Every Day

I read an article about Jerry Seinfeld the other day. In it he was discussing some of the secrets to his success. Now obviously they can’t be secrets if he is openly discussing them, so maybe we should refer to them as some of the tenets he adhered to in the pursuit of his goals. Perhaps tenets would be considered too strong a word for describing his approach to applying himself to his comedy craft. However you would like to describe what he did along his road to success, he boiled it down to a simple phrase. He did something every day.

The example he used related to his writing. Whether he was writing for his stand up routines or the ubiquitous “Seinfeld” show, he wrote every day. That was his goal. He didn’t set the goal to write a joke, or even a good joke. He didn’t need to pound out a chapter in his book, or a scene for the show. He didn’t even need to make sure that what he wrote was good or used in any of his multiplicity of ventures. He just needed to write.

He knew that by getting started his ability and talent would take over. Some days would be better than others and the output of a higher quality. He knew that by the continued application of his effort he would continue to improve across the board. Eventually the output from his bad days would be better than the output of his earlier good days. The objective was the activity, not some specific amount of output. He knew the output would come if he achieved his goal of doing something.

I thought this was an interesting approach to doing ones work.

I, like many others am something of a goal oriented worker. I like to set the bar at a specific and acknowledged height and then either leap over it, or find an equally impressive way to limbo under it. One day it might be a graceful hurdle that takes me to the other side of the bar and the next might be a skidding face-plant that takes me sliding under it. Others are more process oriented where they can look to a prescribed set of steps that they can embark on that should result in them getting to the other side of the bar. The Seinfeld approach did not seem to fit into either of these categories. To extend this example it would almost be described as “start moving in the direction of the bar” and eventually you will be on the other side of it.

I think I like this approach because of the daily activity goal. It seems that we spend more and more of our time on conference calls and in meetings and in other activities that might be considered to have questionable value-add in the conduct of our business responsibilities. We seem to have reached a point where we have to consider the output of these conference calls and meetings as part of our business responsibilities, even though we seem to achieve very little in the way of definable progress in them.

It would be at times like these where I would start to apply the “Every Day” business scenario. The idea here would be that leaders in the various disciplines that they are responsible for, would need to set a goal of doing some work in their discipline that is additive in moving that discipline forward.

For example, research and development leaders would need to make sure that every day they do something that furthers the research and development of the business. That does not mean reporting on their team’s progress, nor does it mean explaining to management what the latest development release is looking like. It means doing something directly associated with furthering an aspect of a products research or development. Sales leaders would need to spend time each day actually selling, not reporting or tracking, etc. Operations leaders would need to set time every day to work on how to improve their business’ efficiency.

This is obviously pretty simple stuff, but business in its proper form in not necessarily complex. After all, how many times have we heard people say that they are so busy that they don’t seem to be able to get their real work done? What Seinfeld seemed to have found was that the focus should not be on getting the real work done, but rather getting started on the real work. He realized that the getting done part of it would actually take care of itself.

On the surface this seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I get with it.

It seems that leadership roles have a tendency to attract a significant number of non-productive and “office-trappings” types of responsibilities. These functions usually take the form of making and presenting status reports, attending peer team meetings and calls to assure coordination, reviewing, approving or denying requests, and other similar such activities. I am hard pressed to find a way to associate these responsibilities with leadership, other than in how fast one can discharge and complete them and get back to the real functionality and responsibility of the business at hand.

Unfortunately it seems that as leaders matriculate up the corporate chain they may be judged more on how well they perform these attracted functions, and less on how well they actually perform their Research and Development, Sales or Operational responsibilities, to extend the previous example.

This is where “Every Day” would come in to play.

We should all look to find a way to make sure we perform some of the specific activities that are required to further the goals of the business, every day. This does not mean that we should be happy with making progress on the charts for the next business review. It does mean that we should work on something that would eventually need to be reported on in your business review.

Put simply “Every Day” means to me that we don’t need to report on something every day. Every day we need to do something that may need to be reported.

It may end up that it does not need to be reported. It may not provide the expected or desired impact. On the other hand, it might eventually turn out to be a game changing improvement to the business. The point is that none of those things will happen unless you are applying yourself to the objective.

Seinfeld knew that not everything that he wrote was going to be used, or maybe even good. He did however recognize that he would never have anything much less know what was good or not unless he wrote. He saw that the goal should not have been to only write good content, because he could not clearly discern the good from the not so good unless he had them both available to compare. Hence his objective was simply to write.

The analog to this approach that I would choose for leaders in business would be to focus some time every day on the non-administrative work that you and your team are responsible for accomplishing. I know this sounds silly to the point of almost being inane, but
having been through the days where it seemed that the administrivia and process ruled over work and performance, I think it bears repeating: It is easy to get lost in the busy of busy-work and forget to try and accomplish some real work. And it is the real work that needs to get accomplished, every day.


Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I am a certified coffee non-drinker. I have tried it. I don’t like it. I have tried to like it. I have failed to find a way to like it. I have tried to use it as a primary source of caffeine to help me make it through those especially long business days. I just can’t seem to make myself like it. Regardless of what anyone else says, it tastes bad.

However, I do recognize that I am in the minority when it comes to coffee use in the business environment. It is quite possible that without coffee, or its prime component caffeine, that all business and commerce, and quite possibly society in general would grind to a halt. If anything, I think that our coffee consumption in the office has increased in recent years as our dependence on it as an energy source in the office has increased.

I have managed to come up with only one way that I can successfully imbibe coffee. I take a coffee mug and fill it approximately one third of the way up with the artificial, chemical infused, powdered chalk-like non-dairy creamer that populates the counter next to the coffee maker in the break room in the office. I never use the cholesterol laden real cream or the liquid artificial, chemical infused non-dairy creamer. The primary reason for the powdered preference is due to the fact that it is the only type of coffee creamer available next to the coffee maker. I think the Food and Drug administration has forced the manufacturer of this product to change its name to “coffee lightener” as opposed to coffee creamer in the interest of honesty in advertizing.

I then step over and find the sugar. The real sugar. Not the further chemically infused, cancer in rat causing sweetener. I am not afraid of the carcinogens in that sweetener. It is the aftertaste that they leave after I have used them that removes them from my preference list. If I am going to drink something that tastes as bad as coffee, I do not want to have to put up with the added insult of tolerating and additional bad aftertaste from the artificial sweeteners after drinking it.

I carefully measure out approximately another third of a mug of sugar and combine it with the powdered coffee lightener.

Now is the time for the coffee. It doesn’t seem to matter if I add a spoon full of Folger’s instant coffee crystals and hot water, or get freshly brewed from ground coffee bean French vanilla coffee from the local college degreed barista at Starbucks. I can’t tell the difference. They are both equally bitter in my universe. I then fill the coffee mug up the rest of the way with whichever coffee is available. If I happen to have a Milky Way or Snickers candy bar handy I will then use it to stir these elements into a nominally drinkable solution that I am somehow able to choke down. I don’t do this often. I think I might have had two cups of coffee this year. I usually resort to coffee when I don’t have enough money to buy a caffeine rich soda from the soda machine.

I guess I have never been able to develop the educated palette that can discern between the various levels of bitterness that are entailed in recognizing the difference between Folger’s and Starbuck’s fresh brews, even though they are purported to come from obviously different ends of the taste spectrum. I guess I don’t go to Starbuck’s enough, and when I do I usually seem to order something other than coffee. It is kind of interesting to go to Starbucks and order a (caffeinated) soda though. Whenever I do it, it seems the entire staff behind the counter stops whatever it is that they are so industriously doing in the obviously complicated preparation of their patron’s coffees, and stare at me. I used to be slightly off-put by this, but now I find it relatively humorous.

The only problem with preparing coffee in the manner I prepare it is that it can only be called a liquid in the truest sense of the word, meaning it is not a solid or a gas. The coffee I prepare from this recipe seems to be slightly more viscous than the equivalent beverage that others prepare in the same break room. This higher center of gravity, slightly more dense coffee causes the other patrons of the office break room coffee maker to not so much stare at me, but to seem to want to keep track of me by watching me indirectly from across the room while quietly talking to each other.

Between the staring baristas and the whispering break room denizens, it should be no surprise that I usually drink diet sodas. These drinks usually contain the desired caffeine but not in quite the concentrations associated with coffee. I have never been able to figure out why anyone would want to drink decaffeinated coffee. If you are going to drink something that tastes that bad, you should at least get the desired effect from the caffeine, or you have defeated the entire purpose of the exercise in the first place.

Here is just a little “did you know” information about caffeine. Caffeine, as it occurs in nature is an interesting element. It is a bitter (who would have thought that after actually tasting coffee) element that acts as a natural pesticide in plants. That is correct. Caffeine is nature’s bug killer, yet we guzzle it down in our coffee like camels hitting the oasis after two weeks in the desert. It is also recognized as the worlds most widely consumed psychoactive drug. That is also correct. It is a psychoactive, mood altering drug. However there is no one stopping Juan Valdez and his mule from bringing pure Colombian coffee across the border into the United States.

I mentioned that I drink diet caffeinated sodas, and as you know these are in fact sweetened with those aforementioned bad after tasting chemically carcinogenic compounds. I felt that since the sodas tasted so much better than coffee, I needed to demonstrate some sort of caffeinated solidarity with the bad tasting coffee drinkers. The solution wasn’t so much to make the soda taste bad but rather make sure it left some sort of bad aftertaste. This way we caffeine imbibers can stand united.

Stand is a relative word here. I don’t think that anyone consuming any sort of a caffeinated product can stand united or any other way for that matter. They usually fidget, or go to the bathroom. This stems from the fact that caffeine is both a stimulant, which means it incites activity in our central nervous system, and a diuretic, which means it incites activity in our bladders. Hence you are either fidgeting or going to the bathroom after drinking coffee.

Thinking back, I don’t remember it always being this way. I seem to recall that the office used to have an energy all its own. Caffeine seemed optional and more the province of the particularly spasmodic and hyperactive individuals in the office. When there was a question about someone’s behavior it was usually attributed to the fact that they must have had “too much coffee”. Funny, you don’t hear that excuse for strange behavior in the office anymore.

The office seemed to generate its own energy in the people there, not reduce it. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between the number of people who are actually in the office and the need for and amount of coffee that is consumed. Could it be that in the past we generated our energy from each other? Now that we have remote offices and virtual offices and are no longer in proximity to each other, it seems we need a different energy source, such as coffee and the caffeine that it contains.

Perhaps I am reaching, but I definitely think if we had more people back in the offices, we would all have more energy and sources of stimulation, and probably need less coffee.

I think I’ll go and get another diet soda. I hope I have enough change as I don’t think I can face drinking any more coffee. I had a cup a couple of weeks ago and still shudder at the thought of drinking any more of it.

Leadership and the Generations

This is another of those posts that seemed to have started out as a great idea, and I knew just what I wanted to say. As I got into it further my commentary took me in another direction. Undaunted by this I adjusted the title and tried to edit and align the ideas that I had with the direction I took. After doing that, I actually kind of like where it took me.

I just read an article purporting to examine the new demographics associated with the latest generational group known as “Millennials”. Generations are normally “defined” by the major global events associated with the starting and ending of the generational cycle. For those of you that are not familiar with the various generational names and eras in the US, they are as follows:

2000/2001 – Present – New Silent Generation or Generation Z
1980-2000 – Millennials or Generation Y
1965-1979 – Generation X
1946-1964 – Baby Boom
1925-1945 – Silent Generation

This generational breakdown got me to thinking about how leaders need to be both attuned to and flexible enough to adjust their leadership styles to the various generations that they must both lead and deal with. The generations above all come from different eras, and have had their approaches to business (and life for that matter) evolve from very different economic and life experiences.

The first is the silent generation. They are defined as the generation that ends with the ending of the last great global conflict, World War two. It should be interesting to note that for all intents and purposes, the silent generation has at this point by and large retired from the work force. Someone born in 1945, the last of the silent generation years would be sixty nine this year.

Next are the baby boomers. They are defined as following World War two and ending at approximately the time of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The baby boomers at this time are also aging out. The youngest and last of them will be fifty this year and are surely beginning to contemplate retirement as well. The older baby boomers have probably already retired. Either way they have a different set of goals and drivers than those members of the following and younger generations.

Next is Generation X and as the name might indicate they seem to be a relative unknown when it comes to defining traits and characteristics. They have seen man reach the moon (a product of a previous generational world and ambition), but are not usually associated with the major scientific or social upheavals of this time. They are usually referred to as the “MTV” generation. The major defining event that is usually associated with the end point for this generational group might be the Iran Hostage crisis. The majority of Generation X should be considered to be in their professional primes.

I apologize for the short generational genealogy discussion, but I wanted to set the table for the next generation, the Millennials, or Generation Y. They are the generation that is bracketed by the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the end of the twentieth century, which as we all know was mostly associated with the global phenomenon called “Y2K”. This is the generation that is now either entering or is already early on in their business careers. I recently read an article about them and as usual it got me to thinking. 

The article I read about the Millennials was in Bloomberg, and since we all know that they do not have any sort of agenda and would only print the unvarnished truth, it must be so, right?

In this article Bloomberg discussed several of the demographics and hence characteristics specifically associated with the Millennial generation. As a member of a previous generation, I won’t say which previous generation, but you can safely assume it is not the “Silent Generation”, it is hard not to compare your own experiences to those as attributed to the Millennials. I would assume this to be the case for just about everyone who is not a Millennial.

Perhaps these differences in experiences and demographics can somehow be traced to the defining events that ended the previous generational era and were the bellwether for the one to come. It seems that the magnitude of the events that are used to define a generation might provide us some insight in the shaping of the demographic of that generation.

The end of World war two the global conflict that cost millions of lives was the start of and probably the most shaping and influencing event of the Baby Boomer generation. They saw the creation of the atomic bomb, the creation of the space race, the rise of the “Cold War” and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The magnitude of these types of events is difficult to overstate.

With the assassination of President Kennedy we had the start of the Generation X. They experienced the accompanying loss of innocence associated with that event. It is also thought that this loss of innocence was the impetus for many of the other events they saw. They also saw the turmoil associated with the civil rights movements and changes, the escalation and ultimate end of the prolonged and increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, a man land on the moon, but as I said before, they are mostly associated with the rise of music videos and the phenomenon called MTV. Go figure.

That brings us to the Millennials. Their generation is bracketed by events including the Iranian Hostage Crisis where fifty two American diplomats were held hostage in post revolutionary Iran for a little more than a year at the start, and the “Y2K” furor where everything from global anarchy to the absolute end of the civilized world were predicted in association with the belief that the technology that we had all become so dependent on would not be able to accommodate the change from a “19xx” date delineation to a “20xx” date delineation at the end. Really.

Millennials have grown up during one of the most prolonged periods of sustained growth in economic history. They had a front seat (in front of the television) in witnessing one of the fastest, highest technology and most successful military campaigns in the history. And it was on television every night. In the first Gulf War they got to see the birth of both Stealth and Smart technologies. I too remember watching this event and how to me it resembled the new video games that were then a budding industry.

In short it would seem at least in my opinion that the Millennial generation was defined by both an economic and political “Boom” period. Maybe it may only appear to be so good in my own retrospect in comparison to today’s economic situation. Perhaps it is just my longing for the “good old days” that we have all always heard about. I do however think that we are all, to some general extent products of our times, and this period in general was a good time by just about any measure. Unfortunately all Booms eventually end.

Could this period be the beginning of the “entitlement” mentality that seems to be infusing itself into both our political and economic fabrics? If everything was so good in your formative years could you feel entitled to everything being good going forward? I don’t think this is just a Millennial generational issue. They just happen to be the generation entering or already in the work force that is the product of this period.

Regardless, the business leader of today is going to have to understand what has shaped the outlook of each of the members of their team. They need to understand the motivational factors as well as the expectations associated with both the generation in general, as well as the individual specifically.

No generation is homogeneous in its make-up. There will be Millennials that do not feel entitled to good times, just as there will probably be Baby Boomers that do feel entitled. The leaders of this generation, and the generations that follow, are going to need to be able to recognize the breadth of both the gen
erational and individual factors that motivate, drive and affect their teams, as well as have the flexibility to adapt their leadership styles to the generational diversity of their teams.

Office Art

There is a very good chance that I am perhaps overly aware of the business environments that I have been in. This could be because of all of the changes that I have seen in those environments over the years. I can remember when everybody wore a suit and tie to go to work and people could smoke in the office. It really wasn’t that long ago when you think about it. Now with virtual offices and telecommuting we are all casually attired whether we are in the office or not, and very few admit to smoking whether they actually do or not, and certainly not in the house or office as the case may be.

It could also be that I am so office environmentally aware because of the many things that have not changed over time. Just about every cube still looks like every other cube. The carpet and wall color schemes all continue to remain boringly and uninspiringly neutral. It is from this bland sea of constant cubic uniformity that we are trying to create and innovate new approaches and solutions to our customer’s needs.

There is however one bastion of stolid stability in the office environment that stands out above all others. It is so pervasive and consistent so as to be present in just about every office environment that I have ever worked in or visited. It is so constant so as to go almost unnoticed by the denizens of the business office environment. Almost. It seems to me that the one thing that never changes, regardless of restructuring, reorganizing or remodeling is our office art.

That is correct. The objects and images that adorn the walls of the standard office building seem to be a constant that never changes.

The items on the walls of an office would appear at first to fall into one of three general artistic categories: Technical, Inspirational, and Artistic art. Invariably there is a mixture of all three genres in any office environment, and depending on the group involved in that location there is usually an emphasis placed on one specific type.

Technical office art usually consists of multi-colored charts and posters that purport to provide some sort of definition or direction in accordance with the various processes associated with the business. There is usually a flow diagram of some sort associated with them, and they also usually contain at least three or four geometrically diverse shapes as a way of distinguishing the various different functions represented in the flow chart.

The more complex, the more colors, the more shapes and the more connective flow lines the better. Remember this is technical office art. It is supposed to be colorful, complex, obtuse and inaccessible. You will usually find this type of art in the building sections normally populated by engineers, and the research and development staff. The truth be told, most of them don’t understand the diagrams and flows either, but it does contribute to the general feeling that you are in a technical area populated by smart people.

Inspirational office art usually consists of sweeping vistas, soaring birds or athletes, either individually or in teams, either training for or competing in high stakes arenas such as the Olympics. In general we are all inspired by pictures of mountains, or eagles or groups of people rowing boats. When we see these things I assume we all want to go climb the mountain, soar like the eagle or row the boat to the point of exhaustion. Who wouldn’t?

However, that alone is not enough for the image to be considered inspirational office art. It must also be accompanied by some sort of an inspirational phrase or message. When I see these pictures with their inspirational catchphrases, I can’t help but think of the statue shown in the opening credits of the movie “Animal House”. As the camera pans down the length of the statue of the founder of Faber College, it rests on the inscription at the bottom. The inscription reads:

“Knowledge is good”

That movie inspired me to do many things, most of which I will not go into here.

Inspirational art is normally found in and around the Human Resources and Training departments of a company. I don’t know why these groups require that much incremental inspiration, but they do seem to need it.

The final category of office art is the category that can nominally be considered art. That is the artistic category. This category consists of anything that can be hung on the walls of an office that is neither technical nor inspirational in nature. The preponderance of artistic pictures that are hung an office wall normally consist of some sort of pastel oriented soothing landscape or similar type of image. It is definitely not art that is intended to evoke any sort of response, with the possible exception of a yawn.

There are however notable exceptions to this generalization. I was once in an office building where there was a framed US flag that hung on the wall. This in itself was not too interesting except for the fact that the flag had only forty eight stars, not the customary fifty that I had grown used to seeing on the average flag pole outside. I could not tell if it was in fact a decorative antique or artistic relic, or if it had just been put up on the wall prior to Alaska joining the union in 1959 and no one had thought to take it down since.

This point brings me to the downside of all this office art. It never changes. Buildings are erected. Businesses move in and they are finished out with whatever art du jour is popular or applicable at that time, and that art is never changed. The building, the offices, the cubes may be rearranged or reconfigured, but the artwork remains intact and in place. For years.

I am sure that some number of millennia in the future when the future archeologists are excavating our office buildings, much like we have done in the ancient pyramids, they will discover all these images on the office walls (much like the hieroglyphics on the pyramids) and wonder how people with such boring tastes could have built such buildings.

I believe that there was some sort of financial analysis conducted which proved out the hypothesis that it would in fact be cheaper to move, relocate or rotate the locations of the resident people in the building than it would be to periodically replace and upgrade the office art. This could in fact be the underlying reason that on average people in offices are asked to change their locations approximately once every year.

On the surface this movement of people not art, may sound like an ingenious solution the issue of people becoming jaded with respect to their professional surroundings, but no one thought about the long term issues associated with this scheme. With all this office relocation that has been going on for years on end, we now have HR and Training people trying to contemplate pastel landscapes and outdated flags, Engineers and developers being assaulted by simple pictures with inspirational phrases and the rest of us losing productivity as we try to understand the complexities associated with the engineering flowcharts and diagrams that once directed the development processes of our companies.

Pardon the pun, but this cannot be considered a pretty picture.

As an example, currently outside my office is a Software Improvement Process Diagram. It is on that heavy gage high density white presentation board. On the surface this isn’t so bad, other than the fact that the plan is dated 2004. It is only ten years old. Now it may be a fabulous process and there is even the finite possibility that it still may be applicable. The problem is that it is not applicable to me. I am here now, and I need my abstract pastel landscapes, or even a trite inspirational eagle or two if I am to get my work done.

On the inside of my office is a multi-dimensional, multi-figured, multi-colored flow chart and guide to problem solving. When you put the four three dimensional figures that represent the various stages of the problem solving process together, to me they
resemble a psychedelic lava lamp that has been laid on its side

The four phases of the problem solving process all quite conveniently start with the same letter “D”. They are “Define”, “Discover”, “Develop”, “Demonstrate”…..

Reading further into the detail….Wait a minute. This thing is actually starting to make some sense. I guess I should have looked at it in more detail sooner.