A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

31 July 2009

Language Barriers

Communication challenges seem to be a recurring theme in my life over the past week or so. Curiously, being in Puerto Rico was the least of them.

Puerto Rico has two official languages, Spanish and English. In San Juan, you can be all but guaranteed a fluently bilingual professional to help you in whatever shop, restaurant, or hotel you happen to patronize. We found that to be true probably 80% of the time or better throughout the island as well. When we did encounter someone who claimed not to speak English, they usually meant only that they weren't particularly fluent. Between their better-than-advertised English and my pitiful Spanish, our genuine desire to communicate got us where we needed to go in a remarkably efficient and friendly manner. The only real challenge I had was in learning that Puerto Rico is not the right place to practice your Spanish if you're not fluent. Puerto Ricans expect you to speak the language you know, and if you talk to them in Spanish, they assume it's because you know it. Once I understood what was expected, I had no trouble communicating.

Understanding what's expected is key in communication no matter what the language. People who should have almost perfectly congruent dialects, like for example coworkers in an organization, run into communication problems all the time. "Speaking the same language" is not just about vocabulary and grammar. It's about attitudes, expectations, and assumptions about what particular expressions mean.

Case in point: one of my most frustrating communication experiences last week was with one of the people I was traveling with. He is an American and a fluent, native English speaker, so that wasn't the issue. We were talking about planning. He asserted that he has never seen planning work, and further, that a colleague of his has researched and found no firm evidence that planning has any kind of positive impact on project success. He is a proud procrastinator and a firm believer that things should be allowed to happen "organically" -- that if you put the right people on a project, they will just get it done with no planning required.

Now, it's not that I don't believe him. For him, planning has probably backfired more than it has helped. I know, though, that planning does work -- if it's the right kind of planning. My response, which fell flat because he did not understand what I meant and sent the group's conversation in a different direction, was that planning doesn't work when you plan from front to back. You have to plan from top to bottom.

Planners frequently create plans based solely on time. They have a project and a deadline, and they create milestones to connect the beginning to the end. These milestones may or may not reflect realistic time frames, and may or may not account for other variables such as required man-hours, budgets, unexpected equipment failures or other setbacks. Such plans almost never account for the intangibles in a project, such as the relationships among the people working on it or other characteristics of those people that may have bearing on their capacity to do the work. Perhaps most importantly, plans that are solely time-based seldom include the motivation for doing the project. "To get it done by the deadline" is not an inspiring reason to do the work. It doesn't capture the value of the project or its impact on the larger organization. It doesn't speak to the needs of the customer or the potential for personal satisfaction in accomplishing a team goal. It doesn't even really express the consequences of failure to meet the deadline.

If you want your plan to have an impact on the project, plan from the top down. Start with vision and mission -- the reasons why this project is important and how it fits into the big picture. Get all of the team members together to discuss the benefits of completing the project, and the consequences of failure. Brainstorm the critical goals related to successful completion and the obstacles that may get in the way. Make sure everyone understands their own role in the project, how their role fits, where their personal deadlines fall and how their performance impacts the success of their team mates. Be sure each team member has a clear understanding of what's expected and why, and how to "cry for help" if things are not going according to plan. Get genuine commitment, not just a reluctant head-nod, from each and every team member. Once you've addressed the intangibles and the "what-ifs," then you'll have the information you need to create a rough timeline based on the tasks you need to complete. From there, you can determine a realistic deadline, SMART goals, and a concrete plan of action.

Sure, it's complicated. But the critical first step is to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. When everyone knows what is meant by "plan," and has a shared base of assumptions and expectations about the nature of the project, you're well on your way to successful completion.

18 July 2009

Stopped in my tracks

I've been scrambling since Wednesday. Not really recovered from the previous trip, leaving for the next one tomorrow, spinning the plates of work tasks, laundry, a speaking engagement yesterday, unpacking, re-packing and generally trying to keep my head above the water.

This morning, a quick check of my email stopped me in my tracks.

It seems a friend of my family (actually a distant cousin), of whom I have many fond memories from my childhood, drowned in Lake Erie a few days ago. He was 65. I am profoundly shaken by this, and deeply saddened.

As with most experiences I have had over the last several years of my life, my way of processing the emotions of it seem always to translate into analysis. What's the lesson of this experience? What might I do differently from now on? What could I learn, and what could I teach, from this place of new wisdom (in this case, the phrase "sadder but wiser" surely seems to apply)?

These are the thoughts I have about the loss of my family friend.

First, there's the really obvious one. He was swimming off a small boat, and was not wearing a life jacket. Had he been, he certainly would still be alive today. By the time you know you need your life jacket, it's way too late -- always exercise the greatest caution around boats and water.

Second is the not quite so obvious one. In this particular circumstance, two friends took a boat out on the water, anchored it, and went in for a swim. The anchor failed to hold and the boat got away from them. The friend who survived swam directly for shore. The friend who didn't, swam for the boat -- most likely putting more importance on recovering the errant vessel than on getting directly to safety. Make sure you have your priorities in order, and think before you act - especially when you feel like you don't have time to think.

Third is the subtlest lesson, and maybe the most important of all of them. Tomorrow is promised to no one. I hadn't seen our family friend in years, though I thought of him often. I thought about calling my Dad to get his phone number or his email address, and just never got around to it. I would have loved to see him, talk to him, just shoot the breeze and see what new geeky fun project he was working on this week. But I never did. And now I never can.

Every one of us has someone like that in our lives - and probably several someones. We're probably more likely to catch up with a client or supplier on a consistent basis than with a dear friend. Take a minute today to think about the most important connection you could make, and make it. Don't make excuses about being too busy, and don't wait.

And hey - tell them I said hello.

06 July 2009


Achieving my goal of writing two blog posts a week requires some discipline that has been a challenge to maintain during my travels these past couple of weeks. Tonight as I contemplated possible topics, I thought about the word "exercise." It struck me that several of this word's meanings are relevant to my blogging goal, and might also be relevant to a goal you are currently pursuing.

"Exercise" means action. It can mean physical activity for fitness, or activity done to build a skill (as in a writing or math exercise), or a drill or practice activity (like a military exercise). It can also be a ceremonial action, like commencement exercises, or a way of taking action, like exercising a privilege. We can exercise our bodies, our minds, our rights, and even our religion. Or a troubling thought can exercise us, causing a workout of worrying. We can exercise control, or exercise caution, or exercise the dog with a long morning run.

It's enough to make you wish that reading my blog would burn calories. :)

In order to accomplish any goal, you're going to need to exercise something. Whether you are exercising your judgment, your self-control or your six-pack abs, you need to take action in order to get the results you want. If I want to achieve my goal of making regular blog entries, and get the desired result of a large community of engaged readers following my blog, I'll need to exercise my best creative thinking and language skills on a daily basis. What do you need to exercise in order to achieve your goals?

If you'd like some help designing a results-focused exercise program to achieve your business goals, give me a call!

01 July 2009

Life Lessons from the Movies, episode 1

Legally Blonde was on TV last night. I have seen this film more times than I'd care to admit, and if you haven't, I recommend it. It is not high art, but it is cute and funny and charming, and embeds some valuable lessons in its story.

(I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.)

One of the key themes in this movie is misjudgment. Many of the characters are not what they at first appear to be. The protagonist in particular, a fluffy blonde sorority girl from L.A., turns out to be a caring, thoughtful, keenly intelligent and principled person who changes the lives of several of the other characters. The sidekicks become heroes and the romantic lead gets kicked to the curb. The snobbish prep school ice queen gets sent out for the coffee, and the clumsy comic relief gets credited with giving the star "the greatest pleasure I've ever known."

So what's the life lesson? Misjudgment comes in every flavor, and that goes double in the work place. If you work in an office with more than 50 other people, odds are there's at least one person in each of these categories:
  • One climbing the corporate ladder who doesn't care whose head they step on
  • One accused of that, who in reality is struggling to provide for a family and needs that promotion desperately
  • One who seems shy but in reality just needs someone to reach out to them
  • One who is not shy but who prefers to work alone and avoid work friendships
  • One who gossips about everybody
  • One who hates being in that gossipy conversation but is afraid to stand up to the gossip
  • One who has a fantastic idea that would make the office run better, but whose opinion is never sought
  • One whose opinion is sought constantly but whose ideas are rarely useful
  • One whom everyone pretends to like because of their position, but who isn't very nice
  • One whom nobody likes, who would be a fast friend if given the chance
How would your office environment be different if everyone felt comfortable and safe to be who they really are? How would fully understanding, respecting and trusting all of your coworkers change the way you work? How would the people in your company treat customers differently if they felt fully appreciated and empowered by that respect and trust? How might your business get better bottom-line results if you could consciously create that kind of workplace?