Archive for the 'Musings' Category

Getting a decision from a manager

So you would like a decision?

Specifically, you would like a decision from me.

The hard way

Let’s have a protracted discussion wherein you introduce a topic and I’ll be the interrogator. I’ll try to figure out what you are really asking for. Start by asking something that’s indirectly related to what you want to know or by making an observation. Be sure to disguise the problem statement so it’s hard to tell that you actually want a decision. Definitely, absolutely, positively, do not explicitly state that you are looking for a decision. I’ll ask a series of questions to uncover what you are truly asking. Perhaps I will. You might even get the decision that you were looking for. Yet perhaps, I’ll take things in a different direction altogether. My line of questioning may not be what you wanted to discuss. Who knows, we might conclude the discussion with a whole myriad of decisions and action items for you. None related to what you were hoping to accomplish. At the end of the discussion, I’ll be perplexed about why this discussion occurred and you’ll be wondering how such a simple request strayed so far from your objective.

The easy way

Alternatively, you can follow these steps.

Start by explicitly stating that you want something decided. Provide the topic, how urgent you believe it to be, and how much time you think the discussion will take. Ask when will there be time to discuss things. Usually, there’s time presently. But if there’s not then expect to know when there will be time. If now is not the time, then please don’t continue with the topic right now.

Provide some level of context/background. Don’t assume that I know the context. If we talked about it 3 days ago (or yesterday), then tell me so. Interesting aside: the earlier you are in your career (and life) the fewer things that you have to keep track of. The converse is also true. I have long ago given up on trying to remember everything that’s going on. When my memory is sufficiently jogged, I’ll speak up.

Tell me any other information that you believe I should know. For example, if you have had this discussion with your colleague and they strongly disagree, then please tell me. In other words, don’t set me up. Failing to disclose something to influence a decision is the surest way to lose credibility. Conversely disclosing information that negatively impacts your position makes you very credible.

State the problem clearly and in three sentences or less. This is quite important. More details usually don’t help. In fact, it’s very easy to obfuscate something with tons of details. This is a common case with a very technical staff because their job requires them to know all the fine grain details. Blaise Pascal once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.*” If you can’t summarize the matter, then take the time to get collected and organize your thoughts. If I think I need more details, I’ll ask very pointed questions.

Offer three legitimate alternatives. I’m being very literal here. I would like three. If you can’t think of three alternatives, then give it some more thought. If there are more than three, then only bring up the best three. “Do-nothing” is a valid alternative. If there is truly only one option, then there’s nothing to decide. Perhaps you only need to inform me of what you’re going to do or ask me if I can think of alternatives. Give the pros and cons of each alternative. The need for a decision arises when there are inherent trade-offs between options. If option 1 is all positive and option 2 is all negative, then really only one option exists.

State the criteria that you are using to evaluate the options. This is where you frame the logical argument that will support your recommendation. If your criteria are, for example, the fastest resolution possible and you want to have the most experienced person assigned to the problem, that’s logical. Conversely, if your criteria are to extend the number of staff who are familiar with a topic and you want to assign someone unfamiliar with the problem, that’s also logical.

I claim that in 80% of the situations this will be a five-minute conversation and you will get the decision you wanted. In the other 20% either I won’t agree with your criteria or the subject is complicated.

Decisions aren’t the only reason for discussion

Not all conversations are about decisions. Sometimes you are stuck and need help to establish a path forward. You may want another technical opinion or want to have a sounding board for your ideas. You also may need to inform me of some fact. Perhaps you just want to be social. All of these are welcome. Most of the time I can identify the type of conversation that you want to have. All of the time, it’s OK if you explicitly state the nature of the discussion.

* I originally thought that this was a Persian quote, however, it turns out to be of French origin. From Blaise Pascal no less. “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

Old Yeller — Hero or Space Alien

Author’s Note:

Last week, I helped my fifth grader by typing her essay. During the pauses, while she thought about what to write or looked up something in the book, I got bored and started typing extra sentences in her essay. To make sure my stuff didn’t get mixed with hers, I wrote about space aliens.

My daughter was not amused but the more sentences I added, the funnier it became. I found myself unable to stop despite numerous reprimands. Even my child was laughing by the end.

I cut all my space alien stuff out of the essay and wrote my own Old Yeller essay so she could take it to class.

So here it is….


Written in 1956 by Fred Gipson, Old Yeller is the moving account of a boy’s deep love for his dog in 19th-century Texas. However, the novel also deals with a boy’s growth as he learns to accept the harsh responsibilities of adulthood.

At the beginning of the story “a big ugly slick-haired yeller dog” shows up at the house. Travis will not accept Old Yeller and he blames Old Yeller for everything.

Soon enough, Travis starts to notice some odd things about Old Yeller. For instance, how could an average size dog fight off a 500-pound momma bear that was trying to protect her cub? And how could a dog tell in which tree the squirrel was hiding if the squirrel was on the opposite side of the tree? The dog would have to use x-ray vision to see through the tree. Of course in 19th century Texas, they didn’t know about x-rays, so Travis was only mildly suspicious. Later, when Travis falls into a ravine full of angry hogs, Old Yeller manages to defeat the hogs. Hmmm, one dog vs a bunch of angry hogs… Methinks the odds here seem to favor the piggies.

At the end of the story, Old Yeller battles a rabid loan wolf. It’s just too much for Travis to believe so he shoots Old Yeller. That’s where the book ends but I know the real untold story. I discovered it while researching on the Internet. And you know, if it’s on the Internet, then must be true. It turns out that Old Yeller was not old — just yeller. In fact, Old Yeller was not a dog at all but a SPACE ALIEN! All space aliens look like old yeller dogs! Here’s what happened next.

Two weeks later, a strange noise wakes Travis from sleep. Travis grabs his trusty gun and stumbles to the porch while trying to clear the fog from his mind.

Suddenly alert, Travis looks up and sees a strange glowing object hovering just above the tree tops. Reacting to this sight, Travis turns his body and starts to bring the rifle to his shoulder. Instantly, intense white light blinds Travis. Forgetting the rifle, Travis shields his face with his hands but it’s no use, his hands only tint the light red as it shines through his hands.

Stunned from the experience, Travis falls to the ground confused and temporarily blinded. Was it seconds, minutes, or hours later? Travis doesn’t know. Lying in the yard outside his family’s cabin, Travis’s consciousness slowly returns. Suddenly, he gets that creepy you-are-not-alone feeling. Travis opens his eyes painfully. His head hurts worse than it did last week when Arliss clocked him between the eyes with a golf ball sized rock. Slowly, the world comes into focus.

Travis cannot believe what he sees. Fifty yards from him lies an object twice the size of the cabin. It makes no noise but emits soft light that makes the yard just brighter than during a full moon. Travis decides this must be the source of the blinding light and quickly looks away. That’s when Travis notices a strong, unpleasant, yet hauntingly familiar smell.

“What is that smell,” Travis wonders? Then he remembers. It’s wet dog! He smelled it the day he caught Old Yeller and Arliss in the spring and again when Old Yeller and Arliss caught the catfish.
Travis stares in horror. A dozen, big ugly slick-haired yeller dogs surround him! Today we would just call the dogs golden-doodles. The dogs seem to talk to each other. Travis isn’t sure because the dogs don’t use words but they aren’t making dog sounds either. Travis has never heard the strange sounds before but you and I would think of the sounds as digital beeps. Suddenly, the largest of the dogs steps forward. Travis’ jaw drops open in surprise as the dog starts to speak!

“Travis,” the dog begins. “You are hereby charged with shooting XJ8, a member of our science team. The one you called “Old Yeller.” How do you plead?”

“He got bit by a wolf with Hydrophobia,” exclaimed Travis having a very hard time speaking to a dog! “We couldn’t take a chance on him biting one of us. I didn’t want to shoot him but I had to.” Travis starts to cry.

Another dog steps forward. “It’s true sir. XJ8 was bitten by a wolf infected with the disease known locally as Hydrophobia. In this time, it is an incurable disease fatal to people and animals. In another hundred years, the humans will learn to stop the disease by sticking a dozen needles into the stomach. Perhaps the human tells the truth.”

“Preposterous!” shouts a third dog stepping forward. Drool hangs from his fangs as he speaks. “We witnessed this human throw stones at XJ8 on numerous occasions. I say the human is guilty!”

Commotion erupts among the gathered dogs until the first dog raises his paw. The group quiets immediately. Then the largest dog speaks.

“The council has heard the evidence. How say you?”

The dogs again make the strange sounds, then fall silent fixing their gaze on Travis.

The leader, at least that’s how Travis thinks of the biggest dog, again speaks.

“Human, the council finds you guilty of killing XJ8. You ruined the science fair project of one of our fifth graders and our fifth graders work all year on these projects! You are hereby sentenced to death.”

The aliens shoot Travis because he shot Old Yeller. Just then something hits one of the dogs. It’s a golf ball sized rock. Arliss appears on the porch screaming. Don’t you shoot my brother. I’ll learn you. What kind of science fair project was it? I bet you didn’t even have a hypothesis! The aliens just stare until one of them says, “let’s go. That one gives me a headache.”

The aliens leave but the decide to take Mama and Lizbeth with them. Perhaps, Moma and Lizbeth can be used for the science fair. The aliens leave Arliss behind because even aliens think Arliss is a big cheese.

That’s how it really happened and now you know the untold story. Look for the exciting new conclusion, when the book is reprinted next summer and re-titled “Extreme Old Yeller!”