and requires a break. Of course, business does not always go as expected, so there are times that a "little extra" is required. These times are usually identified around four o’clock on Fridays. This is when the realization that some deliverable promised months ago, and behind schedule after the first week, is not ready. Managers dart from cubicle to cubicle, put on their best parental face, conjure up their best Gary Cole impression to notify employees that they are expected to be in over the weekend. The report is delivered to upper management...”We have people working over the weekend.” Whew...that was close. Fast forward to Saturday morning. Employees drag themselves in, usually in very casual attire - baseball caps, sandals ..whatever. They partake of the doughnut peace offering brought in by the manager, still bent that they are missing their child’s soccer game. They begrudgingly make their appearance and dive into their work. Unfortunately, not all the needed players are in, and thoughts of the screaming fans at the soccer game continue to interrupt their mindset. Somehow... surprise, surprise... the work is not up to normal quality. Between the hovering manager, and the desire to get the heck outta there, band-aid fixes and temporary tweaks are made. When Monday finally arrives the deliverable is not any closer than it was on Friday. As a matter of fact, Monday is spent undoing the misdirected weekend work. It is now Tuesday and the project is back to where it was on Friday. With only four days left in the work week, the project is now three more days behind; the next weekend of work will surely be needed. The cascading compound interest turns the “little extra” into a snowball collecting more work every weekend. Eventually, the doughnuts stop as the exception becomes the norm. The work week becomes the minimum payment on the project credit card and the project slides deeper into schedule debt. Now, we hire smart people...adaptable people. So it does not take too many of these episodes for the behavior to change. The intensity of work lifts. Instead of humming Loverboy’s “Workin’ for the Weekend” people grumble “Why bother, I will be here on Saturday anyway.” The last threads of motivation finally snap and the project tumbles backwards. The way I see it, if we just work a few more weekends we will be back to the start of the project! Oh, and by the way...Have a Great Weekend!

Happy New Year!

Ahhh, it is the middle of summer….time to enjoy the long days, experience the outdoors and spend time with our families. Albert Einstein discussed the relativity of time in his General Theory of Relativity. This work describes the perception of time as relative to the situation in which the time is observed. First hand experience with this phenomenon occurs when one must wait in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, time slows to a crawl. Contrast this with a busy day at the office, when the day is over long before our to-do list has even been dented. Another way to witness what Einstein refers to as “time dilation” is to observe the effect of aging. Einstein and other physicists use what are called “thought experiments” to describe abstract events. A thought experiment would be something like this: Two people of the same age begin work on the same day. One remains an engineer, while the other climbs the corporate ladder. After the twenty years, the two reunite. The engineer has aged about 20 years. The one who climbed the corporate ladder has aged about 40 years, lost his family, has achieved lifetime frequent flyer status, has lots of stock options, missed his kids' graduation, works Saturdays, and is busy bucking for that next rung…cool. Since executives have little control of their lives outside of work, they like to control everything at work. Once word got out that time is relative, they flexed their corporate muscle to redefine the calendar. No longer is January the beginning of the year, “we want …ummm…July to be the beginning of the year!” “All those in favor say ’aye’ … those opposed ‘nay’… it is passed”. And so it is. A declaration to the peasant employees follows: “Hear Ye, Hear Ye…We now declare, that from this day forward, that the year shall begin on the first day of July and shall come to a close on the last day of June... and, this shall be referred to as the Fiscal Year.”… (You always wondered what goes on in those board meetings. I understand they are working on their own currency next.) Of course, when we communicate outside the kingdom to our customers we must still use the normal or “Calendar Year”. To facilitate the communication of this information, some neat abbreviations have been devised. Any year information is now preceded by an F for Fiscal or a C for Calendar. So we have FY08 for Fiscal year 2008, 1HFY08 for first half of Fiscal year 2008, and Q3FY08 for third quarter Fiscal year 2008. Of course one must understand the transfer function to convert Fiscal to Calendar in order to communicate to your customer (Q2FY08 = Q4CY07 for example). Perhaps we should consider extending this to months so that FJan = CJuly. And really, since work begins on Monday, we should redefine Fiscal Sunday to be Calendar Monday. Come to think of it, the work day starts at 8:00, so maybe Fiscal 12:00 a.m. should be Calendar 8:00 a. m. Thanks to the insight of the upper echelons and the introduction of the Fiscal calendar, the clarity of the marketing material has greatly improved. Hopefully, if the currency thing works out, it will take care of those boring financial slides next. You know, work is just too easy without keeping track of this kind of stuff. Hey, I’ll meet you for lunch, how about Fiscal 4:00a.m.on Calendar Wednesday?

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