Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solar -- kinda

Jumping away from management topics for a moment...

My long-time friend, Scott Sheppard, was blogging (view it here) about why he didn't choose to buy an electric car. Economics basically. I added to that by saying it creates a huge environmentally toxic mess of batteries. They cause excessive pollution when they're created AND when they're disposed.

Living in Arizona, I've been intrigued by the concept of solar energy for the house. A long time ago, I had a solar hot water heater that was fantastic. Pretty cheap to put in, and generated oodles of 160F water almost year-round. At my previous home, I had a solar heater for the main pool. It was easily able to add a couple of months to the swim season by sucking water from the pool, sending it to the roof, and then spitting it back where it came from at near-scalding temperatures.

But, photovoltaics are another story. One of my good work buddies installed a big array a couple years ago and kinda regretted it. Not as much payback as he thought. So, I was intrigued when my local power company, Salt River Project (SRP), announced they were creating a community solar farm out in the desert. There's a fixed capacity -- only enough for about 3,000 customers to participate. They lease out the capacity until it's all spoken for, then they're done (and hopefully build another one). No, they don't run special dedicated wires from the farm to my house... the watts get dumped into the main grid like any other generator would. But, SRP has to build less fossil plants as they can get more of the solar ones online.

Cost? I pay a fixed price each month for whatever the farm can generate for me. Across the year, somewhere between 20-35% of my home energy will be pre-paid in that way, averaging out to somewhere in the 25% area. My annual electric bill is about $75 higher, or $6/month. Tis the price of making a statement, and was a worthy birthday present for my wife. :)

Actually, the cost of the solar is FIXED. So, when SRP just announced a 5+% rate hike, that only affects the non-solar watts I use. Eventually, I could actually save money with the farm. Check it out at SRP.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Open door" policy

Whether you’re in a real, private office or some sort of cube or other open-office structure, you can set things up to encourage folks to communicate with you on a frequent basis. Or you can send a clear signal that you’d really rather not be bothered.

If you have a true office, look at your office door. Is its normal position open or closed? When you enter your office, do you automatically close the door behind you? You fail! Your office door is an outright signal to your troops. It doesn’t matter if you put a sign on it that says, “I’m always available! Enter!” Communication is going to be greatly diminished by that door.

Leave that door open virtually all the time. Yes: even when you’re working on a task that requires concentration, and you’d rather not be disturbed. It is more valuable to be disturbed by someone who has decided he wants to communicate with you. If you need privacy and concentration to get that big thingy done, come in early, stay late, or lock yourself in your study at home. The work office is a place for interaction with others, not privacy.

Of course, I’m not saying the door can never be closed. If you are holding a meeting and need the privacy, or if the meeting is making too much noise, then by all means close it up. In general, however, remember that your closed door is a barrier to success. Keep that barrier removed whenever possible.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is your email more important than your people?

Do you check email during meetings with your folks? There’s a one-word rule for this: Don’t. You can’t give  an hour of your attention to something that’s pretty important to (at least) the rest of them? If that’s a habit of yours then stop it, right now. I’m not saying you need to turn off or confiscate everyone’s phones at the start of the meeting. Emergencies do happen. But it should be a rarity that they come popping out of their holsters. And what about laptops (or tablets)? Do you bring yours to the meetings? If you’re presenting, or legitimately using it to take minutes (with something like Evernote or NoteSpark), that’s fine. Otherwise, there’s no reason to bring it along. And the same goes for everyone else in the meeting. Make the rule and follow it yourself.

While I’m ranting, let me do another one in a very Jerry Seinfeld-esc manner. “What’s the deal with email notifications on your phone?” Given that most people get a few emails every hour of the workday, what’s the point in turning on a vibrating (or heaven help you, an audible) notification that an email has just arrived? I’ve asked groups of people before, “If you checked your phone for email 15 minutes ago, and didn’t have notifications on, what are the odds that a new email would be there waiting for you right now?” Inevitably, the answer is something like 80-99% likely. So why do you need the alert? Yeah, there’s an email waiting for you… all the freaking time. Surprise.

Maybe you’ve tweaked your alert settings so that you get some sort of distinctive notice that it’s an email, and not something like a text message or phone call. In that case, you can be a good guy and ignore it, even though the constant brain diversion will deduct somewhat from your participation with the group. But, especially if you can’t tell the difference between an email and anything else, your pulling your phone out every few minutes will send a wonderful message to the team that whatever else is going on is far more important than anything they’re working on. Make it easy… turn email notifications off. If it’s that important, they will call you.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Q&A requires shutting up too!

I was speaking to a team a couple days ago, and the event reminded me of another great way to use the "Seven Mississippi" thing.

At the end of every presentation, it's time for questions and answers. You won’t get many, but there are always a couple of folks in any group who are willing to take the chance.

In watching others, I am often amazed how little time is left between, “Are there any questions?” and “OK, bye!” The average is about 1-2 seconds. That is far short of the time needed for folks to decide that:
  • They have a question
  • It won’t look like a stupid question
  • It probably wasn’t answered while they were dozing off
  • It won’t get them in trouble by asking it, and
  • It won’t piss off the rest of the team by keeping them there longer
So, after asking for questions, start counting.  More often than not, you will get that good question. And, after answering each one, do the “Seven Mississippi” all over again.

Monday, November 12, 2012

7 Mississippi

In the last post, I was discussing waiting until your discussion partner really finished dumping what he had to say. But how do you know he's really finished? The secret is -- he probably isn't.

Even after he’s gotten through making his points and finally closes his mouth, delay opening your mouth even longer. You may find this hard to believe, but at the point when you think it’s your turn, chances are your guest hasn’t actually said everything he’s got to say. Whether it’s an idea he thinks is a little too far out on the fringe, or a criticism that he thinks you might not want to hear, he hasn’t brought it up yet.

One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, …

This is when I use my rule of “Seven Mississippi.” Just start counting it out in your head. When you allow an awkward silence to fall over the discussion, your guest will start feeling like it’s his obligation to get the dialogue going again. And then he’ll start trying to figure out what in the heck he can say next. Chances are, he will dive down into some of those as-yet-unsaid items he didn’t cover initially. That’s when he’ll get to the sweet chewy center of what he really had to say in the first place.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What's with this Shutting Up thing?

We all know people who are so enamored with the sound of their own voices that it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. That’s bad enough if you’re trying to have an ordinary conversation, and worse if you’re trying to collaborate with someone. But if you’re trying to be an effective, respected manager, you must realize that what you have to say is much less valuable than anything your subordinates might have to say to you.

People, By Their Nature, Don’t Communicate

Even under the best of circumstances, it can be incredibly difficult to get someone to open up and communicate freely. Many people have a natural distrust of their leadership that can only be overcome with many months, if not years, of positive contact. If your subordinates can see that you listen to them, you take their ideas to heart, you actively work to resolve their complaints, and you never simply outright lie to them, they will slowly come to trust your leadership. But this will never happen if you do not give them the opportunity to open their mouths.

Yet, the instinct to try to speak, to answer the question before it is completely asked – or before the real question has actually been asked at all – is as strong as the gravity emanating from a black hole. And so, when we think we’re being helpful, we’re actually quashing the important part: a useful idea, helpful criticism, or any chance we might have of eventually forming a trusted bond with that team member.

What you really need is the ability to hold your tongue. It is vital to let your employee speak until he has said everything he wants to say. When I’m having discussions like this, I will usually do something to actively remind me to shut up – literally bite my tongue, sit on a hand, or clench my teeth together. I want this guy to open up to me and give me all the ideas, comments, or criticisms that he’s got. And he’ll never do it if I start “fixing” his problem before I know what it really is.

Next time you're in a position like this, try it! 

Monday, November 5, 2012


Yeah, yeah, another blog. Hopefully, this one will add something new to the mix. After 30+ years in the software community, 25+ of them in management, I've built up quite a few tips and tricks that I've used successfully in my own career. I've mentored too many new managers to even count, and I've tried to use my experiences to help improve their leadership skills.

My intent is to share some of them here, and weave them into other general notes and comments about things going on today... whether in software, management, or just life in general.

Will it be useful?  I sure hope so. I sincerely welcome your comments (good or bad). Please join in the conversation!