Cratered lives: a black hole and a ray of sunshine

It is far too long since I have committed any thoughts to this blog. In fairness, much has happened since my last post. Some good, some devastating.

Casey, Eva, Preston, and I left my beloved Miami University and southwest Ohio in April so that I could take a CIO job at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, GA (my hometown). We were set to have a wonderful family time where my Mom and Dad could be a direct part of the twin’s lives as they grew up. This was not to be.

A delighted Grandcí in March 2011 holding her beloved grandchildren, Eva and Preston.

For about 2 months we lived at my parents’ home. Mom and Dad offered  us to stay as long as we wanted. I was tempted to stay there and hoard cash; however, Casey felt no such temptation. Somehow living above the garage (even though it is really nice) isn’t the life she imagined, even though I’m sure Dave Ramsey would be on my side.
Three weeks in to our stay, Mom wasn’t feeling well and it was showing. She had been diagnosed about 3 years earlier with a lung condition. The original diagnosis was Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), which has a 90% five year mortality rate. However, upon further review the diagnosis was changed to Nonspecific Interstitial Pnumonia (NSIP) which was much better than the original diagnosis. Essentially, this is an autoimmune disorder in which her body was attacking her lung tissues. The attacks cause scarring in the lungs which meant that she getting progressively less and less oxygen (O2) during respiration.

When she was diagnosed with NSIP she was given good odds for a 20yr survival rate. She became a new person. She dieted, exercised, and was more vibrant that I’d seen her in a long time. She responded well to treatment, and things looked good.

But, the disease accelerated, and she went into the hospital on May 4, 2012. Initially, things were hopeful as she once again responded to the treatments. The doctors kicked in high doses (1000mg/day) of prednisone to try to stop any progression of autoimmune based attacks. She was doing well enough that she needed to go to the long term care place in the hospital to get weaned off of the high pressure O2 she was on.

She worked at it hard and rallied. We saw the O2 pressure and concentrations go down, and hope grew. We just knew she was coming home to resume the happy life that was waiting outside of the hospital.

There were fun moments. The hospital had these cupcakes that were so good they had NO business being in a hospital. I’d swing by the cafeteria after work, and Mom and I would talk about the day and our future plans as we ate a delicious cupcake. We talked about how good it was for Casey, the twins, and me to be home. We talked about the decision to buy a house, and then which house, and then the things we would do to fix up the house we selected. We spoke of co-hosting Thanksgiving in the new house.  We talked about seeing Eva and Preston in front of a Christmas tree. We talked about Grandcí and Bobboo (their grandparent names) spending the night at our house. Those moments are irreplaceable to me.

Progress slowed, and it became apparent that things were moving in a direction that we none wanted to think about. Concentration and pressures of 02 increased again. Her O2 saturation would dip low for simple things like going to the bathroom. It took some time for the external O2 to help her catch up. During that time the panic of not being able to breathe would kick in. Breathing is one part physiological (the mechanics of gas exchange) and one part psychological (think how watching a movie about a submarine with folks trapped underwater elicits that breathless panic even when you are in a room full of O2). Both of these aspects impacted my Mom. So, she would need meds to help her relax and mute the panic reflex.

I sneaked the kids into the hospital to see her. It was a good visit, and we captured it on video. It’s a good thing too. It would be their last visit. I can still see Mom playing “peek a boo” with the cannula in her nose and Eva, as she was worried that it may frighten the her. As they were going away, indelibly in my head is the image of Mom reaching out for Preston’s curls.

Each day brought a heavier realization that, outside of a miracle, Mom would not be coming home. There were tears, oh so many tears. There was comfort in Mom’s faith, and there was hope. She said all the time, “I’m want to get better. After all, I have every reason to want to live.” The cycles of O2 desaturation/panic increased in frequency, and more time was spent on sedating meds. Still, she was lucid and talking about the future.

She let me and Dad know that she was prepared to die. She wasn’t worried about after death, just the transition. Her faith in Christ sustained her to the end. She was worried that it would be painful. Particularly, she worried about dieing while feeling suffocated (that mental part of breathing). We promised her we would do everything we could to keep that from happening.

I would give Dad a break so he could go home, shower, and eat. During our times Mom spoke of her wishes; we spoke of good memories; and she was actively engaged in giving opinions and ideas for the house Casey and I decided to buy. She loved looking at the “Houzz” app on my iPad. She enjoyed looking at Facebook. Eva and Preston videos delighted her. She actually got to hear Preston say “Grandcí.”

She was worried that Eva and Preston wouldn’t remember her. That hurt her as those grandkids were so much a part of her life. I promised her I would not let her memory fade from them.

Family came to visit. Mom was tired with the visitors, and it took a lot out of her. She was gracious and shared a laugh with each person. At the end of it, she said that she knew they were coming to say goodbye. Casey came up, and they had a great moment that was filled with love and tears.

I can’t and won’t go into all of the conversations, but I have written many of them down in a private journal. Those memories will have to sustain me.  The machines were on 100% saturation and 100% pressure. There was nothing more we could do. A transplant was not an option. No stem cell therapy. No clinical trials. We were out of options. Science let us down. God let us down. We were out of hope.

Dad called me early Sunday morning on May 20th. I could hear a night of tears and quiet desperation in his voice as he told me that she had panicked all night and was only okay sedated and that he wouldn’t let her suffer another night. We conferred on the phone, and decided that to honor Mom’s wishes, today was the day we would be sending her home to heaven.

Out of the promise to not let her feel suffocated, she was fairly sedated when I arrived. I told her I loved her as I walked in the room. She rallied a bit. And with a strained voice she told me she loved me, and lifted heavy arms to reach for me. That was the last hug from my Mom. She said she knew that today was the day, and she was at peace.

Close family gathered around. Casey had to be with the twins and so was not there. Dad was on her right side holding her hand. I was on her left side holding her hand. Her sisters, nieces and nephews, and a cousin were in the room. We all told her we loved her, and I read her favorite scriptures out loud. The xanax, valium, and morphine were increased to make sure there was no suffering as we tapered the O2 down. As she was a fighter, Dad and I gave her permission to die.

Even against this terrible backdrop, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had this secret hope that as the machines were turned off that we would get one of those miracles. This did not happen. She lay there and took what looked like sips of air with her mouth, my Dad and I felt her squeeze our hands, and she was gone.

Gone. The woman who had loved me unconditionally for 40 years; who I talked with at least once a day; who was a confidant; a counselor who pushed me to be the best person I could be was gone. The lack of ability to do the simple gas exchange of C02 and O2 that we each do about 28,000 times per day is what caused my Mom’s death.

Grief is somewhat a self-centered thing. I mourn the loss of our daily interaction and the overall guiding presence. There are far too few people who are in our corner, and I have one less. Mom had chronicled my life, and I lost that connection to my childhood. I lost that bridge who would tell stories to my kids about me as a child. I lost love in its purest form for me and my kids.

My Dad and I have always been close and now even closer. He will be with us, and we will be a family. They were married 43 years, and his pain is unthinkable and unceasing. All I have asked of him is to honor Mom by being the best version of himself he can be and to help me let the kids know who Mom was.

This is the picture my Mom asked to put on her Facebook account as her “going home” shot. She was 59 years old when she died. Far too young.

The pain and sorrow have been unimaginable. Casey has been my source of strength, and the kids my source of joy. Dad and I have leaned on each other and are surviving the cratered life we now live.

In June 2012 Casey and I found out that we are having –quite unexpectedly– another little one due in March 2013. Just a few weeks ago we found that it was a little girl. Her name will be Ella Cynthia Sue Howard.

“Ella,” which means “bright light” because she is bright light in a time of darkness and sorrow (also a family name on my side from the 1700’s). “Cynthia” to honor my Mom, and “Sue” to honor Casey’s Mom.

It’s hard to think of this little one coming into a world where she will never know the direct love of Grandcí. Stories and pictures will have to do.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and Mom is still co-hosting the event. Her presence is missed, but her legacy will live on.

I will find ways to honor my Mom for the rest of my life. Since her death I’ve run a half marathon to honor her and will spend the rest of my life helping people reach their full potential…because that’s really what Mom was about. And this is a good way to spend a life.

Mom, I love you. Thank you for loving me and guiding me. If there is anything good about me, it is because of you and Dad. Love, Friz

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Trick or Treat? Death by Powerpoint….

I wanted to have some fun at work and in my class, so here’s my ode to bad meetings!

The Grim PPTer

And here’s what is says on my scythe and the handouts. Today I have a meeting with our IT Strategic Advisory council, which includes our Provost, CFO, other VPs and several deans. Funny thing is that I bet there will be at least 3 PowerPoint slide decks used. Hope they don’t make any Death by PowerPoint mistakes, because I’ll be there to get them if they do! mwuahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Happy Halloween! Let me know if I missed any PowerPoint or other presentation travesties!

Click the picture...it's easier to read that way.

5 Steps Towards Creating an Innovation Culture at a University

Our president here at Miami University, David Hodge, gave his annual address titled “A Culture of Entrepreneurial Spirit” on September 29th this year. It was a good speech, balancing an honest view of the challenges we face with a positive attitude that we will overcome them and be better for it, and how we’re going about tackling some of the challenges. Read it for yourself on his website. It’s worth the time.

In it he discusses the benefits of an entrepreneurial approach and how this impacts culture. This embodies looking at innovative ways to do things like doing new things for the same amount of resources spent, decreasing frustration with existing processes, etc. And, of course, bringing in more revenue is never bad. This general approach can increase your competitive advantage by considering different ways of doing things, and give you better outcomes, which for us is mostly defined by attracting great students and producing excellent, successful graduates.

So the big guy says this is a strategic direction for us. How do we make it happen? I started looking around for models on implementing innovation, and came across one outlined by Desouza, et. al. (2009). Their representation of the innovation process is pictured below.

The Innovation Process (Desouza, et. al. 2009)

In reviewing their model (idea generation & mobilization>advocacy & screening>experimentation>commercialization>diffusion & implementation), it became clear that there are things we must do if we want to create an environment in which innovation thrives. Here’s my take on five things we need to do. There are more, but these stood out as key levers to get us going towards an entrepreneurial culture, so that anyone can be innovative wherever they are on an org chart.

Step 1: Reduce bureaucracy

(key in all phases, but particularly in idea generation and advocacy)

Entrepreneurs and innovators do new and different things. Sometimes they are in line with existing practices, but many times the new thing is contrary to the status quo. Innovation is creativity with a vector. These ideas and practices may break existing rules or at least push them hard enough to give them a good blister. The university is a wonderful environment, but from my vantage point, outside of the direct academic pursuits of teaching and research, there is process and policy inertia that must be overcome to give innovators room to flourish.

Stuck in the mud

Is this your idea?

We have incredibly bright people who generate great ideas. I wonder how many great ideas lay fallow and unrealized, because people don’t know what to do with them?  Other times, when ideas actually get surfaced, we bog them down between the powerful pincers of process and policy.  Over time it’s not just the ideas we lose, we significantly reduce individuals desire to bring forward those ideas. Think about it. If you are continually told no, or worse, reprimanded for trying different things, then you’re going to stop. We seek rewards and avoid pain, which is our survival instinct kicking in. If it happens enough it will become the culture. How many times have you heard, “It won’t work. We tried that before.”

As leaders, can we help people get their ideas off the ground and give them some help to move it to the next phase or empower them to take steps locally? Are you comfortable getting uncomfortable? Do you value the process or the outcome more?

Step 2: Understand and manage the balance between risk and business value

(key in  Advocacy and Screening Phase and Commercialization)

We are generally risk averse, and many times I hear “why should we do this?” instead of “why shouldn’t we do this?” Now, I’m NOT saying that we should accept every risk, but I think many times we don’t understand the risk of doing or not doing something in terms of financial or strategic consequences. Status quo is typically an easier path at a university, and climbing the hill to get beyond this can be pretty steep.

In the past I’ve been frustrated by legal counsel regarding implementing new initiatives, but recently I had a moment of clarity to understand my perceived problem. Legal counsel is a wonderful partner in understanding the liability and risk side of the equation, but it isn’t necessarily their job to present the business value side of the equation. If you have a strong case on the liability side with little to no real definition or quantification of the business side, the resulting trend towards risk aversion is completely understandable. But never forget maintaining status quo has its own risk.

Oh, and the earlier you bring in those who represent mitigating the risk side of your effort, the more likely you are to wind up with a successful end with loads less frustration on all sides. Managing risk and surprises are not happy companions.

Can we reduce the effort to challenge the status quo and create risk profiles across different areas? Can we do a better job of defining the business value for things that insert risk, so we can do a better job balancing risk and value?

Step 3: Learn from failures. They are an inevitable part of the innovation process.

(key in Experimentation Phase)

One key element of entrepreneurship and innovation is accepting failures and learning from them. We’re not talking failure from lack of trying or patent neglect of duties. Those are performance management issues. However, even with much brilliance and energy, not every idea is going to be a winner, and winning ideas won’t be executed successfully every time. You need to understand where the failure occurred and why. With resiliency, tenacity, whatever word you want to use, innovators need to know how to bounce back from failure. Should you go at it again with a different approach?  Were the resources right? Was it just bad timing? Has something in the environment changed to make the timing better?

As you gain understanding of the problem you are solving and there is a mismatch between it and the solution you are engineering, you may have to kill and start over or recast your original idea and change mid-stream? In the start-up world, this is called a “pivot.” You have to be careful not to fall in love with an idea because sometimes you have to pull the plug on them for various reasons. This agility is key to coming up with repeatable successes.

Another thing to consider as you learn from mistakes is diversity. Did you get enough input? Was that input from people who will use the innovation? Was it from people who think differently than you do and/or come from different backgrounds and perspectives? Strengthen an initial idea with opinions. Even if you disagree and choose to maintain your specific vision à la Steve Jobs, you will have heard what critics may say.

twitter fail whale blowfishFailures can be beautiful

Do you bury failures as quickly as possible? Instead, can you create a dialogue to openly discuss failures without a sense of being punitive, and can you glean information that can help you next time? Can you help your people get a Can-Do attitude?

 

 

Step 4: Design and Execute with Sustainability in Mind

(key in Experimentation, Commercialization, and Diffusion/Implementation)

I’m all about the green movement, but that’s not the type of sustainability to which I’m referring. What I mean here is to understand the intended duration of an implemented innovation. In academia, I believe we are still somewhat wed to the era where universities showed success by growing the number of buildings whose systems typically have a 50-60 year lifecycle. For the most part, the innovations that come up at a university won’t be brick and mortar and may only be relevant for 2-3 years. That’s OK, but you should enter the process with some idea of how long something will be relevant. This will guide how much resource you expend in the later stages of the innovation process where you scale up to production.

This will also impact your speed and time to market. Is it more important to get something done quickly, be first, and iterate if you need to?  Or, is it more important to be right when you get to market? The answer will vary by case, but clearly last to market with a miss is the worst option!

When you create something, are you deliberate in understanding it’s term of relevance? Does your idea come with planned obsolescence or do you expect to maintain it forever? If it is a service, do those using it understand that it will be going away at some point?

Step 5: Implement a Reward System

(key across ALL phases)

This, I believe, is the most crucial part of creating an innovation culture. If the reward incentive is strong enough, people will make it through most any challenge. As you move to execute innovation, successful behavior change targets should be selective, rewarded, and modeled (Recardo, 2011). Rewarding and highlighting the desired behavior will help set the culture much faster than just talking about what you want. With budgets tighter and specific rules in place for certain types of funding sources, this can be difficult to accomplish, but remember it’s not always money people are after. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and safety are taken care of, people need love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization too! Think about these things in terms of your reward structure.

Innovators do things because they see the world as it could be, but, as a leader, you  must own a great deal of responsibility by sensing and responding to the environment, managing, and sustaining behaviors towards a goal. While the stewardship for applying and increasing these attributes for an organization rests with management, the people closest to the problems and frustrations can be a great source of innovation and competitive advantage (Amiri, 2010) for the university. Technology can be a great part of your competitive strategy, but long term, sustainable competitive advantage from comes from people who will continually innovate and keep you relevant. Make sure you protect your most valuable asset.

Do you know what motivates your people? Have you asked them?

Getting the Points Across Through a Team-Building Exercise

I just had my all staff meeting where I wanted to get this conversation started and have people thinking on how THEY participate as innovators at every level. We did an exercise where I gave them a folder with 8 pieces of construction paper, some masking tape, a drinking straw, some markers, and some paper clips. They had 20 minutes to build the tallest structure in teams. I got the idea from a class that I had taken, but the gist of it is here, at the TeamPedia website as well. That site looks interesting, but I haven’t had a chance to look around a lot.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: a tall structure

It was fun to watch as some began building without discussion; some began probing me to find the boundaries of what they could use, and then actively pushing and crossing those boundaries; and some were really worried about their design being copied. At the end of the exercise each placed their project on a judging table where they presented their team name, a little about they went about the project, and any special features. We looked at height, then I added two “sustainability” challenges, which consisted of a fan at the other end of table to simulate high winds and me rocking the table to simulate a tremor.

At the end of the exercise, we talked about the points mentioned above and how each and everyone of them could be innovators at any level across the university. Everyone had the same materials, but each team had a different take on the design and implementation. The event got pretty good feedback and was certainly better than a death-by-PowerPoint meeting!

references:

Amiri, A. N. (2010). Increasing the Intellectual Capital in Organization : Examining the Role of Organizational Learning. European Journal of Social Sciences, 14(1), 98-109.

Desouza, K. C., Dombrowski, C., Awazu, Y., Baloh, P., Papagari, S., Jha, S., & Kim, J. Y. (2009). Crafting organizational innovation processes. Innovation: Management, Policy & Practice, 11(1), 6–33.

Recardo, R. J. (2011). Taking a fast-cycle approach to align organizational culture with business plans. Global Business and Organizational Excellence, 30(3), 32–40.

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Faculty IT Choices: Walled Garden v the Wild West

I work in IT in a university environment, and one of the byproducts of this is that I get a lot of questions. Some want help with their email or printer. Some want me to predict the future so they can know timing for buying products or stocks. Some people want to vent their cosmic frustration at the pace of change, and how this impacts their personal lives.

At this point in my career, my ability to help with specific technical problems is diminishing, though I will valiantly try for my wife and parents. If I were great at predicting the future, I’d be rich, retired and contributing more to the community. But in each of these situations I can listen and attempt to refer to sources that can be more helpful. While I have no direct control over the cosmos’ plot to frustrate you through technology, I am attempting to help out with this on a small scale at Miami.

Diffusion of Innovations

Roger's diffusion of innovation curve

Schools don’t just hand out PhDs left and right. There is rigor, effort, and time involved. Faculty are bright people, especially in their own field. Some love technology, some use it as a tool, and some avoid it like it would give them leprosy. It’s a bell shaped curve, with the majority just wanting to use it as a tool. Over the past couple of years, there has been a pattern that has emerged to me that the great middle majority of faculty are put off by the sheer volume of technical change and possibilities.

Out of gas!

This isn’t solely in a university setting, and it’s not solely in the realm of technology. Too many choices leads to spending a lot of precious and finite cognitive energy on things that may not matter. This can lead to anxiety and less happiness overall. You can only think about so many things, and then you’re out of juice. If you waste your mental energy thinking about the best possible paper plates out of the 40+ options that are out there, you probably won’t get to think about something else that may be more critical. So, where any choice will probably be OK, or at worst will be short lived, especially where you can pick again, then just make a quick decision and feel good about it. 

Let’s get back to IT at a university.

Unless you are teaching in technology or are in the technology innovators category, chances are you need or want to use technology to achieve some outcome like learning objectives, a report with graphs using specific data, etc. If you are busy keeping up with or contributing to the specific changes in your field, how do you have the time to keep up with the tidal flow of technology choices? Chances are you use what you’re used to, what your peers are using, or what you hear about from students from other classes.

The signal to noise ratio is pretty high on technology choices. I must confess that it’s tough even for me, and staying abreast of trends is part of my life’s work. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t know what to do with Google +. I have an account, but I don’t have any more energy to give to social networks. Facebook is exhausting and annoying to me, but it’s a great way to have perpetual virtual class reunions and to share photos of our kids with a lot of interested people. I’m invested; my crowd is invested. As long as the annoyances of Facebook are less than the energy to change, then I’m a Facebook user. Yes, this is the technology equivalent of Sansabelt slacks, a camp shirt, and some beige Rockports (sorry Dad!), but I am OK with this.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you.

The essence of what I’ve distilled from my conversations with faculty over the past year or two is as follows:

  1. Lower the threshold for the technophobic to try technology, but don’t expect much
  2. Provide a couple of well-supported options for the large majority who are comfortable using–don’t hate or love– technology
  3. Give the innovators room to explore, but make sure they know the regulatory boundaries so as not to expose them or the institution to excessive liability

Walled Garden: a curated, manicured experience

My attempt to do this is a walled garden strategy. Let’s have a curated approach where there are a couple of ways to accomplish something. You can talk to IT staff or peers and explain what you’re trying to do, and we can give you a couple of options, with pros and cons, to try to see if it fits your needs. We can give you rich support with these options to get you started and while you use them. Maybe a couple of choices that fit the masses, but not the pantheon of possibilities. You are safe as long as you are here. Maybe a rose will prick your finger now and again, but mostly you will be delighted as we weed, tend, and cater to you. Oh, but don’t think that the walled garden is a time capsule or vacuum. It’s living and dynamic. Things will have to leave to make room for those newfangled innovations from the Wild Westerners below. We will add and remove things with as little disruption and as much buffer as possible, but there will always be some activity going on.

Welcome to the Wild West

Ah, but gardens are for sissies who want to have tea parties. You are no mere user of commonplace technology and you sure don’t like boundaries. You define the bleeding edge of technology. If it’s not beta–not the comfy 3 year old Google style betas, but real RAW betas that are still fluid from nightly builds– then you probably aren’t interested.

Academic FREEEEEEEDOOOOM!

You want the Wild West, not some spoon-fed thing from the out of touch bureaucrats from IT-land. You are waiting for me to try to stop you with my two primary weapons of inertia: policy and process. You are ready to bravely pick up the standard of academic freedom.

Wait! I don’t want to stop you. Have at it.

Here my job is to make sure you know about FERPA (student privacy), HIPPA (patient privacy), ITAR/EAR (export control regulations), etc. Go crazy! But don’t incur liability for the university or yourself. Some of these things can land you in jail and cause reputational damage to your institution. Nobody wants that!

Oh, just so you know: in the Wild West there is very little support, but lots of encouragement! You are likely to try a lot of things and quit a lot of things, which is fantastic, and the way innovation should work. It’s just too costly for us to keep up with you and the rest of the innovators with rich support. We’re keeping that Walled Garden up.

But don’t AT ALL mistake the inability to give you copious support with lack of interest. At some level we in IT are geeks too and wish we had more time to experiment. The walled garden is nice and necessary, but sometimes boring. We may want to help as time allows, but the walled garden is our first priority, so we may have to leave you hanging to take care of that. We’re sad too.

We also have a fundamental need to keep an eye on the Wild West. As time progresses, today’s Wild West innovation will need to be in the Walled Garden, so we need to understand how things will scale and need to be supported. Also, at some point and time, you may want to find your way back to the walled garden to rest. We can help guide you back.

My role as an IT leader is to create an organizational culture that richly supports and serves as a guide to academic and research needs of the faculty and the business needs of the staff, but also facilitates the innovators and help to bring some of their solutions back to the walled garden so as to create a dynamic environment that captures the best part of innovation without getting caught in an inefficient churn.

You can reduce your cognitive demand on the vast array of technology choices by being in the walled garden and save your energy for your classes or research, or you can be a pioneer with the associated wagon ruts. I need to be able to work with you either way, but the choice is yours. But it’s easy to change your mind, so don’t think about it too much!

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The Weakness Question

As I’ve mentioned, there have been just a few career opportunities in the past couple of months that intrigued me to the point of actually applying. As I’ve prepared for interviews, one of the questions I have tried to ready myself for is the “What’s your biggest weakness?”

What's YOUR biggest weakness?

A friend was asking questions to me in preparation for an interview today, and the weakness one came up. I spouted off my real, but practiced answer.

I am a big picture thinker, and that means for me that focusing on details require more effort than big picture thinking. To mitigate this, I write down reminders and lists and allocate specific time to focus on those lists.

I also make sure to build a team that has complementary competencies. I don’t want a group of people that thinks exactly like me. For me, I get someone who is very detail oriented so that we complement each other. The more experience I get, the more I see that getting diversity of thought, background, and perspective is key to making good decisions.

GREENOCK, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 18:  In th...

Manage your Energy Wisely!

The other thing is that I’ve heard the strengths/weakness defined differently than positive and negative aspects. Strengths are activities that give you energy when you do them, and weaknesses require energy to do. So, the trick is to know and plan your day so that you have the most energy to tackle your “weaknesses” and use your “strengths” activities to recover. Energy management.

That’s my answer. It’s 100% true. But as I was answering it, I had an epiphany.

My biggest weakness is the one that I don’t know about and don’t have a mitigation strategy for. Maybe it’s something that everyone knows but me. Maybe it’s something that’s undiscovered by everyone.

There’s not much I can do about the latter, but the former does actually have a mitigation strategy, at least as it comes to gaining awareness. I have to continually encourage feedback from those around me. I have to communicate that I’m willing to be vulnerable and appreciate learning ways that I can improve. Back in high school, in sports they used to call this “coachable.” My goal then is, of course, to be coachable for life and never get so rooted in protecting my ego that I am not willing to listen, learn, and improve.

I believe I’m ready for that question now.

Charles Atlas

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Innovation as a function of Trust

The

Miami University

Next semester I am teaching a brand new class on “Innovation and Disruptive Thinking” for Miami University, and I’ve been doing a bit of research on the topic to make sure that I hit the learning outcomes with which I think students who take the class should walk away. And, I’ve been fortunate enough to be interviewing for a few CIO positions at universities around the country where this topic inevitably comes up. If it doesn’t, then it’s a bit of a warning sign. The gist of this is that between research and personal reflection, much of my thought cycles over the past year or so have been revolving around IT, innovation, and change.

We’ve been somewhat spoiled to Silicon Valley’s “next big thing” version of innovation with the big reveal, an IPO, and venture capitalists, and certainly that is a gigantic part of what innovation means, but it’s not the sole definition. My world has some of the big new things, but it’s the daily small innovations that are more powerful and frequent. It’s the piece of duct tape you use to wrap around a rake handle so you won’t get a blister (adaptation); or it’s using a muffin pan upside down to make cookie cups (new use) (http://lifehac.kr/quGfrD). It’s when you get frustrated with a daily annoyance and either actually take care of it or think about ways you would take care of it if you could.

This sort of innovation usually occurs near to where the problem or frustration lives by the person being frustrated or by someone observing continual frustration with “fresh eyes.” If you’re going about your work and have some web based program (eg, a finance program) that takes you four steps to accomplish a task and you could envision how it could be done in two, this is innovation. If you’re at home, go ahead and put the duct tape on the rake. You probably don’t need me for that, but if you’re at work and have an idea that requires or could use some help from IT, what do you do? (My first advice is to write that idea down–moments of brilliance are fleeting!)

I think a lot of what you do depends on our relationship. “Our relationship” meaning the culture I’ve instilled within my organization from top to bottom. Are my basic services stable? When they aren’t, am I transparent on the cause, the mitigation, and the steps to prevent it from happening again? Do I involve people in guiding how resources are used? Do I find ways to frustrate you with bureaucracy? Am I better at saying “no” than trying to help you accomplish your goal? Do I confuse strategy with process? (a topic of a future blog post, I promise!) Am I open to feedback and do I take take criticism  non-defensively? (By the way, that’s criticism not flogging–there is a difference) In general, do my actions match the words I’m saying? We all know the grand words written on the wall that describes the vision and values, but do we all live it?

(An aside: If you’re a leader within your organization, can you answer the vision/values/mission question succinctly? Can your direct reports? If the answer is not yes–with allowance for some drift–then you have some work to do on your vision/values. Clarity of purpose is critical to being successful.)

Of course, we live in a world of limited resources and there are regulatory requirements that prevent some good ideas from happening, but for the overwhelming majority of the time, I think we in IT should be helping advance the cause of our clients. To do this we need to develop a trust relationship with people. IT can be a strategic enabler, but you’re not going to want to dream with me if you don’t trust me or question my competency on basic matters. And, by me, again I mean top to bottom of the organization. The lowest common denominator will define the trust in most cases. And, I would say the converse is true as well. I need to be able to trust you too!

As I understand your goals, there are those moments where “the next big thing” could be appropriate. Part of my job is to stay up to date and have the IT organization stay up to date, with industry trends, peer directions. If you marry this understanding of trends with the relationship and understanding we’ve developed over time, then you have a powerful reaction that can occur. Client need can be met with an technical possibilities. Steve Jobs said something to the effect that sometimes people don’t know what they want until they see it. For me, this is all about knowing and understanding your audience and constituency.

Where the big central group may not be able to move as quickly, can we facilitate and encourage innovating and trying new things with local IT staff? Once we reach a point where it is appropriate to deploy an innovation–the new big thing or a process change–across the university, can we work together to minimize impact? It’s about being able to cede areas of control to my constituency and manage through consensus and influence. Trust and communication are the two main vehicles that will make this possible.

To do justice to the discussion, I really need to talk about how mining conflict is critical to successful implementation of an innovation is; the role of failure as a component of success; and the general process of organizational change. But, those are other topics for other days.

My perspective is based on the belief that my role as a leader is to help foster an environment where innovation can occur, implement it where possible, and most importantly help people through the change process as their lives are disrupted. So much of my job now deals with broad organizational changes that becoming a competent change leader is critical to any chance of success. In many cases, we don’t fear the end state, we fear the transition. One of the thing that has been helpful to me is to be able to see the big picture and then help others see it, feel it, and taste the vision of what the future could be like. The beginning, middle, and end of this journey from innovation to implementation is all based on the trust relationship. It’s my job to set the culture where this flourishes, and making sure my actions and words are in alignment.

Just in case you’re wondering, here is my personal mission. Ask me about it any time.

creating a healthy environment where others can reach their full potential to excel at life and contribute positively to humanity.

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Cutting the cord and other tales of budget weeding

Khaaaaaaaan!

About two and a half years ago, I got fed up with all of the monthly subscription bills leaching away our budget. The fed up feeling had been growing longer than this, but I was spurred in to action out of frustration over a series of misadventures with Time Warner cable, DISH, and DirectTV that they each executed with separate and distinct, but incredibly similar, pincer moves of incompetent boobery between installers and customer service agents. Those of you who know me best know that I sometimes take a principled stand, even if it is inconvenient for me. This was one of those times, and it actually turned out OK.

I pulled out the online banking statements to look at what I was paying each month.

  • Cable: $175 (high speed internet included)
  • Home phone: $35
  • Cell phone (2 lines): $150
  • Alarm service: $ 40
  • Netflix: $20

The home phone, at first blush, seemed easy to cut. Since the advent of mostly reliable cellular service, I never used it. I did have a bit of discussion with my Mom who worried that I was regressing to some former irresponsible version of myself by not having a land line. Cell phones are transient; transients move around from pillar to post possibly in some sort of decadent, reprobate lifestyle that would make Hemingway blush. This sort of thing worries mothers. I was threatening to re-awaken some worry genes in my Mom that had gone dormant since my first few years out of college, and land based phones lines seem to be a panacea against this worry.

But this wasn’t the hardest obstacle to getting rid of the phone line. Alarm companies, in conspiracy with mothers everywhere, think that broadband cable is too flaky for monitoring. After some research I found that the 7845i-GSM (http://bit.ly/ruMkpa) would allow me to have my alarm go through the internet and also have a cellular backup (that I didn’t have at the time). The monitoring company, Alarm Club (http://bit.ly/rrlruV), is UL listed which is the thing that matters to your home owner’s insurance for the discount. The monitoring fee for this was $20/mo +$5 for the ability to control my system from the web and iPhone. Now if I had to have someone watch the house, I could set a temporary garage door code and have them call me to disarm/arm the alarm remotely instead of having to give out keys and codes.

The device was $240, but it allowed me to drop a $35/mo phone line and reduce the monitoring fee from $40 to $25. Total monthly savings is $50. Return on investment (ROI) in 6 months, then it’s money in the bank, and I get to tell my Mom that we’re actually safer than we were before.

The cell phone bill is harder. I hate to admit it, but we have first world types of problems that require having the newest iPhone to solve. The only wiggle room here is that I don’t text as much as we were paying for so we reduced the unlimited texting, and we signed up for the 15% discount for working at Miami University. Many large companies get some sort of 10-15% discount at cell phone companies, so you should definitely check that out. Usually you just have to email a copy of your photo ID showing affiliation for the discount to be put in place.

Now, the fun part: telling cable/satellite that, while their call is extremely important to me, I am experiencing unusually high volumes at the moment so they can take their shoddy service and…well, I think you can finish the sentence for me. Enjoy yourself…you know you’ve dreamed of doing the same thing.

Great. I have a feeling of self-righteous satisfaction but no channels. Yes, I love to read and agree that the TV is an opiate. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke or do drugs. I don’t have caffeine that much and that’s usually in the form of tea, not even some cool mega energy beverage. As I’ve gotten older I don’t eat cheese as much as I used to or want to. I avoid sodium because I feel its impacts. Red meat is only once a week, if that, and we try to eat vegetarian at least once or twice a week. Darn it, I need a few vices at least just to make me an interesting conversationalist at dinner parties. (Note the wonderful twist I just used: I admitted I’m doing something bad, but I’m really doing it for YOU). We’ve all sat next to Mr or Ms Boring Perfect at one time or another wondering how long we were going to have to keep pretending to be interested in their collection of ziplock bags of varying thicknesses. Therefore, I need some channels to make sure I don’t bore you. You may thank me the next time you see me.

It turns out that you can get glorious, uncompressed, high definition TV channels for free over the air, similar to our parents and grandparents used to do. However, I didn’t want, and Casey wouldn’t allow, a radar antenna array on the roof.

wasn't going to happen

You can get small antenna that will work indoors for UHF HD channels, but I wanted to increase my FM radio reception (no, I’m not paying for satellite radio…read the name of the post!), which meant I needed a UHF/VHF antenna. I researched again, and there was no reason I couldn’t put the antenna in the attic versus on the roof. Better aesthetics than an indoor model, safer from lightening than the rooftop model, a little signal loss, but not enough to worry about, and much less loss than an indoor model.

Upon the recommendation of a friend (thanks, GM!), I shopped at http://www.dennysantennaservice.com for my antenna. I picked the EZ-HD antenna for $59 (http://bit.ly/qiiQKr) to mount in the attic. I used a rigid 90 and screw in mounting adapter from the electrical section  of home depot, plus some coax and ground wire and ground wire clamps. If you do this project yourself or hire it out, please, please, please make sure you ground the antenna. There is a ground screw on the antenna itself, get enough stranded wire to reach to a copper cold water pipe and use a pipe ground clamp (http://bit.ly/nwMKhi) to attach it. I ran the coax to the splitter that feeds the tv outlets throughout the house to finish this part.

Use anntennaweb.org to figure out which way you need to point your antenna for the best reception from the local tv market that serves you. We were lucky and had three markets from which we could draw. I took my compass up in the attic to roughly align the antenna to the right direction.

Modern TVs (anything in the last five years or so) have the ability to tune a digital signal directly, but you will need a tuner if you have an analog TV or projector system like we do in our basement, and you’re probably going to want DVR even if you don’t need the tuner. Best bets here are Tivo for simplicity or a TV tuner card in your media server (you’ve got one of those, right?).

We went with the TIVO route, and I spent just over $1k on two TIVOs with life time subscription. I know, you’re thinking, “A THOUSAND dollars, but you said you wanted to SAVE money!” Trust me.

Image representing TiVo as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The total cost for this was about $1300 for materials and about a half a Saturday doing the work. Now, I just pay for high speed internet from the cable company and that is about $50/mo. So, I’ve got $125/mo in savings. The ROI for this is about a year. We also reduced our Netflix plan (and reduced it again recently to streaming only).

While you’re spending money, just go ahead and buy a Logitech Harmony One remote (http://amzn.to/mSB1O9). (note:I write this in my context as a guy married to great girl, but, ladies, if you’re the tech savvy one, the advice still applies for your SO too.) My wife is an intelligent woman, and I count on her for guidance and counsel in almost every area of my life. But remotes are Kryptonite for her. My bachelor pad five remote array wasn’t good for our relationship. She wanted to put on a show or movie for us to watch. She would falter; I would inevitably snicker at this (STEEEERIKE ONE). She would toss them all at me in frustration, and I would magically fix whatever problem in about 3 seconds (STEEEERIKE TWO). Frankly, I need more than one strike left just to finish out the evening, much less a lifetime of evenings. Get the remote. Much less expensive than a marriage counselor.

At the end of the first year, we had a reliable system that was paid for and we were saving about $175/mo. That’s $2100/year take home pay. If you’re in a 25% tax bracket that’s $2800 of your annual income, if you’re in a $28% bracket that’s $2900. We had better things to do with that money than pay for excess product that came with terrible service.

We went from 200+ channels of which we watched only about 10, to about 15 channels of which we watch only about 5. We still spend too much time in front of the TV, and the only things we missed at first were Discovery Channel and Food Network shows. There are methods to get these that I’ll cover in a different, more technical post. My one caveat is for sports fans. If you’re a sports fanatic, then you will need to be ready to spend some time with your friends who still pay for cable/satellite or just keep paying.

Outside of some initial withdrawal pains, it’s really been a non event in our lives, and we’ve been very happy with the results. With 7 month old twins most of that money has been redirected for formula and diapers.

Let me know if you have thoughts, questions, or better advice. I’m sure there are many ways to do this.

Note: I did all the labor myself, which significantly reduced the cost for this. There are cheaper ways to implement (ie, indoor, tabletop antenna), but figure in the cost of labor if you don’t want to do this yourself.

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