I slid the chair closer to Mia’s desk and sat down. She was a peer to my manager, Ramesh. Neither of us spoke for a moment. No sweat. I’d learned a long time ago that putting a moment of silence before beginning an important conversation tended to focus everyone on the issue at hand.
Mia was the leader of the DBAs. She’d had this role for the last three years. In that time, she’d successfully turned a chaotic, fractious and generally dysfunctional group of individuals into a highly productive and well-run team. At the same time, her employee survey results showed consistent high marks from her staff for her leadership … both the ones she hired and the ones she inherited. In fact, her team had the lowest turnover of any in IT. Mia worked hard to continually improve her team and it showed. She was a great manager who cared about her employees, while also keeping her eye on the corporate goals.
Despite her natural skills, and much to the bewilderment of her manager, she showed zero interest in taking on new or larger leadership roles. I’d been told that every time they offered her promotion to a bigger role she turned it down, saying that, “This work is what I am best suited for. Perhaps there is someone else more deserving of these other opportunities.”
Mia wasn’t her real name. It was one she used at work, rather than having to continually help people pronounce and spell her full name properly, much less explain how Chinese names were presented differently from European names.
Mia addressed the name issue in a way that was practical and pragmatic. I liked that. She did what it took to align with her customers and peers, rather than insisting they adapt to her. I actually kind of admired her for it, because I wasn’t sure I could be as flexible about something so personal as my name.
I’d heard she was brilliant and had several advanced degrees in areas of mathematics and computer science that made me panic just thinking about trying to understand them. But unlike the offices’ of some other leaders, there were no diplomas, no certificates of achievement, training, or any other indication of work or professional accomplishments in her office. In fact, most of what decorated her cube were a few pictures of family and friends, with a sprinkling of bold and brightly colored drawings by her young children, Ying and Wei.
A person’s office tells you a lot about them, sometimes more than they realize. A person’s office space is much more than a place where they work. It is also as close to a sanctuary and restorative space as they have at work. Things they choose to surround themselves with are often a reflection of their happy place; a reminder of what gives them pleasure and provides reasons for living. Examining a person’s office space also tells you something about what motivates them at work. It has reminders for them of the reasons they are there. When trying to encourage a person to work with me, it always helps to understand what is meaningful to them.
Mia sat there smiling wordlessly, apparently waiting for me, so I spoke first.
“My name is Chris. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything specific about what we’re doing. I’m working on a project to reduce the number of incidents disrupting the work we all do supporting our business partners.”
She carefully wrote in a notebook with her pen. After finishing, she sat silently for a few moments, as if contemplating my question, before asking, “That is an important and valuable undertaking that will benefit us all. You must be very proud of having been entrusted with such an assignment.”
Funny, I had never considered being tossed in front of the same bus that ran over Sarah to be a source of pride or reflection on the level of trust and confidence leadership had in me. I’d always thought of it as a punishment, and that was the feedback I’d gotten from Sean and others around me. Mia’s perspective was different. I guess she was assuming positive intent on the part of leadership, where I had automatically assumed a completely defensive posture. It was an interesting way to think about the assignment. Actually, her perspective was very liberating. I was beginning to like the idea of viewing the assignment as a reward, instead of a punishment.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “However, I cannot do it all by myself. I need help from your team.”
Mia seemed a little taken aback. “Are you concerned about my team? They have been working very hard to resolve any problems as soon as they are identified. I can show you … ”
I stopped her in mid-sentence, which made her shift nervously in her chair.
“Well, what you said is a good example of one of the things we’re trying to do; to get people to use consistent terminology in IT. You talked about resolving problems, when what I think you were talking about, were what best practice would call incidents.”
Mia paused for a moment, and then asked, “Do not incidents generate problems for the business? I know my team treats them that way. That is why … ”
I cut her off in mid-sentence again. This time she pushed her chair back from the desk a little, increasing the distance between us, as I went through an overview of the way ITIL differentiates between incidents and problems, as well as how problem management works.
Mia sat patiently, nodded in all the right places and when I finished, she waited for a few seconds before saying, “Thank you for correcting me. I understand. I will help my team learn the correct way to talk about these events. I will instruct them … ”
“That’s great,” I interrupted. “I’d be happy to train your team on the ITIL fundamentals. But what I really need their help on is our root cause and remediation activities in problem management.”
Mia stared at me for a moment, before saying, “My team currently participates actively in the incident root cause and service restoration activities. How is this different from that effort, or is this just a duplication of efforts? My team works very hard, and does not have an excess of resources to … ”
I jumped in before she finished. “Yes, I know they work hard to restore service, but what you’re calling root cause in incident management, is just the incident trigger. We want to make sure we get the true root cause in problem management. And that’s where I need some help from you, beyond what your team does for incident management. Problem management will be meeting once a week and I need you to provide us with help understanding the difference between the incident trigger and the real root cause. And we need you to be able to make commitments on when you will remedy any root causes attributable to you.”
Mai closed her notebook and put her pen away. She said, “Thank you for offering us the opportunity to be part of your project. Our team will discuss it at our next meeting, and I will see what we can do.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Thanks for supporting this. I’ll send you an invitation to the problem management meetings.”
I stood up and headed out of her cube, then stopped and said back over my shoulder, “Oh, and let me know when you want me to come and enlighten your team on what ITIL is all about.”
As I headed down the hall, I was really proud of myself. That couldn’t have gone any better.
Mia wasn’t at the first problem management meeting; or the second or the third. In fact, she never showed up. Neither did anyone from her team.
Every time I reached out to Mia to understand why she wasn’t there, I got the same response from her, telling me that they were grateful for the chance to participate and that she would see what she could do. I couldn’t figure it out. I was only doing a little better with the other people I needed at the meeting.
I’d intentionally structured the problem management meetings to be composed of managers for each of the technical teams. It was important that the attendees be people who could make commitments. Since they rarely knew all the deep technical details, they always brought some back-up with them. It got to the point where there were over 20 people in the meeting. And each of them had an opinion.
To make matters worse, the problem management meetings were running long … very long. So long, in fact, that we weren’t even getting to half the events which were candidates for problem management. We’d start reviewing an incident, and before long the entire group would drop into solution mode, each person adding their own perspective on what was wrong and how it should be fixed … even if they had little to do with it.
I usually let the group run with it, because they eventually came up with the true root cause and a good remediation plan. Sometimes quality takes time, I guess. It just took so long to get there, because everyone wanted to have their opinion heard, even if they didn’t have a lot to do with the incident, or the remediation. That was one thing about that group; right or wrong, they were never shy about expressing their opinions. It meant that I had to spend most of my time managing the process in the meeting, to ensure things kept moving forward, rather than being part of the content, and helping them come up with the solution.
The worst part was the finger pointing. It didn’t matter which team was involved. As soon as the group sensed that one team or another was responsible for the outage, they all began to pile on, enumerating the faults they perceived in that team – real or imaginary – this incident or another. It didn’t take long before everyone adopted a totally defensive attitude; refusing to admit, or even allow the suggestion that their team had in some way been involved in the loss of service to the business. Since no one would ever admit responsibility, reaching root cause, or identifying remediation, became more and more difficult each meeting.
The log jam of unreviewed SEV1s, unidentified remediation plans, and gaps in our known errors and workarounds database, were becoming intolerable. Incidents were going months without being reviewed by problem management. The tipping point came near the end of the second month of problem management. I’d decided the only way to reduce the backlog was to go to twice a week meetings. Two 90 minute meetings each week was a lot to ask of technical managers, but once they understood why, and saw how much of the backlog we cleaned up, I had been confident they would work even harder. Surely they all understood how important this was.
When the second meeting in that week came around, I was the first one into the conference room. I opened up the conference bridge on the speakerphone, and arranged the working materials around the table so that we would be ready to go on time. I always tried to get there early to make sure no one would show up, and then assume the meeting had been cancelled at the last minute because the room was empty and leave.
It was 10 minutes after the scheduled start time, I was still the only one in the room and the conference bridge was still empty. I started dialling the attendees’ cell phones to see where everyone was, but got only voicemail. I dutifully left messages.
After 20 minutes I realized no one was going to show. It wasn’t a day where there were other competing special events, or pending holidays. People seemed to have just decided not to participate in the process anymore. I gathered up the documents, shut off the lights, and closed the door behind me. As I walked back towards my cube, I realized I’d need to try something different if I was to succeed. I was smart enough, and experienced enough, to know that if something isn’t working, then you need to acknowledge that and use an alternative. As Einstein reportedly once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I needed to reach back out to the managers of each of the technical teams … to let them know I was holding them accountable for their participation, and that they were not meeting expectations. I’d given them a lot of authority to determine what was wrong and how to fix it, but that also meant they were accountable for participating in the process and solutions.
I decided to start with Jose, the leader of the Network team. He was brilliant and highly respected by his peers. His team was involved in some fashion, even if it was just service restoration, in almost every incident we encountered. If I could get him back on track, surely the others would follow.
Jose had initially shown up, but by the fourth meeting he never returned. I’d had a terrible time tracking him down, and could never get a meeting appointment to stick. But I knew he went to the fitness centre a lot, so I started hanging out there as much as possible. Eventually, I saw him come in one day after work and head for one of the treadmills.
I reached him before he could turn it on. “Jose … Hi, it’s me, Chris … from problem management.”
Jose stared at me for a moment, then said, “Oh, yeah. Hi. You work out here, too?”
Jose started programming his routine into the treadmill.
“Okay, what do you want?”
“We miss you at the problem management meetings. You are an important player in this work. I know you are busy, but we really need your insight if we’re going to reduce the number of service disruptions. We try to respect your valuable time, but you are key to our collective success. The better we get at this, the less time it will take each week.”
Jose turned on the treadmill and stood on the edge as it came up to speed. “Look, right now you are asking for almost three hours of my time a week. Are you out of your freakin’ mind? Even my boss doesn’t get three hours of my time a week. If I gave that much time to everyone, nothing would ever get done.”
“But this is important to our business partners … very important. Don’t you feel any obligation to them?”
“Yeah, I feel the obligation to actually work on things for them, not have endless dialogues with people who don’t know what they are talking about, on areas they have no involvement in.” He stepped off the edge of the treadmill and walked straight up to me. He reached out and poked a finger at me. “Frankly, your problem management meetings are a waste of time. And if you think I’m wrong, name one single thing that group has come up with and fixed, that improved what we do for the business?”
I stood silent for a moment. He was right. That was the one thing you could always count on from Jose. He had no filters when it came to telling you how he felt. You always got the same observational honesty you got from a child. No niceties. No careful phrasing. Just the plain truth as he saw it.
“Look, Jose, if we don’t put the time in on these, we can’t solve them, and if we can’t solve them, then they will reoccur. And that means you and your team will end up spending more and more time chasing down the same issues, over and over. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. It’s just like working out and staying in shape.”
He walked back over to the treadmill and stepped on, easily matching the fast pace he’d set. “You don’t get it, Chris,” he said, in words breathy from the exertion. “If you can’t figure out a way to actually respect my time, I won’t be back, and I know my manager will support me in that. I’ll give you one meeting a week, with time not to exceed one hour. Period. Figure out how to make it happen with that level of commitment, or you’re doing it wrong. You’ll get the same message from everyone else if they’ve got the tener cojones for it.”
I walked over and stood directly in front of the treadmill. “If we live with that amount of time, then all we’ll have time for in the meeting is just a readout of status by each of the teams. We won’t have time to finalize the root cause, or determine the best remediation plan.”
The treadmill began to ramp up, and Jose was breathing harder, and sweat was beading on his forehead. “And what’s wrong with that? Who says you have to solve the world’s problems in one meeting? Quit trying to boil the ocean, and hold teams accountable for working out who owns the event for root cause purposes among themselves. Let them figure out the best remediation plan, and then have them present it back to a small problem management board, for approval only. Restrict the size of the meeting, and make those attending act like the leaders they get paid to be.”
It snapped into place at that moment. Jose was right. I’d been foolish and very disrespectful of the attendee’s time. The problem management board was the right way to go. We could use the team owning the incident trigger as the starting owner of the root cause, until they found someone better. But the key was that the technical teams would work that out among themselves. They were used to working together to develop solutions. This would be no different. Besides, while the owner of the root cause usually had some remediation work to do, there were often multiple remediation activities, and usually at least one of them was owned by the team owning the incident trigger.
“Thanks, Jose. You’re right. If I promise to make those changes, will you start attending again?”
“If you leave me alone and let me finish my workout, I will give you one more chance. But if you start wasting my time again, I am gone. Do you hear me?”
“Got it. I’ll set up the next meeting for two weeks from now.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said Jose, as he turned up the music on his headset.
As I walked to the door, I made a note to sit down with each of the technical teams as soon as possible, to get them working on the incident triggers they currently owned and let them know what was going to change.
Tips that would have helped Chris
IT is one of the most multicultural organizations in the company. Be very aware of cultural sensitivity and body language. People communicate with their words, as well as their voluntary and involuntary body language. Try not to miss any information being given to you. There are many excellent books available on working cross-culturally. Educate yourself and research your contacts before you meet them.
Try to remember that people have additional responsibilities beyond the ones involved in your process. Be sensitive and realistic in the time commitments you ask of them. Use meetings as status events, not as working sessions. Let the SMEs conduct their working sessions outside the meetings. That will keep meetings short and to the point.