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!