Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How To Get Resources Over Someone’s Dead Body

Ever been in a situation where you absolutely need a project to be resourced, but there are no resources? I remember one particularly extreme case that I had to deal with. I was a product manager, and my product was dependent on a particular instrument sold by another company. Just a few months after my product launched, the other company discontinued their product. We were screwed.

As a first mitigation, we bought the entire supply of the existing product, which would allow us to sell to an additional ten customers. After that, the only option was a poor substitute that we did not currently support.

The good news: a few years earlier my company had developed an in house version that was never commercialized. I did some checking, and it could be launched with a minimum of effort in about six months. The bad news: the instrument division was consumed with a high profile, expensive project. The company was moderately political and laden with silos. And my division rarely partnered with the instrument division.

The first reaction from “Bill” the resource doorkeeper was politely negative. Although he didn’t exactly say you’ll get those resources over my dead body, the message I got was that the resources would only be available over his dead body.

I am not big on losing, and I found a way to get it done. Success came from a combination of two strategies.

  1. I was lucky because one of my colleagues was well connected in the instrument division. He knew the right people to get a realistic resource estimate, and they all liked him.
  2. We got the key decision makers from both divisions in the room together. I put up side-by-side revenue forecasts, with a loss of $27 million dollars over three years if we did not launch the new product. There was a difficult conversation, but the resources were assigned.

I was quite pleased with myself because I won. We got the supporting product we needed, and the revenue plan was intact. I didn’t care (or even realize) that I made a powerful enemy. Maybe it was inevitable that Bill was going to get pissed off. But I don’t think I did everything I could to get him on board before the meeting. Instead, I  took the “screw you, I’m going to win approach.”

To my credit I was unfailingly polite, and presented a revenue forecast that left few options.

But it came back to haunt me. While at the time I thought it was done over “Bill’s” dead body, in many ways it was over mine.

Three Things I Did To Become Unstuck

This week I have been in a January Funk.  I don’t exactly know why, but I have felt a significant malaise.  Downright crappy.  A two week layoff from writing often makes me feel that way.  I’m not an “instant-on” type of person, so coming back to a series of deadlines for my blog has been an interesting challenge.

A funk is deadly, at least to me.  I like to get things done.  When I’m in a funk, it’s harder to get things done.  Then, I get really pissed off because the funk is preventing me from getting things done, which makes it even harder to get things done.  I read something I wrote while in the funk – lets just say I’ve read Nigerian chain letters that were better written.

Tonight, I feel like I”m through the funk.  Here are the things I did to get out of it.

1. I called a good friend.  He gets it.  He likes to get things done too, and he and I commiserated about how we have to endure funks from time to time. I reminisced about how I dealt with funks when I was a graduate student.  I used to do mini DNA preps, even when I didn’t need the DNA.  Why?  Because they always work.  He said: Greg you need to find a mini-prep equivelent for your life today.  Keep going, and things will work out.

2.  I ate massive amounts of chocolate.

3. I went to my writing group that meets every other Tuesday night.  We read each other’s work and give feedback.  They read the Nigerian chain letter piece of trash I wrote, and didn’t correct the grammar.  In fact, we had an interesting discussion about the underlying story.  One person in particular really connected with the anecdote I shared.

The cliche about 90% of life is just showing up?  It’s really true.


What I Said To My Kids About the Sandy Hook Shooting

I was so horror struck by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School I could barely function.  I was in Shut Down City, occasionally wiping my eyes in Peets.  My glasses fogged up, adding insult to injury.

But the real challenge hit me when it got close to the time for me to pick up my kids.  I’m a stay at home dad.  My 4th grader gets out at 2:40, and the 7th grader at 3.

When I arrived to pick the girls up, the kids were laughing and running around as normal.  Why freak them out with a bunch of details that won’t help them?

 What I said

“I want to talk to you.  Something sad happened today.  Everyone in our family is safe, but I want you to know there was a school shooting in Connecticut.  Some little kids were killed.  20 kids.  I don’t know what to say in a time like this.  Mom and I and the adults in the school, we’ll do everything we can to keep you safe.  But sometimes things like this happen.”

This got their attention.

“The most important thing to know is that if you hear a POP POP POP, people screaming, or loud noises, do you know what to do?”

Both kids said lock down – close and lock the door, pull the shade, hide.  I said good, and explained that the most important thing they could do is to hide or run away.  Keep your head.  Don’t go investigate.”

I concluded “I want you to hear it from me.  If it is bothering you, come tell me.  Any questions?

“No, thanks dad,” they each answered.

Was this the right way to handle it?  Who knows.  My goal was to educate them and  to make sure they knew what to do without giving them an emotional overload.

Why I choose this strategy

Thanks to Dr Craig Baker, the superinendent of the San Carlos School district for sending out a link to a page by the American Psychological Association called “Talking to your Children about school shootings.  And let me also thank Rabbi Janet Marder for leading a discussion earlier in the year about what to tell your children about the Holocaust.

In the Holocaust discussion, there was a debate between those who said “don’t codle the kids, they need to understand the world is a dangerous place” and those who said “they should be given age appropriate information.”  Here is the key points from Rabbi Marder that stuck with me:

  • Adults can’t handle the pictures of the Holocaust.  They are earth-shatteringly traumatic.  What good does it do to expose a child to such graphic details?
  • Don’t lie or cover things up, but refuse to give details.  “I don’t think you are old enough to know what happened in detail.”

The APA document had complementary advice:

  • Talk to the children and be honest.  Kids can get very scared.  Reassure them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe
  • Avoid news coverage to avoid more details than they can handle.
  • Watch for signs of stress

For the kids, I made sure they knew what happened, and know what to do if something does happen at their school.  I often tell them to run away from trouble.  You don’t need to see the tornado in person.  Hide in the cellar.

At the end of the day, what is most important to me is what comes next.  Do we sit back and say “stuff happens” or do we work to make a change?  That is a post for another day.

What did you say to your kids?

What should we do next?

Six Lessons About Corporate Culture From the San Francisco Giants


Here I am with my daughters with the Giants 2010 World Series Trophy

Sometimes it is best to stick to your plan, and focus on crisp execution, and sometimes your passion takes over and brings you into uncharted territory.  Today, I am experiencing the latter, in the glow of the SF Giants sweep of the Detroit Tigers.  I promise – back to Busting Your Corporate Idol tomorrow.

Growing up, baseball was on in my house every day.  My father often said “Baseball is like life: Long periods of repose punctuated by period of flurious activity.”  Clearly, dad never worked in Silicon Valley, where the mantra seems to be “long periods of manic activity, punctuated by periods of fitful repose.”

The SF Giants are a business, and their culture has a lot to teach us.  Here are six reason why you want your company to be like the Giants:

  1. They are winners.  Everyone loves to be part of a winning company, and the Giants just won the world series for the second time in three years.  Of course in between, the Giants had a terribly disappointing losing season, setting a record for the lowest runs scored during the season.  That is the great disadvantage of winning – it is only temporary. There is always a next season, where the win loss record starts all over again.  In the corporate world, there are no seasons and off seasons.  From an individual standpoint, it is important to remember to define your happiness metrics outside of the workplace, because the bar for success at work is arbitrary.
  2. Resilient – see #1.  In spite of 2011, the Giants were back this year.  But more than that, the Giants bounced back from numerous setbacks this season, including losing their star player to a 50 game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs, losing their closer, and loss of World Series MVP twice to the DL.  The lesson: the success of the organization depends on more than just one person.
  3. Principled.  According to the business ethics literature, one of the strongest indicators of an ethical culture is an even-handed enforcement of the rules.  When Melky Cabrera’s suspension for using steroids was over, he was not offered a place back on the club roster.  True, he did his time, but he also lied to everyone on the club when initially asked if he had cheated.  The Giants culture requires honesty and integrity.
  4. Thoughtful.  In what may seem like a contradiction, the Giants welcomed back another player after he served his 100 game suspension for performance enhancing drug use.  The difference?  Guillermo Mota was honest when asked, and it was generally accepted that his second PED offense was inadvertent.  At a time when the Giants could have said “we need to be consistent, and someone may complain” they were forgiving.
  5. Accountability.  Many of the stars from the 2010 team were no longer on the club.  Why not?  They had bad seasons in 2011.  In some ways baseball is the purest form of capitalism.  It is extremely transparent – your playing time and salary depends on your performance.  There is always someone  waiting to take your spot.  This anxiety is at the forefront of many in the corporate world today.  But remember, those players from 2010 who are no longer with the Giants are playing for other teams.
  6. Loyalty.  Before the season, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean among others were awarded contract extensions based on their superior performance.  And on a micro level, when one of the players, Hunter Pence was not hitting well in the NLCS, Bochy the manager made no change in the lineup or batting order.  He had faith that Pence would come around, which he did.  And moreover, I think Bochy recognized that Pence was making contributions as a leader in the locker room, and with his defense.  It’s not only about the numbers.

Seem like a bunch of contradictions?  Baseball is a lot like life, which is why I love it so.


How London Bested the Beijing Opening Ceremonies

2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies

London Olympics Opening Ceremonies OMG The Tree by Shimelle via Flickr CC

The Beijing opening ceremonies were one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  I remember seeing thousands of drummers working in synchrony, a field of men performing Tai Chi, and a wave of Chinese characters moving up and down, to remind the world that China invented typesetting.  What amazed me was that each character was human powered, and the up and down movements had to be perfectly choreographed to give the rippling patterns.  When I realized that London was set to follow Beijing, I thought “There is no way they can match or beat this.”


I was both right and wrong, and the difference highlights the differences between the two countries.

When it comes to majesty and spectacle, Beijing won hands down.  For me, the 2008 Opening Ceremony was a coming out party for China.  “We are here world – look at our rich culture and history, and see what we can accomplish.”  To have so many people working together in such artistry and synchrony was amazing to see.  But I grew uncomfortable when I learned that the 900 men under the typesetting segment had to wear diapers, because they had to stay under their props for six hours.  What was the human cost of that greatness?

China’s approach was very much in line with what we have seen in the subsequent four years.  It can move a large number of people to act together to produce great things.  Check out this video about the manufacturing of  iPads by Foxconn.  The vast majority of the work done by each individual is repetitive and boring.  But the end result is something spectacular.


A Different Focus

Danny Boyle, the oscar-winning director of Slum Dog Millionaire and the director of the London Opening Ceremony took an entirely different tack – it wasn’t about technology, and synchrony,  it was about people.  The first part of the program highlighted the transition in England’s history from an agrarian existance to the industrial revolution. Giant smokestacks rose out of the ground, and workers emerged from a hole in the ground to roll up and carry off the grass sod that covered the field.  Each smokestack in the show let off smog, and the Boyle’s magic managed to include the sulfer stink of the pollution.

The London games reminded the world that the UK has been through the pain of industrialization, and has dealt with the impact on socicety.  There were workers with picket signs as part of the show, advocating women’s sufferage among other causes.  As host Matt Lauer put it ” for all the prosperity from industrial revolution, there was also great hardship.”

The ceremony seemed to be saying “Industrial Revolution?  Been there, done that.  Now lets move on to our legacy of children’s literature, The National Health Service, and the uniquely British comic sensibility.”   I was also struck by the cultural and ethnic diversity of the performers.

From the land to factories and back to the land

Today, China is the country undergoing the transition from an agrarian to an industrial existence.  At the opening of the 2008 games in Beijing, Tijeniman Square was filled with smog for a few days until  the government-mandated shutdown of factories allowed the air to clear for the games.  At the turn of the 20th Century, the London Fog was the result of smog an industrial waste.  Now, much of that industry is gone from London, and in fact the industrial reminants on the economically depressed East End were replaced with the Olympic park.  And after the games, this region will be home to a new public park   filled with trails, wetlands, and open space.

In China and the UK, I see two countries at opposite ends of the industrialization cycle.  And the opening ceremonies?  I loved them both, but I have to give the edge to the one that put people first.