Sometimes Life Lessons Come When You Least Expect Them

A few years ago I was participating in a “hackathon” of sorts where I worked with a diverse team of individuals from different industries and companies. For our project, we had to identify a solution for a problem of our choosing. From there, we had to present our pitch to a panel of judges and the winning group would be given money to pursue their project. The big difference between this event and your traditional hackathon was that it was over the course of a few months and included training to help guide your team through the process.

Things were going well – we had a problem and a solution. The team worked well together despite being made up of six very busy professionals. Overall, our idea was good, not great, but hey, it was something. We we learning a lot about entrepreneurship process, which was better than our idea itself. Towards the end of the project we had to decide how we were going to pitch it. The leaders of the hackathon recommended that only one or two people make the pitch because those tended to be presented better due to having less hand-offs between speakers. Given I was comfortable with public speaking and because we didn’t have much time to prepare, I was the chosen one. I was used to improvisation in my job because I always needed to be ready to present to leadership about various topics at the drop of a hat. So this seemed like a no-brainier to me.

What was about to happen, however, was one of the most humbling and eye-opening experiences of my career. We had to video tape a practice pitch about a week before the final pitch. It was then going to be reviewed by the hackathon leaders and the other groups to critique the presentation. I told my group I would show up to the recording studio alone and that everyone didn’t have to worry about coming since we all worked full time. It was not supposed to be a big deal.

I showed up to the studio and this is how it started:

A/V Guy: Hi, where do you want to record today?

Me: Umm, wherever you want

A/V Guy: No, this is your pitch, you tell me

Me: Umm, where have other people been recording?

A/V Guy: Pretty much everywhere

Me: Umm…up stairs in the conference room?

OK…so as you can see, not off to a good start here. The funny thing was, I knew this A/V Guy and he was not usually like this…he always had a vision but yet he was looking to me for my vision. I was totally thrown off at this point. It was not supposed to be a big deal.

So we went up stairs to get setup…I had no monitors to display my slides behind the camera, which for some reason I assumed we would have. Generally this would not be a problem for me because I can improvise, but this time was different…I was freezing. I needed those slides because the content was not something I was familiar with and I wasn’t honestly excited about our topic so I couldn’t even find the words to wing it.

The A/V Guy just watched me fumble for what seemed like forever. I kept stalling as he reassured me, “take your time, you want to get it right.” I then asked him about how many takes we get, to which he responded “only one.” At this point, I was totally off my game. I built up all the courage I had and asked him: “I know you just set up all your equipment, but can I come back and do this again? I am clearly not ready.” He responded, “Usually I am not allowed to do this, but I will let you because we have known each other for a long time. Sometimes it is all about who you know. Let’s have a seat and chat.” The chat was long and got very deep and even personal talking about how he found his father at home after he had been murdered – not what I was expecting for a quick chat. He started to explain to me why he was being difficult with me from the beginning: When you have something to pitch/sell, you need to be ready…always. You never know when you are going to be at an event or in the hallway with the exact person you need to pitch to, so you need to be ready. He preached to me that life throws you curve balls, such as death, and you never know how you are going to be able to respond. You need to be adaptive and ready for anything while also cherishing the moment. Also, he reminded me that when pitching an idea, you need to have a vision and the details matter, such as what backdrop you have when recording a video.

As you can imagine, I was a little shocked. I came in expecting to just thrown down a presentation like it was no big deal. Instead, I ended up getting a powerful life and business lesson and not even from the “leaders” of the program.

There are many articles out there about improvisation and the valuable skills you can gain from it. Additionally, in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Change Our Lives, Harford talks about how being “messy” can make you more creative. In my situation, the mess was too much that my improvisation could not overcome the disorder to create a rational pitch. Although I think improvisation and the ability to create order out of disorder are critical, this moment taught me that for those things to happen, you have to have some fundamental understandings first:

  1. Be ready. Always.
  2. You can’t sell something if you don’t believe in it
  3. Speak from the heart, not the slides
  4. Relationships can make or break you when you need them most

After this chat, which lasted about an hour, I headed back to my office. I didn’t have any meetings that afternoon which worked out well because I found myself just staring off thinking about our conversation and not being overly motivated to do any work. Some of my thoughts were about his father’s death and the details about the situation he shared with me, but much of it was about what I learned about myself. Needless to say, the next time around for my video recorded pitch, I was ready. To this day I still reflect on the fact that sometimes life’s best lessons come when you least expect them.


Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

There are many “leadership strategies” out there and many books or articles (like this one) about this topic. Personally, I like to read as many of them as I can because I think there is something to be learned from all of them. There is one leadership strategy, however, which I have heard many times before, including by from some of the most admired leaders of this time, yet I remained perplexed on how it actually represents good leadership. I have seen leaders implement this strategy and brag about it but in reality not really practice good leadership. What is this mysterious strategy? “Hire good people, and get out of their way.”
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The Unintended Outcomes Created by Poor Quality

I have had a unique opportunity to work in two industries which both have the customer’s safety at the forefront of their business; however, both industries have inherent safety risks for utilizing the company’s product. This means you are actually safer if you do not use their product, which is kind of ironic until you think about the two industries. These industries are healthcare and automotive: Not so ironic anymore, right?

Obviously the goal of healthcare is to make people healthy and keep them safe, but inherently every time you step foot in a hospital, you are increasing your health risk (Data Source).

In automotive, the goal is to get a customer from point A to point B as safely as possible; however, every time you get inside a vehicle you are increasing your personal risk (Data Source).

Both of these industries are also predicting drastic safety improvement in the upcoming years and decades. The problem is that both industries are relying on technology for these enhancements and there are always unintended consequences of technology causing the same problems you were trying to resolve in the first place. Let’s consider some examples.

Healthcare information technology and electronic medical records are claimed to both improve efficiency and increase patient safety. You can do barcode medication administration, allergy and drug interaction checks, and medical decision support, just to name a few. All of these things, when properly implemented, can definitely increase patient safety. In fact, a lot of emphasis is placed on implementing these technology features for the safety improvement aspect. Technology, however, has its downside that people do not focus enough attention on. The quality of your technology and its implementation can directly and indirectly impact the safety of your patients, even when designing a non-patient safety part of the application. Mental fatigue of using systems with poor human factors or chronic software crashes and “bugginess” will take a toll on a clinicians’ ability to make clinical decisions. False positive or negative “safety features” will create a distrust in the technology while failed hardware, such as unconfigured or misconfigured barcode scanners, take away from the sole purpose of the original design or purpose.

Like healthcare, the automotive industry is seeing a huge technology shift as well. Infotainment systems and interactions with your mobile device are bringing entertainment and convenience into your daily commutes and family road trips. Hands free texting/calling and turn-by-turn navigation are all things that can improve your safety by keeping your eyes on the road and your hands on the steering wheel.

The quality of the technology and implementation though can directly impact the safety. A company could spend a lot of time and money designing the safest infotainment system with minimal clicks and user distraction, but if the system as a whole is glitchy, all the efforts are for nothing. Alternatively, if a customer has Bluetooth or WiFi issues, they are going to spend time trying to fumble with their phone to get it connected, navigating deep into the phones settings to enable and disable their connection to try to “reboot it” – all while driving. If when they plug into the USB the phone isn’t recognized by Apple’s Carplay or Android Auto, the customer will be checking the cable connections, maybe even resetting their phone, to try to get this feature (intended to make your drive “safer”) working again. In cold weather, if the touchscreen on the car infotainment system doesn’t respond timely or at all, or has a delay with the phone it is interfacing with, then the driver will be distracted trying to get it to work. So that “perfectly designed system” has not changed the overall risk because the other aspects of technology are still causing distracted driving.

AAA does yearly research on distracted driving and they recently found that drivers were distracted for an additional 27 seconds after interacting with the car/phone/infotainment system (Data Source). These statistics are on working systems and do not take into account the distraction of a driver after they have just been messing with a technology failure, full of frustration and anger.

Items Leading to Poor Quality

As briefly highlighted above, there are an infinite number of things that could lead to poor quality and ultimately cause an opposite effect on the safety of your system. Here is a summary of a few things that I see a lot and will probably expand upon in future posts.

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  • Focusing on speed to complete a new feature request
  • Lack of interaction knowledge (i.e. lack of “systems thinking”)
  • Misunderstanding of human factors and mental fatigue caused by designs
  • Downplaying small changes (related to lack of systems thinking)

One way to mitigate some of these is by having a well-balanced measurement system. If speed to end of development is important to you, figure out how to measure quality as well.

Post in the comments some of the things you have experienced that have the intention of creating a better system but in turn has the opposite effect. What are some ways you mitigate these things?

When Decision Making Rules Are Wrong

I had read an article a while back titled ‘Detroit forcing business to remove large “billboards” from their buildings.’ The two things I found troubling with this situation portrayed in the article were 1) the companies with these advertisements are bringing in a lot of money to the businesses, which is good for the city, but also 2) the decision to remove the signs is based on an outdated law. Read more

How Understanding “People, Process, and Technology” can Help Solve Problems

In part five of my six part series, I am going to talk about how to focus on the right solution: people, process, or technology. I personally find this topic interesting because I spent much of my career as a people leader in a technology role and I have a process engineering background. Putting these three experiences together has given me an interesting insight into applying these three topics to leadership and process improvement. Like the previous posts, let’s start with the part of my “words of wisdom email” I sent to my team and then I will reflect back on it.

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Self Reflection and How to be a Dot Connector

In the third part of my six part series, I am reviewing what it means to be a “dot connector” and why I think it is foundational to leading and being a part of an effective team. As I did in my previous posts, I will first go through the part of the email I sent my team and then I will self-reflect on what I think now that it is six months later. Note, items in brackets have been generalized with specific vendor names and tools removed.

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Before You Analyze Data, Understand the Context of the Problem

I had lunch the other day with a colleague who was interested in meeting to discuss more about by blog post The Middle Level Leader. We both share a passion for data in business decision-making and wanted to discuss how leadership, including middle level leaders, could better use data to drive decisions and move the business forward. We both have had similar roles in our career, although mostly different companies, so it was fun to talk about the same problems seen across organizations and across industries. One of those problems we discussed was how data is often misused or misunderstood in businesses, especially at the leadership level.

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