JIT Planning

I have High-C tendencies when it comes to planning my work schedule.  I have often found myself spinning my wheels trying to plan things out in detail for months in advance.  I would put off planning because I know how much work it would be to do correctly.  Once I got around to actually doing it I would find myself scrapping the plan not long after I created it because of environmental changes outside of my control.

This is what I finally discovered: while there are things that need careful planning far in advance most of the time it is adequate to schedule only the next item or two.   As I complete my first tasks I have a clearer view of where the project is going and I can make more informed planning decisions.  It is very much the Japanese concept of Kanban.

For example, I manager 4 different teams each with a number of applications, schedules, etc…  Development cycles change constantly depending on organizational needs and priorities.  Deployment dates are also subject to changes based off of calendar conflicts with other teams, network maintenance, bugs, vacation time, etc…  My first efforts involved creating a multi-month schedule that perfectly coordinated each of my team’s deployment activities…and it never worked past the next deployment or two.  I was constantly trying to adjust the schedule to fit the changes.  Each change causing a cascade of changes throughout my calendar.

Now, the day after a deployment I tentatively schedule the next one a few weeks out making sure to get the date on the team member calendars.  First thing each Monday morning I look at the upcoming two weeks, give more detail to the deployments, reschedule as needed, and communicate needs and schedules through email.

This Just-In-Time planning has spilled over to many areas of my life.  It has allowed me to take control of my calendar without overwhelming me with overly detailed planning.

Four behaviors that drive promotions

My boss and I were discussing how to determine when a team member is ready for promotion.  More particularly, what differentiates a junior role from a senior role.  After some thought I have boiled it down to four things: Quality of Work, Scope of Influence, Strategic thinking, and Ownership.

Quality of Work
Promotions come from quality work.  There is the stereotype of the incompetent boss, clueless, succeeding only because of his team.  Obviously, there are managers out there like this but my experience is tat most executives got to where they are because they were, at some point in their career, better at what they did than their peers.  Also, anecdotally, my own promotions have always come after an extended period of above average work. 
As a person moves upward from role to role the definition of quality for each successive role changes requiring a revamp of their skill-set.  Successful careers grow out of a person’s flexibility in growing with their responsibilities.  I have known a few managers who have not been able to give up the day-to-day tasks of their previous role and, as a result, find themselves stalled in their career advancement. 
Influence
Promotions come from personal influence.  Early in a career most growth comes from perfecting technical skills.  However, unless a person is extremely gifted it is unlikely they will be able to continue growing professional by relying exclusively on personal ability.  Individual achievement scales only so far.  Eventually, a person needs the help of others to accomplish their goals.  The bigger the goal the more help they need.  This help comes from the person’s ability to persuade others of value of their plans.
It took me years to understand the value of influence.  I assumed ideas stood on their own merit and that if others did not understand it was their own problem.  I finally realized the problem was not with the other person but with me and how I was communicating my ideas.  I realized if I were to get more done it would have to be done through compromise and persuasion. 

Strategic Thinking

Promotions come from thinking ahead.  I had a CEO tell me once one of the skills he values most is the ability to think several steps in advance.  It is not enough to do what is best for the current situation but to leverage every opportunity to promote long-term goals.
This is one of the hardest skills to develop.  It requires disciplined thought over an extended period of time.  It is much easier to focus on the countless distractions demanding attention at any given moment.  The payoff doesn’t come for months or years.  Maintaining focus over this period is difficult.  Additionally, the long-range time-frame of strategic thinking creates a protracted learning curve.  A person cannot develop it overnight.  Learning comes from feedback and in the case of strategic thinking feedback comes slowly.

Ownership

Promotions come from taking ownership.  I have listened to a number of CEO’s give talks and one of the common threads is their complete dedication to the job.  On multiple occasions I have heard comments along the line of if you are CEO there is no such thing as work-life balance.  It is work and you do your best maintaining your personal life.  If I had heard this once or twice I would have ignored it but I have heard it numbers of times.
Moving from one tier of an organization to the next means taking ownership of larger swaths of responsibility.  The focus of one’s attention expands to larger and larger areas without the loss of quality or throughput on original duties.  The ability and willingness to shoulder more work is what separates a junior work from a senior and a senior from an executive.

Email Etiquette: Why I hate email and what I am doing about it

The Never Ending Inbox

The other night I was sitting in an emergency room waiting area (don’t worry everything is fine) and decided to catch up on my email.  Four hours later my inbox was sparkling clean.  I had reached the zen of zero.  My new found peace marred only by the knowledge that within a day or two my inbox would return to its overflowing state.
The problem was not in how I manage my incoming emails.  I do the right things: I batch email times, I touch emails only once, I am quick to archive and even faster to delete.  The problem resulted from a lazy email culture.  
No consideration was being given to the needs of the reader. 
While some of these emails were obvious attempts to offload work onto somebody else’s plate most seemed to be from a genuine lack of knowledge on how to communicate.  
Peter Drucker on communication
  • Communication is what the Listener Does (shout out to Mark Horstman for this quote)
  • Communicate the 80% that Matters
  • Receive Confirmation that your Message is your Message

Email Rules

I was prompted to write up a set of rules I would follow for my personal email (as well as recommend to my team to follow)

Rule Number One

Be specific about who you are writing to and why you are writing.  Don’t leave it up to the recipients to decipher the purpose.

Don’t use email as a substitute for communication.  Prefer talking in person, to talking on the phone, and talking on the phone to sending an email.  Simply sending an email does not automatically put the ball in somebody else’s court.  Nor is it a valid tool for CYA. You should never catch yourself saying, “…but I sent you an email.”

Addressing Emails

Only address the TO field for people that the email is specifically intended for

Limit the number of CC’s to people who really should be copied

When replying take a moment to remove unnecessary TO’s and CC’s

Subject Lines

Make the subject meaningful so that its content can be determined by scanning an inbox

If project specific include the project name as part of the subject
If the entire message is included in the subject line end it with <EOM>

Email Content

Start with the bottom lane.  In one sentence state the purpose of the email to provide context. Do this before writing any other content

If email is meant for more than one person include a salutation for the person(s) you added in the TO line
For each desired action item you expect specify who you need the action from and specifically what that item is (don’t assume the recipient will automatically know what is expected of them)
Do not simply FYI an email as a forward.  If it is important enough to send as an FYI include a statement about why you are FYI’ing and any action you need
If the email is part of a long chain.  Stop to summarize what is left to be done, what has been finished, and what the root issue/problem/decision is.

Why you are not being promoted

You have been working hard, showing up for work every day, participating in meetings, producing output, not causing problems, and basically getting things done.  And yet, each year your review comes and goes without your long deserved promotion.

Why are you not being promoted?  Why does your company not understand your value?

Note: Before you read further you need to understand some of my points may not seem fair…that is because they are not.  Repeat to yourself fairness does not trump truth  and my view of fairness might not be my boss’s. If you want a promotion based purely on what you see as fair you may have wait a long time.

Things outside your control

Your boss is a jerk (incompetent, has an agenda, blind, etc…) 

It is possible your boss just does not care about you or your career.  He may feel threatened by your own ability.  He may, in fact, be simply incompetent.  The web is replete with bad boss anecdotes about hopelessly clueless managers and there is a reason Dilbert is published in every major newspaper throughout the US.  There are some really, really bad bosses out there and yours might be one of them.
If this is your situation you may have no other choice than moving to a new company.  You cannot change your boss and if his superiors have not done anything yet to change the situation it is doubtful they ever will.  
Before making this conclusion, however, make sure you read the rest of this blog entry…

There is no need for a new role

Promotions are not (or at least should not) be given as a reward.  A promotion should be because there is need in the org chart for a person with a certain set of skills and responsibilities.  Just because you are capable of a team lead or manager title does not mean the company has need of another team lead or manager.  From the company’s perspective it would be fiscally irresponsible to create new roles simply because an employee has demonstrated appropriate behaviors.
Ultimately, a promotion is the intersection of ability and need.  
If this is the case you either need to exercise patience and bide your time or, if you cannot wait, find another company with need for your particular skill-set.  Make sure you talk to your boss first.  There could be opportunities in the near future you are not aware of.  

Things under your control

You are not as irreplaceable as you think

To be paid more you have to be worth more.  Unless you work for the government or union, pay and promotions result directly from supply and demand. If there is someone else willing to work for less money than you there is no incentive for your company to pay you more.  There is a reason a low-latency software engineer at a hedge fund can demand a salary many times higher than that of a mail room temp.  Your HR department has done the research and knows what the going rate for your skill-set is.  They have done the calculations; so should you.
Great, you may be thinking, your particular role is special.  Your unique set of skills or so rare as to be nearly irreplaceable.  Don’t bet on it.  You may be smart but you are not that smart.  I have seen, on several occasions, team members leave, fired, or die that we all thought would cost us horribly.  It turned out in every case that we were fine.  We had some difficulties and setbacks but operations were status quo again before we realized it.  In every, single case it turned out that central person was not as important as we thought they were.
Every time I start getting too impressed with my own value I remember I am replaceable just like everyone else.  You should too.  Side note: if you truly are irreplaceable you should be more worried.  It means your company can never promote you because they would have nobody to fill your spot.

Your work is not as good as you think it is

Fundamental attribution error

Have you heard about fundamental attribution error?  Wikipedia says:

people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration.

When things go well for us we attribute our own skill, and when they go bad we attribute our environment.  When viewing other’s results we tend to see the opposite.  In other words, we think we are better than we are and others luckier (and less skilled) than they are.

You are not exceeding expectations

You may believe the work you are doing is above pay-grade when, in reality, you may simply be doing what is expected of the role you are in.  Personal experience is that most people have not taken the time to honestly evaluate how well they are doing.  They have not benchmarked their skills against others.  If you are not able to answer in concrete terms why your work exceeds expectations it probably doesn’t.

A couple specific questions to ask about the preceding 12 to 18 months:

  • How have you shown leadership?
  • How have you improved your skills?
  • How have you gone above expectations?
  • How have you provided extra value?
Each of the questions should then be followed with “…and would your peers agree?”  You should be able to recite several concrete items for each question and have confidence a large percent of your peers would agree.  When you put yourself in your coworker’s shoes and ask these questions about yourself you may have a different view on the quality of your work.
Also note that these questions are about the last 12 to 18 months.  Just because you have worked extra hard over the last few weeks or had a few recent success does not mean it is time for a promotion.  Career advancement is a marathon.  Your boss is watching to be sure you can provide consistency over time.  

Your work is not as visible as you think it is

You are not marketing yourself

If you have taken the time to do careful self-analysis and can honestly state that you have been producing results above expectations for a long period of time do not automatically assume others see this as well as you.  You are hyper aware of your own activities for obvious reasons…you are the one doing them.  Ask yourself how much you know about teammates work?  What about those on other’s teams.  Guaranteed, the fidelity of your understanding of other’s activities drops off precipitously as the number of degrees of separation increases between your work and theirs.
For the same reason you do not understand what they have been working is the same reason they don’t understand what you have been doing.  Your value may not be known beyond your direct circle.  This is especially true if you are an introvert.  
Your efforts need visibility.  

You expect more from your boss than you do of yourself

You may be thinking that understanding and marketing your value is your boss’s job.  It is…partially.  Remember, your boss has deliverables too and they don’t all involve you.  Ask to look at his calendar sometime.  You will see lots of meetings that have little or nothing to do with the things you are directly working on.  Your boss can only know so much and can only do so much.
This is your promotion.  This is your career.  Do not wait for your boss to manage it.  You should be spending several times the effort of your boss on managing your career.  Do not delegate the responsibility of improving your skills, understanding your role, analyzing the needs of the company, and marketing your accomplishments to your boss.  
You are not a supplicant asking for a handout.  Do not wait for someone else to manage your career for you.