Thanks for all the comments and feedback on the story of Sam Houston. Taking a suggestion from a reader, I am extending the story…Let me know what you think
Sam returns from his meeting feeling frustrated. The company that he works for, PubIT, is being sued by a major competitor for intellectual property infractions and the product in question is one that was developed under Sam’s watch. Sam has just been assigned another ‘important’ task – do an internal audit to see where certain pieces of the code came from (Damn, Open Source Gurus, he thinks to himself!)…he needs to figure out if there is any merit to the lawsuit. Sam summons his assistant to his office and asks, “Julie, do you need a caffeine fix?” From years of working together, Julie had learned to read Sam’s mood, no matter how well he tried to mask it. She knew immediately that something was not right. “Sure, Boss. Do you want me to get you the usual?” Sam thinks for a minute, then gets up from his chair, “No, let’s walk down together.”
While standing in line waiting to order their drinks, Julie decides to break the silence. “Sam, I have worked with you for over five years, but I have never seen you so stressed. Maybe I can help? I know that I can take on more… just tell me what needs to be done!” Sam smiles and responds with a question, “How about a Venti, rather than your usual, Tall?”
With coffees in hand, they settle into the leather chairs of the coffee shop. “That Venti is going to cost you Julie,” Sam remarks in jest. Then more seriously, he adds, “I need to know your secret. I keep giving you things to do but you remain calm and get all of them done as needed. How do you do this?” Julie pauses, looking down at the mug in her hands. It is her favorite secretary gift that Sam has given her over the years. It is a simple white cup decorated with the message ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Julie points to it, reminding Sam of what he had told her a few years before, “Sam, remember the long conversation we had at Finn MacCools (a neighborhood pub, or as everyone knew it – Sam’s Irish Office!), you gave me the history lesson about how the British Government’s Ministry of Information printed out posters with these words, Keep Calm and Carry On, to help its citizenry deal with the chaos of World War II.”
Sam nods his head. “I remember. A powerful message but much harder to put into practice! What is your secret? How do you dodge all the bombs I send your way, so to speak? I keep throwing so much your way!” Julie knows her boss is a ‘solutions guy’ who likes to solve problems once he becomes aware of them. She suggests, “Sam, here is one technique that works well for me. I keep a list of the things you ask me to do. Next to each item, I answer the following three questions: 1) How important is it? 2) Who is the customer or ultimate stakeholder that I am going to impact with the task? and 3) What is the deadline for the task? During our weekly meeting, I go over the items on the list, then listen to all the new things that you want done. Afterwards, I go back to my desk and reprioritize the list. As needed, I get more information from you, including 1) I ask you what things I can drop from the list given the developments of the week, 2) If you need me to take on new tasks, I ask you to change the current deadlines for selected tasks so as to make time and energy available for me to work on the new assignments, and 3) Even though you do not like it, I keep reminding you of tasks that are vitally important (i.e. strategic) on my list that are my major priorities; when I do this, you feel reassured and actually begin to give me more items that can be cut out from my list.”
Processing this information, Sam remarks “So, you developed a system to keep your boss’s demands in check.” Julie giggles, “Sam, if I don’t, who will?” It’s another good question. Taking another sip of coffee, Sam makes a decision to try out Julie’s system. The two of them head back to Sam’s office. Sam proceeds to wipe off his whiteboard, then requests Julie to begin writing down his current tasks, noting for each 1) who the stakeholder he wants to impact is or who is responsible for the task, 2) what the deadline is and 3) the impact (strategic, tactical, or operational) to the organization and to Sam’s career. He pleads with Julie, “Remind me for the next few weeks– before I take on another task, to reprioritize this list myself. When people ask me to do something, remind me to walk them over to this whiteboard, just where we are now. I need to ask them if they are willing to help me with one of the current tasks on my list while I take on something for them. Or, if the person has power to reprioritize my list, I need to ask him or her to grant me permission to drop a task or change a deadline.”
Sam’s face looks far more relaxed as he gazes at the whiteboard and imagines how he will use it to manage his upcoming commitments and projects. Something about having the tasks organized boldly in black and white makes him feel mentally prepared to take on the challenges of the day. He gives Julie a thumbs-up and tells her, “Julie, the Venti upgrade was my best investment for the last month. Thank you!”
P.S. How successful do you think Sam will be in using this new system? Do you see any issues that Sam will face as he tries to make public his list of commitments? Will Sam be able to convince his stakeholders to reprioritize commitments as new developments and emergencies surface?