Thursday, December 1, 2011

Knowing When to Lead and When to Connect

This scenario happened at work earlier in the week. If this was a multiple-choice question, what is the correct answer?

A customer from the fundraising arm of the organization, who views you as a source of organizational knowledge, emails you with an oddball question. He had received an urgent, time-sensitive certified mail from a medical equipment manufacturer regarding mandatory upgrade of the system. The mail was misrouted to the fundraising department, and he does not know who this letter should be forwarded to. You have no idea who the manufacturer is, or what they produce. Your customer did include a web link to the manufacturer's page. This is not a system that your Help Desk supports. What do you do?

A) Do nothing, as it is completely out of scope with your expected job duties.
B) Tell the customer to return the certified letter to the manufacturer.
C) Respond to the customer and tell him to contact the main Help Desk. Let someone else deal with this mysterious problem.
D) Take full ownership of the issue and assure the customer that you will take care of the misdirected certified letter.
E) Perform a cursory research of the manufacturer, and use your organizational knowledge to identify a potential Subject Matter Expert (SME) who work in your organization. Then connect your customer with the SME.

The answer? Obviously the first three answers are incorrect, unless your raison d'ĂȘtre for working is to collect paychecks while ignoring the needs of your customers. The remaining two answers are tricky, though.

If you view yourself as a customer advocate (as opposed to, let's say, a sheep who demonstrates no initiative), it's tempting to embrace the role of Superman and take ownership of the issue. Nothing feels more gratifying than embracing a challenge head-on and riding off into the sunset after saving the day. But there is a more efficient and effective course of action.

The answer E) might not exude the bravado and heroic air as playing the Lone Ranger. Taking full ownership of a mysterious problem might be rewarding for the problem-solving type, but it can lead to inordinate time spent on an issue that could be resolved quickly and effectively by resident SMEs. Being a Knight in Shining Armor can often lead to unexpected scope creep and time drain. It's important to realize that one can't know everything. That's why knowing who the SMEs are is just as important, if not more, as knowing everything. I've learned over time that often times it pays to connect people instead of leading change--too many examples of playing the Lone Ranger who became scope-creeped come to mind.

In the scenario, I learned that the medical equipment in question was some sort of ophthalmology examination room machinery. I forwarded the customer's original email to a technical contact who works in Opthalmology department, added a brief summary of the issue, and asked him if he knew anything about the vendor or the equipment. I cc'd the customer on the query email. It turned out that it was an equipment that was used by the technician's department. The SME then provided the customer with mailing information for routing the certified letter. All I did at that point was to watch the successful resolution unfurl right in front of my eyes without putting additional time or work into fixing the issue.

Cultivating an organizational knowledge is essential in any aspect of work and life. It is helpful to leverage your connections and network, and watch the experts do their thing. Being a Super Trouper can be rewarding, but sometimes it's equally rewarding to let the SMEs shine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hurricane Triggered by Butterfly Wings

I harbor very little faith in the ability of IT folks to effectively document trouble tickets. I become surprised when I stumble upon rare occasions where succinct and timely documentations happen. In general, IT workers tend to be highly knowledgeable in their specific fields of expertise but view documentation as being superfluous. I've heard on many occasions variations of this attitude--which basically boils down to documentation being "someone else's job." Maybe our voluminous workload precludes us from focusing time on documenting effectively--I admit that I slip into half-assed mode every once in a blue moon.

I experienced an exception to these perceptions last year. While working at the Help Desk, I escalated an unusual issue stemming from an error message on an esoteric clinical system which no one else at the Help Desk knew anything about. I gathered all the information possible from the customer, created a problem ticket, and escalated the mysterious issue to a high-level clinical support group. I did not expect any engineers to provide useful resolution notes for the problem ticket.

Couple hours after the initial call, the same customer called back to inquire about the status. I dreadfully anticipated spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone simultaneously translating engineer-ese to plain English, and performing damage control should the customer become dissatisfied with my answer. I pulled up the resolution notes, and my mouth nearly dropped when I saw a concise, informative description of the resolution. It was written by a system engineer whose name I had never heard of before. Thanks to the neatly-written information, I was able to convey the message to my customer without any problems.

Being pleasantly surprised by the quality documentation, I fired off a quick email to the engineer whom I had never met before. I thanked him for writing a timely, accurate, and easy-to-understand status update. I felt it was good to give credit when and where it was due.

Six months after I had sent the routine follow-up email of gratitude, I participated in a Project Management training class which was attended by two dozen folks from various areas of our vast IT organization. While the attendees were partaking in the introductory icebreaker exercise, I learned that one of the fellow attendees was the engineer whom I had sent the email to months earlier. During a classroom break, I walked up to the engineer, introduced myself to him, and thanked him in person for the superlative work six months earlier. Networking couldn't hurt, right?

What happened next was eye-opening. The engineer then told me that at the time I had sent him the complimentary email, he was employed as a contractor. He had since then interviewed for a full-time, permanent position with the company, and as a part of satisfied customer testimonials, he had used my email as a supporting example to his hiring managers.

What seemed like a trifle at the time turned out to mean a lot to someone else, even though I had no idea at the time. After all, how much impact could a brief email from someone near the bottom of the organizational chart accomplish? Apparently, a lot (as an added bonus, it was good for me to learn not to judge a book by its cover--there are IT professionals out there who possess exemplary communication skills).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Accept No Limitations (Part 1)

One of my recent engaging sources of inspiration is the book The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey by writer/photographer (and a recently-retired professional America football player), Dhani Jones. The author chronicles his adventures and observations of challenging himself by immersion of foreign cultures (through engaging in traditional athletic competitions and learning about himself through conscientious globe-trekking). He reflects on how his new adventures have produced personal discovery and growth.
Dhani Jones emphasizes the importance of not letting others' preconceptions and perceptions limit what one is capable of achieving. These limitations can be culturally-ingrained, based on existing stereotypes, or self-imposed. Quoting from the book:

"You don't have to buy into the propaganda, the stereotypes, or the shortfalls people put before you."
I couldn't agree with this sentiment more. One of the worst things that I ever believed was to stunt my personal growth and desire for learning by buying into the limitations that others had imposed upon me. Believing the toxic hype about what I was and wasn't capable of achieving, through beliefs of outsiders and perpetuation of stereotypes, played a role in my failure to realize and achieve my goals. There were so many damaging negative talk which others try to impose. After realizing that none of these claims are credible, I realized that believing in the hype helped me place mental roadblocks in the path of following my ambitions, whether in work or life.
Here are some fine examples of limiting comments:
"You don't have the experience to do this."
Experience is actualized through diligently learning and transforming the knowledge into tangible results. Unless you're going to take away my drive to learn and practice what I've learned (by coersion, force, or decree), nothing is going to get in the way of my desire to acquire knowledge and gain understanding and experience.
"You don't have the authority to do this."
This sounds like what someone who is fixated on org charts and roles would say. If I held the belief that wanting to learn and doing the right thing were secondary to knowing my place in the pecking order of the universe, I would have never experienced what it feels like to think outside the proverbial box.
I've absorbed many useful professional development-related wisdoms while attending conference events that were geared towards management, even though I'm not in that role. I didn't let my job title stop me from learning from and engaging with others.
Recently I witnessed a ghastly two-vehicle collision outside a bar where some friends and I were relaxing and chilling. Without giving much thought, while other bar patrons rushed to the aid of the injured motorists, I ran up a block up the street and started redirecting traffic from middle of a busy two-lane avenue, until the police arrived ten minutes later to take over. I didn't let my lack of authority stop myself from doing what I felt was the right thing to do.
"You're not high up in the organization or important enough to do this."
Again, this sounds like something that a hierarchy-obsessed hater would proclaim. Maybe I'm blessed with cool upper management, but I have built relationships with many people who are "higher up in the food chain" and networked with others in the organization who work in different areas. Last time I checked, that's called "networking." From what I've learned, those high-level folks seem more interested in my ideas and what I have contributed, than my ability to memorize the organizational hierarchy. I have received praises from past bosses for the quality of my work and for building relationships--not for having memorized who reports to whom.
Using team sports as an analogy, I don't ever recall a third-stringer or a bench player on a professional team refusing to achieve remarkable results when given a chance, simply based on her or his position on the depth chart.
"You weren't born to do this."
Of course I wasn't. In the year I was born, none of the technology that I use in the pursuit of my passions existed back then! Same goes for my occupational field.
"You're not cool enough to do this."
I'm not cool enough to buy into what others dictate what I can or cannot do. I'm glad that ignorance paid off back in my youth. I don't recall any other socially-awkward Dungeon & Dragons-playing 110-pounders deciding to try out for the high school football team the following year. The varsity letter jacket, which I still have in my closet, is a nice symbolic reminder of what happened when I defied stereotypes and expectations.
There are other expressions and toxic beliefs that haters love to declare. They will be myth-busted in a future blog post. There is another wisdom from Dhani Jones from The Sportsman which shatter the notion of what one can and cannot do:
"I removed the words 'I can't' from my vocabulary and went to work."
Now, that's how I like to roll.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Interview Rooms

Last week, I experienced the joy of participating in team interviews at work. We brought in seven candidates for two openings, and spent a significant amount of time attending to the process, including an hour-long panel interview with every candidate. Almost everyone on the panel viewed the process as a time-consuming drudgery. I thought it was a great opportunity to break out of the routine tasks and learn new things. There was more to learn beyond taking surreptitious mental notes about "what to do, and what not to do," when I interview for new jobs in the future.

I treat these interviews like serious business, even when I'm playing on the interviewer side of the game. Our typical work atmosphere is casual but participating in the interview process is something that I do not take lightly. I dressed up, complete with a necktie and dress shirt, and looked presentable and ready to kill. Why? 

Contrary to the commonly-held belief that interviews are simply casting calls for potential recruits, it's also an opportunity to sell the organization to the prospects. When candidates asked inquisitive questions about the worplace and culture, I emphasized that my daily work involves making a difference in the work lives of up to several dozens of people a day. Whereas other peers responded to the prospects' questions with details of the nuts-and-bolts minutae of daily chores, I complemented the scenery with big-forest view, complete with connecting the dots between the work that we do, and the impact that our work has on others. 

Learning about the organizational culture (in this case, the institution and the entire IT department) over the years has given me a wider perspective of how my work unit relates to that of the larger organization. It was second nature to describe to the potential hires about recent cross-departmental collaborative projects, the awesome employee guide that our HR people had recently assembled, and various training and learning options and opportunities that are available to us. It felt liberating (albeit strange at first) to sell the global aspects of the organization instead of regurgitating the rote details of the silo life. It's good to give the interviewees a broader perspective. It is ultimately the new peers' decision to take time to understand the organization, or to stay put inside the innards of the workplace silo. At least I have done my part to offer options. I'm fortunate that I networked and picked the brains of other people in the vast organization over the last decade.

Perhaps this isn't a mainstream assumption, but during the interview process, the candidates are interviewing us: this is not a Panopticon. The folks who are entrusted with hiring new employees are seen as the face of the organization--they will tell their friends, peers, and their network what their experiences with the interview process was, as well as their impressions of us. That is why I dress formally and be attentive during the interviews.

Since the world is a small place, those candidates whom we don't make offers to and I may cross paths somewhere in the future. I want these folks to have a positive impression of our team. I hope we left a very positive impression on all the candidates last week. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

I Don't Need Approval From a Chosen Few

There are many obstacles which wedge themselves between myself and my desire to produce awesome work. Some of the more obvious obstacles include barriers that are placed by powers that be, missing adequate resources for greatness to happen, and the dissonance between my goals of making awesome and the workplace goals that are imposed upon by the superiors. However, there is another insidious, damaging obstacle which get in the way of wanting to make awesome: this is called the desire to seek approval--from everyone in the workplace, school, peer group, or whatever. And this obstacle is, surprisingly, mostly self-imposed.

It's accurate to say that most of us have been raised to conform within the confines of whatever social or cultural groups which we identify as being part of--whether family, socioeconomic, peer, cultural, or even subcultural. In simplistic terms, we've been raised with the concept of the "in-crowd" versus the "out-crowd": the former involve behaviors based upon agreed-upon norms, values, and expectations while the latter involve systematic categorization of those outsiders whose behaviors, real or imaged, are deemed to be heretical (even though they may be caused by misunderstandings). People generally seek comfort in surrounding themselves with birds of the same feathers instead of taking time to understand those with different markings or lenses in which they see life through. Maybe it's the lizard brain in action, but the drive towards safety and comfort leads people to stick with the tried and the true, at home or in the workplace. This is why the silo mentality exist in many workplaces.

Sometimes the lizard brain takes over. The worst year ever in my teen days was during my junior year in high school, when I was very fixated on receiving approval from all of the fragmented, diverse "groups" which I spent time with, including (but not limited to) choir/band geeks, football teammates, the New Waver crowd, the National Honor Society peeps, and anyone else whom I had something in common with. I spent a good part of that school year unhappy and disgruntled that I didn't fit in completely with any of the so-called arbitrary "groups." I'm not sure exactly what I did to overcome the turmoil at that school year, but I remembered that during my senior year, I adopted a "don't give a damn" attitude. Somehow my relationship with my peers, regardless of whatever social "sphere" they associated themselves with, improved significantly. I felt at ease with myself and with whomever I happened to be around with at the time (as a note of interest, I reconnected with many of those choir/band geeks, football teammates, the New Waver crowd, the National Honor Society peeps, and anyone else from that era several decades later through the technological magic of Facebook--perhaps this is a sign that the superficiality of the "in-crowd" and the "out-crowd" is no match for the friendships and relationships which have been built on genuine interests and bonding experiences, which mature over time).

Fast forward couple of decades later, I found myself in the same situation just recently. Somehow the unpleasant memories of seeking approval were more than happy to make an encore appearance. Maybe my sense of self-esteem was debilitated by a series of unexpected life events, including the recent passing away of a parental unit. I started to believe that my worthiness at work (and my being) was highly dependent upon seeking the approval of those people whom I worked with every day. With the inclusion of the "anonymous 360-degree feedback" process as part of the annual review process, I was completely floored when some of those anonymous reviews included unsubstantiated comments which had no basis in truth or context, but in pettiness. The whole anonymous process encouraged faceless and nameless individuals to submit narratives of my work without any opportunity for me to clarify what the perceived issues were about. As a direct result, I became paranoid about everyone, and started to focus more on making sure that I wasn't taking missteps instead putting my energy into making awesome. I was fixated on walking on eggshells instead of making incredible omelettes. My work began to suffer, and my confidence was taking a big hit. After all, if I wasn't working towards placating the opinions of those anonymous folks whose opinions matter in this game, that would make me a terrible team player, right?

That is one f---ed up way to approach work.

Maybe the anonymous, chickenshit reviewers got what they wanted. Perhaps they saw that I was more interested in pushing the boundaries of what I can possibly accomplish--leaving good for great--than to play the part of the plebe whose mission is to perpetuate the silo mentality by not straying far from the coop. Maybe the nail that sticks out was supposed to be pounded into submission by the hammer of conformity and silo-building. Perhaps the hammer-wielders saw my efforts to establish working relationships with receptive cohorts in other departments as a threat to the nebulous status quo of the "us-versus-them." Whatever their reasons were, they succeeded in cutting me down to size--for awhile.

I had to address the issue of gaining acceptance and approval. I felt like I was back in high school all over again, wondering if I was one of the "cool kids" or one of the pimple-adorned, self-conscious denizen of the outcasts. After some time spent soul-searching, I've come to the realization that I'd rather put my energy into making a tangible difference than to seeking comfort fitting in with the hammer-wielders. I would sacrifice the comforts of living inside a warm cocoon and instead find ways to challenge myself to do awesome--even at the risk of alienating those who are ordained inside the "in-group" of the paper tiger (also known as the "organizational chart"). To my pleasant surprise, I was recently advised by several encouraging folks in high places that detractors were going to be everywhere no matter what I happen to be doing. In the words of one supportive guru, "the haters are gonna hate for whatever reason they may have, but don't let them get in your way." Perhaps those haters who make a career out of making vintage piss juices out of sour grapes are motivated by jealousy, hatred, or maybe didn't know any better, but I would rather spend my precious time and energy at work focusing on making awesome work and making a difference. I'll leave the involvement with murky and counterproductive office politics to others.

So how am I feeling these days? I have grown distant from some of the toxic peers, but at the same time, the suffocating cloud of paranoia and misguided expectations of what I should be doing on have dissipated, replaced with a contagious fixation on making awesome. it's amazing how much energy I have available now to focus on making results that matter, instead of spending energy thinking about how I would be perceived by those haters who are--and were--inconsequential all along. I feel very fortunate that, with a little help from my friends and superlative peers, I am more than able to get by. It's amazing how liberating it is to realize how powerful it feels to deny the haters by not validating their petty insinuations.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back And Forth I Sway With The Wind

Today was one of those days where my overall mood swung back and forth with unusual force. There were moments of excitement and euphoria after completing a meaningful writing project but also a prolonged period of a downer mood after sensing that the work culture has increasingly become reactive and discouraging. The latter was emphatically punctuated by one of the most depressing meetings that I ever witnessed, work or otherwise.

In a nutshell, our team received an edict from the faceless Powers That Be that our group was expected to produce improved output while being given reduced resources than ever before. Never mind that this has been the modus operandi of the past two years. The mood at the meeting felt rancid: the words and body language of the attendees reflected anger, hopelessness, despair, and apathy. It wasn't any one particular line item which triggered the darkened clouds in my mind, but an overall feeling of an impending long, cold winter looming and glooming on the horizon. Perhaps my source of frustration today is that work doesn't have to be this way.

I noticed a huge contrast. The work committee which I participate in convene for an hour every month for a production meeting. We have a goal of organizing and distributing a tangible product which brings our workplace closer together. It's the best hour ever spent at work each month. The vibe of this group's meetings is so different than what I witnessed earlier today. We enthusiastically brainstorm without harshly judging, discuss ideas for future products, become excited about the successes of our peers, and are genuinely interested in learning and doing. The esprit de corps in the room is so contagious: all seven of us are united by our common desire to create superlative work that brings groups of people together. I feel at ease being in a room with others who push to find commonalities among people instead of putting up barriers. I feel more engaged when everyone in the room becomes excitable about the work they do while respecting each other and their ideas--this is a huge contrast from the staff meeting earlier today where participants looked detached, indifferent, and often distracted by their smartphones. I suppose it's no surprise to me that my writing triumph earlier today involved material for the stellar work committee.

I don't feel that I'm burned out at work though. I have no problems motivating myself as I hold myself accountable for performing work at a high level every day: half-assitude is not in my repertoire. I seek to make awesome (and make my customers' day) with every piece of work I engage in. I feel that the quality of my work generally speaks for itself; I don't need the validation of the Powers That Be to determine my self-worth (although periodic acknowledgement of awesome work done would be nice). However, I am starting to question whether it's worth it for me to expend my efforts in an environment where the command-and-control noose becomes tighter each day, and where my sense of SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness) shrinks over time. To invoke a Seth Godin concept, is it time for me to lean into the Dip and work through the steep struggle curve, or is it time for me to quit before playing a game where the long-term outcome is neither great nor purposeful?

Perhaps it's time for me to find an environment where I can thrive among the producers, achievers, movers, artists, and visionaries, instead of being treated like an interchangeable cog in an assembly line. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to look for a work environment where people exude a contagious joie de vivre. I've already spun some wheels in motion to explore these possibilities. Security is nice, although a sense of purpose trumps the former. Sometimes that is a scary place to think about, though.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Going the Extra Mile: Going to Make Awesome

During work last week, I performed a routine task which involved delivering boxes of computer equipment to the administrative office of the children's hospital. All that was expected of me was to load the stuff onto a delivery cart, schlep the cart few buildings away, and drop off the boxes at the destination in a timely manner and without incident.

When I arrived at the customer's office to deliver the goods, the customer informed me that she had an urgent issue to go take care of elsewhere in the building, and asked me to store the boxes and to lock the door on my way out. After the customer had rushed out the door, I did my deed and was ready to exit the area. Then I heard a knock on the door. Through the window, I spotted an office supply delivery person on the other side, holding a hand cart stacked with boxes. I opened the door to let the guy in.

Since I was the only person in the office at the time, the guy asked me to sign for the delivery. A live person's signature was all that was required to complete the delivery, and since the goods would be stored behind locked doors after I left the office, I had no problem with contributing my digitally-crappy John Hancock on the delivery person's tablet device. After I took responsibility of verifying the delivery, he proceeded to put the boxes in different areas of the office: apparently, the guy is familiar with the layout of the office and knew where to store the goods, instead of simply leaving boxes by the receptionist's area. Pretty efficient, I thought.

After the delivery guy left, I was getting ready to leave the office myself before realizing that it might be a good idea to send a quick email to the customer to let her know that her supplies were restocked. So I pulled out my iPhone and tapped a quick message to the her. I received a response from the customer half hour later graciously thanking me for sending her a courtesy heads-up.

It felt affirming to receive a note of gratitude from my customer. Even though I didn't think that taking an extra 30 seconds out of my work time to email the customer was anything out of the ordinary, I thought about what may have happened had I not taken the time to delight the customer. Perhaps she was expecting important office supplies to arrive that day, and not having an obvious visual clue about the items being already delivered (since the supplies were stored in different areas of the suite) would cause added consternation to her already-busy workday? Maybe she would have tried calling the office supply vendor to track down the whereabouts of the goods without realizing that they were already stored in her area? All I know is that going the extra mile to make a difference for the customer added significant value to my work.

I love having opportunities to turn good (which is doing my assigned task within specifications and nothing more) into something potentially more rewarding and meaningful. Every day I want to leave good for great. If I can turn each customer interactions into opportunities to connect, understand, and learn, I'm engaging in the process of making awesome.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Infesting the Manifesto

Hello world.

It feels good to rejoin the millions of other writers, thinkers, and do-ers of the world who have web presences. The World Wide Web is a great vehicle for me to better understand myself and the world around me, as well as share ideas.

Unlike the scope of the past writing attempts (personal web page, a long-abandoned LiveJournal account, and ad-hoc random acts of thoughtful communication), I have felt for awhile a strong urge to write about the things which make me think, react, and inspire. These smidgens of inspirations can be anything from a slice of everyday life, past events, anecdotes, images, or even things which I haven't thought about before. I pondered for weeks about the contents and the format of the blog, and ruminated about whether this blog would be about taking steps to achieve extraordinary moments, reflecting upon the everyday life, or taking inventory of people and ideas which inspire me. For awhile, I was even obsessed with the naming of this site (among the nixed titles were "From Good To Great" and "Life of a Common Person"). Thinking about thinking about starting a blog reached a point where I was experiencing paralysis by over-analysis. So I said, "Screw it!", and decided to create Le Blog de Meaux. To quote the sagely Def Leppard, it was time for "Action! Not Words" (yes, I recognize the irony of springing into action by generating a website which contain a plethora of words).

So here it is. Le Blog de Meaux is going to be a living, breathing collection of my writings and thoughts which encompass, but are not limited, to the following: anecdotes of everyday living, significant life events, travel-inspired ruminations, mind dumps, learning moments, small victories, monumental triumphs, humbling setbacks, noteworthy culinary experiments, remarkable musical discoveries, inspirational reading materials, notable people, cultural analyses, and any other nuggets of information which I deem to be worthy of committing onto a blog format. There will be blog entries about everyday observations and discoveries, as well as grand, insane ideas which drive and inspire me. I have no idea what this site will look like three months or a year from now, but I don't think that's the point right now.