Friday, November 25, 2011

Party Like a Rockstar

This week the 2011 Punkin Chunkin World Championships are being televised.    No, those aren’t spelling errors – that’s the actual name of a rather strange competition.  In this competition, a bunch of completely crazy, bizarrely creative, and yet amazingly smart guys and girls get together to see how far they can launch a pumpkin.  Sorry, did I say pumpkin?   For this event, they’re called “punkins.”

As I watched this, one thing struck me… these guys are having an absolute blast!  Even when a pumpkin shatters during the launch (they call it "making pie”), they still keep smiles on their faces and just get to work making things ready for the next round.  As most reality shows go, there is a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage showing the teams actually designing and building their machines.  They are laser-focused on one goal: make a pumpkin fly as far as it possibly can.  However, you also get to see that there is a ton of laughing, smiling, joking and more high-fives than you can count.  Team interviews are filled with comments like “this is what I live for,” “I put 110% into this,” “once I chunked a punkin, I knew I wanted to chunk punkins for rest of my life.” 

Teams have crazy names like: “Bad to the Bone,” “United Flingdom,” “Pumpkin Slayer,” “Sir Chunks a-Lot.”  Chunkin legend “Fat Jimmy” even has his own dance. 

This brings a rockstar engineer question to mind:
When was the last time you had this kind of fun while working on an engineering team? 

Or, let me put this in terms of numbers (since you are engineers after all)…
How many high fives are given in your team meetings?

I'll just cut to the chase here: I think fun brings energy and energy fuels every aspect of the engineering process. 

Now some of the Harvard MBAs out there will say (most likely while looking down their up-turned noses) “this is an example of a social dynamic best described as synergy.”  My response to that is: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Blah, blah, blah.”  I almost hate to use that s-word as it is way overused in business and I don’t want this blog to be classified as “just another guy talking about the same old buzzword.”  Did you realize that in the linked web page they used the S-word four times in the opening paragraph alone?  So let’s not even use the S-word.  Let’s just talk about bringing energy and focus to a team meeting or a team environment. 

Here are some tips:

1. Have a crystal clear goal sentence. 
Yes, I said sentence… singular.  Organizations are crippled when they have too many objectives.  The same is true for your team.


    Make a pumpkin fly as far as it can. 
    Fit a square carbon dioxide filter into a round hole (see
Apollo 13

2. Realize that there is value in each person in the room. 
Several years ago I was in a group of “specialists.”  Each of us had our own not-too-related-specialty and yet the cross-discipline collaboration was amazing.  There were no significant egos at play and the sharing of ideas was tremendous.  I was working in dimensional measurement, yet I learned a mathematical trick from a fluid dynamics specialist that I still incorporate in many of my projects today. 

When I visit companies, I often find that the “lowest” person on the corporate ladder is the one who is the closest to the solution of the problem.  This person actually has his or her hands on the machine or measuring instrument and therefore often has knowledge that others don’t take the time to tap into.

3. Ask dumb questions. 
As a consultant, I’m typically, the “outside guy” in a meeting.  This gives me the opportunity to ask the dumb questions.  In fact this gives me a huge advantage in a meeting and my “dumb questions” often get people talking in a way that they wouldn’t have otherwise.  A few years ago I was teaching a class in a very high tech Silicon Valley research center.  Just about every person I met in the room had a Ph.D. (or more) in some far-out aspect of physics, quantum mechanics or physical chemistry. 
Everybody, but one guy, that is. 

As I was teaching, this one, non-doctor guy would stop me and ask an occasional question.  When he did, an amazing dynamic happened in the room... just about all of these "doctors" seemed to exhale a sigh of relief as if saying “yeah, I wanted to ask that, but I was afraid to.”  After the session I found out that this one “non-doctor” was their vice president.  He was the rockstar in the room because he wasn’t afraid to ask questions.

4. Throw some dumb solutions out there. 
The most creative of teams have something like an “umbrella of grace” kind of policy.  I originally heard of this concept from Bill Hybels at what is now called
Global Leadership Summit and it is a very powerful tool.  This “umbrella of grace” policy means that there are no dumb ideas and grace is extended to anyone who puts forth an idea.  In some departments the “no dumb ideas” thing is often just a cliché.  However, great teams really embrace this concept. Sure there may be some joking along the way, but the bottom line is that all ideas are respected as even the weirdest one may lead to something great.  In fact, you can take advantage of this concept by using this approach the next time you put forth an an idea in a group setting:  “OK I need an umbrella of grace here... what if we try _____?” 

This approach provides for two, powerful dynamics.  First, it makes it clear that you are being vulnerable and this idea may not be totally thought out.  Second, it gives the audience a less threatening presentation of your idea in the form of a question.  This question encourages discussion rather than a “sales pitch” which encourages criticism.  Presenting ideas in their earliest, most unrefined form (rather than waiting for all of the data to come in), allows others in the room to jump in and adopt them as their own.  For a person to put energy into a solution, they need to feel some ownership.  Having more people on board with your ideas, makes for more energy and for a better solution.  And let’s face it: full rock bands can typically make a lot more sound than a solo artist.

5. Now for the big one:  Laugh. 
Yes, laugh.  When you are dealing with the deepest aspects of science like physics and chemistry, laugh.  When your pumpkin "pies" instead of flying 4000 feet, laugh. When you are dealing with the biggest warranty problem that your company has ever faced, laugh.  Laugh your head off.  Laugh until someone wets their pants.  OK, maybe just up to the point where someone is about to wet their pants.

I want to make a very important note here: you don’t have to be “off-color” to be funny.  In fact rude or profane humor can do far more damage than you might ever know.  Your audience may give courtesy laughter, but underneath they are probably distancing themselves from you.

Laughter brings energy.  The TV show M.A.S.H. was a comedy set in a mobile military hospital in South Korea during the Korean war.  For these doctors and nurses, even in the scariest, bloodiest, most gruesome moments – humor is what kept them going.  Some scientists have suggested that laughter actually gets more oxygen to your brain.  

Hold it!  Don’t start Googling for the joke of the day or start digging through your favorite old Dilbert comics.  Humor that is real and energizing doesn’t necessarily come from the Internet; it comes from getting comfortable with those around you.  Humor that is real and energizing comes spontaneously and is best when it comes from a person that is willing to let his guard down.  Here are some quick ideas for making it happen:  Self deprecation (picking on yourself rather than others) is always safe – in fact I encourage it.  Real rockstar engineers don’t need to tell people how good they are – they can take shots at themselves and in doing so they build bridges with others.  Another powerful tool is one that a friend of mine refers to as “teasing up”.  In other words, when teasing others tease them about how super-great they are rather than cutting them down with sarcastic humor.  Sarcastic and insulting humor is the easiest and one of the lowest forms of humor.  Rockstar engineers don't need to stoop to that level.  "Teasing up" is also relatively easy, but do be careful about crossing the line into sarcasm. 

Saying, “Hey Bill, you’re the closest we’ve got to an Einstein here.  What do you think about _____?” is a way of teasing up.  On the other hand saying, “Nice one, Einstein” could be a very sarcastic way of cutting someone down.  One last note: Be sure there is at least a tiny nugget of truth when teasing up and you will become a great energy catalyst in your meetings.

Bringing it all together…

I have friends who are musicians in various bands and they sometimes talk about when it just “works.”  “We had great time last night at practice.  We wanted to stick around all night and just jam.”  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.  Hopefully, some of these tips will help to make those “engineering jam sessions” happen more often.  But when you are stuck in a room and things aren’t clicking, try to shake things up.  If you still don’t get there, take a break or call it off (if possible). 
One of the most common outcomes of a meeting without energy is the dreaded M-word… mediocrity.  And mediocrity is not the stuff of rockstar legends.

So get the team together, have a few laughs, crank up the amps to “11,” go launch a pumpkin and get your team rockin.

Maybe they will even name a dance after you!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Getting the band back together...

Tomorrow will be a life changing day for 6 people.

But let me rewind a bit...

A few weeks ago I was reading Wired Magazine and came across an article about the Mars500 project. (“Are We There Yet” November 2011)

This was a fascinating article and I was surprised that I (being the geek that I am) had not heard about this before!

Basically the Mars500 project is an experiment where 6 guys were locked away in a simulated spaceship for a pretend trip to Mars. The total travel time... 520 days! That’s right, 520 days cooped up in an “experimental isolation facility”.

Their “journey” began in June of 2010. Tomorrow (at 11:00 am Central European Time) they open the hatches and the 6 guys (3 engineers, a surgeon, a physiologist and a astronaut research instructor) return to the real world. The Wired article speculated that they will return “changed in ways that they will forever protect as secret, and also in ways that they may never quite fathom themselves.” 

This got me thinking... these 6 guys were removed from society for more than a year. They had only electronic communications with the "real world" and even they had to deal with a "simulated delay” – the delay being based on the lag associated with where they were in their "simulated journey”.

Let’s pull this into the rockstar engineer context...

These guys have already gone more than a year with no “live” interaction with people. One of the biggest lessons I learned when hitting my first “real job” out of engineering school was this: people are the most important part of the effectiveness equation. The quicker you learn this, the more effective you will be.

In college you can “hole up” in some remote location and pull an all nighter to tackle some task. You can be somewhat self-sufficient. In the real world you are, more often than not, dependent on others in order to be able to deliver. Even if you can create something you are going to be dependent on others to either supply, package, test and/or buy it.  

As a typical engineer you may be better with math and science than you are with people. But to make the best use of your math and science you need to learn to play well with others. The best way to make that happen is to begin to understand the “value” of those around you.

I still remember walking into my first role as a laboratory advisor and the first time I met the technicians. All of them had been with the company longer than I had even been alive. I wasn’t too intimidated, however, since I had just completed my Master’s degree in the exact area of measurement that they were working with.

As I met the guys, I started asking them questions about sampling strategies, Nyquist wavelengths and transmission characteristic curves – all the analytical stuff that I learned about in graduate school. It’s probably no surprise that they couldn’t answer any of my questions.  It's probably no surprise also that they thought I was a complete jerk.  However, I went on to find about 1.0E6 things that I could learn from them . (That’s a million by the way.)

I went on to rebuild a relationship with those guys and thoroughly enjoyed working with them each day.   Each morning I looked forward to keying the combination to the door and they seemed to look forward to my arrival.  It turned out one of them was a phenomenal baker and his particular interest was in creating the greatest chocolate chip cookie ever.  I was more than happy to be his cookie tester... but that's a story for another time

Nonetheless, here a few learnings from that experience:

1.  I learned how things get done.
I learned that they “knew the system” and I didn't. These guys knew the right people and the most efficient way to make things happen. They introduced me to some of their "friends" and it was amazing how effecient things could be.

2.  I learned that my book knowledge meant very little in terms of what really matters.
I knew measurement systems signal processing. However, that meant very little when the main questions are related to “can we ship these parts?” or “why isn’t this part working the way it should?” Fortunately for me, these guys could look at the situation and know exactly what is going on. They would usually start their response with “several years ago we had this same problem...” and they went on to specifically identify the problem and propose best solution.

3.  I learned that a “position” or a “title” mean very little in terms of a person’s “value” .
My current job takes me from dirty manufacturing floors working with those that are the lowest on the salary scales all the way to executive offices of multi-million dollar businesses working with presidents and CEOs. I can honestly say that something can be learned from both places as well as from all those who are somewhere in between.

The Mars 500 guys have been "away" for a long, long time. Hopefully, a great deal can be learned from this experiment as I'm afraid that the team has paid a great price.  These 6 guys were cut off from human interaction for more than a year. Some engineers take this approach in their work lives and do all that they can to get away from people. I admit, there are times when we need to get away to focus. But I’m also the first to say, real effectiveness comes through working with people.

Welcome back guys!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Your Opening Act – The Handshake

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression” (often attributed to Will Rogers... but nobody can be sure where it came from)  

Last week my two football worlds collided.   

Having grown up in Michigan I was genetically engineered to have a soft place in my heart for the Detroit Lions.  However, when moving to Indiana several years ago, I became a fan of the Indianapolis Colts.  This year, things got pretty messed up when the Colts started losing and the Lions started winning – but that’s another story.

Back to the collision...
When I started getting interested in the Colts, their quarterback was Jim Harbaugh – who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers.  This past Sunday he coached the 49ers to a victory over the... (drumroll please) Detroit Lions – who were undefeated going into the game. After the game Harbaugh was pretty pumped up with the win and things got out of hand in the most unlikely of places: the coach’s handshake. 

This got me thinking about the concept of a “handshake”: a seemingly trivial action that typically lasts no more than a second or two.  However, in that second or two an enormous amount of information is conveyed about who you are as a person.

So let’s talk about some ways to rock the handshake.
1.   All hands are worthy of a shake
My first “corporate job” was during a time and in a department where you did the “corporate look” - you know the kind: white shirt, tie, sport coat and all that phony “dress up” stuff.  Once I was with my boss, Bill, in a manufacturing plant.  We were in our white shirts and ties, walking past one of the machines and Bill stopped to talk to one of the workers.  The guy looked like he just crawled out from under the machine.  He was filthy from grease, grime and who knows what else.  Nonetheless, Bill stuck out his hand and introduced himself.  The guy apologized for being dirty and resisted the handshake.  Bill persisted with “I never have a problem shaking a working man’s hand”.  They shook hands and I followed suit.  Guess what:  hands can be washed. 

I’m thankful for Bill’s influence – he taught me (by example) to build bridges with people.   That approach has led me to many successes as an engineer and a consultant.

2.   Be the “starter”
Be the one who extends the hand – no matter the audience.  This shows leadership and confidence.  Start anticipating a handshake before even walking in the room.  Get your hands out of your pockets.  Wipe them off if you’ve got sweaty palms... and stick it out there!  It only takes a second, but in that second, you’ve conveyed a big message.

3.   Be the “ender”
A handshake that goes too long is just plain creepy.  About 1-2 seconds is long enough in most settings.  Check out this one at about the 1:15 point:  In Germany it is customary to shake hand with everyone when entering a room.  These guys have it down to a science – a firm grab, one shake, and then move on to the next person.  A typical “American” hand shake is between 1-2 “pumps”.
OK, we’re engineers, we need the physics:

The “lock”
This is probably the most important part of the handshake.  If you don’t get all the way “in”, you will be in the position of having your fingers grabbed, much like a princess having her hand held to be kissed.  That is definitely not the position for a rockstar to be in.  Here’s a tip: you can avoid being the “princess” if you can get into the “thumb lock” position. 
Sometimes you have to go in fast if the other person is a “grabber”.  But if you obey rule #2 above, you’ll be ahead of the game.  Prior to the squeeze, get your thumb-to-forefinger webs into contact.  This tip can provide a huge help for women or people who are shaking a hand that’s much bigger than your own.  Remember, this is a “hand” shake, not a “finger” shake.

The “pressure”
A friend of mine is a professor and he actually teaches international students how to shake hands per the “American style” and most if it has to do with “pressure”.  I still vividly remember a job interview where a high ranking executive actually made my knuckles crack.  This guy wasn’t big, but he had a serious grip.  A firm grip is good builds bridges.  A knuckle cracker builds walls between people.  A wussy handshake (like a dead fish) is worse than no handshake at all. 

So how much is right?  That is a great question.  The best I can say is “firm”.  As a starting point, pick up a gallon of milk.  That requires a “firm” grip.   A handshake is a sort of “dance” – you have to work with you partner.  Firm will feel different in different contexts.  The good news is that you body has an amazing control system it can sense and react – but you have to be in tune.  

The “eyes” have it
The last element of the handshake actually has nothing to do with the hands at all.  It’s your eyes.  I’m basically a shy person when it comes to eye contact and I have to consciously work on my eyes when speaking with others.  One trick I’ve learned to try to notice the color of the person’s eyes while shaking their hand.  This gives my eyes a task to perform and helps me to focus on something. 
People know when you are paying attention to them and one of the best ways that they know this is from your eyes.  Another trick that helps connect is to somehow say their name during the handshake.  “It’s nice to meet you, Chad.”  “It’s good to see you again, Kathy?”  “Good morning, Joe.”

So get out there and practice...
Rockstars put in their time rehearsing and improving.  The best way to perfect your craft is to practice your craft.  So don’t be afraid, shake some hands.  You may even be able to shake up some new confidence or even a new image for yourself!  And if you ever find yourself on an NFL football field after beating the Detroit Lions, perhaps you’ll do better than Jim did.

Rock on.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Tribute to a Rockstar Engineer Legend – Steve Jobs

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs - BusinessWeek interview, May 1998

Yesterday, Steve Jobs lost his battle with cancer and the engineering world has lost a living icon. 

As I look at the products, presentations and personality of Steve (pretending that we are on a first name basis), I see one theme shining through:   

That single word holds a great deal of insight for rockstar engineers.  Let’s look at just few areas... and I’ll try to keep it simple.
1.       Keep designs simple: Avoid “Feature/Scope Creep”
It is said that when the original iPod was being designed Steve kept returning the prototypes to the designers saying that it had “too many buttons”.  This may have frustrated the engineers, but it ultimately led to one of the most innovative interfaces of its time: the iconic iPod “wheel” control pad.  (See: iCon - Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business ) When designing, we need to realize that a “really cool addition” to us, may be perceived as “unnecessary clutter” or “added confusion” to our audience.  I really like our toaster - it turns bread into toast.  That's all it does and that's all it needs to do.  Simple.

2.       Keep presentations simple: Avoid “Slides as Documents”
A Steve Jobs presentation has been referred to as a “rockshow”.  This may be due in part to the hype of the passionate Apple fans, but I think it is also due to the way that it is presented.  Check out the slides at the iPhone launch:  If you are in an audience, who’s slides would you rather look at?  Yours or Steve’s?  I know we don’t have a team of graphic designers working our presentations.  But we can learn an important lesson: slides are good for pictures and graphs – not sentences.  Too many people design their presentation slides as if the slides are going to be used as documentation for future use.  Slides aren’t documentation.  Slides are digital wallpaper. 

3.       Keep presentations simple: Avoid “Utilizing Enormously Oversized Verbiage Selections” 
        (aka: Avoid “Using Big Words”)

A Steve Jobs presentation has been referred to as a “rockshow”.  This may be due in part to the hype of the passionate Apple fans, but I think it is also due to the way that it is presented.  (How many of you just looked up at #2 wondering if I made a copy-paste error?)  I know, it sounds like I’m repeating myself... I am.  A Jobs presentation is a case study in verbal communication.  Steve uses words that anybody can understand and he’s not afraid to show excitement.  How many times have you used the word "cool" or "awesome" in a presentation?  Big words don’t make you look smarter.  They make you harder to understand and the build a barrier between you and your audience.  Keep your language simple.   Check this out: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience

4.       Keep your look simple: Avoid falling into the “Nerd Trap”
Let’s face it.  Most engineers are not the most fashion-minded people in the world.  Some actually seem to be proud of the fact that they are not “slaves to fashion”.  However, your “look” is part of your “brand”.  A person that looks bad and smells bad is a person that willfully builds in barriers in terms of effectiveness.   Does this mean that we all need to run to Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive and spend millions on a wardrobe?  (OK, you are engineers: I’ll give you some help... Fifth Avenue is in New York, Rodeo Drive is in Beverly Hills)  Back to the question, the answer is “No”.  Steve Jobs totally redefined the concept of a CEO’s “look” – and he did it by keeping things simple.  Black shirt.  Blue jeans.  Classic.  Timeless.  Simple. 

Here's a simple conclusion:
Steve Jobs will be remembered for product legacies: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.  I think he should be best remembered for keeping things "iSimple".

Rock on.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rockin' the House

Presenting the “Big Project” to the “Big Guys”...

Charlie was a bit nervous heading into his project review.  He’s spent the last 9 months working on the X17 warranty problem.  (How’s that for a generic-sounding project?)
The X17 was pretty much falling apart as soon as the customer took it out of the box.  What? Still no clue what an X17 is?  That’s ok, it’s totally made up.  There is no such thing. I’m just using it as an example to tell a fictitious story.  A story that repeats itself all too frequently…

Charlie sat nervously at the head of the table in the conference room as the chief engineers and other department giants finally arrived along with a few other engineers from the project.  (The first “big guy” arrived 2 minutes early, but the other two were 5 and 10 minutes late respectively).  He only had an hour and these guys were already cutting into his time!  Charlie didn’t make eye contact as he felt these guys were out of his league.  Fortunately for him, there was WiFi available in the room and so he buried himself in his email – though he really couldn’t concentrate on anything on the screen.  But at least he didn’t have to try to interact with those guys.

Finally, everybody was there and Charlie stood and pulled up the first of the 41 slides that he’d been working on for the last three weeks.  The slide read “X17 Warranty Issues and Strengthening Improvements to Case Moldings”.  Charlie began by saying “OK.  So today I’m going to talk about X17 Warranty Issues and Strengthening Improvements to Case Moldings”.

It went downhill from there.

He said "I have a lot of material to cover so I'll take questions at the end." Charlie’s first 8 slides (and 11 minutes of talking) presented the costs associated with the warranty returns as well as a geographic breakdown of where the issues occurred.  He laid out a pareto indicating which suppliers are associated with more failures than others.  Charlie’s next 29 slides (and 33 minutes of presentation) dealt with details of 7 design options that were considered and discarded.  Some of them were considered only on paper and never built.  Some of them looked like they may have only been considered on the back of a napkin at McDonalds.  Others couldn’t be built and a few others were built, but failed the testing.  Charlie shared spreadsheets full of data indicating the serial numbers of failed tests, the cost data for each failed design as well as statistical analyses of the measured results.  He went into great detail as he discussed the mathematical significance of one factorial study that he performed.  He even used all the right terms like “elastic modulus”, “correlated input factors” and “non-Gaussian statistical behavior”.

Unfortunately, after all of this, Charlie finally presented his solution to the problem.  It was actually a very clever design that wasn’t just stronger, but also saved material and manufacturing costs.  Too bad for Charlie, though.  By then is audience was in some far, far away place as they too had discovered that the room had WiFi and they were totally tuned out.  Others had to leave early in order to get to their next meeting - having never actually seen his really good slides of the proposed solution.
OK, back to the real world…  Here’s an exercise for you.  Pick out everything that was wrong about this story.  Think of it as one of those childhood picture puzzles: find 10 things wrong with this picture.  Here’s a hint – the chief engineers checking their email is not one of them.  At the end of this article I’ll list the ones that I found.  (OK.  It was easy for me to find all 10 since I wrote it.)
Presenting like a Rock Star - Principle #1:  First-First Impressions
First impressions mean everything.  In a meeting you actually get two chances to make a first impression.  Rock stars nail them both.  The first chance to make an impression is when people come into a room.  When the Chief Engineer enters don’t run and hide behind your laptop screen.  As the expression goes: “he puts his pants on one leg at a time” – or maybe more appropriately “he fills his pocket protector one pen at a time”.  In any case, he’s a human being, just like you.  Treat him as such. 
Here’s a little-known social dynamic:  He’s walked into your conference room for your meeting.  Think of it as your living room and you are in the position of “host” – you should be the one to welcome him!
Here are some things to consider when the big guy walks in the room.
1.       You may know him (since he’s “famous” in the department), but there is a very good chance that he may not know you. 
Face it.  You may be a little guy in a big organization.  He’s a busy guy and many not remember you.  He knows that some “Charlie” is presenting some “project” in room 437D. Be a rockstar and take the initiative.  If there is any doubt that he may not know you, step up and introduce yourself.  Here’s a simple way to get there: Make sure that your opening slide has the project title and your name on it.  (It should be showing on the screen as people arrive.)  Then greet him with “Hello (insert chief engineer’s name here), thanks for coming to my presentation today”.  What’s cool about this approach is that you don’t have to go through the awkwardness of recollection.  By all means NEVER, NEVER, NEVER go to a superior with a line like “Hi Jim, remember me?”  Do not EVER put him in a position whereby his credibility or confidence can be damaged.
2.       You’re catching him while he’s “fresh”.  A rockstar will find a way to get him talking.  You’ll have your time to talk later.
If you can show interest in your audience, there is a better chance that they will show interest in you when you need it.  Don’t just think of meeting prep as preparing slides and data.  You need to also think of the “opportunity” that the meeting presents and you need to prepare for the “social” aspect as well.  You are going to be in a room with people that can change your career path.  Plus they are coming into a new room for a new meeting.  This is the prime time to connect.  What are they interested in?  Find out.  What are they working on?  Find out.  Here are some clues for conversation starters.  Can’t choose?  The best ones are ones that you are mutually connected to. 
Have you seen them around town?  A restaurant? An event?
               Hey I saw you at the _____ last week.
Do they wear anything indicative of a college or a sports team? 
                Did you catch the ____ game last week?  How did the ____ do last weekend?
What was the last thing that they communicated to the department?
                How is the ____ program going?
What is the big initiative that the company or department is working on?
                How is the ____ launch going?
Has he been on a trip?
                How was your trip to _____?  What's it like there?
A good friend of mine has been very successful in several management positions.  He has always made it a priority to get to know some basic things about each of him employees.  He remembers their name, wife’s name (if applicable) and at least one other thing about the person (where they live, etc.).  This an amazing tool for him when it comes to conversation.  What’s even more amazing is that, at times, he’s been able to achieve this with more than 200 people reporting to him.  You may not be able to go this far, but having a few notes about your audience will go miles in terms of your ability to rock the room in the coming presentation.
First-First Impression Hint:
When you are working on your presentation and making your notes, also spend some time working on your audience and making some notes about them.
First-First Impression Resources:
Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience by Stephanie Palmer.  It’s far from an engineering book, but she really does a great job addressing the importance of the social aspects of meetings.  I highly recommend it.
Presenting like a Rock Star - Principle #2:  Making a Second-First Impression
I enjoy the topic of “teaching” and am interested in “what makes a good teacher”.  Several years ago I heard a great teacher talk about how he gets copies of lessons taught by other teachers.  These teachers send them to him – hoping that he will send constructive feedback.  One thing that this teacher said was “I can tell a good teacher in the first 4 minutes”.  I think that the “4 minute” window is a bit too generous today.  It is way too easy to get on WiFi or check your smartphone in today’s conference rooms.
The opening of your presentation is a second chance to make a first impression.
Here’s a simple principle.  To make the best opening – start with what matters… and that’s not necessarily what matters to you.  Start with what matters to the audience!
In the above example, does Charlie really think that the big guys can’t read?  Then why did he read his opening slide to them?  Stupid move on his part.
How about this new and improved opening:
“It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems and I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.  I’m pretty excited today as I think I have a solution that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture. Let’s check it out…”
This opening totally changes the tone and flow of the meeting!  In fact these three sentences cover everything that needs to be said or will be said in the hour to come.  In fact, the audience can get up and leave early (as they often do) and they will still have gotten “the main point”.
Here’s what a great opening does:
1.       “It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems“
It establishes “where we are”.  There is no point in going into history if everybody knows it.  In fact, reviewing history is a painful waste of time.  You may have 8 slides on the warranty history, but please don’t force them on the audience unless they ask for it.
2.       “I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.”
Let them know where you are coming from and your role.  Audience members need to know who you are and why you are presenting this.  Be able to answer their question of “why am I taking my time to listen to this guy?”  You definitely don’t want to go too far here and you don’t want to forget mentioning your team members at some point.  But, this is your chance to establish “who you are relative to the project”.
3.       “I’m pretty excited today…”
Listen very closely to these next 6 words… IT IS OK TO BE EXCITED.  Got it?  Now repeat after me: “IT IS OK TO BE EXCITED.”  Good.  Now don’t forget it.  Here’s the deal.  You’re an engineer.  Chances are good that your audience in this setting is made up of engineer-types.  These are people that are genetically designed such that they get excited about cool solutions to technical problems.  So why not show some excitement?  It will go miles toward building a positive dynamic in the room.  Here’s an absolute must-read book:  The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.  Get it.  Read it.  Live it.
4.       “…as I think I have a solution that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture”
You know where you want to take the meeting.  Tease it!  Have you ever watched a show where they set up something incredibly interesting only to cut to a commercial?  If you haven’t experienced this, you need more than this blog to help you.  This concept is called “teasing”.  You give away just a little information to whet the appetite of your audience.  This is way to keep an audience from checking their email and/or smartphones.  One caution: overuse of teasers will absolutely destroy your audience.  Use this craftily and you will be a rockstar.  Overuse this approach and your jerk-icty (see the last posting) ratings will increase significantly.
5.       “Let’s check it out…
Here’s a huge, important point: dive into the solution!  Your audience doesn’t care that much about all of the work that you’ve done.  They care about solving the problem.  Thomas Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  However, here’s a clue for you.  You’re not Thomas Edison and even if you were, this isn’t the time to talk about all of the things that didn’t work.  This is the time to sell your solution – which will ultimately “sell” you and raise your rockstar quotient.  You’ve still got your 29 slides (I never said to delete them) in case someone asks questions about various options that may be worth considering.  I know that you want to show that you worked hard.  Unfortunately for you, your management doesn't care that much about how hard your worked.  They care about results.
That’s a killer opening… but what about slides?  Here’s a recommendation: slides are great for pictures and picture-like content (e.g. graphs).  They are lousy for text.  If you put text on a slide people must use their eyes to process a written words while using their ears to process your spoken words.  Not a good combination.
So try this opening slide scheme:
(Slide) Photo of a broken part
“It’s no secret that the X17 has been causing us serious problems and I’ve been working hard on this for the past several months.  I’m pretty excited today as I think I have a solution…”
(Slide) Photo of the new part
“…that not only is strong enough but uses less material and is also less costly to manufacture. Let’s check it out…”
After the opening… get on with selling the solution.  Maintain the energy and don’t waste time on things that don’t matter.  Wait!  Did you catch that word in the first sentence?  To some people “selling” is a bad thing.  But that is exactly what we as engineers need to do in this setting.  We have a product (our solution.) We have buyers (those that are evaluating the solution.) And we need to “sell” it.  Present your ideas as such!
You’re probably thinking: “But Mark!  I’ve got an hour and I’ve got all these slides.  I want to show them how good and thorough of an engineer that I am.”
Here’s what I have to say about that:  To be a rockstar engineer you need to realize chief engineers want to get one thing from this setting – and it’s a big multi-syllable word: trustworthiness.  OK let’s just simplify it to: TRUST.  Your job in this meeting is to help them grow to trust you and trust your solution.
Now to really mess with your head…
Instead of preparing 60 minutes of presentation as Charlie did above.  How about using the killer opening, then spending 15 minutes presenting the solution – allowing for interruptions and questions as you go?  By the way, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not ever say: “I’ll take questions at the end.”  This is a complete show stopper for people who are sequential learners like I am.  If I have a question, I need an answer before I can move on.  If I can’t get an answer to a question I will tune out fast.
After your 15 minutes (which will hopefully stretch to 30 since your audience is warmed up and conversational) you will not have about 20 minutes in which you can now show leadership in the room and circle back with a phrase like: “I do have field data regarding warranty costs and locations if anybody would like to see it”.  Or “I do have the test data for the other possible solutions” if you are interested.
Now here’s one that will totally kill you…
End early.  Yeah, that’s right I said it.  “End early”.  Yeah, I know that this may be your only chance to “show off” in front of these guys and I know that you don’t want to waste a minute of it.  But do it.  End early.  If you sense that you are losing your room, end early.  If you see the clock approaching the end time, end early.  Don’t wait for the audience – you should maintain your position of control and you should be the one that ends the meeting.  Don’t let the meeting dissolve away with people drifting out as meetings often do.  You can be a rockstar and maintain your role as host – and you can be the one to end the meeting.  Try this: “I appreciate your time and discussion today.  So with that we will wrap things up.  If any of you would like to stick around.  I’d be happy to talk more.”  That’s the stuff of rockstar-engineer legends.
Second-First Impression Hint:
When you are presenting to those that are over you – you should realize that they are interested in one thing: TRUST.  Don’t waste their time on things that they already know or things that don’t solve the problem.
Second-First Impression Resources:
The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo.  Some really good inspiration regarding “not holding back your excitement” and some great tips on slides and “flow”.
The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint by Edward Tufte.  It’s just a few pages, but incredibly powerful stuff.  It is worth reading just for the discussion of space shuttle disaster and the way that the information surrounding this event was presented.
Finally, here's the list of everything that Charlie did wrong (Maybe you can come up with some of your own too!).
1. He buried himself in his laptop before the meeting.  His laptop should be displaying the title slide of his presentation (with his name on it.)
2. Didn't "work the crowd" prior to the meeting.  This is a huge opportunity that was lost.
3. He read his slide to the audience.  Don't do this.  Your audience can read.  Don't treat them like they can't.
4. He told the audience that he would take questions at the end.  This is basically saying "shut up until I'm done.  I don't want to hear from you."
5. He spent too much time on the problem.  Trust me.  Management knows the problems.  In fact they probably know more about the problems than you do.  Don't waste their time telling them things that they already know.  Worse yet, don't waste their time telling them things that they may know more about than you do.
6. He spent way too much time talking about alternatives.  Alternatives can go in an appendix of a report.  Alternatives can be presented if someone in the audience asks for them.  You can say "I have looked at several alternatives and am willing to discuss them, but I want to be respectful of your time."
7. He spent way too little time on his solution.  This should have been the focus and it should have been up front.
8. He used big, fancy words that his audience didn't need.  When I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation I was constantly being told to use bigger words.  When I arrived in industry, I was told that I tended to "talk over people's heads".  Since I've always been interested in effective communication, this really hit me hard.  Think about it this way: two or three small words are far more effective than one big important word.  Two or three small sentences are far more effective than one big, long sentence.  Your audience is working hard to digest and understand your solution. Don't make it harder on them by forcing them to translate words that they don't normally use.  This does not impress them.
9. Charlie lost the room.  Great presenters treat presentations as a two-way conversation.  They pay attention to body language and the "interest" of the room and they do everything that they can to re-engage people that may be slipping away.
10. Some of his audience missed the most important material.  By "saving the best for last", Charlie effectively "hid" his best material from some of the audience.

So let's get plugged in,
...turn on the hazer,
...flip open the dry ice,
...crank up the spotlights...
...and totally rock your next project presentation!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Let's get ready to rock...

Person 1.     Wow, Frank sure is a jerk.
Person 2      Well, he is an engineer after all.

Person 1       Oh, that explains it.

Throughout my life as an engineer I’ve heard that kind of exchange numerous times.  In fact, having heard that kind of “he’s an engineer” exchange three different times in the past week I’ve decided it’s time to spill my guts on the topic.
Some people wear the title “Engineer” with great pride; and rightfully so – they’ve worked hard to earn that title.  Some have gone through many years of study in colleges and universities, other have done hard time in the school of hard knocks.  All are part of an elite group that society looks to as the ones who “make things happen”.  If you hold the title “engineer” I applaud you for your achievements and am excitedly waiting and watching to see your contributions to society.

Unfortunately, “Engineer” has a dark side.  To some, holding the title “engineer” seems to somehow give them the right to be a complete...   well, let's keep this to a PG-13 rating and say "jerk". 
So take this “am I a jerk of an engineer” quiz:
Rate the following statements based on the scale:

0 = totally disagree
1 = rarely
2 = sometimes
3 = I’m 50-50 on this
4 = most of the time
5 = totally agree

1.       I think that the world is full of idiots.

2.       The world would be a better place if everybody thought as I do.

3.       It doesn’t matter how I look or smell

4.       I don’t have to get input from those below me.

5.       I’m not going to dumb it down for you.  If you can’t understand, it’s your problem.

6.       Management is all stupid.

7.       I don’t care what the customer says.

8.       They’re late.  Even if they are important, I’m going to start without them.

9.       I’m really good at, and enjoy, finding flaws in other people’s work

10.   This test is a waste of time and none of these questions matter.

OK, I’m not going to do the “add up your scores” thing.  You are engineers and you should be able to take an average (especially since there are 10 questions).  So for scoring let’s just say if your average is anything over a 1.25, you need to stop and consider “are you really as effective as you can be?”.  If you are above the 2.0 level, you really need to assess where you are in terms of being a full-out, pain-in-the-butt-to-be-around jerk-o-saurus.

Let me say that again, if you rank high in jerk-icity, chances are you are not going to be effective as an engineer.  And here’s a hint – engineering is about “effectiveness”. 

I’m in the field of metrology – the science of measurement.  Thus to me, the concept of measurement is very important.  As a good engineer you rely on measurement.  Measurement provides data and data is stuff of decision making.  You may have seen the sign:

In God we Trust.  All others must present data.
So how do we measure an engineer?  What are the attributes that matter most?  In 17xx, Lord Kelvin said that which we measure, we can control.  So what attributes would you measure in an engineer and hope to control or improve upon?

Here are some thoughts:

Intelligence.  This is a great attribute for an engineer.  It’s pretty much a prerequisite for being an engineer.  But, intelligence alone doesn’t get stuff done.  In fact an over abundance of intelligence may come along with a bit of arrogance.

Creativity. This is a terrific thing and can help you get “out of the box” when solving problems and designing the next biggest thing.  But artists are creative (don’t get me wrong here – I love the arts), but most artists don’t make good engineers.

An analytical mind.  This is a tool that must be in every engineer’s tool box – the ability to look at things from different angles and perceive different realities and outcomes.  Unfortunately, too much of this can lead to the dreaded “analysis paralysis” and once again nothing gets done.

Thoroughness. This is another admirable trait.  By being thorough a good engineer ensuring that his or her products and projects will be complete, reliable, functional and that no detail will be missed.  Again we find the “too much of a good thing” syndrome when we look at the attribute of thoroughness.  Engineering is often about managing risk to find an optimal solution not an ideal solution.  Ideal solutions don’t generally exist.  Thus an over emphasis on thoroughness could ultimately cripple a project.

I would argue the each of the above traits are important, however they are all subservient to the greater measure of an engineer:

Every attribute described above can ultimately suffer from the “too much of a good thing” syndrome.  However, effectiveness cannot suffer in this way.  The more effective we are, the better we ultimately are.

While being a jerk, you can attain some level of effectiveness.  However, if you want to see exponential effectiveness results and truly be a rockstar engineer, you need to start thinking outside the box in terms of several areas.  These areas are not related to chemical reactions, physical properties or mathematics.  They are related to human dynamics – something that isn’t generally taught in engineering schools.

Being a jerk means taking the easy way out.  Ignoring people takes less effort than engaging with them.  But just like Newton said – actions equal reactions.  If you invest in people there will, most likely be a reaction.  If you invest in breaking down relational barriers, your effectiveness can be improved through better relationships.  If you invest in your image, your outside perceptions can improve.

I want to challenge you to consider some non-engineering principles in the upcoming posts.  These are principles that can boost your “street cred” and ultimately help you skyrocket into engineering rockstardom.  These aren’t rocket science, but they do make scientific sense.
So let’s get ready to rock…