Friday, October 30, 2009

Setting Sail

I love this quote from John Shedd:

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
It is always a temptation to stay in the safe zone, the place where you are comfortable. But that is not what makes organizations great, or frankly, even of value. A ship that refuses to leave the harbor is a ship that is worthless, except maybe to the crew that is afraid to sail; and that never lasts.

To continue the analogy, we like captains who can describe the adventures found on the sea, discovering new lands, and asking people to climb aboard for a trip that has risks but the journey is worth it. Perhaps you are one of those captains longing to lead people in a direction rather than sitting still collecting barnacles. Let me describe what you will inevitably find once you really begin to lead:

A "middler." What is a "middler"? Someone who stands on the shore doing all he or she can to hold the ropes so that boat doesn't go anywhere, all because they don't want to get wet.

I love how Edwin H. Friedman describes "middlers" in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:
In any type of of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encourage and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consesus, a "middler," someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his "disability" seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas - one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits.
The best part of his description? Often the "middlers" are nice and charming.

If you are going to be a leader, or a captain setting sail out of the harbor of status quo, then expect people to be hanging on to the ropes. Friedman's advice, which we'll explore more later, is to make sure that you are concentrating on your own integrity rather than thinking of the "middlers" as a problem to solve.


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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ultimate Leaf Wrestling

I reserve a part of the yard for my kids to find fun things to do with a large pile of leaves. This year they came up with "Ultimate Leaf Wrestling." These are the rules, unchanged from how they wrote them:

Ultimate Leaf Wrestling

1. No choking
2. No holding someone under
3. No pinching
4. No spitting
5. No throwing leaves

How to win:
You have to push an oponent off the pile. You have 3 chances if you fall out by yourself. Last one standing in the pile of leaves wins. (if you run out chances you're out)


Types of Games:
Royal Rumble = free for all
Single match = 1 v 1
Tag Team = 1 v 2 or 2 v 2

Tag team = if you need a rest you tag your partner, or the person out, and they go in. However, if you step out without touching your partner, there is no extra and the other two keep battling.

Single match = normal 1 v 1

Royal Rumble = normal rules but more than two people can be in.

Let the games begin!


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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Commander's Intent

I recently read a blog that said we should not plan. While I am aware that plans are not fool-proof (see previous blog post), plans do help you think through issues and hopefully help provide great questions (more on this later).

What if, within your organization, people knew basically what to do without needing play-by-play instructions from their leaders? What if people could make decisions on their own and improvise when needed wherever they are and no matter the context? What if people were generating solutions, and this is the amazing part, everyone was on the same page rather than generating solutions that benefit different causes?

In the book Made To Stick (26), the Heath brothers talk to Colonel Kolditz in the U.S. military about how plans can quickly become obsolete on the battlefield, nicely captured in the phrase "no plan survives contact with the enemy." For you that may be "no sales plan survives contact with the customer" or "no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers." The military adapted a new planning process called Commander's Intent (CI).
CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan's goal, the desired end-state of an operation. At high levels of the Army, the CI may be relatively abstract: "Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region." At the tactical level, for colonels and captains, it is much more concrete: "My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines."

The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events. "You can lose the ability to execute the original plan, but you can never lose the responsibility of executing the intent," says Kolditz. In other words, if there's one soldier left in the Third Battalion on Hill 4305, he'd better be doing something to protect the flank of the Third Brigade.
Colonel Kolditz gives an example: "Suppose I'm commanding an artillery battalion and I say, 'We're going to pass this infantry unit through our lines forward.' That means something different to different groups. The mechanics know that they'll need lots of repair support along the roads, because if a tank breaks down on a bridge the whole operation will come to a screeching halt. The artillery knows they'll need to fire smoke or have engineers generate smoke in the breech area where the infantry unit moves forward, so it won't get shot up as it passes through. As a commander, I could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions."
Here is an example from a for-profit organization: Southwest. Any guesses on their Commander's Intent? "We are the low-fare airline." In the decision making process, you might have several options to choose from, but with the CI the decision making process has a filter question: which decision helps us stay the low-fare airline?

At the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends the officers arrive at the Commander's Intent by asking themselves two questions:
If we do nothing else during tomorrow's mission, we must ___________.

The single, most important thing we must do tomorrow is ___________.
Find the core of what this organization is about. Not two pages, not even two paragraphs. What is the core.

This can, and should, be applied to parenting, to religious institutions, to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, to teams, etc. Two examples that I have used personally:

"We are training our kids to be capable and responsible adults by the time they leave our house at 18 years of age." Now there is a end-goal established with a definitive time-line. At each age we know we need to help them progress to being responsible for themselves; what should that look like at 18? How do we backtrack from there to where they should be at 13? This should also help make decisions about involvement in activities, family chores, etc. It is far more than just getting them to be behave like you want them to so they don't embarrass you in that moment.

"This church exists to train people to be every-day followers of Jesus." Training is more than lecturing, it also means helping people enact knowledge and behaviors into their lives. It can be applied to different demographics - how do we train students or parents or couples or seniors to be every-day followers of Jesus? It is far bigger mission than copying what you did last year so everyone is happy.

So what is your Commander's Intent?


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

El Farol Bar problem

I found this interesting game theory problem in the book Traffic (171):

This is a problem sketched out by the economist W. Brian Arthur, after a bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hypothetical scenario imagines that one hundred people would like to go to the bar to listen to live music, but it seems too crowded if more than sixty show up. How does any one person decide whether or not to go? If they go one night and it's too crowded, do they return the next night, on the thought that people will have been discouraged - or will others have precisely the same thought? Aurthur found, in a simulation, that the mean attendance did indeed hover around sixty, but that the attendance numbers for each night continued to oscillate up and down, for the full one hundred weeks of the trial. Which means that one's chances of going on the right night are essentially random, as people continue to try to adapt their behavior.
The interesting part of this problem, born out of a real observation of trying to have a fun night at the bar, is that while you are trying to act based on guesses of what others are going to do, they are doing the same thing about you. While you are modifying your behavior based on what they did last night, they are doing the same thing.

The moral of the story? Today is a different day than yesterday.

We like static thinking. In the good times, and even in the times that are a little rough, we hope that everything will mostly be just like it was yesterday so that I can basically predict what today and tomorrow will be like. But you can't, not even for the people and the organizations and the circumstances that you think you know best.

I am all for making plans. But the problem is we like making plans based on static think. I heard this analogy, and unfortunately I cannot remember where the analogy came from; if you know, post it, and I'll give proper citation. The metaphor goes something like this (with a little of my own concoction thrown in):

Many people look at the future like a well-built highway -- straight roads, well-defined boundaries, and with the proper markings that show you where you are and how far you've gone. The beat of time is the stripes along the middle that are always the same length and look just like the last hundred miles that you've traveled. You can plan out your route with expectations that little will change along this road. People with this view of the future try to build their lives into lamborghinis - luxuriant, shiny, and it gets to the goal in a hurry.

But the future doesn't look like that, it's not static, and they run into obstacles that puncture the tires, dent the sides, if not an all out crash. The economy tanks, their 401 crashes, their kids have problems, they hate their new boss, etc. And here's the weird thing - we still hope that the future is static, either because we can navigate ourselves out of that world that we knew, or we happy just whining about what we know.

Here is a better view of the future: it's more like the Baja 1000. You can see what is on the hill in front of you for a short distance, but other than that you have no idea what is on the other side. Be prepared for anything. You need grit and determination more than shiny and fast. You will get dents and scrapes, but that only helps prepare you for the next round.

Keep the expectations of your environment and circumstances down, and expectations of yourself up. Work your tail off for what is in front of you.

Enjoy the ride!


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Friday, October 23, 2009

The question is more important than you think

This quote from the book Buying In (40) fascinates me:
The vast majority of our brain's activities - 98% of it, by one estimation - happens outside of conscious awareness...Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published work indicating that people make decisions about risk partly in reaction to how a problem is framed - their risk tolerance changes depending on the working of the question they are asked, even if the issue described is, in reality, identical.
What this means is that you can look at the exact same situation and make two very different decisions based on how someone asks you a question. Nothing about the reality of the situation is different, only the words used in the question asking you to make a decision - and that can change everything!

This means that you need to make sure that you are asking the best questions you can about important decisions for yourself, for your family, and for your teams. Brainstorm the best question that really needs to be answered.

Let's think through a scenario: Your son just came home with a D on his report card. Here are two questions you can ask. Think through your initial response to the first question before you move on to the second one.

1) How are you going to punish him?

2) How are you going to help train him?

Was their a difference in the possibilities that came into your head?

It is worth spending time making sure that you have the best goals for your family and your organization so that the right inquiries can be asked - your behavior and your activities are based more on the questions that you ask, and thus try to answer, rather than abstract concepts framed on a wall.

Here is a great example from the book Made To Stick(186, 187):
Army food is just about what you'd expect: bland, overcooked, and prepared in massive quantities. The dishes are not garnished with sprigs of parsley. The mess halls are essentially calorie factories, giving the troops the fuel they need to do their jobs. An old Army proverb says, "An Army travels on its stomach."

The Pegasus chow hall, just outside the Baghdad airport, has developed a different reputation. At Pegasus, the prime rib is perfectly prepared. The fruit platter is a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi fruit, and grapes. There are legends of soldiers driving to Pegasus from the Green Zone (the well-protected Americanized area of Baghdad), along one of the most treacherous roads in Iraq, just to eat a meal.

Floyd Lee, the man in charge of Pegasus, was retired from his twenty-five-year career as a Marine Corps and Army cook when the Iraq war began. He came out of retirement to take the job. "The gook Lord gave me a second chance to feed soldiers," he said. "I've waited for this job all my life, and here I am in Baghdad."

Lee is well aware that being a soldier is relentlessly difficult. The soldiers often work eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. The threat of danger in Iraq is constant. Lee wants Pegasus to provide a respite from the turmoil. He's clear about his leadership mission: "As I see it, I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale."
This vision manifests itself in hundreds of small actions taken by Lee's staff on a daily basis. At Pegasus, the white walls of the typical mess hall are covered with sports banners. There are gold treatments on the windows, and green tablecloths with tassels. The harsh fluorescent lights have been replaced by ceiling fans with soft bulbs. The servers wear tall white chef's hats.

The remarkable thing about Pegasus's reputation for great food is that Pegasus works with exactly the same raw materials that everyone else does. Pegasus serves the same twenty-one-day Army menu as other dining halls. Its food comes from the same suppliers. It's the attitude that makes difference. A chef sorts through the daily fruit shipment, culling the bad grapes, selecting the best parts of the watermelon and kiwi, to prepare the perfect fruit tray. At night, the dessert table features five kinds of pie and three kinds of cake. The Sunday prime rib is marinated for two full days. A cook from New orleans orders spices that are mailed to Iraq to enhance the entrees. A dessert chef describes her strawberry cake as "sexual and sensual" - two adjectives never before applied to Army food.

Lee realizes that serving food is a job, but improving morale is a mission. Improving morale involves creativity and experimentation and mastery. Serving food involves a ladle.
What is my job, or What is my mission? How do we feed all these people, or how do we improve morale? How long must we work, or how do we make this incredible?

The power of questions.


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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the best and by far the most useful books I've read in a long time is Made To Stick by the brothers Heath. I can't think of a profession or organization that could not benefit greatly by reading this book.

One of the foundations of the book is wrapped around the idea of the Curse of Knowledge. Try this game with some people:

Pick a song in your head, and then tap the beat on a table and see if anyone can guess what it is (p. 20 in the book).

Go ahead, try it, quit reading ahead. OK, you're reading ahead anyway, so here is the result - they didn't guess it. In fact, they weren't even close. This despite the fact that you could clearly hear the song playing along as you were pounding away on the table thinking about what dopes they are for not easily figuring it out. What sounded like a simple song to you was meaningless taps on a table for them - because they couldn't hear the tune in your head.

The Heath brothers say the same thing is going on when we try to communicate thoughts and ideas. We have thought through the possibilities, the struggle to get to the conclusion, read the books, spoken with experts and it all came to this great conclusion. Yet it doesn't seem to be getting through precisely because the audience didn't go through the same process you did. They hear it and it doesn't stick. Why? And how do we make it stick?

We will take a look at it over the coming weeks I'll keep adding posts from this book and others, as well as random thoughts.


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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This is what you should tell your kid

First, let's start with what you shouldn't tell your kid after he or she does something well: "I'm proud of you."

So, was that surprising? It was the first time I heard it. The problem with it, according to Hal, is that it is really about you. Should they do things just to please you? While it may be nice to think that way, the answer is No. They should do things to please themselves, because it is the right thing to do.

Let's turn the question a different direction - should they do things to please people? No. I don't want my kids trying to do things to please their friends, or just to please a boss. I want them to do it because it is the right thing to do, which may go against the grain and the crowd.

Let's turn it again - what happens when they don't do something that great? What happens when they strike out at the plate (and when they got a hit you said you were proud of them)? Are you now not proud of them? I hope not. I don't think too highly of those kind of parents. But if you only tell them you are proud of them when they do the great stuff, the implicit message is that you are not when they fail. I want my kids to fail, because at least it means they are trying, they are risking.

The last turn - what if, instead, you ask if they are proud of themselves? Help them to think through their accomplishments, especially their role in being responsible and taking steps.

If you want to praise your kids, the book The Narcissism Epidemic (83) says to praise your kids for working hard, because then they will want to work hard. Don't praise your kids for being smart - if it comes to a situation that calls for hard work or one that confuses them, they will shy away from it to protect the "smart" label. In these studies working with kids and how words affect them, those that were told they were "smart" struggled when they got to a problem which was difficult for them; the label "smart" scared them more than helped them. Those that were told they were hard workers buckled down because they believed they could figure it out.

Words matter. Be a hard working parent when it comes to your kids.


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Monday, October 19, 2009

TV and kids

Lawrence J. Peter: " Television has changed the American child from an irresistible force into an immovable object. "

I saw this quote from ScreamFree Parenting Tip of the Day and had to pass it on about the TV epidemic:

My children can be incredibly creative, generous, helpful and kind. They can also be needy, greedy, self-absorbed, and whiny. I didn’t really catch on to an interesting little trend until our TV recently broke and we had to go without it for close to a month. What I noticed was quite phenomenal. My kids grumbled at first, but then they began to read more, play more, help more and laugh more. What I realized was that the mood in our house was directly proportional to the amount of television we watched.

The average American child between the ages of 2-17 watches 25 hours of tv a week. 1 in 5 children watch 44 hours a week. As a busy parent, I get that. Turning on the TV is easier than “entertaining” your kids or listening to them whine about how bored they are. Period. It just is. But I am here to tell you the truth: You’re actually shooting yourself in the foot if you have this mentality. You’re making the chances of them cooperating less and the chances of them being lethargic greater. Just try it out for a week and tell me that I’m wrong: limit tv (both when and how much) and objectively observe your kids’ behavior. I have a strong hunch that you’ll be pleased with the results.
Let's face it - turning off the TV is difficult, and it will be doubly so if you and the people in your household are used to watching it. I think it will take more than a week to really feel the difference because the first week the kids will complain for the first twenty hours the TV isn't on and you'll wonder what to do. By the second week, you'll struggle with each other because you are not used to spending so much time together. By the third week, you'll wonder how you had enough time to watch that much TV.

Don't cut out TV completely, just sit down and plan it out at the beginning of the week (do the planning with the TV off).

Over the weekend I had conversations with friends about our agendas in life. When our agenda is to get through the day, TV is the easy answer. If your agenda is people, then you won't want the easy answer.


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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five Stages of Grief

I thought this would be helpful for people if they are struggling with an important loss in their life. The following is Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief:

1) Denial
2) Anger
3) Bargaining
4) Depression
5) Acceptance

While not everyone probably goes through all the steps, and it is not in any necessary order, I know I have certainly had some feelings of anger and depression after leaving my last position in the middle of a recession! I have to laugh at myself when I find that I'm bargaining somehow with fate to just let me have this or that and I'll somehow make it up.

Acceptance of the situation or circumstances is certainly the best stage to be at, but acceptance of status quo is something I'll never accept.


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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Proteus Effect

Perception really is reality.

Your perception of the world around you, and of yourself, changes how you behave and the choices that you make. But interestingly, it isn't even necessarily how you perceive yourself, but your perception of how others think of you.

The book The Narcissism Epidemic (119) talked about this phenomenon and a study called the Daedalus Project that was done to test it:
One fascinating study randomly assigned people to an avatar in a virtual world. In the first experiment, some individuals were given attractive avatars and some unattractive avatars. The attractive avatars were more socially confident; they walked closer to the other avatar and talked about themselves more. In the second experiment, people were assigned either a short or tall avatar and completed a negotiation task. People with a tall avatar were more competitive in the negotiation. The researchers concluded that the type of avatars people use actually change social behavior in a virtual world, which they called the Proteus Effect.
It certainly helps to explain why people might enjoy these games so much - they can take on a persona that they believe others will like and respect based on skills and looks from the virtual world.

It also shows that you might be holding yourself back based on your perception of how you are viewed in the world. If you think others see you as weak in some area, then you are going to subconsciously make it so. All this leads down a spiral of never achieving as much as you could, and all because of a perception that may or may not be true.

As a way to help you gain confidence and try to extend yourself, try this method: How would [use a name of someone you think would do well at this project] do this? You might be surprised at what you can accomplish, and the gains in self confidence that this can produce. After all, if you can imagine yourself being down, you can also imagine yourself being up.

You might be better than you think - if only you had the confidence to try.


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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Pittsburgh Left

Have you ever been at a traffic light and when the light turns green, the car opposite you quickly turns left across the intersection without an arrow while you are going straight? Apparently it is a common custom here in Pittsburgh. We kept seeing it happen, and every once in a while someone would comment about it. It is quirky enough that it made it into the book Traffic, 226):

The Pittsburgh Left is "that act of of driving practiced primarily in the Steel City (but also in Beijing) in which the change of a traffic light to green is an 'unofficial' signal for a left-turning driver to quickly bolt across the oncoming traffic."
It makes me think of what a hurry many of us tend to be in, rushing to here and there to get this and that done. Have you stopped to think about what it is that you are such a hurry to get to? I know you might have these commitments, but how many of them? And to what effect?

Maybe we have created this sense of urgency and hurry to keep from thinking those thoughts.


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