Monday, August 8, 2011

Don’t Stand Below the Two-Holer: Part 2

Executive Summary:
Often, the disasters we experience are of our own making.  By being alert to the decisions we make, and to our actions, and by considering the consequences before we act, we can avoid a great deal of pain, waste, or failure.

The Rest of the Story:
I don’t know about you, but I never feel like a heel more so than when I realize that the unpleasant consequences I’m experiencing I brought upon myself.  Yet, many times we invite disaster and don’t realize it until it has already arrived.

There is a colorful old saying about this.  “If you don’t want to get [dumped] on, don’t stand below the two-holer.”  It’s a throwback to a time before plumbing when cisterns and outhouses had “his” and “her” holes.  Simply put, if you don’t want disaster, don’t invite it.

With our product designs and service plans we have both simple and elaborate risk analysis and mitigation methods and tools we can use to prevent mistakes.  When it comes to every-day decisions and actions, though, all we really have is our intuition and common sense.  Well, it’s usually enough, if we just use it.

We use our second-guess insights frequently when we make major decisions, but we don’t in our every-day actions and our small decisions.  These tend to be the “gotchas” that leave us standing in the [stuff].

Sometimes it’s simple things.  Today I witnessed one individual busily going about his work and giving directions to his teammate.  His teammate wanted to do things slightly differently and kept trying to say so, but was ignored.  Eventually, in order to be heard, he began yelling at the other.

Naturally, by the time the yelling was over, both individuals were highly upset and work on the project ceased.  It may not have been appropriate for the teammate to yell, but the first individual invited it by being too absorbed in his own plan and the work to pay attention to his teammate.

Once upon a time, I had a boss about whom I still struggle to find anything nice to say.  One of his poor habits was to ask for information or deliverables and then neglect to receive or review them.

In one particular occasion, he had me run an analysis for him and respond with the results, some conclusions, and some recommendations.  I did this.

Now, knowing that he had a bad habit of neglecting his e-mail, if I had wanted to stand under the two-holer I could have left it at that, but I didn’t want to invite disaster, so I called him to discuss it.

He didn’t answer his phone, so I left a message.  I knew that the topic of this analysis would come up in a monthly meeting with his peers in a few days, so when after two days my automated notification of e-mail receipt hadn’t been triggered, I sent him a text message to his Blackberry, another e-mail labeled “Urgent,” and I left more voice messages on his desk and cell phones.

I again left messages for him when I was invited by the chairperson for the monthly meeting to talk about the subject about which the analysis was done.  I felt it was important to inform my boss that it was a subject to be discussed and suggest that he and I go over it before the meeting.  At this point, I can smell the [stuff] coming because the analysis results did not reflect what I knew everyone was expecting.

Since I’m making an example, you have probably guessed that my boss never responded and the discussion of the topic and my analysis did not go well.  My boss and I didn’t get along, so I don’t know if he simply had a lapse in leadership or if he saw an opportunity to burn me in front of the executive staff, but he chose to scold me during the meeting for not informing him of the results ahead of time.

I told you I didn’t like him, so I had no intention of taking one for him and I politely explained that I had left him X-number of voice, e-mail, and text messages requesting his review and a discussion over the previous few days.  He was publically embarrassed in the executive meeting and that wasn’t the end of that episode either.  HR got involved.  He was very angry with me.

To this day, I don’t know if standing up for myself caused more harm or mitigated more damage with regard to my reputation with the executive staff.  I do know that the episode was one of many that eventually led to my boss’s termination.

As you can see, I did everything that I could think of at the time to avoid disaster, aside from publicly taking my boss’s abuse and I still got caught in the [stuff].  That’s because my boss invited the bucket to be poured on him and I was standing, out of circumstance, underneath him.

He invited the disaster by not paying attention, or if you prefer, by not keeping up with his own action items.  He further exacerbated it by inappropriately trying to dodge responsibility for his actions.

About the same time that I was dealing this difficult boss, I consulted with a friend and coworker, a program manager of esteemed performance and soft skills, about how he managed avoid getting caught in booby traps or otherwise avoiding disaster.  He broke it down for me very simply, so I’ll pass his wisdom on here.

We invite or otherwise fail to avoid disaster most often under the following circumstances.
  • We didn’t do the right thing
  • We aren’t aware or alert
  • We knowingly remain in an at-risk situation

At first glance, doing the right thing is obvious, but in reality it’s not so cut and dry.  Most often we fail to do the right thing when it isn’t so clear what the right thing is and we settle for doing what is popular or will create the least argument.  In the aftermath, though, it is much easier to explain why you did what was right, than it is to explain why you did what someone else wanted even though it wasn’t the right thing to do.

If the right thing to do isn’t clear, don’t immediately settle for the popular thing.  Take the time to investigate why the popular thing to do is the right thing, or try to understand the problem and the options more clearly. 

A great hint from my program manager friend is to ask what the risks or possible negative consequences are.  If there aren’t any, don’t believe it.  There’s always a down side.  If the down side isn’t plain, then either someone is selling you “snake oil,” or they haven’t really thought it through.

The best thing to do about remaining aware or alert is to listen to what people are trying to tell you.  No one who sees a problem wants to be caught in the problem.  If they are tied to you in any way, for them to get out of the way, they will have to tug on the rope that ties.  If you are habitually a good listener, they will know they can trust you, that you will listen, and they will tell you outright.

My friend also shared a practice of his.  Every afternoon, at the close of the day, he would reflect on his actions and write his actions for the next day before going home.  While reflecting he would habitually consider if any of his actions might have possible consequences he didn’t see at the time.  Many times, he would catch a potential problem and be able to act to correct or avoid it.

The last situation is the most difficult.  We don’t always have the option of sidestepping a disaster.  My example of my experience with my boss makes that plain. 

Sometimes we can see that the project to which we are assigned is doomed to failure.  Sometimes we get caught in our leaders’ disasters.  We can’t always negotiate new projects, get new bosses, or change companies in time to avoid failures, disasters, or layoffs.

What we can do is exert our maximum reasonable influence on the situation to rally others to help prevent or avoid the disaster.  We can communicate until either our views are accepted or we are told to stop.  We can take actions to minimize the impact.  We can propose other options and alternatives.

Whatever we do, we must be careful not to be the leaders of an uprising.  Always remember that your leaders are your allies and not your enemies in these circumstances, even if you don’t like them.  You are tied to them and there is no way to avoid the [stuff] if they get into it, especially if you get them into it.

I think my friend was right.  Most disasters come from either not doing what was right, or from not paying attention.  If we find ourselves caught in an impending disaster, if we don’t try to influence the outcome, then we haven’t done what was right.

I also like my friend’s practice of reflection and post-action mitigation or correction.  We can’t always see the mistake when we make it, but if we remain alert, we can sometimes admit it and correct it, or otherwise mitigate the impact.

Take a few minutes and see if one of your recent experiences doesn’t fall into one of his categories and if you might not have avoided it by following his simple suggestions.  When you consider that most disasters are of our own making, then consider that a few simple ideas can help us prevent or avoid them, it’s a great relief to know that we can easily avoid them.

Stay wise, friends.

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