actually helpful

When things get busy this time of year AND I’m spending more time than usual buying stuff online, I can’t help but think of products that would make life as a working mom easier.

working mama.jpg

Consider this a plea directly to the various industries that produce stuff. A call to action of sorts! Let's not stop at silicone lids that turn any cup into a Sippy or fancy day planners with boxes for everything from account meetings to play dates. No! Let’s come up with some things that would actually save time and face. Here are a couple of things that come to mind.

  • Getting out of the house in the morning is a well-documented struggle. So, I'd like a minivan with air vents that blow hard enough to dry and style hair. Nothing quite says, “I (don’t) have my sh*t together” like showing up at the first meeting of the day with a slicked back drippy do. This blo feature could dramatically cut down the clean-to-commute time. It'd come standard but you could preload all your favorite anti-frizz, shine, and volumizing products. There would be settings for various meeting types—polished presentation day, roll-up-your-sleeves creative brainstorming day, and tousled beach chic day (just because).

  • Product #2 should be easy enough. It is an Excel-based baby book. The cutesy templates always struck me inefficient and incomplete not to mention completely guilt-inducing because I really can’t stand the thought of trying to fill out all of the predetermined categories. No, I don’t remember my baby’s favorite song at 3 months. I DO, however, remember this epic diaper explosion at the mall when I was out of wipes and nowhere near a baby changing station. There’s no page for that one but these are the kind of moments I’d like to share with your future friends. So, a tabular format with sorting and filtering features is the way to go. The spreadsheet could feature multiple children to save data entry time. Adding the ability to tag pictures from my phone would be super. Um, yeah. I’d pay extra in iTunes for that.

  • Another handy one? A silencer for my breast pump. I mean, seriously, Medela. Come on! Especially when firing on both cylinders, those suckers are LOUD. The unmistakable “we-WAH” , we-WAH” limits when you can pump to only those minutes of privacy in between meetings and calls—like those exist. A quieter version (or at least one with a more motivational mantra like, “moreCHOCOLATE, moreCHOCOLATE”) would be appreciated.

Not hard. Let’s get to work.

where the nerds go

I'm a member of three professional organizations-- the Project Management Institute, Federal Real Property Association, and the Facilitators Network. These voluntary groups provide a gathering place for fellow project management, federal facilities, and meeting facilitation "nerds" (shorthand for subgroups of people more interested in the details of the how and why of these topics than the general public).

These associations--and the events they each work so hard to put on-- always leave me feeling unsatisfied and suspicious that I've wasted my time.  There is something missing and, I think, the typical event format is part of the problem.  

In the interest of applying to the largest possible audience, broader topics are typically selected for sharing. What happens is that the content is then so watered down that the presenter doesn't really have an opportunity share information that has any practical application.

Further, most of these presentations are slotted for 50 minutes or an hour.  They're centered around breakfast or lunch times and come in pretty uniform blocks. So presenters are then on the hook to come up with enough stuff to fill the air-- which is really difficult to do in an interesting, engaging way.  You have to be a pretty talented speaker/presenter to hold a group's attention for this duration.

An alternative would be potentially to offer events in much smaller time intervals-- 3 slides in 15 minutes, perhaps? Another goal would be to host events more frequently so there isn't as much pressure to fill a room for a once-a-month type of gathering. Lastly, I'd love to see a general trend towards more authenticity around real problems. To protect a client or coworker or self, we seem to gloss over some of the real challenges we're facing.

ramp meter

Let's add Zumba to the list of activities to which new people should be added slowly, one at a time-- like the ramp meters on 66.  I just finished my first (last?) class. Motivated by boredom with the treadmill and curiosity about how many steps I'd score with my fitbit, I gave it a shot. The mid-morning class was precisely and perfectly timed between two client meetings.  *Side note: Have you been to the gym at 10:30am?  It's all retirees!  I don't know why this surprised me but appraently this is where they all go before heading over to Panera for an early lunch of soup and black coffee. 

Anyway, after entering the studio and finding a space in the back, I issued a disclaimer to the group.  "Hi, I'm new."  In retrospect, this fact became so immediately and intensely obvious that it really didn't need to be said. So, everything probably would have been fine if another newbie wasn't positioned so close to me. As the bouncing and bopping started, it was actually remarkable how uniformly out-of-sync we were with the rest of the group.  Effectively,  efficiently, and completely unintentionally, we threw off the whole vibe.

Some processes are so strong and groups so well established that adding a handful of new folks doesn't matter. Others are incredibly fragile. One or two new people performing off cue (despite their desire to do it right) messes up the whole group. Zumba, I've learned, falls in this latter category-- as do grocery self-checkout and EZPass lanes.

And, since this is a blog on organizational performance after all, I'll throw in a work example-- status-ing anything. Your schedule, your progress report, your team's vacation calendar, whatever.  I support a client's bi-weekly project management office (PMO) meeting during which we review the progress on dozens of interrelated activities. The group needed to expand. So, a handful of new folks joined recently and threw off the rhythm-- lessening the benefit for that week and frustrating all involved. In the future, a better approach would be to more thoroughly establish the process, then invite new folks to join the flow from the on ramp, one at a time.

don't forget the awesome

I took this picture in about 5 years ago. It was a chilly February day and there were patches of snow on the ground. I include it not because the photography is awesome but because the Canyon itself is.

I took this picture in about 5 years ago. It was a chilly February day and there were patches of snow on the ground. I include it not because the photography is awesome but because the Canyon itself is.

I'm supporting a handful of clients who are exploring how to launch various support services within their agency. And beyond.

The story always starts the same.  The need for more communications, analytics, mobile app development, fashion sense, etc. is clear. Everyone agrees.  So, the logic flows...why not group us experts together and offer INSERT FUNCTIONAL THING HERE as a service? Yes, yes, yes! We'll scale up to meet demand, charge people to cover our costs and... it'll be great.

And just like many new businesses, they start running with a focus on on staffing up and figuring out how to take people's money. The middle, less developed (but more important in my opinion) piece is the service itself.

Exactly HOW is it going to be so far superior to whatever people currently are doing that they'll stop that and move their business to you?

The service concept and entrepreneurial drive is great.  It is. Really.  And, just the exercise of looking into what it would take to establish a "go to" function within an organization can be beneficial. But what should not be lost in the excitement of getting senior buy-in and working with budget to transfer funds and identifying customers and developing communications is this.  Don't forget the awesome.

An earnest desire to offer a service and top level support are important but, together, they don't create a sustainable business.

A better and ultimately more resilient model is to methodically create a portfolio of exceptional work (some of this is tangible, some are case study examples of problems solved.)  Find opportunities to show it off and get feedback.  Continue to improve and refine it while getting the word out. The "awesome" is what will attract others and inspire them to pay.

Here are a couple of far flung examples of feds doing just that: digitalgov, the Historic Preservation Training Center, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


thankful for work

At the risk of being cheesy and predictable, I'll just say it. I am so thankful for outstanding colleagues, tough problems to solve, and a connection to something greater through my clients' missions. Oh yeah..and wine and pedicures and a husband who really helps and more flexibility and latitude than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Happy Thanksgiving!

reframing organizational impact

Passing Time 5, by Allison Long Hardy

Passing Time 5, by Allison Long Hardy

This short read provides practical advice on putting our experiences into context for readers for greater impact.  Laszlo Bock (exec in charge of people operations at Google-- and coolest sounding HR guy EVER!) is focused on resumes in this interview but his advice could be easily extended to include organizational qualifications and annual progress reports. 

Twist the formula slightly and you get...

division/program strengths = we accomplished x, relative to y, by doing z

So for a CIO's office let's say, accomplishments might go from:

  • Integrated email service
  • Continued cost avoidance activities by consolidating network circuits and data centers
  • Implemented records management system

To the way snazzier...

  • Integrated 5 divisions under a single email system by purchasing a scalable, off-the-shelf solution and offering each participant a share of the savings.
  • Avoided $12 million in annual licensing, hardware renewal, and space costs by consolidating 17 of 40 network circuits and 23 of 87 data centers.
  • Implemented a records management system where no enterprise solution existed previously.  Brought the department into compliance with federal mandates and reduced our collective liability by purchasing a single, common platform to collect, categorize, and archive documents.

the ultimate reorganization recipes

There are as many blog posts out there on how to reorganize as there are chili recipes on Pinterest.  Probably more, actually.  Each has a twist that includes tasty-sounding variations and toppings.  It's that hot.

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes for wrecking havoc on productivity in the name of getting more done better.

  • Straight-forward and wasting no time with an intro for context, this action list from Berkeley challenges the would-be reorganizer to first define the problem.  Bo-ring.
  • Here's a survival guide from Forbes. The fact that there are more than 300,000 similarly titled posts suggests merely mentioning the word "reorganization" triggers a fight or flight response for many.
  • The big guys don't have the luxury of reorganizing in relatively safe obscurity. There are entire blog posts like one from Chitra Nawbatt dedicated to deciphering what's really going on behind the scenes at Microsoft by analyzing their reorg objectives.

The gazillion posts, articles, and reports largely make the same main point.  If you're the reorg-er, begin-- and stick to-- a couple of core objectives.  Move as quickly as possible and communicate with abandon. For the reorg-ee, the advice given to my toddlers during earthquake drills seems appropriate.  Take cover and hold on until the shaking stops. Resilience and flexibility will get you through... until the next one.

save some room

It's that time of year.  The air is crisp, crock pots reappear on the counter, and we spend hours at work toggling between obsessively checking fantasy team scores and obsessively checking budget balances. Spend it or risk losing it next year.

In all organizations-- but let's talk federal since that's our focus here-- the budget game demands that you plan work to fully meet or exceed available funds.  The goal is to accomplish what you said you'd do and not leave any money on the table. (We can save the debate on misaligned incentives to save money for another day.)

So while a lot of fiscally responsible folks hate the game, you can't not play. The rules are simple.  Plan to spend all of your budget, plus a little.  Only talk about additional needs. Never let the words extra, underrun, left-over, etc. cross your lips-- especially in front of those vultures from other divisions. In the event that there is a remaining balance, immediately (and as quietly as legally possible) obligate the funding towards smaller "nice to do" projects that didn't make the cut at the beginning of the year. This annual dramatic miniseries starts around August 15th and lasts through the end of the government fiscal year. Of course, we're all too familiar with the ulcers this causes for federal program managers, contracting officers, consultants, and baristas.

The problem with the annual fiscal year close drama is that it creates a climate resistant to collaboration throughout the rest of the year.

A better approach is to get more practiced at balancing conversations to simultaneously protect your budget while demonstrating an openness to taking on new work. What makes programs dynamic and organizations strong is welcoming new ideas and showing a willingness to try a fresh approach.

Bridging the capacity gap

Bridging the capacity gap

So, more nuanced conversation is needed to bridge the gap between these lines. Protecting your program and staff by playing the budget game is real-- and not changing any time soon.  It takes a confident leader to say, "We've have solid plans in place to use all of our funding. We've maxed out our budget capacity.  However, we still have more intellectual and professional capacity available to be a part of or lead a new approach to our shared problem."