Starting Where Here Is

A profound concept is one that’s worth learning well. It’s also one that when revisited still has deeper meaning than when the lessons were first learned. I’ve learned a lot of my lessons in life painfully. I had good mentors in the military who were able to apply a good deal of leadership influence to reinforce the good behavior they needed from me as part of their team. Often times this reinforcement took the form of push ups.

As my muscles got stronger so did my resolve to be better and do better. Over time I found myself in positions of responsibility rendering similar corrective training to those who worked for me.

Every leader wants to take their team somewhere. In some cases that somewhere is a literal location In other places that somewhere is passing the next audit or a good performance evaluation. The team has the job of charting the course to get there with most of that responsibility falling on the team’s leader. Immature leaders often get frustrated by having a clear vision of the goal, but not being able to get there. Frustrated they ask the question. How do we get there?

We get there, by starting here.

Where’s here?

Where is here? Where are you? Where is your team? Where are you starting from? These are good questions that should encourage anyone to do some self assessment of themselves and their team. As each day moves on your team writes another page in its story. Answering where you can be as simple and quick as an establishing shot on a sitcom, or it can be as detailed as a Tolkien novel. Trying to write a story without understanding where you’re at in the story builds confusion from both the reader (your boss) and your characters (your team).

There are lots of different frameworks for teams. One of the most popular is Tuckerman’s framework (Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing). While this theory has severe limitations, its popularity is due in large part to its generalized accuracy and simplicity. To use it effectively you’ll need to take a step back and be honest with yourself. As much as the destination has been on your mind you’re not going to get there without taking a minute to realize where you are. You get there by starting here.

Tag Your Risk

Cost overruns have the potential to risk entire projects and can be assessed by quantitative measures. The cost of conducting a quantitative assessment is always greater than 0. Practice Standard for Project Risk Management explains that “the benefits for quantitative risk analysis should be weighed against the effort required to ensure that the additional insights and value justify the additional effort.” Thomas Sowell made the same case in his book Knowledge and Decisions with regards to the political economy. While the cost is certainly greater than 0, the reward for a quantified assessment can help identify areas of concern that could easily have been overlooked during a qualitative assessment in favor for issues that are easier to define and narrate.

Because quantitative assessments rely heavily upon the numerical tool set in our lexicon, they provide us with all the advantages inherent in that tool set. Just as price tags summarize the inherent knowledge of the production and transportation of an item to the consumer, so too does a quantitative risk assessment translate and consolidate a broad spectrum of detailed information into a summarized form. In this case it gives the price tags for all of the project and allows us another layer of information to swim through on our search for opportunities to improve outcome. When it comes to risk reduction this information is key to helping to justify risk mitigation expenses by showing their contributions to improving the project’s likelihood of success.

Writing Fiction to Improve Leadership

For a brief moment in my life I thought acting would be fun. Not as a career, but as a hobby. I did a couple of school plays, but I mostly did it because I didn’t want to do homework. During a skit rehearsal someone explained that acting better when you can learn what motivates and sympathize with the character you’re trying to portray. This is one of the few pieces of advice that has stuck with me throughout the years.

When I wrote my first book I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I was working on a project. I had something to say. Once it was complete I realized I had broken through the mental barrier of writing and had written something of substance. I decided to write more. So I dabbed my hand in fiction. It was a bit of an odd choice because I typically don’t read fiction. I get too lost in the characters.

For me I started writing fiction because I had something to say and the most efficient way for me to say it was through characters I created. Now I’ve written two pieces of fiction. Nothing to brag about, but they were fun projects and each had a purpose. They’ve also been extremely helpful with teaching me leadership.

When I’ve sat down to develop characters and their back stories I’ve had to ask myself, what is this character’s motivation? Why would they be motivated to play the role I need them to in my story? Pro tip, if you want your book to be marketable and enjoyed make sure you pick motivations that a large audience can relate to. Something odd happened as I was building characters. I started seeing more dimensions to the people I was working with. I started noticing and caring more about their lives and what they were doing because I could see how their lives were impacting their work. Finding that connection made being personable a lot easier, because I was able to more easily see its purpose.

Sometimes someone will just need someone else to listen to their story. When we tell stories we reveal a lot about ourselves. We share our world view, group identities, and factual information. When someone’s talking you get to hear their perspective and if you listen carefully, you can hear what motivates them.

This fall I moved to a new job and have spent several months listening and talking to people so they could get to know me and so I could get to know them. We have one employee who has a wonderful history and is a bohemian combination of various skills. After I was done talking with her I started to ask myself, why does she have so many varying interests? What’s the thread that connects them all?

The answer is the way she asks questions and the confidence she carries from having answers. This employee has a hard time walking away from a question she doesn’t have an answer to or something she doesn’t understand as well as she’d like to. So, when she had questions about photography she studied and learned photography. When she had questions about how computers worked, she’d studied and learned computers.

When she got the job here she studied and learned everything she needed to know to be functional, but that doesn’t mean she knew every part of the job. With an audit coming up I visited this employee with a copy of the audit questions. I knew that it would be valuable to sit down with her, but I let her control when we scheduled the time. I’m always impressed by how good employees will take the time to hear and prioritize a leader’s goals.

When the time came to sit down I didn’t need to tell her how to do her job. We just talked and read the questions. She had answers to all of them, but I could tell in the tone of her voice that she was less confident about some of her responses than she was when she was talking about the things she was passionate about. It took a few very minor verbal and nonverbal clues for her to realize where she was lacking and at the end of the conversation we didn’t commit to a time line for a follow up. I knew I didn’t need to.

I was right not scheduling the follow up. Let’s be clear, I’m not against follow up. I planned to follow up, but I didn’t schedule it. The next day she came up to me and informed me that because she had budgeted the time to meet with me, she also budgeted the time for self improvement. She spent the rest of that day researching all of the answers where her confidence wasn’t as high. I listened. As she talked I could hear her proudly relate specific answers to certain questions where the day before we only had generalizations. Listening to this conversation allowed me to acknowledge her effort and rehearse for the upcoming audit.

Listening is an important skill for leaders, but taking the time to understand what motivates your team members is what makes listening worth while. Not everyone I’ve worked with is as self motivated as this employee, but everyone I’ve worked with is motivated by something, and taking the time to figure out what that is isn’t just a good idea, it’s a big step on the road to making good people great performers.

A Black Swan in Oklahoma

Much of the conversation about project risk management approaches the subject from a negative perspective.  Project risk is just as much about improving the chances of a positive event as a negative one.  The PMBOK states that “the objectives of project risk management are to increase the likelihood and impact of positive events, and decrease the likelihood and impact of negative events in the project.”  In Tom Kendrick’s book, Identifying and Managing Project Risk, he describes the industry term “black swan” as “a large impact, hard-to-predict, rare event” and proceeds to primarily focus on the negative impact of a black swan to an organization.  In this post I would like to propose that the term black swan, while having primarily negative connotations, can be a positive event.  

In project management a schedule dependency is what happens when you have a task that can’t begin until another task is finished.  It is entirely possible that the preceding task can be done much later than originally planned creating a black swan situation or the task can also be done much earlier.  I initiated a project while I was in Oklahoma.  The project turned into an annual event and was passed along to another project manager for its second year.  The new PM was responsible for coordinating with all of the agencies and offices involved and building the planning documentation used to for internal and external communications.  He couldn’t publish the plan internally until these other requirements were met.  The schedule he was committed to required the earlier tasks to be complete before the latter.

The assigned PM started building his products and working the plan only to discover several notes I had left behind. These notes referenced a folder on a shared drive and a binder in the office.  In it he found that while I had coordinated the resources for the first year, I also scheduled several of the resources for the second year.  On the shared drive he found that when I closed the project from the first year I had already applied the lessons learned to the planning docs for the second year as well.  The hundreds of hours of planning he budgeted were reduced by several fold.  That level of detail and foresight was rare in the organization and certainly serves as a positive example of a black swan.


Negative examples are more commonplace in project management conversations.  It’s not hard to understand why.  They can easily create poignant feelings about certain project aspects.  They also make for good hero stories where the PM team overcomes the challenge they faced to slay the impossible dragon and create victory from chaos.  I love a good hero story, but I love a good project that doesn’t have the problems that turn it into a hero story.

Balancing Your Bias

Everyone has a bias.  A bias is generally understood as a preconceived position on a subject often viewed as unreasoned by others.  The reality is the bias is generally not developed through unreasoned mental programming, but rather built out of causal reasoning.  Our experiences in our own life are the anecdotal evidence for much of the judgements we make during the day.  Sugar flakes will be sweet.  Potato chips will be salty.  Some people’s causal reasoning has them jumping the train tracks and believing that there’s floating spoons on mars.

In projects qualitative risk analysis and reliance on expert judgment can also lead to false conclusions.  A project manager with a short list of failures may believe he can will project success simply by forceful demands.  I’ve also seen PMs who grossly misinterpret the difference between a minor risk and a slightly higher risk.  In this situation they exaggerated the difference to the point where they felt the project was in severe jeopardy.  This lead to more worry and significantly lowered the productivity of the team.  


One way to balance a bias is with quantifiable information.  In the case of the PM who over exaggerated risk we were able to show him that the chances while still higher than the norm he was used to were so unlikely that it was a nearly negligible increase.  Using the hard data was only part of the equation.  Communicating the data in a way that allows the PM to be corrected while still saving face is also important.  Publicly disempowering a PM may create a dramatic situation that functions as a hand grenade to product progress.  Sometimes it makes sense to just leave a Lenore Skenazy quote on their desk and walk away.  “All the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life.”

Acknowledging Value

Great leaders acknowledge the value of others. Over the years I’ve benefitted from some tremendous mentors and coworkers. In this post I’d like to propose three ways individuals across an organization can make a more positive impact during their day. All of this of course is designed to increased productivity of the individual and the team.

1. Seek out interactions. An office is a great place to be able to focus on getting work done, but it is by definition separated from others. It’s also a hard place to focus when you have to look to see who’s knocking on your door for a visit or a quick chat. Getting out of the office and having that quick chat in an employee’s space puts them more at ease, allows you to see nonverbal cues about their effort and organization. If you say you care, care enough to viist.

2. Be engaging when you’re engaging them. It’s one thing to be there, it’s another to be engaged. Bring some energy with you as you’re interacting with employees. Energy levels are contagious. In my current position I see a lot of individuals who aren’t used to be up early. I’ve found that if I can inject a positive energy level into their routine they generally respond in kind. They’re more engaged and focussed to accomplish the tasks they need to do making the process run smoother.

3. Follow up. Not everyone is good at remembering names. Remembering names is great, but it’s not everything. It’s a good idea to remember something about the conversation you’re having. If this means you need to spend a few minutes writing down notes when you get back to the office, do so. But remember something and bring that something up during a future engagement. If you’re the boss a lot of times an employee will share an idea or relate a personal or professional challenge to you. These are oportunities for you to posture yourself as a partner. Doing so will generally maximize their performance.

From my experience an employee who feels valued contributes significantly more than those who feel insignficant. These three tips are simple and don’t take too much time. I found it actually saved time by increasing productivity and reducing interruptions during the day from both me and those that I worked with.

A large part of the value I’ve learned to see in myself is built upon the value others have seen in me. Are you making the same impact as the mentors you’ve worked with?

Exaggerated Estimates

In this post I’d like to discuss how estimating is one of the riskiest aspects of any project.  The best book for understanding this isn’t on the reading list for my classes at UMUC, but that’s probably because it’s too engaging to be used as a text book.  

The resource in question is Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.  In the book his characters are faced with a situation where each individual adds their own safety to their portion of the project.  Added up this cumulated safety takes up more time than the project itself does.  What his novel does better than anything else I’ve written is to explain how to work with actual human beings to remove as much safety from each individual line of effort and aggregate a safety for the project as a whole at the end.

Estimating is an extremely dangerous technique for managers.  Organizations with a low tolerance for failure will get unrealistically long estimates from their team members.  Why?  Because adding in the safety to the individual’s line of effort is key to maintaining their employment status.  The opposite extreme is also detrimental.  At this point some pragmatist would argue that picking the point in the middle as the right course of action, and they’d be wrong as well.  

Either extremes or the middle are significantly dangerous ways to run an organization when it comes to gathering estimates.  The right answer is to select a zone near one of these three points that depends on organizational culture, project complexity, and individual capabilities of the team members.  It’s important to pick a zone to operate within on this spectrum because as the project evolves its perception by team members will change and motivational tools (such as the value of estimates) will need to be responsive to these changes.

In conclusion estimates are dangerous to a project because people will want to give themselves as much cushion as possible.  To avoid this one needs to adopt a zone of influence where there are consequences for estimates with too much safety or unrealistic deadlines.  Senior leadership needs to adopt communications lines in a way to be able to understand the framework of the estimates below them.  An arbitrary application of an unrealistic timeline can destroy a great deal of good faith in an existing system and cause an adverse reaction for future projects.  Again, the best book to explain this isn’t on my college reading list.  It’s Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.

Charting the Project Ocean

Navigating the risky waters of a project requires the same tools that helped navigators travel across the ocean, good charts.  In this post I review the usefulness of using tables and charts in communicating project risk.  Two common types of charts used in communicating about projects are Pareto diagrams and Probability & Impact Matrix.  Risk in projects occurs in some combination of four interconnected areas, Project Scope, Budget, Schedule, or Resources.

It’s important first to understand that scope, budget, schedule and resources are all interconnected.  One way to look at these is to consider them as parts of the same object.  If scope increases so will the budget and the schedule for the project.  Similarly, if any of the others increase it will affect the other three.

Scope is one of the more difficult things to chart because it may not include all of the project’s requirements.  The requirements it does capture can be charted and both the Pareto Diagram and Risk Probability & Impact Matrix can be useful in visualizing and communicating about the project’s risk.  

The Probability & Impact Matrix visualizes information based upon two scores, the probability and the impact.  These scores can be recorded qualitatively or quantitatively.  The PMBOK recommends qualitative analysis prior to a quantitative analysis.  When used as a qualitative tool this matrix’s inputs are usually in the form of rough descriptions.  When used quantitatively the descriptions of the risk become matched with a numeric value based upon their likelihood and severity.

Whether used qualitatively or quantitatively this matrix can be useful to identify parts of a project’s scope that communicates risk.  The process of building this matrix forces those involved to have a thoughtful conversation about different aspects of the project without worrying immediately about which risk is more prominent than another.  Because of the simplicity of its design this communication tool requires very little training for teams to discuss and build.  Similarly it requires very little explanation for the audience who it will be presented to.

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Pareto Diagrams are solely quantitative.  Its input requires a dataset comprised of a frequency or similar sets of values.  This dataset must be arranged in descending order from largest to smallest.  Once the data is organized in this way, each datapoint must be calculated as part of its contribution to the whole.  The Pareto Principle is based on the philosophy “that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”  So the goal is to find where the 80% mark lies on any given dataset.

If used to analyze risks in a project’s scope the Pareto Diagram can quickly focus the group on the largest 20% (known as the vital few) and monitor, but not be distracted by the trivial many.  The Pareto Principle requires a valid dataset and an audience familiar with the principle and the format.

Any project is likely to hit some rough seas and choppy waters.  Good charts can be crucial in helping the team navigating past them and safely arrive at the intended destination.

 

 

Reality, or False Scope

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I recently finished working for an organization that had an ineffective method for defining project scope.  The issue remained perpetual for my 36 months of employment.  With each successive project the project’s scope would increase.  Discussion about the increase would dominate the communication channels, but their processes for defining that scope would categorically ignore large aspects of the scope required to contribute to efficiently managing the projects.

The symptoms of this that affected me the most were the budget and schedule.  Working in an international environment requires advanced knowledge of specific requirements in order to move the proper equipment and teams across international borders.  Without the proper notification teams were unable to cross country lines on schedule.  Due to the organization’s zero tolerance for failure and single layer thin assets we would often sacrifice other lines of preparation to ask high ranking officials for accelerated approval of our border crossing requests.  

The budgeted funds for the defined scope were also lacking.  While we rushed on the front end to cross international borders, we had to fight the PM teams above us who had closed out the projects on their end without paying all of the obligations incurred by their projects at our level.  This was the same organization that had no communication framework for discussing project risk.  Paragraph 11.2 of the PMBOK states that “Identify Risks is the process of determining which risks may affect the project and documenting their characteristics.”  It’s categorically impossible to identify risks when the process for developing a project scope doesn’t include a discussion about project risk.  It’s also politically difficult to discuss your failure to pay a particular bill months after you reported that the project was closed.  These organizational foibles cost our teams the ability to quickly prepare and reset for successive projects.  In this formula, not only was the current project at risk, but the future projects were as well.

What I learned from this process is that having a clearly defined project scope development process can be an advantage, but it can also be a handicap.  As a leader it’s challenging to be firm while still keeping communication lines open for issues as they arise.  The organization discussed here had an inefficiently long and redundant leadership chain. With each link it became more and more difficult to communicate from the bottom up about potential issues.  Over time these organizational realities lead to a the adoption of a zero tolerance culture.  This is one reason why I’ve been a huge proponent of flattening hierarchies and at minimum flattening communication lines.

When it comes to flattening communication lines many people in my organization love to reference leadership examples that involve video teleconferencing equipment (VTC).  While I agree that this technology can play a very productive role, I don’t believe that this technology is a complete solution.  While this tool does allow large audiences to create a multi sided virtual room, that room does not remove the political implications from communicating critically.  In fact, it could severely increase it.

Truly flattening communications lines requires adoption of not just one solution, but multiple solutions.  The axiom that a leader need be a good communicator is truer now than it ever has been.  Leaders need to be connected to a variety of communications tools.  Some of these tools should enable group conferencing (VTC) and others should enable quick and reasonably secure communications avenues such as WhatsApp.  Rocket.chat and Slack.com adopt measures that work multiple communications necessities within a single platform.

If leaders can expand their ability to communicate then we can properly identify problems with the processes we use to conduct projects.  To change the culture however, it’s going to take charismatic leaders time to request bad news at public meetings and be measured in their response to that news in order to make the necessary changes towards project efficiency.  Sometimes a poorly defined project scope is just a symptom.

 

Reference:

Project Management Institute (2013). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) (PMBOK Guide). Project Management Institute.

 

Critical Chain

Eliyahu M. Goldratt became a master of project management through hard work and careful observation.  His ideas and contributions to project management would have gone unappreciated if he wasn't also a good communicator.

In this business novel Goldratt articulates problems typical with project management.  Through careful dialogue his characters extract perspectives on solutions that help the reader not merely understand the concepts, but also how to communicate them within their sphere of influence.

This book, Critical Chain, looks at the human dimension of project management and how safe buffers added to the project timeline by individual offices do nothing to move the project along.  Instead Goldratt clearly explains through his characters practical methods for shifting these buffers from the individual lines of effort to an aggregate for the project.

Every manager wanting to make their teams and processes more efficient should add this book to their reading list.  It's a clear winner designed to help teams deliver results.

The Value of A Library

 A number of years ago I was traveling through Heidelberg Germany and decided to visit the castle and gardens. A tour was offered and I was escorted by a very nice young lady around many of the castle features and legends that had emerged over time. She talked about the construction process and different phases as well as those who lived and ruled from within its walls.

The tour was open for questions and one gentleman asked about the value of the castle. She had just concluded discussing the labor and materials involved in its creation and replied to this inquiry by explaining how under feudalism the king owned everything, so there was no way for a value to be placed on things he already owned. He owned the labor and the resources. They were at his command.

I don’t remember the follow up question, but I do remember the answer. The guide politely gave a brief lesson on one of the great currencies of the medieval age, knowledge. In particular, the knowledge from books. Heidelberg played a key role in the Thirty Years’ War and as a result of a battle in 1622 one of the most prominent libraries had their text gifted to the Pope in exchange for political assistance. Heidelberg was intellectually robbed, and the tour guide, a native of the city, remembered. The real value wasn’t the fact that one stone was placed on another, it was that its library had information.

Since that experience I have always viewed information as its own currency. Recently I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of the zero (concept) and the character (0) migrating from Cambodia to the west. I’ve also be learning about Fibonacci's marvelous textbook on numbers and how it popularized our current numerical characters and mathematical techniques. Our number system is extremely powerful as a communication tool and studying its evolution provides a great deal of lessons on historical economics and human understanding. It was the underdog whose principled efficiency as a system resulted in it trumping all others.

Using the idea that information is currency, one could easily argue that the United States is the wealthiest nation on earth due to its vast and ever growing collection of books in the Library of Congress. That argument would hold true if physically printed information were all that existed. In the digital domain we have several different libraries. Wikipedia hosts rather easily digestible information on a vast number of subjects. Archive.org has a similarly impressive catalog of knowledge. Specific industries and trades have also built up massive libraries of information.

Many of these, if not all, are dependent upon the library of open source. While fragmented across several domains, this library has become one of the most significant accomplishments of the human era. It’s the continual evolution of practical economic theory. Within its shelves are discoveries more complex, but just as significant, as the discovery of zero. Within its texts are descriptions of forms and formulas as powerful as Fibonacci's textbook. The library has its high profile contributors, but it wouldn’t have its volume with them alone.

Throughout history we’ve seen lessons of centrally planned economies fail because they can’t accurately account for the needs within a particular market sector. In the market sector of code and the need for understanding, the lessons from the political economy also apply. Centralized planning can’t account for the demand. With this in mind the rise of open source is easy to understand. It’s not a superiority complex, its an accessibility one.

If you were to visit the Heidelberg castle today you’d quickly notice the half-standing fat tower exposing the insides it was supposed to protect. In the Nine Years’ War an explosion split the structure scarring it to this day. Today the pyrotechnics you need to get at the valuable library of open source includes nothing more than a few mouse clicks and the right search terms.

What makes it impressive beyond measure is not simply the vast college of knowledge inside of open source, but that the knowledge is about functions.  Unlike some types of knowledge the library of open source contains information more easily executed than other disciplines.

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution

Fibonacci is best known for a number series he promulgated, but did you know that this number series he's most famous for was nothing more than a footnote is a text book he wrote?  Fibonacci's greatest contribution to mathematical understanding wasn't what he knew, but the fact that he packaged what he knew so it could help a large variety of people whose lives involved numbers.

This book explores how this drop in the ocean of human knowledge caused ripples that became an effective intellectual tsunami that permeated Europe and still has affects today. 

This book is ideal for anyone who's ever asked the questions about a ten based number system's origins and popularity.  When did we decided to use a ten based number system?  When Fibonacci published his book!

Pick up this delightful tale on Amazon.

Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers

Where do our numbers come from?  This book is for anyone who's asked that question and never liked the answer they received.  In this masterful telling of his personal quest to find the answer the author, Amir D. Aczel, skillfully guides the reader through the origin of his exposure to this question and the journey to discover its answer.

This book is written from the first person with a generous pen.  While most professional scholars will write in styles fit only for academic journals Amir writes this piece so the reader's ability to comprehend mathematical concepts aren't an issue in allowing them to enjoy the book.  I found it simply marvelous!  Not only in his style of narration but also in the way he artfully moves the reader through each page as if we were perched over his shoulder through this significant adventure.

Is finding 0 an adventure?  Yes!  While others have asked the question before most of them have stopped at the surface answers.  Amir decides to get to the root of those answers to discover the truth underneath the surface.  In his quest he describes staying in elegant palaces and dundgie hotels, getting lost in foreign countries, finding the oldest zero and then having it taken from him right under his nose.  Amir D. Aczel is basically the Indiana Jones for math nerds--even the ones whose grades were so good in math in high school (I got a D-).

Audible versions available, so if you're traveling this holiday season, it's worth picking up!

Recognizing Miracles

The first Saturday of December 2016 my kids and wife went to visit an older couple who had recently returned from serving a mission in Germany where we met them at the beginning of their service.  I was left behind to finish a final exam for a college course.  The interlude between their leaving and this reunion was a challenging one for the couple.  The husband had returned home and had become quite ill.  At his age it is not uncommon for an illness to quickly become life threatening.
    It was a very tenuous time for the family and they shared the news on social media.  Because of their service they had impacted many people’s lives, including ours, and many families, including ours, began including the couple in our prayers.
    The husband recovered though it didn’t happen overnight, it did happen.
    When my family returned I had finished the exam and cleaned up the house in a thinly veiled attempt to woo my wife.  My boys and I had a few brief words as we were getting ready for bed.
    “How did Elder Johnson look” I asked.
    “Fine” he responded.
    “Do you remember when we prayed for him because he was sick?”
    “Yeah”
    “Well, is he better?”
    “Yeah”
    “Son, that’s what miracles look like.”
    All too often around the holiday season we see neatly prepackaged miracles that fit into a 90 minute story line and often ignore that some miracles are built upon the most minor things that aren’t so minor from an eternal perspective.  We need to make sure we pace our lives so we can recognize the miracles we see and help create through our prayers.

Customer Insulation

As the US approaches a historical* election year and my family and I have been traveling I’ve come across the topic of customer insulation.  Customer insulation is generally created by the layers of policy and people between those served by an organization and the organization’s decision makers.  It’s easy to understand this topic by quickly demonstrating the extremes, hence my reference to politics.  

The political system in the United States creates one of the most insulative environments for conducting business.  While there are notable exceptions it’s just generally bad.  The American people and even congress weren’t consulted before the country actively started launching missiles at people’s houses in Libya.  Having worked around explosives I can tell you that if your house was near a target it would change your outlook on life.  I find it interesting that the United States hasn’t won a war since they stopped declaring war.  Seems like when you don’t take the time to define your goals (but decide to use deadly force anyway) you don’t reach your goals.  In any other industry you’d at minimum lose your job for such ineffectiveness, but I’ll let you good readers search for how long some of these representatives have been in office and to illustrate how insulative that system is.

Now, on the other side of things we have open source software development.  Talk about an extreme!

On this end of the chart we’d like to think that there’s no 0 insulation but that would be disingenuous.  Everyone screens their emails, tunes out from time to time and limits their inner circle to what can be managed.  All developers are insulated to some degree.  While many are insulted by simply limiting the amount of inputs they have into their lives there are generally more inputs to open source developers than those in any other industry.

Right now I could easily get in contact with Suse and Ubuntu developers.  I can easily contact the heads of some of my favorite projects and have my questions or comments reviewed on open source oriented podcasts.  While we complain about some things not going our way we can easily forget how responsive our ecosystem is.  The tech press is discussing how responsive Apple is with their articles about cutting dongle prices for the new MacBook.  If that’s their idea of a responsive company maybe they ought to take a look at what’s going on in the open source community.

I recently launched an instance of Rocket.Chat for our family, because email is feeling a bit cumbersome.  In seconds I had my digitalocean server up and running.  In another couple of seconds I had the snap installed.  Being new to securing my servers I reached out to one of the devs for assistance on getting that working and had a reply with instructions that made my life easy.  Couldn’t have done it without the developer’s accessibility.  Thank you!

Rocket.chat demonstrates this level of low insulation in another way as well.  Head over to https://demo.rocket.chat and sign in.  After you do so look at the logo in the lower left hand side.  There’s a bit of an invitation, “fork it on github.”  Fork it?  Isn’t forking generally bad?  Don’t we often see forking as a division of effort often times on the road to ineffectiveness?  Yes, we do and this invitation is an open challenge for others to create competition that will make the software better.  The more insulated software companies, Apple & Microsoft, have a historical record of discouraging code exploration and development.  The results were easily seen with this week’s much-ado-about-dongles.

If you’re a developer with the next great idea looking to start a project I’d highly advise you to stop writing code for a few minutes and figure out your communication plan.  What methods will you use to allow your customers to contact you?  How will you find that right balance of awareness and responsiveness?  What could you learn from the seasoned pros of the community by studying the workflows of Martin Wimpress, Bryan Lunduke, Linus Torvalds, and all the other folks that have figured out what works for them?  Of course, you could just ignore everyone that empowers you, but the only way that would work long term is if they didn’t have any other choice.  I hear there’s a job hunt going on for folks in government on Tuesday although it might be too late to apply for this year.

 

*The two most unliked candidates in American history:  http://www.redstate.com/leon_h_wolf/2016/07/17/hated-candidates-history-choose-running-mates-generate...-total-indifference/

The Impact of Gratitude

OIF one was the first deployment for most of us and most of the memories we carry from those days are from the firsts of that experience.  At one point in the deployment I ended up in charge of a 5’10” former entrepreneur and Rutgers Hockey player named Jenny.  Her responsiveness as a Soldier inspired me to be a better leader.  Jenny helped me work through the problems of that deployment and I was grateful to have someone of such great character working for me.

One of the firsts for this deployment was taking the time as a leader to contact one of my Soldier’s parents and thank them for the time with the child they raised.  The first letter I ever wrote home to say thank you was to Neil Smith, Jenny’s dad.

Even though we were communicators, the world was considerably less connected in 2003/2004 than it is now.  We still relied heavily on snail mail to get and send news from home.  I grabbed a sheet of lined yellow paper on shift one day and wrote Neil to say thank you.  I don’t remember how long the letter was, or what the exact were I used, but I do remember hearing later that Neil had framed it.

How did I find out?  After we got back Neil came to visit.  When he did he made a particular point to meet with me.  When we talked he made me feel like his trip was less about seeing his daughter and more about saying thank you for the words I had written.  We’ve kept in touch ever since.

The daughter he raised continued to mature in uniform.  Her character and competence has allowed her to move up from Specialist to First Sergeant.  Neil and I have used every moment of success to stay in touch and thank each other for the time when our lives have crossed paths.  He’s been quick to comment when I needed a friend online.

Neil Smith.jpg

I woke up this morning to find that this man who towered over me in stature had moved on from this life.  The world has been a brighter place because he lived in it.  Being religiously minded, I full well believe that Neil is now making the place we go after death a little brighter for those around him.

Neil’s legacy in my life isn’t just a wonderful relationship with Jenny.  Because of his positive response I have been known to contact Soldier’s parents from time to time to say thank you.  It’s one of the best privileges of being a leader in the Army.

The last one was the mother of Larry  who wouldn’t quite let me finish saying thank you without interrupting.  “Oh, no!” she said.  “Thank YOU!  Larry was in a bad place with no direction and the Army’s helped him be successful.  If it weren’t for leaders like you I don’t think my son would be doing anything positive.”  After hearing Larry’s story she did end up listening to me say thank you and the conversation ended cordially.  Larry beamed the next time I saw him.  He’d obviously talked to his mom and she told him I called and that she was proud of him.  That conversation made a larger impact than any award on his chest.

Larry’s story is one of many.  There are quite a few parents out there who got a personal insight to their children’s lives in uniform because of the overwhelmingly positive experience from writing Neil.  Our lives on earth intersect for a very short time but they help us change the direction we take.  Neil was the sort of person who helped every life he intersected with change for the better.  Thank you for teaching me how important it is to express gratitude.

Over the next few days there will be many better words composed about this man’s time on earth.  I would be remiss for not contributing mine.  If this were 12 years ago I probably would have written it on a sheet of yellow lined paper, but now I wouldn't know who to send it to. 

 

The Individuality of the Atonement

[This post is my farewell talk in the Grafenwoehr Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered on the same day of publication]

For those of you who don’t know me my name is Jacob Roecker and I’d like to talk about the individuality of the atonement.  Everyone of us is marvelously unique.  If I asked everyone to imagine a butterfly and we all had the skills to draw what our imagination sees no two butterflies would be alike even though butterflies are symmetrical creatures.  

Some of us are more obviously unique than others.  I’m sure there’s many of you who fall into this category.  Just for living the gospel’s standards you’re often seen as unique.  For me once you get passed the gospel standards I have a few more quirks that help set me apart.  I’ve made a covenant not to eat chocolate and haven’t consciously touched the stuff since 1999.  

I like computers.  I have a twisted passion for fonts.  They’re the clothes you put on your letters.  They let you dress up or dress down your words.  Everyone loves what Helvetica did to the industry and knows the story about how Microsoft didn’t want to purchase the license for Helvetica on Windows so it modified a few letters and called it Arial.  Arial completely misses the semi-serifed lowercase a and also creates a very unbalanced capital R.  When it comes to resumes, Times New Roman is the sweatpants of fonts.  It’s functional but so worn that it’s just not pretty anymore.  That classic font was commissioned in 1931 by the Times newspaper in England after letters to the editor complained their font wasn’t modern enough.

Everyone makes fun of Comic Sans.  This font should be kept as far away from anything professional as possible.  But interestingly enough it’s design makes it much easier for early readers to develop their language skills and it works well on low resolution screens.  Yes, if Comic Sans has a place in this world than so do each one of us.  In fact, that should be a gospel meme.  I’ll have to write the Church about that one.

Speaking of the Church did you know that fonts are so important the Church commissioned a very specific font for its logo update in 1995.  The Jesus Christ on the logo is a font owned solely by the Church.  If you wanted to explore its cousins you could take a look at

  • Trajan

  • Goudy Trajan

  • ITC Galliard

  • Mantinia (used for the public edition of the The Book of Mormon)

  • Requiem

  • Waters Titling

So, I’m a font nerd.  I bring this up not just because it’s fun to share, but also because if you think inside yourself you each have something unique that you love.  It may not meet the standards for a ward talent night, but nonetheless you’ve got passions that make you, you and that helps make you wonderful.

One of my other quirks is finding and loving unique phrases in the scriptures.  Did you know that the Book of Mormon mentions dragons?  Did you notice how Alma used food words to talk about faith?  The only time the word delicious is used in our scriptures is when Alma talks about growing faith.  

Did you notice that Nephi’s brother Jacob finished his contribution to the Book of Mormon with such eloquence that Joseph Smith had to use a French word to make the translation more accurate?

Harrowed was one of those other words that leaps out of the scriptures at me.  In the book of Job it’s mentioned in the same verse as the word unicorn so that’s pretty cool, but in the Book of Mormon we see it more used to describe Alma’s conversion process.  Harrowing soil is the process of plowing it to turn it over and get it ready for planting.  Ancient plows contain two blades.  The first blade cuts horizontally under the ground lifting the soil while the second blade cuts vertically and turns it over.  My time in Germany has not been without its harrowing experiences.

I’ve read a 500+ page book on Jacob 5, the olive tree allegory, and while my head may be full of facts about olives and early Roman economic depressions due to crop development as a result of olive production, I still maintain my same attitude towards the longest chapter in the Book of Mormon as I did when I was in early morning seminary.  The Lord of the Vineyard loves his vineyard and he takes the time and effort needed to make it fruitful.  He’s not afraid to put his hands in dung if it makes the harvest better.

We should not be afraid when our lives are harrowed at the hands of the master.  When Abraham had his harrowing experience of being asked to kill Isaac he did as the Lord commanded and in the process earned a great promise.  Job is by far one of my favorite bible stories.  In Job 38:7 it we read how “all the sons of God shouted for joy.”  This is in reference to the council in heaven where we were presented with the plan to come here to earth and be tested.  We shouted for joy not just for the good parts of this mortal life but also for the challenges.  That’s why the full conversation reads better as  “Job, where wast thou when,  the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” or Job, I know this his hard, but don’t you remember that you shouted for joy?

Job also teaches us about eternal families, but for the purposes of this talk he teaches us about what to do when our lives are being harrowed and the answer is in the first half of Job 42:10,  “And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends.”  Job’s curse was lifted when he prayed for others; when he went beyond himself.

Brothers and Sisters my talk is on the individuality of the atonement.  Luke’s gospel (written as one of the greatest research papers of all time) does a wonderful job illustrating the Savior’s atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Chapter 22 verse 44 reads “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”  The active verb in that verse is prayer.  

J Devn Cornish of the Seventy talked about how for our prayers of repentance to work they must be “specific, profound, and lasting.”  If the prayers we use for repentance must be specific then I don’t believe it too difficult to conclude that the prayer that enabled repentance was specific as well.  One way I’ve taught this is to think of the time Christ spent just on you while he was bleeding out of every pore.  How much time were you worth?  Would it be measured in seconds, minutes, or hours?

Each of us occupied a unique amount of our Lord’s time in the Garden of Gethsemane because when he sees us he sees each of us as being valuable to his kingdom.  His time with you says you’re worth it.  You were born to make a difference in heaven.  Whatever you do that makes you you is exactly what makes you so valuable to our Savior.  He spent time with you and I bear my testimony that if you’ll spend time with him by repenting of everything you’ll walk with a contagious confidence of how valuable you really are to his kingdom.