Leadership Styles: My perspective on how to say no to ideas

Denise McInerny posed the following question on the PASS Election Discussion Board, and I have posted my answer here:

PASS has a lot of passionate and creative people with many good ideas. Like all organizations we have finite resources, which means we can’t do everything we want to do.One of the hardest things about being on the Board is saying “no” to a good idea. How would you approach that aspect of the job?

Let me give you an example recently where an email precipitated a huge and very heated community debate – the closure of the MCM program. Although I was not part of the decision-making at all, I was part of the process of the communication around the closure of the MCM Program because I chaired a conference call between Microsoft and the MCM community. For some reason, the Register obtained a copy of it without my knowledge, but it was supposed to be restricted to the MCM community.

In order to understand more about why the decision to close the MCM happened and to facilitate conversation and discussion between the community and Microsoft, I opened a Connect case, which ended up being the highest-voted SQL Server connect case with over a staggering 800 upvotes.
By opening a Connect case, I opened a two-way conversation which, unfortunately, ended up turning sour as people vented a very personal series of criticism on individual community members, which I will not deign to repeat here. Due to this, the Connect case was closed, unfortunately, since the Case was being dragged around by a tiny but extremely vocal minority who felt a Connect case was an appropriate forum to make personal and wholly unfounded criticisms of people who worked at Microsoft, or were attached to the Community in some way.

I then worked with Microsoft in order to host a conference call with the MCM community, whom I deeply respect. Despite the presence of the trolls on the Connect case, it was clear that there were a number of extremely smart engaged people, who had great ideas about the way forward for the MCM program and for MSL in particular. This was in despite of their huge personal disappointment at the closure of the program, which many had spent a lot of money, time and effort in participating.

I chaired the call between the MCM community and Microsoft, collating questions over a number of days and distilling them into a number of common themes due to the repetition of some questions.

Although the call did not produce the outcome that many wanted, it was at least a way forward for facilitating communication between Microsoft and the MCM community in a more formal environment, which reduced the heat of the Connect case which had been hijacked by trolls. It at least gave a voice to the MCM people who really deserved it, and had great questions and comments about the MCM closure decision, and plans for the way forward.

To summarise, this is an example where I’ve played a part in trying to resolve a very heated community situation, through communication, active participation in the community, and an absolute belief that the good hearts and best minds in the community deserved a hearing, as well as allowing Microsoft to have a say. Incidentally I’d like to thank Tim Sneath and his team for his time for making the time and facilities available to make the communication happen. I also found a way forward to deal with the trolls who were hijacking the normal means of communication i.e. by comments fired to a Connect case.

It was one of these situations where people deserved more than an email, and I think it was right to make it happen. I think that a ‘copy and paste’ email misses the point somewhat, since it does not seem to echo the idea of listening to the individual(s), or taking them seriously. Getting a somewhat modified template answer just doesn’t seem to fit with the energy that people have put into bringing an idea to you.

Saying no can be hard, but if you can clarify ‘why not’, then it can help to reach a common ground between yourself and the community. Sometimes what you mean is ‘not yet’. Communication, and fair communication which isn’t one-sided (like an email) isn’t the way forward.

In my experience, it is too easy to email, and much harder to pick up the phone or do in-person – but the effort can be worth it. It can come across as disrespectful, even. Also, if it is a bad idea that morphs into a good idea after discussion, it is important to give credit where it is due.

I propose that sometimes picking up the phone, or a proper conference call, might be the way forward. It depends on lots of factors, such as the range of the idea, numbers affected, how the idea generators might take it, and so on.

Whilst it is important not to get dragged around by a vocal minority, sometimes a simple conversation is all that it takes, and in today’s connected world, there is no excuse not to do that.

PASS Business Analytics Strategy

Denise McInerny posed a great question on the SQLPass Board of Elections discussion Board. “Recently PASS has begun to reach out to a new group of data professionals by hosting the Business Analytics Conference in Chicago and launching the Business Analytics Virtual Chapter. The 2nd BAC will be held in May 2014. What is your point of view on this strategy and the specific activities, particularly BAC?”

I’m running for the Board, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about something which I’m extremely passionate about: the PASS Business Analytics strategy.

What is my point of view on this strategy?
PASS has hosted the BA Analytics Conference in Chicago this year, and I was lucky enough to attend as a speaker, giving two sessions. PASS are repeating the experience by holding a second BA Conference in May 2014

In 2012, the release of SQL Server marked a real sea-change in approach; it introduced user-friendly, non-technical tools for the first time. This was Power View, which built on earlier solutions such as PowerPivot and the Tabular model. More recently, we have seen the Power BI tools grow to include Power Query. I strongly believe that the adoption of the Business Analytics community into the PASS family is the right thing to do. Ultimately the inclusion of the Business Analytics arena is a reflection of the growing user base for SQL Server itself. 

PASS have a wealth of unparalled experience in growing the SQL Server community globally. I believe that this experience puts PASS in a unique, very well-placed position of mentoring the nascent BA community as well. The roles of BA, Data Scientist, and Data architect may be more broad than SQL Server specialists, but this should not mean that they are excluded from the SQL Server community. IF you have some time, do a search on twitter for terms such as #DataScientist and #BusinessAnalytics on twitter. You’ll come across reams of results. This illustrates the presence of this community, and PASS are right to get behind it and move it forward towards in-person events that are accessible. 

I play a small role, as I did last year, in being part of the Committee and working with some of the others as part of a Committee focused on BAC, bouncing ideas around, and feeding ideas towards how we can get the first-class content that people expect from PASS, in the BA sphere.

The increase in breadth of membership to the PASS family does not extend only to community members who would benefit from the learning, education and networking that being part of the PASS family brings. The BA community ecosystem also extends to volunteers, a potential new speaker base, and also to sponsors who would like to participate in being part of the community. This is an extremely exciting time for PASS and it is great to be a part of that. 

What would I do about BAC, if elected to the Board?
If I’m elected to the Board, I would like to see an emphasis on the growth and development of the BA community. I’d like to see:

 – more BA / BI SQLSaturdays – or should we call them #BASaturday perhaps? What do you think? Perhaps we have a community ‘tweetjam’ to choose a name. I’d like to see these in the US and other parts of the world as well. A global growth of this community is required, and again, PASS are well-placed to support.
 – a clearer speaker base for the BI, BA and BigData Virtual Chapters, which are aligning together very closely in content. It might be good if a BA topic gets into the BI VC, that it is handed over to the most appropriate chapter. We tend to grab our speakers with both hands since we are so happy to have volunteers to speak at the VCs! However, this approach may not be best and I’d like to see more co-ordination within the VCs so that the most appropriate presentation is directed to the correct Virtual Chapter.
– Existing, well-established SQLSaturdays might consider a dedicated BA track
– I’d love to see more BA user groups. This might be difficult to set up since it is a nebulous user group. But it would be great fun!
I hope that helps.
Kind Regards,
Jen

My top 5 tasks for implementing as a PASS Board member, and a cheeky number 6!

One of the SQLFamily I was lucky to meet at SQLRally Dallas, TJay Belt, posted a great question on the SQLPass Election Discussion Board:

What are your top 5 tasks you would implement right now, if you had the manpower, the approvals, the money and the time? Why would these be so important to our community and how will they help us out? 

And knowing that this is a dream list, what obstacles do you see in the way of these tasks coming to fruition? 

Here is my answer, and thanks to TJay for his question.
Hi Tjay,
Great question and thank you for engaging with the election process! It is good to hear from you. 
Here are my top 5:

1. Do a member merge on the PASS membership list. I am sure I am not the only one with multiple memberships!
2. Support volunteers, the lifeblood of PASS. Make MyPass much easier to use. Hold volunteer skills webinars, twitter chats and google hangouts so that volunteers can get to know one another more easily.
3. Social media strategy. It enables everything else; outreach, recruitment and retention of new volunteers, speakers, and members. It spans technical disciplines. It helps the global communities to grow. Why not have a LATAM twitterchat, for example? In one of the local languages? 
4. Take a step back to take steps forward, based on data. Where are PASS growing? What about the Russian community, for example? How can we learn from non-PASS events and organisations. This would feed into my idea of a PASS Charter, so everyone can see what PASS is (and is not!).
5. The Business Analytics community – I would like to forge this forward. All of the above would go towards supporting this nascent community. I’d love to see BASaturdays as well as SQLSaturdays, for example. Why not?

And a cheeky number 6:
my ‘task’ would be to thank each and everyone who has made this campaign good, fair and honest, and has taken the time to engage. This goes from the existing Directors, the Nom Com, and everyone who has taken the time to engage (like you have, TJay) over Twitter, and taken the time to vote. So a cheeky number 6: my thanks to the SQLFamily who have allowed me to have this opportunity to serve them better. Even if I am not elected, I will be grateful for all the interactions and support that I’ve had along the way, and those memories will last a long time.

Thank you,
Jen

I didn’t post about the obstacles; that will probably be another separate post!
Next topic, I will answer Denise McInerney’s great question about the Business Analytics community. I have a lot of thoughts so it will need a separate blog post.

Thanks again,
Jen

What I hope to achieve by being a PASS Board of Director member

I’m delighted to be in the final 7 for the slate for the PASS Board of Elections.  Watch out for your ballot email tomorrow, the 25th September. Information about all of the candidates can be found here and I can assure you that they are all immense. I hope for a strong, good and fair election process and, whatever the result, I am sure that PASS will be even stronger. The best thing about the SQLFamily is that I am sure we will all be friends during the election, and afterwards. That is what’s so amazing about being part of the PASS Family – we are a team.

What qualifications and PASS volunteer experience do I bring to the role?

I am a database strategist, small business owner, SQLFamily and community advocate, public speaker and blogger. I’m passionate about all things data and business intelligence, helping leaders derive value from their Microsoft SQL Server, SharePoint and Office365 investments.
Since 1997, I’ve worked in Artificial Intelligence and Business Intelligence consultancy, architecting, delivering and supporting complex enterprise solutions for customers all over the world. I am particularly enthusiastic about focusing on the use of data and obtaining value from it, whilst also ensuring that the integrity of the data is maintained. I am often the ‘voice’ of the business users of the organisation, and helps to drive strategy by ensuring that all voices are heard as part of the enterprise solution.
Jen currently serves the SQL Server community in a variety of ways:
  • I am a Microsoft SQL Server ‘Most Valuable Professional‘ and has been awarded three years running. I am one of only a handful of MVPs in SQL Server in the UK.
  • I was fortunate to win the SQLPass PASSion Award at Summit 2012, and is very happy to have been recognised although I did not do the work for the recognition, believing that being an active part of the SQLFamily is reward itself.
  • I run HUGGS, a PASS Chapter and a SQL Server User Group in Hertfordshire
  • I organised the first SQLSaturday in Scotland, held in Edinburgh. I’m also in negotiations to hold another one, so watch this space!
  • I help organise Women in Technology events for SQLPass in Europe, and Diversity in Technology events at SQLBits.
  • I am a key organiser of SQLRelay in the UK, hosting my own event in Hertfordshire as well as helping the team with Sponsorship.
  • I am an active blogger, who writes at http://www.jenstirrup.com. Hence you are here! I am also a well-known social media influencer, who has been named twice as one of the top 100 ‘Big Data’ influencers by peer-rated systems.
  • I am a well-known presenter in the UK, Europe and the United States. I’ve has presented at TechEd North AmericaTechEd EuropeSQLPass and SQLBIts, along with SQLSaturday events throughout Europe.
  • I am currently writing a book on data visualisation, and has participated in other book efforts such as being a key Technical Reviewer for MVP Deep Dives Volume 2 along with other works for a UK based publisher.
To summarise, I am extremely involved in the SQL Server community, and believe that I would make an effective contribution by becoming a part of the Board of Directors.
How does I see PASS goals and what would my focus be?
I would love to introduce a PASS Charter that clearly specifies PASS Goals and objectives, which UGs and other affiliated bodies set up. This would clearly specify that exclusion is not a part of the PASS community; so, for example, User Groups or SQLSaturday would not be allowed to exclude certain groups of people from presenting. This is not the same as positive discrimination, where we promote certain groups such as women presenters. Instead, this is a way of emphasising to the community that certain groups of people are not automatically excluded from presenting, and that everyone has a fair chance regardless of their background, sex, or ethnicity.
Broadly speaking, I see the PASS Goals in the long-term as:
Goal 1: Form a more cohesive group for the BA community
This goal would benefit the PASS community by helping to formulate, support and grow the BA community in its early, formative stages when it needs particular direction. PASS can be the enabler of this community, which traditionally has been difficult to reach.
Goal 2: Form a platform for people to understand cloud and Big Data technologies better
SQL Server is diversifying into cloud and ‘Big Data’ technologies, and this necessarily involves a huge shift in the required skill set for SQL Server professionals who embrace the change. PASS are well-placed to support the community of traditional on-premise SQL Server specialists who need to extend or transition their knowledge to cloud technologies. Further, as PASS have the opportunities to reach out globally to new cloud and Big Data technologists who interact with SQL Server but for whom, SQL Server may not be their core skill – the ‘Accidental DBA’
Goal 3: Support the PASS community globally via embracing diversity
PASS can continue the efforts that have taken place in Europe, which have focused on reaching out to minority groups in technology, mainly Women in Technology.
What strategic decision-making have I been involved with, to date?
In her role as joint owner of a small consultancy, I am directly responsible for the strategy and decision-making of the organisation, and executing on the basis of the agreed strategy.
I am also a believer in getting people on board, and feeling that they have ownership of their activities and that they are actively contributing.  Part of this is the old adage of ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’.
I also believe that the hard decisions are the worthwhile decisions, in the long run. This may involve the brave step of ‘fail fast’ – in other words, if something is clearly not working, it is important to conserve resources for the way forward.