Unplugging so your team can as well

 

Photo by Cindy Leavitt – Lake Michigan at sunset near Grand Haven

This last holiday weekend was the first time in months that I unplugged from work and relaxed. I really needed it and felt that my team needed the downtime as well. I even took Friday afternoon off to get a head start.  

Just before I signed off on Friday, I got what seemed like an urgent email, which I should have planned on because it so consistently happens on Friday afternoons. Instead of forwarding the message to my team, I asked when a response was needed. When the answer was the day after the holiday, I arranged with the requestor and my boss to communicate the request to the team after the holiday.

Then I threw myself into the weekend, like I normally throw myself into work. I read three books, cleaned the deck, baked cookies, hiked with the family and listened to albums picked by family members. 

I have to explain about the albums. In an effort to connect with my family through this pandemic, we have started a quarantine family night. We meet every other week over Zoom to talk about a shared experience. We decide on what the shared experience will be and have two weeks to complete whatever we decide to do before we meet to talk about it.  So far, we have read a book, watched a series of movies and listened to albums that each family member selected. The music albums were the most fun. The variety was vast, ranging from rap to country to classical. Yesterday, we met to talk about the albums. Each person chose their favorite song from their selected album and explained why they loved it so much. After we listened to the favorite song, everyone talked about their reaction to the album. We had great discussions and all did not like all of the music but were able to disagree, have a ton of fun, and create shared experiences.

The long weekend gave me a chance to recharge and deeply connect with my family. I am grateful that I got it and that my boss supported me taking the time. Because of that, I was able to pass on that gift to my team.

My question for you to think about this week is: How good are you at unplugging so that your team can as well?  

Communicating when leaders make poor decisions

As a cost cutting measure, I made the decision to eliminate Slack. It seemed like Microsoft Teams had the same functionality and I was hearing from several people that we had too many tools and needed to simplify. After making the decision, there was a groundswell of concern from the teams that were using Slack. 

After hearing the concern, I turned to my culture committee. This is a group of thought leaders from across the organization that I have been meeting with weekly. They have been helping to shape our culture and I know them very well and trust them explicitly. Every single one of the committee members expressed why they thought my decision was a poor one and how the tool was helping coordination and communication across teams. Based on that discussion, I reversed my decision.  

After talking about my decision and subsequent reversal at our all staff meeting, I got the following email from Michele Schinzel, which I am sharing with permission.

===========================

Hi Cindy, 

First off, thanks for hosting the All Staff meetings, which allow us to talk together, and voice as much (or little) as we wish. 

Hearing that there were discussions to do away with Slack, I wanted to give another cheer of support for the product.  So, for what it’s worth, I thought I’d share my Slack story with you. 

I joined Slack on January 10, 2019.  Immediately, I received a silly animated gif from someone, welcoming me.  Rolling my eyes I thought, “Just what I don’t need.  A Facebook for work!”  Many months later….  I still felt that way.  I did not see the benefit, and it seemed like another thing to have to remember to keep up with. 

Time rolled on.  The channels became organized, and more people joined.  My team made a group to use for communication.  I checked in to see what was new on the “Random” channel.   Then I found myself wanting to see a new article, or a picture, or a quiz.  Gradually, other benefits became evident.  Such as….

    • Some teams built workflows into their channels.  These Slack workflows allow for quick requests of a team, with clear communication throughout.  The Portal team, for example, has a short form we can fill out when we need them to move code from DEV to the PRE portal.  I can see every request by anyone.  Fantastic!
    • Throughout the COVID experience, I’ve been reading the Helpdesk Slack channel.  They post questions and solutions quite regularly.  There are useful stats and notifications when calls are higher than usual on a certain service.  Impressive.   
    • Recently, when a certain database went down, several groups chimed in on the DBA Slack channel to confirm the finding.  It was addressed.  Now that we’ve had the correspondence, the history is all searchable.   A quick search showed a similar conversation just one week prior.  Hmmm.
    • I’m learning a little about teammates that I never had a reason to meet. 

MS Teams has its use.  I’m a member of 20 teams in Teams, and many of those Teams contain sub-channels.  When I want to work on a project, I look at Teams.  I don’t usually seek out updates, and I tend to only post information following a meeting.  The good part is, it’s all in one place, and we can tag one another with tasks. 

In the end, my view is that Slack stands out as a collaborative communication tool, and Teams is a project organizer.  Could our favorite Slacky features be fit into Teams?  Maybe. 

Slack seemed like a ‘Facebook for Work’, but silly gifs aside, it keeps us connected in a fun interactive way that we are naturally drawn to.  I WAS a doubter of Slack at first, but now I love it.   I wouldn’t have written this otherwise. 

Thanks.  

-Michele

Michele Schinzel | Assistant Director Systems | Banner Document Management | Temple University
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When I received Michele’s email, it confirmed to me that the reversal of the decision was the right thing to do. However, it made me pause to reflect on why I didn’t reach out for feedback before making the original decision. There were several reasons why I didn’t. 

    • The decision was made in a budgeting meeting with the upper management team under extreme pressure to cut our budget. 
    • I had gotten feedback at our all staff meeting that we had too many communication tools and should reduce the number. 
    • I had a bias against Slack because the couple of times I attempted to use it, I found little value and had stopped using it.

The bottom line is that as a leader, every decision you make is with partial information. Recognizing that and being open to adjusting decisions when you get more information helps you avoid analysis paralysis on one end of the spectrum and obstinate defense of decisions on the other end.

I am very grateful when individual team members openly share their experiences and concerns with me. Receiving this kind of feedback as a leader is like gold. 

A couple of questions to ponder this week:
Is there information that your leaders need from you that could help them make or alter their decisions? 

As a leader, how do you react when people give you this kind of feedback?

Establishing New Rituals

Image credit: https://tinycards.duolingo.com/decks/QDWqXrB8/daily-routines

 

One of the reasons that we have habits and rituals is because they are efficient and save energy. COVID disrupted most of our routines and reestablishing new habits takes active thinking and effort. Luckily, we humans are quite resilient and adaptive, and we quickly establish new routines and rituals. We have now been working remotely for seven weeks which is enough time for us to feel more comfortable with the new normal. At the end of last week, we met as an IT team to examine our new rituals and explore what we would like to continue.  

Here is a list of the top six things the group came up with:

Take mental/physical breaks during the day.  Whether it is walking, exercising or just taking a break or lunch. This was identified by over half of the group as the most important ritual they would like to continue. We have tried to establish a rule for 25 or 50 minute meetings to insert time to stand up between Zoom meetings. Many people are taking individual or family walks a couple of times each day.

Meet virtually instead of in person. We have found that holding virtual meetings in some cases is more productive than face-to-face meetings. Surprisingly, this is especially true of really large meetings, like our all staff meeting with more than 200 people that we have been holding via Zoom. The casual and interactive nature of the gathering and online break-out rooms provide more meaningful connections. Not having to travel also means that more people are able to attend.

Have daily stand-ups with your team. This Agile and DevOps practice was already being done in several groups, but it was quickly adopted by many as the most efficient way to coordinate and feel connected with the team. Our leadership daily stand-up is scheduled for 15 minutes every day and I find the connection and coordination at the beginning of the day is invaluable.

Continue to work remotely some of the time. Many jobs that we previously thought of as requiring us to be on campus can be done very effectively from off campus. Our help desk, desktop support and classroom support teams are an example. We have integrated all of these teams into the virtual workflow and are able to resolve user issues more quickly. Last week, our customer satisfaction score was a perfect 100%, up from the average of around 95% pre-COVID. This was even more remarkable because students were in the middle of final projects and exams.

Take time for family and friends. The line between professional and personal life has disappeared in this COVID world. We are regularly seeing children, spouses and pets pop into our virtual meetings. The downside of this is that we can never get away from work. Setting boundaries around work and prioritizing family and friend time was very important to our team.

Insert fun into work. Virtual happy hours, gaming sessions, dance parties or just adding humor into our work life has helped our teams and made everything better. I have a colleague that sends me a COVID Cartoon of the Day. It helps to start your work day with a solid belly laugh.

Although we are apart, we are united in a global experience that is allowing us to rethink how we did things in the past. What rituals have you and your teams established that are helping you get through this pandemic?

Instilling Hope for Deep Change

I have been asked to co-lead the strategic planning for the university. This is both exciting and daunting. In trying to get clarity about the assignment, I had my first one-on-one conversation with Temple’s Chairman of the Board, Mitch Morgan. I came away from the conversation filled with hope. I have been playing back the conversation in my mind trying to understand what he did that left me with such positive feelings.

The first thing he did was introduce himself. He described his journey sharing personal details that clearly communicated his values and management philosophy. He talked about how much of his success was being a great people-picker.

Next, he invited me to share my personal journey and deeply listened to my answer asking questions in a caring way that made me feel comfortable.

He emphasized how great he thought Temple was and also why we needed to change. He articulated the urgency for a clear strategy for the university because of the increasingly competitive educational landscape that has been accelerated by the Covid pandemic.  

He honored every person he talked about. His first sentence about every person was that he loved them and I believed that he did. 

He indicated what he was not good at and what he needed help doing.

He clearly articulated the type of leadership he needed to make the change he was seeking at the university. Then he asked me if I would be willing to help and told me why he picked me for the assignment.  

After I said yes, we talked candidly about the challenges and the ways that he would support me as I did the assignment.

In a nutshell, he demonstrated the positive leadership traits that I have been trying to develop for many years and validated my decision to come to Temple. 

My challenge for you this week is to examine how you are interacting with others, especially when you are trying to activate deep change. 

Practice Pays Off in COVID Crisis

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/covid-19-work-from-home-quarantine-4938932/

As Temple University has transitioned to being fully online, the IT team has responded to the challenge with innovation, collaboration and grace. As the leader of the team, I have been awed and very proud. And it is not just the IT team that has risen to the occasion. The entire Temple community has come together.

Within days, our IT team significantly expanded our remote secure access services to our systems and specialized software. We gathered and distributed laptops to students, faculty, and staff who didn’t have their own equipment to move to the online world as we closed the physical campus. We partnered with colleagues across campus and our vendors to rapidly provide training to the campus. We shifted to a virtual help desk over a weekend without any interruption in service to the campus. We have done all of this while improving our satisfaction rate as measured by a post-service survey to over 97%.

Why were we able to make this transition in such a smooth way?

The answer is clear from the feedback that I have been given from the team and across campus. We had already moved our primary learning platforms to modern cloud solutions that made the transition much easier. And we have been practicing for this kind of emergency for years as we have formed a creative and collaborative culture in ITS. 

Specifically, we already had flexible work guidelines that encouraged everyone to work with their managers, teams and customers to identify how they could provide seamless service when they worked remotely. 

Our help desk had moved to a software call center last November to enhance our support and give that team the ability to participate more fully in the flexible work guidelines. This meant that our help desk had practiced and tested working completely virtual before they had to to comply with the shelter in place order.

Our teams had practiced being innovative and thinking out of the box in our weekly Wonderful Wednesday/Whenever time. Many of the ideas that we implemented in response to the pandemic crises came from the research and exploration individuals had already been doing.

Because our team had practiced, we were prepared and have been able to respond to requests quickly and creatively. Instead of scrambling to figure out how they would be able to do their job from home, the ITS team members were able to focus on helping the rest of campus move to the new paradigm.

As you reflect on the unprecedented changes that the pandemic has caused, what had you practiced that helped you and your teams make the transition? What can you start practicing now?

 

 

Supporting team members who have ideas for improvement

“Dreaming and Doing” by Sam Howzit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

One of the foundational practices in DevOps and Agile is to support team members who have ideas for improvement. This is difficult to do because we have a lot of work to get done and trying out new ideas creates more work. When the idea crosses organizational lines and normal job duties, it is even more difficult to take action. We have implemented Wonderful Wednesdays as a way to give time to explore ideas and practice creating self-organizing teams. A recent example reaffirmed to me why this practice is so important, especially when you are trying to transform the way that your team works.

Like most organizations, we have a help desk with software that we use to track all of the requests for support. This software is managed by the help desk team. One of our new help desk team members, Dominic (Dom) Malfara, was looking for ways to be more efficient in updating the software. He wanted to be able to upgrade the software in the middle of the day and be able to quickly recover if any part of the system went down. He reached out to our infrastructure engineering team, who were investigating how to use Kubernetes containers to automate and modernize our server environment.

That team embraced Dom, recognizing that if they could containerize our Remedy environment, which consisted of many servers with a vendor that didn’t support containers, it would be an ideal environment to learn for the entire team. The team leader invited Dom to the team’s daily stand-ups, Trello board, and Teams channel. Throughout the project the entire team was inclusive and accommodating. Despite org chart lines, Dom felt like he was part of their team and it was exciting working towards a goal with them. The infrastructure team reprioritized their work and helped Dom identify all of the layers of systems and management tools needed to fully automate and containerize the Remedy servers. 

This took several months and required full support from the leaders on the help desk and the infrastructure engineering team. Doing this required more time and more people than a traditional upgrade of the Remedy servers. It required making the time to experiment. 

Dom was successful in containerizing the Remedy environment. It did not go perfectly.  We had a bit of user interruption throughout the day as we made the transition. Through the problems, the help desk leadership team didn’t yell or blame anyone, but instead asked what they could do to help. Various team members posted screenshots or descriptions of things that were broken, allowing Dom space to focus on calmly fixing things so they would not happen again.

The results have been everything that we hoped for and worth the investment of time. We halved the needed hardware. Upgrades are now done by building parallel environments which mean we can fully test the new production environment and roll over and back between the old and new environments in seconds. All the hard work now occurs up front, and not during a maintenance window where people are prone to rush/make mistakes. Because the work is now automated and reproducible, bringing up a new test environment takes minutes instead of days. We can monitor the system load and scale instantly when needed. 

A couple of weeks after the transition was done, Dom did a presentation during Wonderful Wednesday teaching others across ITS. I went to the presentation and was in awe of the amount of learning and technical knowledge that was required to make the transition. It was one of the highlights of my year.

Thanks to Dom raising his hand and the infrastructure team fully supporting him, we have a roadmap on how to make the rest of our infrastructure more efficient, modern, and scalable. As a leader, it reinforced to me how important it is to support those individuals and teams who raise their hand and give them the time and resources to learn and make your organization better.

Here are my questions for you this week.

  • How do you support individuals who raise their hands with an idea? 
  • How do you treat others who come to you with an idea that requires you to change what you are doing? 
  • Is there a project you are working on currently that someone could collaborate with you for mutual benefits if they only had some way of knowing about it?

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Epilogue: As part of the process of writing these blogs, I always ask for feedback from the people who are mentioned in the blog. I wanted to include this email from Dominic to me about his view of the experience.

Hello Cindy,

Thanks for sharing, I just wanted to share some quick notes on the overall experience because it was really special to me. Our self-formed team was definitely influenced by all of the changes made to the culture and how ITS members are reacting to that: 

  • Wonderful Wednesday allowed me the freedom and time to invest in pursuing something innovative instead of doing things how we always have, WW got me quick buy-in from Jim and Paul because instead of battling with scheduling time to prove value in something and how it prioritized with our other work, I was able to use that reserved WW time to learn skills and proof of concept this project. I was excited to work on new technologies and make life better for us and that energy didn’t go to waste having to meet and debate and formalize things. Natural experimentation took its course and we got to follow an informal guideline of what we wanted to accomplish and how we were going to do it
  • Slack/Teams promotes open communication across the organization so it is now commonplace to talk to others in ITS, I get to interact with members of IT that I might not even meet otherwise. Help or knowledge with something is a message away, and with group chats I get visibility into what people are working on, instead of knowledge being hidden in email chains that I wasn’t CCed on or meetings I wasn’t a part of (the all-staff meetings, summits, and What’s New newsletter all influence this as well). I heard that Infrastructure Engineering was already exploring Kubernetes and we got to learn that together.
  • Leaders like Jorj, who doesn’t have a reporting relationship with me, but acted as a strong mentor and helped break down any barriers I faced along the way anyway. People like him that are genuinely interested in the technology and making Temple a better place are really inspiring and I hope I can pay that forward and influence those around me

Thanks again to Jorj for all his help and mentorship, and to you for the culture you are creating in Temple ITS! This project wouldn’t have been possible without it. I have learned a lot of valuable career skills and the failures/mishaps along the way that gave me real world lessons and I honestly had fun doing it! 😄

Thanks again, 

Dominic Malfara

Give Yourself Permission

https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-eoltg

One of the nicest things about the holiday break is that you can take time off and not have emails and work pile up while you are out of the office. So many of my colleagues talk about how much they appreciate having this pause at the end of the year.

All of my kids and their significant others were able to come to our house for Christmas this year. My husband and I decided that our gift to our family was a shared experience. We did a quick road trip to New York City where we watched the Harry Potter plays, walked all over the city, and ate some amazing food. Then we settled in at home, playing board games, solving puzzles and enjoying being with each other. We had so much fun. 

For me, it was an exercise in being in the moment and really relaxing into the joy of having my family around me. I noticed that a few times during the break, I started to get upset as I worried about a specific concern about one of our kids. Each time that happened, I was able to catch myself and stop. I knew that my ability to stay out of worry and cherish the person in front of me was key to making the vacation positive for our entire family.

Our time together was everything that I hoped it would be. It was wonderful.

My return to work has been hard. Since starting back at work, falling asleep has been difficult, which is unusual for me. I have been lying in bed, ruminating about a number of things and feeling anxious that I am not able to sleep. This means that it is difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I find myself choosing to turn off my alarm instead of getting up to head to the gym. The combination of lack of sleep and exercise has left me feeling exhausted and unfocused.

As I was lying in bed this morning, after ignoring my alarm for the second time, I found myself mentally berating myself for my lack of discipline.

When I realized what I was doing, I was able to stop. 

I chose to enjoy that moment, instead of trying to figure out what was wrong with me for not wanting to get up. I reveled in my warm bed, knowing it was my work from home day and I could use my commute time to sleep in. This was my gift to myself. 

I felt so much better after that small shift in mindset. 

One of the most transformational lessons that I have learned in my leadership journey is the power of our own stories. The question I always ask is “What story am I telling myself?” When I take the time to do this and investigate, I find that most of my stories are not true. I fundamentally believe that everyone is doing the best that they can and my job as a leader is to create an environment where everyone thrives. This means that I need to stay out of judgement and blame in order to look for ways to improve the situation. Extending that philosophy to myself is what I have been working on for many years.

I know that my ability to stay out of worry and cherish myself and the person in front of me is key to making the positive transformation happen. Doing this requires stamina, energy, focus and consistency. Sometimes I get tired and need to give myself permission to rest.

How do you rest physically, socially and mentally? How do you find respite from your recurring worries?

Be kinder than necessary

Picture of sad girl with Plato quote, "Be kind to everyone you meet for everyone is fighting a hard fight."n
Original image by Axel here, www.flickr.com/photos/zaxl4/99863335

I caught a nasty cold that laid me out for the entire weekend and continues to linger as I head into the week. The cold has sapped my energy and left me too much time for rumination and limited ability to do the things that bring me joy, like exercising and connecting with friends and family.

In my leadership class last week, we talked about the optimal positivity ratio where most people, relationships and teams thrive. It turns out that in order to thrive, you need to experience between 3-6 positive emotions for every negative emotion. Being ill has reinforced to me how critical it is to have that same level of positivity personally and how easily it can be lost.

When I am feeling well, my days start with exercise at the Y with supportive workout buddies and meditation with my husband before I head to work. As I drive, I listen to an engrossing novel or uplifting business audio book, or just sing along to some of my favorite songs. Those habits before I get to work help me to arrive filled with positive energy.

This has not been possible in the past week and the absence of these positive rituals combined with my illness has left me tired and down. 

Whenever I get ill, I am reminded of my mother. Multiple sclerosis (MS) took my mother’s energy, mobility, and personality. The cost on the rest of our family was high, especially for my father and youngest brother and sister who cared for her for 15 years while she was bed-ridden. For many years, I was really angry with my mother for not fighting her disease. My compassion for my mother has grown over the years as I have faced my own challenges. But when I am knocked down by a simple cold, I am reminded that I have not really gone through anything close to what she experienced with her MS.

Most of what another person is dealing with is hidden and unknowable to us. So when we are dealing with others at work or home, the mantra, “Be kinder than necessary” is wise. It will help to increase the positivity ratio for both you and the person receiving your kindness. 

Today happens to be World Kindness Day. My challenge to you this week is to increase the positivity ratio in your life and workplace with small acts of kindness.

Reframing Frustrations to Facilitate Difficult Conversations 

Last week at our planning retreat, I wanted to make sure that the leadership team was able to talk openly and constructively about some chronic problems across the teams. I found an exercise from Mark Gorkin that helped do this in an amazingly effective way.

Before we started the exercise, I wanted to shift the way that people thought about frustration. In The Enemy of Engagement, Mark Royal and Tom Agnew assert, “The more loyal and engaged employees are, the deeper their frustration will run in the face of obstacles.” So instead of labeling frustration as bad, we labeled it as a sign of the most engaged and loyal team members. That made it okay to express the frustrations because it meant that you cared deeply and wanted to make things better.

With that framing, each person took a few minutes to identify sources of everyday workplace stress and conflict or to list barriers to more effective and creative team coordination. At each table, we spent ten minutes sharing our frustrations. Then came the creative and team building part of the exercise. We asked each table to draw their frustrations. They could make as many posters as they wanted in ten minutes.

Everyone jumped in with both feet. The teams were working together intently around their posters and there was a lot of positive energy as the teams brainstormed about how to communicate their frustrations in a visual way.

After everyone was done, we created a gallery and everyone looked at all of the posters. Then each group got a chance to explain their drawings. After the explanations, we took some time together to dive into the problem and talk about possible ways to make it better. 

It was intense and uncomfortable.

And very productive and necessary. 

We had conversations about frustrations that spanned years. Information and background was provided that gave the individuals and teams perspective and insight they didn’t have before coming into the room. 

After talking with several different participants immediately after the exercise ended, I discovered that several people thought that getting into the specifics in a group setting felt like blame and was inappropriate. After discovering this, I immediately facilitated a discussion with the entire group about how we could have these difficult conversations with details without blame. Many people indicated that without specifics, the problem was theoretical and not clear. Through the exercise and discussion, we established norms about how we would talk about difficulties that allowed us to get to the specifics.

We still have room for improvement, but this exercise was a good way to prompt and practice having difficult conversations.

What have you done in your teams to hold difficult conversations that are healing and helpful?

Creating a safe learning community

“What does respect mean to you?” by retrokatz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I am teaching a leadership class at Temple for the first time. Since I agreed to teach the class, I have been vacillating between anxiety and excitement. It is definitely outside of my comfort zone and I have been worried about whether I am good enough. Since overcoming feelings of inadequacy and stretching has been at the heart of my leadership journey, I realize that I am not only the teacher, but this is an incredible opportunity for me to learn how to be a better leader.

The first class was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After a quick summary of the structure of the class, I asked the entire class how we could create a safe learning community. Using the 1-2-4-All Liberating Structures, we established as a group how we would act and support each other on our growth journey. The list that the class created together was more comprehensive and better than the list that I would have created. They wanted to be able to be open and vulnerable and know that others would listen without judgment, as we practiced living the leadership principles that we would be learning.

Then we spent the rest of the class getting to know each other by telling our core stories. We arranged our chairs in a circle and each of us shared three core stories from our life and what we had learned from those experiences. 

Several people in the group got emotional, including me. We were sharing deeply about our struggles and our ability to overcome those struggles. We talked about health challenges, close relationships, death of loved ones, physical injuries and having to give up our identities of who we thought we were when unexpected challenges arrived. 

It was one of the most powerful experiences that I have ever had. There was so much wisdom and leadership in that room that had already been developed. I was reminded again that leadership is not about telling others what to do, but about creating an environment where the best ideas can surface and be shared.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about how differently we felt about the people in the room and the implications for leadership and life. As I was leaving the room, I realized that I don’t necessarily know the core stories of the people that I work with on a daily basis, and I am not sure how to do that in a safe and non-invasive way. 

I would love to hear about how you have created safe learning communities.