One of the highlights of the summer is traveling back to my home state of Iowa and attending the Iowa State Fair. Each state fair offers an idealized vision of that state through the various queens and kings of the fair; niches of interest, skills, talents, products and abilities that we would otherwise never be exposed to; delightfully sinful food; and a broad spectrum of entertainment.
Of the broad palette of offerings at the fair, my favorites remain the various competitions among the state residents for producing the best roses, apple pie, blackberry jam, 4H poster, historical diorama, photograph, painting, sculpture, tractor restoration, lamb, horse, pig, chicken, cow, etc. I love to walk the aisles looking at the entrants and award winners.
As we wandered the aisles of the livestock pavilions and watched kids having their lambs judged, I was struck by how these few seconds were the culmination of months or, in some cases, years of effort. As the judges passed down the row of entrants and handed out the ribbons, each child's face reflected crushing disappointment, stoic acceptance or joyous celebration. As the children exited the ring, parents offered comfort to the losers and hearty congratulations to the winners. The lambs were led back to each family's stall in the giant pavilion, and the ribbons added to the growing display of awards, past and present.
You could see how some families had a deep well of skill and experience in growing champion livestock. They had the entire "move the family to the state fair pavilion for a couple of weeks" down pat, with folding cots and chairs, generators, giant fans and all the accoutrements of championship animal preparation and display (combs, brushes, hoses, etc.). The winning families had been propagating particular bloodlines for a long time, some for many human generations. Their collections of blue ribbons gave mute but powerful testimony to the dedication and sacrifice it takes to maintain champion livestock.
The winners pay the price by spending nights in cold barns delivering newborns, fighting disease in their herds and carefully monitoring and nurturing the growth of each animal and the group as a whole. Farming is not a cold business of death as is assumed by many city dwellers; in fact, farmers are usually very attached to their animals, especially ones they share life with for many years such as the members of a dairy herd. The news videos of the crying, distraught farmers in Europe losing their families' ancestral herds to hoof and mouth disease give powerful testimony to this fact.
In our world, we are also tenders of a flock but our flock is the teams and departments commissioned to deliver the solutions the business has requested. As I travel from site to site and team to team, I see some blue-ribbon teams and others that would never make the cut to advance to the state fair level of competition. What separates these two groups? Many of the same characteristics that the long-time state champion families and farms exhibit: dedication, attention to detail, enthusiasm, positive attitudes, conviction, bravery and hard-won experience.
Generally, in all teams there are a few outstanding performers. These are champions, worthy of the blue ribbon. They would compare favorably with just about anyone from any other team of comparable size or resources. What separates the winning teams is how these individual champions are utilized, leveraged and rewarded, and how other team members are brought along, grown and rewarded to be turned into champions as well.
Until now, we've all had ample opportunity to observe our champions and participate in the growth of our teams in a fairly benign environment. All of that is about to change.
Although business intelligence (BI) has been fairly resilient compared to other technology sectors, it is unlikely that given today's economic climate this market will be able to demonstrate this resiliency much longer. Today's projects are working on budgets established last year, in good times. Next year's projects will be executed on budgets established right now, during the current budget season, in a climate of economic downturn, uncertainty and, in some cases, disaster. Consequently, next year you will likely get the chance to discover what it takes to keep your champion bloodlines going in an environment fraught with fiscal and resource challenges.
Farmers have lived this reality for years. They have found a way to keep their operations and their champions going through good times and bad. They've found ways to live through times when it cost more to grow a cow that you could sell it for and when disease ravaged their herds. You will now need to make some of the same difficult choices. You will most likely need to cull your herd in the next year, possibly cutting promising candidates you had pegged to be future champions. As you do so, strive to strike a balance between old champions and up-and-coming winners. You must be brutally honest with yourself and your team in this process.
Although times promise to be challenging in the near term, take heart that in my walk through the livestock pens, I saw many blue ribbons pinned to stalls of family farms that were 100 to 200 years old. With dedication and iron will they have found a way to survive the tough times, and you and your team can too.
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