Book Review: The Truth About Negotiations

How should you reply to the “What’s your rate?” question? Should you answer immediately? Or try to discover their expectations? When all it’s all said and done, should you just “split the difference?”

The answer to those questions and many similar ones are what Leigh Thompson, the author of The Truth About Negotiations, sets out to provide in this short, easy to read book.

In the introduction, Thompson states that she wants to do three things with the book. First, she strives to outline a game plan that will work in any negotiation. Whether your are negotiating a raise at work or attempting to overcome a difference with your neighbor, the basic premises of negotiations are the same.

Don’t underestimate how important opening offers are. Indeed negotiators’ first offers can generally predict the outcome of a negotiation….For these reasons your ideal offer should be close to the party’s barely-acceptable terms.

Second, she focuses on what she terms the “win-win goldmine”. It’s a simple concept that we’ve all known since kindergarten: it’s best when both parties walk away happy. Thompson provides techniques for asking questions that help you to get to the underlying interests of the other person so you can hopefully strike a deal you’ll both like.

Third she discusses how to handle less-than-ideal negotiation scenarios. Sometimes you must work with people you don’t trust, or who don’t trust you. That’s tough, but Thompson provides some key insight into ways to approach it.

While this isn’t a really deep dissertation on the subject, the 53 truths that Thompson shares provide a good overview to negotiations. I enjoyed reading the book and will hang on to it for future reference.

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How To Become A Consultant

Ever thought about joining the ranks of IT Consultants?

On Thursday January 20th, 2011, I’m presenting a free PASS Professional Development Virtual Chapter webcast on how to get started in Information Technology consulting. If you have the expressed goal or the suppressed desire to become an independent consultant, this webcast is designed to help you create a clear transistion strategy from full-time employee to full-time IT consultant with a minimum of risk along the way.

During the webcast, I’ll discuss:

  • The many hats that a consultant must wear
  • Strategies for minimizing risk during your transition
  • Options for setting up your business
  • How to handle the “Give me an estimate” question
  • Low cost ways to promote your new business
  • Some best practices as you get started

Much of the information comes from my “The Rational Guide to IT Consulting” book published by Rational Press.

I hope you’ll join me for this event. For more information or to register, visit the PASS Virtual Chapter web site.

“Just Hit Somebody!” Developing A Bias Toward Action

“Come on, hit somebody!” That’s the sage advice I once received from my high school football coach. Later he elaborated to our entire group. I’m paraphrasing here:

If you don’t know who to block, that’s a mental mistake. You should know who to block. Period. But if you don’t know who you’re suppose to block, don’t just stand there; block somebody, hit anybody! Just standing there looking stupid is your second mistake. It’s better to make one mistake at full speed than making two mistakes by just standing there looking stupid.”

Line of Scrimmage

Inaction Is An Action

Much of the advice that I received from my football coaches doesn’t apply well to life off of the grid iron; it was far too sports-specific. However, that one piece of advice, “just hit somebody”, has stuck with me all these years.

Sometimes in business, in personal affairs, or even in spiritual matters, it’s far too easy to not make a decision. We tell ourselves that we need more information. Or perhaps we have enough information, but we need time to consider it all.

I certainly understand that. In fact, that’s my natural tendency. I’ve never taken a DISC assessment, but I probably have high values in the S and C dimensions which lean toward being cautious and deliberate.

But I’ve come to realize that often not making a decision is indeed making a conscious decision to do nothing. Continually asking for more information or trying to further analyze all the information that you already have leads to what’s known as Paralysis of Analysis. The opportunity is lost due to the time it took to reach a decision.

Sometimes it’s better to make a decision, any decision, and move forward.

Don’t Make Rash Decisions

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you should dispense with due diligence, that you should go around making a series of rash decisions. No, that’s short sighted and will lead to suboptimal results.

Each decision should be well researched and carefully analyzed. To a point. Then a decision should be drawn and action taken. Without action, there is no decision. You only have a wish. A decision requires an action.

Developing A Bias Toward Action

So how do we develop a bias toward action? It’s actually far easier than you may think. First you must recognize that no decision can be made with perfect knowledge beforehand. You simply will not be able to fully anticipate every aspect, every contingency, every possibility in a reasonable amount of time. It can’t be done. So there’s no point in allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Second, you must consider your options based on what you know now and determine the best approach. Notice that this does indeed require that you do your due diligence, that you analyze your situation and options, and that your draw a conclusion (decision) from those options.

And finally, you must consider the opportunity cost of inaction. Will the marginal benefit/cost of delaying action result in a substantial gain? Will gathering additional information produce a significantly better result? Or will it only delay the result? What are the consequences of inaction?

At that point, you have enough information to reach a decision. To act immediately, or to act by intentionally delaying a final decision while you do more research. If it’s the latter, set a timeline to collect the required information and repeat the process.

If all things are equal, consider just acting now.

As Winston Churchill once said “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”

So I Got Promoted, Now What? Get To Know Your Peers

[This is part four in a series of posts about how to effectively transition to your new role after being promoted.]

Series Outline

How do you recognize an extroverted IT professional? Answer: He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

That’s a harsh joke. It’s certainly not true for the people I know in the IT field, but it does illustrate a point. Those of us in the IT realm are not known for our exceptional interpersonal skills. It’s not that we don’t have interpersonal skills. It’s just that we tend to be more at ease when “interfacing” with other techies.

Being comfortable amongst similar people comes naturally. I’m reminded of the old sales axiom: People buy from people they like, and people like themselves.

Why Should I Care About My Peers?

Getting along with other IT folks may have been sufficient in your prior role, but as you get promoted up through the ranks you’ll need to extend your comfort zone to include a broader swath of the organization. Business is relational and you’ll need to be as well to succeed that landscape.

Why? There are many reasons. Here are but a few.

Learn From Your Peers

If someone has been in a position that’s similar to your new role in the organization, it stands to reason that they may have picked up some good insight during their tenure. I’m not suggesting that they’ll be perfect or that you’ll want to follow their lead. That’s probably not the case. You need to be true to your own style and make your own mark, but they may be able to help you navigate around potential land mines as you adjust to your new responsibilities in the organization.

Establish Lines Of Communication

In most organizations, a certain level of cooperation is required from multiple teams and departments. You must work with other groups to push the organization’s goals and objectives forward. It’s much easier to work with someone else when you’ve already established a professional relationship with him. People are more willing to go to bat for someone else if they know him.

Prepare For Future Conflicts

When two people interact regularly, there will eventually be conflict, even under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of conflict is escalated when put in the context of a stressful or demanding project. Some would even argue that the conflict helps to produce s better outcome. Regardless, those conflicts are less intense and are more easily resolved afterward if the two parties have already established trust and mutual respect for one another.

Vet Your Ideas Before Unveiling Them

As we come up with ideas for our department or the organization, it’s good to have a trusted colleague with whom we can share those ideas and get good and honest feedback. An idea that we conceive may have downsides that we haven’t considered. Vetting the ideas before announcing them will help you to improve the ideas and lay the groundwork for better acceptance of them when announced.

Expand Your Network

Let’s face it, business can be turbulent. Mergers and acquisitions, reorganizations and outsourcing, recessions and contracting economies all make for a very dynamic workplace. In such an environment, it’s good to have an extensive network of people who can help you if needed, or who you can help.

Ok, But Who Are My Peers?

That’s a good question. I’m reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan where a young man asks “Who is my neighbor?” and learns that his true neighbors extend far beyond his confort zone.

Getting to know your peers means getting to know others both inside and outside of your current organization, those with whom you work regularly and those you only see occasionally, those who are in the same industry and those who work in complementary industries. In short, most anyone you come into contact with can be considered your peer for these purposes.

However, that’s a pretty ambitious target so let’s narrow it down a little for starters.

Peers At Work

The peers at work are primarily your colleagues at the same level in the organization. If you are the DBA Manager, your peers may be the Dev Team Manager, the Customer Service Team Manager, and the Quality Assurance Team Manager. Don’t limit yourself to one department or physical location; reach out to peers in other departments and locations.

You may also go up the promotional ladder a rung or two, depending on the culture of work environment.

Peers In The Same Industry

Trade shows and conferences offer great opportunities to meet other people in the same industry as yours. If you go to these types of events and only consume the information presented in the break-out sessions, you’re missing out of one of the most important aspects of the event. Networking (in the best sense of the term) is probably the most important aspect of these events. You can even participate when you’re unable to attend in person.

Peers In Complementary  Industries

During the course of your business day, you’ll likely meet people from other walks of life. Getting to know your suppliers, your customers, your service providers will help you to work more effectively with them.

How Do I Get To Know My Peers?

Getting to know your peers is not really that difficult. Little kids seem to have an innate ability to do it. If you go to a playground and watch for a few minutes, you’re bound to see a new kid arrive. At first he tentatively plays near the other kids, then before you know it he’s joined their game.

As we grow, we sometimes convince ourselves that it’s much more difficult than that. We start believing that meeting new people is hard. It’s not. If a little kid can do it, surely we can. Initially you may have a certain level apprehension or even anxiety about striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know very well. As you practice, it will become much easier.

Lots of books have been written about the subject. If you’re looking for a good starting point, try the classic How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a good common sense approach for becoming a good conversationalist. In general, it’s simply finding common ground and becoming a good listener.

Some specific examples of situations where you can get to know your peers may be:

At Meetings

Meeting are pervasive in business today. Our calendars are full of them, so why not use them as an opportunity to meet someone new? Arrive early and introduce yourself to someone else who’s early. Spend a few minutes talking with her before the meeting. Afterward, send a short follow up email. Something simple like “Hey Darlene – It was good chatting with you before the meeting earlier today. Here’s a link to the resource I was telling you about. See you next week.”

Small Tokens

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers with little acts of kindness. For example, if you occasionally bring bagels or donuts for your team, buy some extra and give them to your peer for his team. Let him be the one to give it to his team. “Hey Marc – I was at the bakery this morning picking up some bagels for my team and thought your guys may want some too. Enjoy.”

At Lunch

Of course, lunch is one of the more common ways to get to know your peers. “Let’s do lunch.” as they say. But you’ll probably want to be more genuine than that. I find that it’s typically easier to establish a working relationship with my peers first and then invite them to lunch. For example, after I’ve met and talked with someone a few times I may ask “Hey – I was thinking of trying the new Mongolian place for lunch today. Have you heard anything about it?” And then you can invite him to join you.

Start Today

The best part about all of this is that you don’t have to wait until you’ve been promoted to begin getting to know your peers. You can start reaching out to your co-workers, customers, suppliers, and colleagues in other industries now. What’s stopping you?

The Lone Ranger And Data Integrity

Many IT Pros can relate to the the Lone Ranger. With the aid of but one trusty side kick, the Lone Ranger stands to protect the unsuspecting townsfolk from the wayward derelicts that plagued the American frontier. He also ate bacon three meals a day.

Like the Lone Ranger, IT Pros ride the fast-paced trail of the business environment, protecting key business systems from improper access and malcontent users. We’re often alone in our quest for data integrity, the lone voice standing out against complete and utter data anarchy. And we love bacon!

But I Neeeeeeeeeeeed It

Ok, I maybe overstating the issue slightly. Most users don’t awaken each morning with the hopes of bringing complete and utter data anarchy to our systems. They simply need something that’s beyond the current capability of the system. So they make do as best they can.

Secondary Systems

Some store data in Excel spreadsheets or Access databases (gasp!). Most of these secondary systems start off as a simple way to help one user track certain data. Over time, however, they can grow and spread like wet Gremlins. A second user discovers the existence of the neat new work-around. Then another, and another.

The next thing you know, the single-user, temporary, and unplanned work-around has become a team-level or department-level mission critical system. It’s frequently inaccessible to others who would benefit from the data, it’s difficult to back up, and it’s now yours to support.

All of this leads to disparate systems and silos of data. Maintenance becomes difficult; accurate reporting, impossible.

Getting Creative

Other users get creative with how they store data in the system. They find and exploit areas of the supported system to accomplish what they need to do. Sometimes they shove multiple pieces of data into one column; for example, they store two are three email addresses in the one allotted field. Or worse, they save two completely different types of data in one field; for instance storing a telephone number and an email address in the email address field.

Users can also repurpose an existing column for their own use under certain circumstances. They may put the customer’s email address in the P.O. Box field if they customer doesn’t have a P.O. Box.

Both techniques make producing reliable reports from the nearly impossible. Some of this can be controlled with data validation, but not perfectly. Users can still find ways around most protective measures.

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Why, oh why, do they do this to us? Don’t they realize that taking such liberties with data makes it impossible to have consistent and dependable information? Surely they’ve heard “Garbage In, Garbage Out” Oh, but they do it anyway.

But before we lash out and condemn them for making our lives miserable, we should first look in the mirror to see if any of the blame lies with us.

Have their requests for changes to the supported system continually fallen on deaf ears? Are their changes perpetually on priority level D? Have they asked for a newer version of the supported software, but been denied because we’re too busy to test and install it? Do we default to no rather than to yes?

It’s Not Us Against Them

Unfortunately in many organizations, the IT department has an almost antagonistic relationship with the departments and people they support. This is counterproductive, both to the organization and to our own goals. It makes life difficult for everyone.

So, don’t be the Lone Ranger. Reach out and work with users to support their goals. Strive to understand their needs and then look at the technology and processes that may help to fulfill those needs. You won’t be able to solve all of their problems, but building that relationship will help to solve some of your own problems.

The Best Four Sentence Blog Post Ever

“Eliminate all unnecessary words from your writing.” That’s the advice given me by Jeremiah Peschka (blog, twitter) at SQLSaturday 51 when I was picking his brain on writing. He recommended that I read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. I’ve added it on my list.

In a recent blog post, Seth Godin took this technique to an extreme. The result was nothing short of profound. In four short sentences, Godin managed to admonish and edify businesspeople the world over. Wow.

The power of making every word count.

I’m Choosing To Cheat

I’m cheating. And I bet that you are, too. In fact, most us of cheat at one time or another.

That’s the premise of Choosing to Cheat by Andy Stanley. In it, Stanley contends that we are all far too busy. We have too many commitments at work and at home; we’re stretched too thin, being pulled in every direction. There’s no way we’ll accomplish everything. Sound familiar?

So Many Things, So Little Time

So what do we do? We try as hard as we can. We spend a few extra hours at work to try to get caught up, cheating our family of that time. We take a long lunch or call in sick to get some personal things done, cheating work.

But we still come up short. No matter how hard we try, some things will be left undone. There’s just too much to do. We can’t do it all. We will miss some commitments that we’ve made. The only question is which ones.

Who Are Cheating?

For many of us, the two largest sources of commitments come from work and family. Think about those for a moment.

At work, you are replaceable. As good as you may be at your job, you’re still replaceable. If you quit, they will find another person to do your job. If you do your job poorly, they’ll fire you. If business becomes slow, they’ll lay you off. The company has very little, if any, loyalty to you as an individual. Yet many of us have great loyalty to our work. We work long hours, often burning the midnight oil, in the hopes of getting caught up or being recognized for a promotion.

Conversely at home, no one else can fill your shoes. You are the only husband or wife that your spouse has. Only you can be the mother or father to your kids. No one else can fill your role. And your family has nearly unlimited loyalty to you.

Yet when push comes to shove, many of us choose to cheat our family rather than work. We choose to devote extra time to the entity that has zero loyalty to us while robbing those that have nearly unlimited loyalty to us. We focus on areas where we are replaceable at the expense of areas where we’re irreplaceable. We choose to spend our time doing things that will be obsolete in five short years while cheating in areas where our impact may be felt for a lifetime or even longer.

Why? And what could we, should we do about it?

Making A Conscious Choice

In Choosing To Cheat, Stanley tackles this problem. He doesn’t pretend to have easy answers. But he does call your attention to the problem and offer some creative ways to approach your work and home life. I definitely learned a lot from the book.

It’s a short, easy read. You can easily finish it in one sitting or on a short flight. But it can be life changing if read with an openness and taken to heart. I have a good friend who would say that it literally helped to saved his marriage.

So, if you’re cheating, are you choosing wisely?