Kerrying On

Wild Dogs and Card Catalogues: An Ode to the Cloud

It was the wish of Bellingham School District No. 501 that starting in the seventh grade, each student write a weekly theme and an annual term paper—and continue this practice throughout all of his or her junior high and high school years. Themes were easy. I would sit down and write whatever cockamamie idea came to mind, turn it in, and then have it torn apart by college English majors who graded my work with a red pencil and hatchet.

Unfortunately, we weren’t taught much about how to actually write. In fact, I don’t remember being taught anything about writing. The theory was: throw young writers in the water and see if they learn to avoid torturing a metaphor. In any case, every week I wrote a paper that would come back marked with terms such as AWK, ¶, and DANG MOD.

This confidence-killing technique was small potatoes compared to the esteem-crushing, soul-sucking damage caused by the annual term paper. Unlike themes, term papers required library research from original sources. That meant I had to walk a mile to my grandfather’s grocery store and buy three-by-five note cards.

“Poe, Twain—and I believe the Bard himself—used three-by-five cards,” My seventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Lewis, explained. “It’s how you organize your thoughts.”

Required cards in hand, I walked another mile and a half to the city library to start my research. And yes, I did have to fight off wild dogs along the way. It was the fifties and wild dogs roamed the countryside. No kidding.

Once I arrived at the library, I milled about looking confused until Mrs. Huffington, the reference librarian, asked me if I needed help. This was, of course, said in a tone that indicated needing help was a sign of being hopelessly dimwitted. I told her about my upcoming term paper, explaining that I had narrowed my subject matter from a treatise on the universe to twelve pages about the planets.

Mrs. Huffington sneered at my topic, which she said was “grossly unfocused,” took me to a three-mile-long card catalog, and then stood me in front of the P drawers. I chuckled at the sound of the expression “P drawers,” while thumbing my way through an endless list of references about planets. Eventually I picked a reference, recorded the code required to find it, and headed to the stacks.

After a long and dispiriting search, I came to a group of journals that sported numbers, letters, and secret symbols similar to the code I had written, only to discover that the edition I wanted wasn’t on the shelf. So I hiked back to the sea of boxes, selected another reference, wandered the stacks, found the journal, turned to the section that had the information about planets, and—voilà—discovered that the pages I needed had been ripped out! This heinous act had surely been perpetrated by a previous student who didn’t want to go to the trouble of writing down the information on his three-by-five cards. And obviously they couldn’t photo copy the pages because the copy machines you can now find in every library nook and cranny hadn’t been invented yet.

By now it was growing late, so I exited the library and started down the road that would take me the two-and-a-half miles home—without a single piece of information for my term paper.

It only got worse. Between slogs to the library, I had to read extremely complicated material about the planets—including Saturn, Neptune, Pluto, Mickey, and Dopey. (I was tempted to work this line into my term paper, but came to my senses). I also had to learn about the proper use of Latin footnote terms such as “op. cit.” and “ibid” in preparation for the imminent resurgence of the Roman Empire.

Then came the monumental job of typing the paper on our family’s manual Remington portable typewriter. And heaven forbid I make a mistake! Typos had to be erased with a steel-belted, paper-shredding Eberhard Faber eraser. I made so many mistakes and attempted so many corrections, that my final product was a real dog’s breakfast. It was so trashed, if you held it up to the light, it looked like a papyrus manuscript—had ancient scholars used an Aramaic Remington portable.

After feverishly working on my project for several weeks, I submitted it and eagerly awaited my grade. I had worked hard and was proud of my final document. I shouldn’t have been. It came back covered with red marks of all sorts—and the grade of a C- over a D+.

“Look at this wonderful paper,” Mr. Lewis exclaimed as he held up Sally Welch’s glorious effort. My classmate, Sally, had her term paper typed by her mother on a fancy electric machine, and it had zero typos. Plus her parents had done most of the research and writing, earning Sally an A+ over an A+. But that didn’t stop Sally from smiling broadly as Mr. Lewis heaped on the praise. She was clearly bound for glory. Whereas I, the C- over D+ student, would probably end up in the food services industry as my school guidance counselor had suggested earlier that year. No lie.

At this point you may think I’m about to launch into a rant about questionable teaching methods and egregious inequities. Not so. I’m simply trying to provide background material, particularly for people under the age of forty, for the thanks I’m about to offer.

“What thanks?” you ask. I recently spoke to a group of Google executives. But before I started into my assigned topic, I offered my heartfelt appreciation for their work, as well as the work of other search-engine designers.

I had just completed an entire book, chock full of citations from original material, and in so doing, was not once attacked by a dog. I never had to hike in the pouring rain only to discover the reference book I sought was missing. I never had to pull a journal down from the shelf only to have key pages ripped out. Instead, I cheerfully scooted my computer mouse here and there, occasionally twitched my index finger, and magically uncovered material that years earlier, would have taken days to find.

I now have the entire library of congress—along with just about anything anybody who ever had a thought has had to say—at my fingertips. Thank you search-engine inventors, code writers, data scanners, and people who vacuum and do the plumbing for The Cloud. Thank you for turning our world into a place where information is as available and cheap as air itself.

I know, we’re not always sure what to do with all the information that silently beams into our space in giga-, tera-, and super-giga-tera bundles. Nevertheless, it’s time to offer a “good on ya” to everyone out there who has made information that used to be largely unattainable a mere click away.

My guess is that my grandkids will never have a clue how hard it used to be to research and write a term paper—and I’m fine with that. But one thing is for certain: as they put together their papers, they won’t be chased by dogs.

Crucial Accountability QA

Dealing with a Last-minute Boss

Dear Crucial Skills,

My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment and this stresses me out completely. A few examples:
(1) We were presenting to senior management and had agreed to drop several items from the presentation based on specific logical reasons. Two hours before the presentation, he decided we needed to add those items back into the presentation without reason.
(2) We were launching a high-visibility product—from senior management’s perspective—and he tried to change the launch material that was already delayed going into production. If we had done as he wanted, we would have missed the launch deadline and faced huge embarrassment.
(3) We were in the middle of an event and he texted me asking to change the schedule during the event!

Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment. How can I successfully communicate this with him?

Stressed Out

Dear Stressed Out,

Great question! And thanks for sharing the detailed examples. Often we have to work back from our emotions to the story that drives them, and then to the facts behind our story. As I see it, you’re dealing with the following:

• Emotions: Stress and frustration.
• Story: “My boss likes to leave things open for change until the last moment.”
• Facts: The three incidents you describe.

Challenge your story. I want to begin by challenging your story just a bit. As humans, we often make what psychologists call “The Fundamental Attribution Error.” We attribute others’ bad behavior to internal dispositions (as you do when you suggest, “My boss likes . . . “), and ignore external factors that might be influencing his or her behavior. Take a bit more time exploring why your boss might be leaving things open to the last minute. Here are a few possibilities:

• He is distracted by other tasks and doesn’t really attend to your priorities until the last minute. Then, when he finally gets his head in the game, he wants to make changes.
• Other leaders he must accommodate don’t pay attention to your priorities until the last minute. Then they demand changes, and your boss passes them along to you—as if they were his.
• Perhaps some situations are so fluid that they really do require last minute changes. (I’d be surprised if this last one is actually true, but it’s worth considering.)

A robust solution to your problem needs to address all of these influences. If you focus too narrowly on motivating him, without acknowledging the reasons for his last-minute meddling, he’s likely to feel attacked and become defensive.

Determine what you really want. Focus on what you want long-term for the organization, your boss, yourself, and for your working relationship. Take pains to avoid a self-focused perspective (such as when you say, “Situations like these are causing immense stress for me. I like to plan things well in advance and do not like surprises at the last moment.”) Instead, focus on the benefits you want to achieve.

Trust me. If you are feeling stress, then others are as well. And the organizational costs of these last-minute changes can be profound. I’ve seen organizations grind to a halt, as managers stop taking action and making decisions because they fear others will second-guess them at the last minute. If you can introduce greater predictability and stability, you will be helping your organization, your boss, and many others—including yourself.

Establish expectations that work for everyone. In our Crucial Accountability course we teach a skill called Describe the Gap. The gap is the difference between what you expect and what you’ve observed. In your case, the gap is between what you expect and what your boss and other stakeholders expect. Your conversation will succeed to the extent you can align these expectations.

I suggest using principles and terms from project management best practices to describe your expectations. A good process involves the right people (your boss and other stakeholders) at the right times, before decisions become last-minute.

Learn how project management is done in your organization and use what you discover in the conversation. Your goal will be to have your boss and other stakeholders commit to following a project management process that will make their lives easier, and improve the effectiveness of the organization.

Move important decisions forward in time. Since the problem is that your boss isn’t making decisions until they are urgent, a part of the solution is to create this urgency earlier. Project plans are supposed to do this by establishing checkpoints that involve people early in the process. However, this involvement only works if people take the plans seriously—if the checkpoints create a sense of urgency.

You need to make sure you are getting people’s mind share and serious involvement when you need it—early in the process. If you can’t get serious involvement early, then count on getting it at the last minute.

Get permission to hold people accountable to the project plan. Your first test will come when your boss and others skip project checkpoints or arrive unprepared. Talk with them in advance about this potential. If they don’t get their heads into the project on time—as called for in the project plan—then the whole planning process will break down, and you’ll be back to last-minute changes.

Some organizations even introduce a shorthand way of referring to the negative cycle. One I work with calls it “Skipping the D” and “Hijacking the D” (meaning “Skipping the Decision” and “Hijacking the Decision”). Everyone knows what these phrases mean and they use them as reminders to hold each other accountable.

I hope that some of these suggestions will work for you. Let me know how it goes.


Crucial Conversations QA

When It’s Your Word Against Your Boss’s

Dear Crucial Skills,

About a month ago, my director was investigated for violating policy. I provided information against her in this process. During the investigation, my director told my coworkers that the allegations were all lies. This caused my coworkers to view me as a troublemaker and a liar. I suspect she said the same to the heads of our company. As a result, she has been able to keep her job and I feel like my credibility is damaged. How do I move forward from here?

Credibility Crisis

Dear Credibility Crisis,

Some decisions are hard. This one isn’t. You’ve got to go.

The only way I would temper that advice is if you think there is a possibility you are wrong. If the following are facts and not fear-based stories you are telling yourself:

1. Your director violated the policy.

2. The violation is a serious ethical breach—not some trivial technicality (e.g., she used company funds to refurnish her beach house vs. she used an outdated company logo in a PowerPoint presentation).

3. Your senior leaders believe you lied in your testimony against your director.

4. Your colleagues likewise believe you lied.

. . . then you are in as compromised a social situation as you could be.

You’ve got two problems here. First, you are working in an organization that seems either unable or unwilling to hold high standards. Do you really want to work in that kind of place? And second, you have none of the social support you will need to get things done and to be rewarded for doing so.

You owe it to yourself to put yourself into circumstances where you will be honored for your integrity, where you will be able to do your best work, and where you will be recognized for doing so.

I wish I had a magic answer that would allow you to remedy the situation. But I would be less than a genuine friend if I suggested I have ever seen a situation like yours end well. Your choices are a quick exit or a slow meltdown. A graceful redemption isn’t in the cards.

However, if objective and informed people among your colleagues disagree with #1-4 above—then improvement is possible. For example, if:

1. Your director’s actions are more of a gray area.

2. The policy isn’t morally significant.

3. Your senior leaders disagree with your view, but don’t believe you lied.

4. Few of your colleagues are especially aware or see this as an honest disagreement between you and your director.

. . . then there is room for hope. But only if you are willing to hold a truly humble, open, and honest crucial conversation with your director. You will need to come to this conversation curious. You will need to suspend your judgments and be open to new information that might revise your view of her actions. But you will also need to come prepared to be honest if the new “meaning” you acquire does not change your view. The only path forward is through this conversation in which the two of you open up the possibility of gaining new insight into each other’s actions, motives, and perspectives.

I wish you the best in this profoundly important decision.