Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Toxic Cultures

“Love it, change it or leave it.”

It is, fundamentally, the situation many of us find ourselves in within our workplaces.

I’ve talked about it before.  And all you have to do is look up “employee engagement” in Google to see what is happening.

As Karen Kollenz-Qutard points out in her TedTalk – you have a fighting chance of changing your organization if you have

I’m at a point in my career where I don’t have the time or energy to bang my head against that wall if any of those three elements are missing.

We can talk all day about what is wrong and what “leaders” (read – others) should do about it.

I’m going to assume that anything that “leaders” and “others” will do is out of our control.

Furthermore, I am also going to assume that the “leaders” will not change their mind, change the way they operate, or be replaced anytime soon.  Often, the leaders are isolated from the impact of their behavior. Furthermore, keeping things status quo benefits them.

Assuming that the leaders aren’t going to change and the system we work in isn’t going to change – it means that it is up to us, individually, to make the change.

We need to take care of ourselves, even if it means removing ourselves from toxic environments.

If you are not in a position to remove yourself from the toxic environment right now – I have the following insights from my own experience:

  1. Disengage or distract yourself.  Psychopathic bosses do not deserve your energy or effort. You might as well put that energy and effort into something positive that empowers you. And in getting away ASAP. You won’t change them, no matter what your ego tells you. I learned this the hard way. Many times.
  2. Recognize the source of your insecurity.  Remember, they WANT insecure over-achievers.
  3. Spend the time getting very clear on what you want your life to look like and why. You will need that information to help you make decisions and evaluate options as you plot your next move.  (I can help you with this – click here for a free 60-minute chat).
  4. Find your tribe and be extra mindful with your colleagues, even the ones you don’t like.  Chances are, you are ALL suffering. If your leaders won’t model the behavior, you can.  Those individual interactions make all the difference.

It is imperative that, as knowledge workers, we focus our energies on creating supportive environments for ourselves and stop tolerating toxic environments.

Our health and our lives depend on it.


Donald Miller’s 40-minute interview with Dr. Lee Norton on mental health in the workplace.

Harvard Business Review: Evaluating Company Culture

First Round: Practical Frameworks for Beating Burnout

Tara Brach: The Capacity for Deep Listening (8 minutes)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Lakota Sioux Buffalo Hunting: A Case Study in the Importance of Roles

hunting plackard in badlands south dakota

badlands south dakota

Pictures from my trip to the Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

The Plains Indian buffalo hunts provide an excellent example of clear scope, clear “why,” defined roles, and matching roles with skills.

The scope of the Buffalo hunt – to get at least enough buffalo so that they could feed the tribe and provide raw materials for clothing, lodging, and other purposes.

The “why” – to not starve.

The people who participated in these hunts stayed focus on the task at hand.  I don’t see much evidence that they were distracted during the hunt … picking medicinal herbs or hunting prairie dogs. It was understood that the project was challenging enough that it would require everyone’s focus and the “why” was something everyone involved could get behind.

Each role played an important part in the success of the hunt.  I don’t know the official name of these roles and I might be missing a key role, but this is what I have been able to put together without embarking on significant academic research.

Each of these roles and when the role would be performed was clearly defined.

This video provides a decent view of what these hunts looked like and how each resource played its role.

Though our projects typically do not have starvation as our driving “why” – business projects are typically started for a reason and will at least start with a scope of activity and people who can perform particular roles within the project.

Our job, in the business environment, is to make sure that the people on the team know what role they play, why that role is important for the success of the project, why the project is important, and have a clear understanding of the desired end result.

It may not be as clear as hunting buffalo to avoid starvation, but we owe it to our teams to provide as much clarity as possible.

Online Resources


Native-American NetRoots

North Dakota Studies – State Historical Society of North Dakota

Chad Folsom – Lesson Plan for Elementary School (George Mason University project)

The Atlantic – Buffalo Killers

Historians Revisit Slaughter on the Plains


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Drumlines: A Case Study in Merging Two Teams


Two teams. Two different cultures. Two spoken languages. One common experience.

The Top Secret Drum Corps of Basel is a stand-alone drum corps in the military tradition (though this group is not affiliated with the Swiss military).

The Blue Devils Percussion Line is part of the larger Blue Devils competitive marching band. If you have ever encountered a Drum Corps International competition flipping channels, you have probably seen them.

They met each other 5 minutes prior to the start of this video.

By the 10 minute mark of this video, they are starting to work together. (You can start the video at minute 9, but the entire beginning – including the Drum Corps battle – is worth watching).

How did these two very different teams start working together so quickly?

  • They had a common vocabulary – drumming
  • They had some commonality of experience – drum line work + precision marching
  • They had a shared vision – work together to create an entertaining segment for the Basel Tattoo.

The final result?

I’ve seen the same dynamic with stage crews. Disparate teams (like a road crew and a local crew) working together to get a show started on-time. Shared experience. Shared vocabulary. Shared mission.

High-functioning engineering teams – same thing.

Give the teams a clear mission. Leverage their shared experience and shared vocabulary. And get out of their way.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Louisville Leopards: Another Model of Teamwork

The Louisville Leopard – Grade 6 graduates.  Please donate and support music education.

The Louisville Leopard, in this video, provide another demonstration of teamwork.

  • Working with, the environment you find yourself in. In this case, they have limited resources: 9 kids, the instruments you see on the stage, and 2 adults.
  • Clear priorities. “We will make an epic version of Bohemian Rhapsody using nothing but xylophones, drums, 11 people (all but 2 of them 6th graders), and a synthesizer.”
  • Strong, respected leadership.  Did you notice the conductor didn’t conduct for the majority of the song?  He gave them the basics, was there when they needed him, and let them do their job.
  • Carefully defined roles. The kids moved around as they needed to fill new roles. I suspect that any of the other kids, if the one kid called in sick, could fill in any other role.
  • Mutual respect between the team members and between the team and the stakeholders. I didn’t see any pushing, shoving, arguments, dirty glances etc.

Yes, this was rehearsed repeatedly. Chances are, the people you work with have rehearsed their roles repeatedly too, across many projects.

Yes, this may be a simplistic example, but how different have your projects been really?

Does it need to be that “complicated?”

FYI – this is the same group that gave Led Zeppelin on xylophones.

Below is the full crew for 2017.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Kilauea as a Case Study for Cross-Functional Teamwork

Video by Tim O’Hara. This park was overtaken by lava on July 12, 2018


I’ve been watching the slow-moving disaster that is occurring in the Puna Region on the Big Island of Hawaii.

As I’ve watched this drama evolve, I’ve been impressed by how everyone involved is trying to work with the environment instead of trying to control it.  I’ve also been impressed by how everyone is working very hard to understand the perspective of the other team members and stakeholders.

A few observations on this event as I watch it from the safety of my home half a world away:

THIS is what collaboration and teamwork should look like.

  • Working with, the environment you find yourself in. What you are dealing with is likely not nearly as life-threatening or destructive, but the complications and the pace of change are likely similar.
  • Clear priorities.
  • Strong, respected leadership.
  • Carefully defined roles.
  • Mutual respect between the team members and between the team and the stakeholders.


The best place to watch what is happening is Big Island Video News on YouTube.

PS: If you watch nothing else – listen to this teleconference with Wendy Stovall discussing the emotional impact of her work as a USGS Volcanologist during the early stages of the eruption.


If you wish to help the people at Puna – Big Island Hawaii, KHON2 has a list of current donation sites. 



Thursday, July 12, 2018

Video: An Example of Experiential Intent

(Transcript – edited to remove some of the verbal tics)

I wanted to talk a little further about this notion of experiential intent.

As I look at this experience and the decision making that went into my trip, you know, I had mentioned before that I did time calculations I could have gone to the airport and flown between DC and Toronto.

There was another component to it as well when I did some decision making and that was …what was the experience I want to have in the process of this trip?

Now, if I were trying to maximize my productivity time or I needed to maximize my productivity time, then the airport and the airline experience … absolutely doable and absolutely possible and a really good option.

You know, I could sit down, I can work on my computer, I know I’ll have Wifi, I know I’ll have cell signal. I know that there’s food around.

Thankfully, for this particular trip, I had a different intent in mind.

One was to relax a little more.

Two was to be able to see more of the country. Right now I’m here in Erie, Pennsylvania. This is a section of the country. I’ve never been to before.

And then the third thing was to change up my inputs a little bit, so instead of staring at a screen or staring at a book, I’m staring at nature and whether there are ideas that I can pull from just sitting here on this lovely beach we’re at right now that is fairly empty because I’m very fortunate enough to be here on a weekday.

So by determining experiential intent, it helps guide decision making during the planning process.

It also helps guide decision making during the actual execution, much like your why.

Hope this helps and talk to you soon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Video: Experience DURING Projects

(Transcript – minus the “so….” )

There’s another consideration when planning projects that I think gets neglected quite a bit and that’s the question of what experience do you want to have during the project?

We get fixated on the destination, what will get fixed, and on why we want to do what we want to do at the end of it all.

I invite you to consider what you want the experience to be like during the process.

Is it an exercise in how fast can we do this thing? Which is great. It’s good to at least make sure that that’s clear now.

Or …is it potentially an exercise in how do we improve our teamwork?

Is it potentially an exercise in what do we want to learn during this process?

Is this an exercise in observation?

Now all of them are valid, but I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re just focused on the end game and not at least considering what the process is going to look like. Hope that helps.

Much of the conversation around the “employee experience” has been around the greater organizational environment.  Deloitte has been doing some great work in this space.

I think there is value in doing the same thing, but smaller – within the individual work teams and projects.

Though we interact with the greater culture, the bulk of the day-to-day is housed within the work teams, projects, and operational activities.

Let me know if you want to chat about this further.



Thursday, July 05, 2018

How to Evaluate Lessons Learned

A while back, I did a series on using historical methodology during project initiation and planning.

The steps I use during analysis can be found in the posts below:

I Love Documents

The Benefits of Historical Methodology

Document Analysis

Synthesis – or Finding Trends

Individual Interviews

Observing Behavior

Using What You Learned in Your Project

During my final analysis, I focus on two areas:

  • People –  Who gets along with whom, the stakeholder RACI matrix (both what the stakeholder says they want AND their behavior when faced with a similar project), and any cultural norms that will impact how the project is run and the chances of project success.
  • Processes – Where does scope creep tend to occur (and from where)? How accurate were the time and cost estimates on similar projects?  Is there a pattern of schedule and cost over-runs at the organization across ALL projects?  Do you see any causation trends – Unrealistic expectations? The same 5 people being put on ALL projects? Lack of organizational focus? Add your favorite to this list.

Most project managers focus on process issues and lessons learned when they do their project planning preparation.

I would argue that cultural analysis, and getting a solid read on the culture around the project will have an even more powerful impact on the success or failure of your project.  I’ve seen too many projects fail because of people-issues, despite planning, careful controls, or even well-run Agile methodologies.

  • Misunderstandings
  • Lack of clarity around roles
  • Lack of clarity around why you are doing this project in the first place
  • Lack of trust
  • Unclear acceptance criteria
  • Political games – at all levels
  • Unclear priorities
  • Overworked individuals pulled in too many directions by management – usually your most competent people
  • Misaligned rewards
  • Disengaged (or actively hostile) leadership
  • Add your favorite people issue here…

Take some time to discern the historical and current state of the people and culture and how people-issues can potentially impact your project’s chances of success.

Despite assurances to the contrary, these issues will pop up during your project whether the individuals involved mean to or not. Old habits die hard.


Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Video: Niagara Falls and Waterfall Projects

You may have noticed that I’ve been traveling over the past few months. I wanted to use these trips as an opportunity to experiment with different content formats and tools.  Let me know what you think. Thanks.

(Transcript – via Temi (not an affiliate link).  Where Wendy learns she says “so” a lot.)

Greetings from Niagara Falls. I wanted to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about waterfall projects and what better way to talk about waterfall projects and the at a waterfall. I’m currently at Niagara Falls State Park in New York, the New York side of the waterfalls. This is one of the most famous waterfalls in America. It’s also the oldest state park. I’m going to go ahead and turn this around so you can get a better look at this.

I wanted to show you a part of Niagara Falls and most people don’t see pictures and that’s the lead-up. I don’t know if this is familiar to any of you, but this area here reminds me an awful lot of the lead up to projects. My background is as a trainer and so oftentimes the lead up to the project to me looks an awful lot like this because it’s at the point where the project manager has realized that they actually have to release this to other human beings and so we wind up doing a little bit of white water rafting.

If you look at that as white water rafting and then you’ve got that slight little bit of breather before again, go over the big falls. I think this is something that we don’t really pay much attention to. Again, in our project planning of where all the checklists and all the last minute stuff and all of the things that suddenly don’t work after we make one little tweak occurs, but there’s still always that big drop at the end that we need to pay attention to. Something to consider. I hope this helps.