Friday, December 18, 2015

Organizations and the "Portals of Discovery"

This is the third post in a short series on failure.  The first post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, argued that failure is that cornerstone skill...the skill all other skills are built on.  Part 2 was How and Why to Get Better at Failing, based largely on a talk by Pema Chodron.  (If interested, both posts can be found on my LinkedIn home page.)

This third installment argues that, as bananas as it sounds, it is in the best interest of organizations to help their people to get better at failing and better at learning from failure.  I will provide some concrete suggestions on how to do both.

The title of this post contains a fragment of the James Joyce quote from Ulysses, "mistakes (i.e., failures) are the portals to discovery."  Discovery, innovation, breakthroughs...these are some of the most pressing goals in organizations today.  Yes, cost cutting and productivity are also important, but companies understand how to cut cost and the tools for increasing productivity are well known and reliable.

But, unlike Arthur Murray dance lessons, there are no footprints on the floor for the discovery process.  The only thing that can be reliably said about what precedes "A-ha!" moments is a lot of "Dang it!" moments.  If you want more A-ha's, you have to not only be comfortable with Dang it's! you'll need to support, encourage, mine, and maybe even celebrate them.

Let's say I am preaching to the converted know that innovation and discovery are critical to your organization's success and you get the fact that neither of those two things are going to happen with out a lot of failures and false starts.  So you decide that you're ready and you want your organization to start to value failure, in the "portal to discovery" sense, and you want that to be a part of your culture.  How would would you go about that?

Organizational culture is not complicated or mystical.  It is the behavior of leaders.  Period.  End of story.  What can they do, what do they do, and what do they reward?  Extrapolating from that, a focus on Skills, Operating Mechanisms, Rewards form a kind of holy trinity for creating the culture you want.

On the skills front, what are the skills organizations need to cultivate to help their employees get better at failure?

Since some of my ideas are a little more out there, let me start with something eminently practical.  In my view, there is no skill like the ability to design and run experiments that gets one comfortable with failing, rapid learning, and getting back in the saddle to experiment again.  Anyone used to designing and running controlled experiments in, for example, manufacturing, advertising, direct marketing, or on landing pages is used to getting lots of data that shows no statistically significant difference.  Results like these are generally regarded as "failures."

Yet those failed experiments, especially if it is based on some kind of theoretical model of the construct being examined should yield the next hypotheses to test.  My dissertation adviser, Dr. John Campbell, used to say the wrong model is better than no model at all.  Why?  Because the wrong model will lead you to a more accurate model through continuous experimentation and model refinement.

So a culture built around continuously generating and testing ideas and using failed experiments to generate more hypotheses is a great way to get comfortable with failing and learning from failure.

But all of us are not scientists or Big Data geeks.  All of us are not working on projects that are like swings in a batting cage where the next pitch is on the way before you recover your balance from your colossal whiff. For many failure is a very tough pill to swallow and rattles one's confidence down to the bone.

Here is where organizations could augment their current skill development efforts with classes in contemplative education, in other words, meditation.

Now meditation is tragically trendy these days.  Movie stars, VCs, and everyone flying in private planes to Davos can't stop talking about how meditation has changed their lives.  So much so that Adam Grant recently wrote a piece in the NY Times called Can We End the Meditation Madness?.  This was an act of self-defense on his part because he was being nagged by newly minted mediators in the same way we have all been nagged by Paleo diet, Zone diet, and Landmark zealots.

But Adam's rant was mostly focused on alternative techniques for stress reduction that are just as good if not better than meditation.  And he is right.  Gil Fronsdal, head Zen teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City CA says that Americans need sleep more than they need meditation.  And meditation is, literally, his business.

However, as a method for getting some space between you and your thoughts so that you are not so identified with and consumed by them, there is nothing and I mean nothing that beats contemplative training and mediation.  And when you are in the grips of failure and the painful feelings it engenders, distance between you and your thoughts is exactly what is needed to keep you from going down the keep you from days of lost productivity and sidelined relationships.  It enables you to sit with these painful feelings, to investigate them, and to not turn on yourself and those around you.

So offering contemplative education classes, on a voluntary basis, so no one freaks out about corporate mind control and religious conversion is another way organizations can help their people "fail better."

In the event this is too much New Age mumbo-jumbo for you, before you mouse over to the back arrow key, there are other things organizations are doing to acknowledge failure as necessary and learn from it that don't involve sitting up straight with your eyes closed.

The second key for creating the culture you want are Operating Mechanisms.  Operating Mechanisms are regular management reviews focused on a particular topic, for example three-year strategic planning or talent reviews.

As a means of accepting failure as a part of learning and growth, many organizations are stealing a page out of the Military handbook and implementing After Action Reviews (AAR)  (see Wikipedia for a an introductory overview).

The purpose of an AAR is to review what went well, what didn't, and to increase an organization's ability to engage in productive (learning) dialogue.  Brutal honesty is the hallmark of these meetings because when mistakes are made in the military, lives have been or will be lost and those mistakes cannot be repeated.

Though lives are rarely at stake, organizations are increasingly conducting reviews like this.  So much so that consulting firms are springing up whose bread and butter is coming in to teach organizations how to do it.  This is a huge step on the road to acknowledging that mistakes (failures) happen...that we can fail better by learning from them...and that it is possible to learn to move more quickly through the portal of discovery to new procedures and best practices.

The final key lever for creating culture is what management recognizes and rewards and what stories they continuously tell and retell.  In this regard, many organizations have Walls of Fame, where outstanding accomplishments or achievements are recognized. 

In some sense, these Walls of Fame are like ESPN's Sports Center, where night after night, you get to watch towering home runs, one-handed circus catches, and top-shelf wristers.  But where is the video of the off season training process?  The repeated dropped passes?  The shots that go high and wide?  The air balls? 

What organizations need is a Wall of Pre-Fame...a place where the missteps and mistakes on the way to breakthroughs and success can be documented.

People need these stories...stories about failures that were turned into success through perseverance not just highlight reels that make it seem like the outcome was preordained.  They need these stories so they better understand what the journey through the portal of discovery actually entails and so that they know the organization around them understands that failures are absolutely a part of that process.

People also need these stories because they face more failures than breakthroughs and those stories give them the wherewithal to keep going when success is in short supply. Organizations would be wise to elicit, highlight and promulgate stories about Pre-Fame to help their people grow.

In my final post, I will share what one organization is doing to not just welcome failure but flaunt it and turn it into joy.

Please share your thoughts below about what you have seen organizations do help people fail better or what you think they should be doing.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How and Why to Get Better at Failing

In my last post, The Cornerstone Skill Few Talk About or Even Acknowledge, I argued that failing was the cornerstone skill, a skill that all other skills are built upon.  I went on to suggest that getting better at failing could benefit both individuals and organizations.

In this post,  I will talk about how individuals can get better at failing, as counterintuitive as that might sound.  First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that the framework and recommendations in this post came from a talk given at the Naropa Institute by Pema Chodron, the first American ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.  Her talk was called Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better.  I cannot recommend it more highly.

As if failing to achieve what you wanted was not bad enough, concomitant with failing is the intensely uncomfortable, roiling emotions that you experience.  We often feel raw, vulnerable, ashamed and scared.  Sometimes we may even feel a sense of rage, a desire to want to lash out or seek revenge.

No one likes these feelings.  They can be awful beyond words.  All of us can, have, and will do almost anything to get away from them as quickly as possible.

As with any skill, getting better at something often involves figuring out what not to do. This is where Pema begins.  She notes that the typical response to those feelings of vulnerability, fear, and rage is to first, blame others or outside circumstances.  That might go on for awhile, but at some point, for many, the second response is to attack ourselves.

That first response is quite understandable and normal.  If we blame others and the situation then we can avoid some of those awful feelings.  I didn't play badly, I lost because of the referees.  Or I couldn't have succeeded on that project, because she was out to get me.  Or, that situation was so messed up, Christ Almighty couldn't have saved it.

If blaming others starts to run out of steam and that feeling of vulnerability starts to creep in, the second typical response is for your Inner Critic to rise up in mass attack.  It is the voice inside you that says, "You suck." "Others are finally seeing what 'I' knew all along." "Why don't you just give up?"

Pema's recommendation for failing better is to try to avoid both those typical responses.  Don't push anything away.  Get better at holding all the raw emotions in your heart. Become capacious and sit with the feelings...just as they are.

One approach she suggests for not getting overwhelmed by the feelings is to get curious about them.  What are the feelings, exactly?  Where do I feel them?  What is the story that goes along with these feelings?  Is this a new story or an old story?  Where did that story come from?

Why on earth would anyone want to get into the feelings around failure?  Isn't denial better?  What could possibly be served by going into painful feelings rather than avoiding them?

Pema's address outlined three real benefits of increasing our equanimity in the face of painful feelings.  First,  many addictions are the outgrowth of avoiding painful feelings.  Some are simple, relatively harmless addictions like constantly checking email, playing Candy Crush for hours or binge watching TV to avoid facing the feelings of failure about a situation or a job or a relationship or facing your own feelings of helplessness or lack of self-worth.

Of course there is nothing wrong with a little Candy Crush.  But simple avoidance strategies can turn into serious, life-threatening problems with drugs or alcohol or gambling.  Developing the ability to not have to push painful feelings away makes us less susceptible to addictions of all types.

A second reason for not pushing painful feelings away is that in the space of those feelings of vulnerability and loneliness is the chance for real heart-to-heart connection with others.

I love the photo with this post...the Japanese soccer player shaking the defeated French soccer player's hand with her other hand placed on her shoulder.  I am guessing the Japanese player has been where the French player is in the photo and understands what she is going through.

Sitting with painful feelings creates a receptivity...what the Japanese call mono no aware...empathy to all things. Or, if the use of foreign language expressions makes your skin crawl, in a similar vein, my favorite line in the movie Almost Famous is "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.

Finally, getting better at failing does not mean you are going to fail more.  Let's disabuse ourselves of that one right away.  It also does not mean you are going to be spared from failure and thus fail less.  The third reason for getting better at failure is so that the next time the failure wave rolls in...because roll in it won't knock you down as often or for as long.  That means more of your inner CPU is available for getting right this thing you obviously cared enough about to be doing in the first place or learning from what went wrong.

My next post will talk about the role of organizations here and why suggesting that organizations help their people fail better does not make you a candidate for the funny farm.

Please share your thoughts on failing or failing better or the Japanese expression mono no aware or the movie Almost Famous below.

Friday, November 20, 2015

How to Touch as Many Lives as Mother Teresa

Though it came out in 1986, I still remember a moment while watching Mother Teresa’s eponymous documentary. In this one she is in an orphanage taking care of abandoned children. One child is in the fetal position in what appears to be a state of catatonia. She rubs his arms and legs and through that simple human touch, he eventually begins to soften and extend his limbs.

Mostly what you hear around this scene are background noises, crying children, the hustle and bustle of her and her Sisters of Charity caring for them. Suddenly in a voice-over you here her say, “Small things with great love. It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.” It grabbed me then and 30 years later it is still a vivid memory.

These opportunities for “small things” are everywhere and the ripples from these actions can be surprising.  Three short stories underline this point.

A retiring, wannabe poet Ruth Lilly, an heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune died at 87 and left $100MM to the oldest and most respected journal of verse in the US…Poetry Magazine… This is a magazine that at times has had only $100 in the bank. But that gift turned it, overnight, into the Fort Knox of the Arts world.

The reason for her bequest appears to be the kindness with which editor Joseph Parisi rejected several poems she submitted to the magazine in the 70’s. A lot of love must have been put into those small, handwritten rejection notes because not only did she not curse him or the organization…the usual reaction…she blessed them.

A few years ago, a client of mine was working in company with a rep for having a very tough, performance driven culture. A junior lawyer approved a feature that the company was essentially under a governmental agreement not to offer and continued to advise on it through the building of the offering. There was a small argument for how this situation was different from what had been agreed to, but it was weak at best. This was really an open and shut issue. This junior lawyer had whiffed and the feature had to be pulled after it had already been developed.

The director a couple of levels above the approving lawyer led the review of the issue. He allowed the attorney and her boss to make their case. The director asked a lot of questions and was very deliberate, he never once let this employee or her manager feel their lawyering or attention to detail were subpar. The director even wrote the email to the lawyer’s clients and positioned the issue as not something that was legally prohibited (though it was) but something that would make the company look bad if released.

It is hard to fully convey the care with which the director handled not only the issue but the employee who made the error. Not only did she not get fired which was the norm at that company, he allowed her to save face in multiple ways and at multiple junctures and she stayed on and became a successful lawyer in the company. It was a teaching moment for everyone involved, including my client, on how little things can make an enormous difference in people’s lives and also on the power of putting people in front of short-term outcomes.

Now obviously I am not advocating looking the other way every time something goes wrong. If this became a pattern with this employee, it would have to be handled differently.
But as a leader it is worth asking are you giving your employees enough second chances. Are you allowing them to save face and maintain their confidence? Athletes and coaches know what a difference it makes when a player is playing with confidence, but I don’t think very many managers got the memo.

Finally, I was on an early morning flight recently and a flight attendant was coming down the aisle picking up the trash. It is a practice of mine to try to look service people I interact with in the eye and see them as a person with a beating human heart vs. seeing them as a transactional, means to an end.
As she walked by, I just looked up at her, smiled, and said, “Good morning.” Her countenance visibly softened and her shoulders came out of her ears where they looked like they had taken up permanent residence. She touched my shoulder and said, “Thank you for noticing it is morning and that I am a person.”

Mother Teresa also said there is more hunger in this world for love and appreciation than there is for bread. And in this way, you too can directly touch hundreds of lives each day.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Miles Davis' Sagacious Advice for Leaders

In his autobiography, Miles Davis, the world renowned jazz trumpeter and band leader, claims to have changed...not just his style, but all of music six times. A bold claim to be sure, but many jazz musicians and historians agree with him. Duke Ellington, for one, compared Davis to Picasso for his continuous musical reinventions.

Davis was so intent on pushing the boundaries of his art and the changes he made were so compelling that he did influence the course of music in the process.

Here are a couple examples.  According to a 2010 article by John Fordham in The Guardian, early in his career, young Davis helped changed bebop's chaotic wall of notes with softer tones, fuller ensemble harmonies, and more spacious  solos – a development that came into full bloom in Davis' Birth of the Cool recording sessions.

Shortly thereafter, in his 1959 album Kind of Blue, Davis dispensed with soloing over the established chord structure of the song in favor of soloing based on modal scales.  That album, which many regard as the definitive jazz recording, ushered in the modal jazz era.  Of course Miles was not the only one driving these changes but he had a huge influence.

How did this continual reinvention come about?  Keith Jarrett, a jazz pianist, tells this story.  Miles was very ill and Jarrett was visiting him.  Miles said, “You know why I don’t play ballads anymore? Because I love playing ballads so much.”

This simple vignette is worth paying attention to.  If you want to evolve as a musician or a leader or a person, how do you do it?  A common refrain is that you have to “get out of your comfort zone." But what does that mean, really?

Well one answer is that you should push what you are doing a little harder. For example, they say when you ski or skate, if you are not falling down periodically on your turns, you are not "getting on your edges" enough.  So the recommendation is to get out of your comfort zone and lean into the turns more.

But the Miles story here suggests another angle. Getting outside your comfort zone can also mean putting down what you love to do. You take what you like and what you are probably really good at and you stop doing it to grow into something else.

Why is this such an important idea for leaders? A leadership aphorism with more than a grain of truth to it is that what got you promoted might not help you at the next level; in fact, it might actually hold you back.

For example, as a director, your attention to detail and micromanagement might have ensured a smooth and successful operation that got you noticed. But micromanaging...even more…like getting more on your edges in a ski turn…is likely to backfire when managing other directors or VPs.

I am coaching a founder and CEO of a very successful company. There is no argument about what this man has built and achieved. However, his business has plateaued and he knows it. He also knows why. He is not being the strategic leader he needs to be. He is too caught up in operational issues and is often the only one who can solve the complex operational interactions because he built the business from scratch and knows it from the inside out.

For his company to begin growing again, he has to change himself. He has to detox from the rush he gets from being an operational savior.  He also has to allow some customer glass to break while he trains a group of people to know what he knows and do what he does. This will free him up to spend the time focusing on market dynamics and three year product road maps to jump-start growth.

Make no mistake, he is in a tough spot and doing this now will not be easy. Some customers are going to be upset at the sudden lack of responsiveness. He might even lose business in the short-term.

The best time for leaders to "change their spots" as it were is when they are in transition, getting promoted or moving to another company. In fairness to my client, as a founder, he didn’t really have the luxury of a distinct transition. He grew up inside the business and in that situation, it is hard to have the time and wherewithal to take a step back.

Unlike Miles, you don’t reinvent yourself just for the sake of reinventing yourself. But a new position might force you to change and it is wise to try and get out in front of it.

As you move up, the politics get a lot harder. It is less about what you do yourself and more about the coalitions you can build. Complexity and ambiguity increase. There is a broader impact horizon.
Moreover, if there is a weakness to your game, at a higher level it is likely to get exposed.  Depending on how serious, it could even derail your career.

A very successful executive director client of mine doesn’t like and doesn’t understand finances, but he wants to run a business. Should that opportunity come along, it is not likely to end well unless he changes.  Of course he doesn't have to become an expert, but putting down the things he loves and is good least for a order to develop functional financial knowledge will make him a better leader.

You can do this anytime, but if you are a leader in transition, I encourage you to take the time to inventory what you love to do and as important, what you try to avoid. Further, look at old performance reviews, ask former bosses and look in the mirror: why have you been successful to this point?

Then ask yourself if those predilections and strong suits are going to continue to contribute to your success in the new position.  Is it possible the new situation needs less of what made you successful and something new...perhaps one of those areas you have tried to avoid or just something that is not as natural for you?

Is it time to stop doing something you love…time to find joy and a new rhythm in something else…so you can play on a new stage?

Please share your stories of what you had to change to grow and any other comments below.

Monday, November 2, 2015

All Good Things in All Good Time: OD as Stone Soup

In a previous post, Women in Leadership:  Not Just Long Overdue but in the Nick of Time, I mentioned that I recently saw Dr. Ed Schein speak.  Dr. Schein, in my view, is one of the founding fathers of OD and it is still inspiring to hear him talk.

During the talk, Ed mentioned his involvement in early T-Groups.  There are probably not many on LinkedIn with any experience in T-groups so permit me a brief aside.  I have excerpted and condensed information in the T-group entry on Wikipedia into this paragraph:

A T-group or training group (sometimes also referred to as sensitivity training group, human relations training group or encounter group) is a form of group training where 8-15 participants learn about themselves (and about small group processes in general) through their interaction with each other. A T-group meeting does not have an explicit agenda, structure, or express goal. Under the guidance of a facilitator, the participants are encouraged to share emotional reactions (such as, for example, anger, fear, warmth, or envy) that arise in response to their fellow participants' actions and statements. The emphasis is on sharing emotions, as opposed to judgments or conclusions. In this way, T-group participants can learn how their words and actions trigger emotional responses in the people they communicate with.

Though it is hard to imagine today, many major corporations used to run sessions like these all the time in the 60s, 70s and into the early 80s.  Though powerful versions of T-groups are still around…Peter Senge’s dialogue groups and Arnold Mindell’s WorldWork seminars are examples…neither are significant parts of the corporate landscape.

Dr. Schein was describing his experience in one of these T-groups.  After 20 minutes of sitting around not doing anything productive and with frustrations mounting, someone stood up and said, “What the hell are we supposed to be doing here?”  The facilitator replied, “Well that’s up to us isn’t it?”  And eventually the group started to get some traction, an agenda formed, and the group started to learn something about group process as well as themselves. 
Schein made an obvious point, but it struck me.  He said the so called facilitator had no idea where the session was going to end up.  How could he or she?  Every person is different.  Every group is different.  Every process is different.  For some there are great insights.  For others, it was nothing but a waste of time.  Each time the group creates the experience.

I found myself thinking of the children’s story, Stone Soup.
In a time of war, a few soldiers from another country come to a small village. The soldiers asked for food, but the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food stores with the hungry strangers. The soldiers then asked if they could borrow a large pot.  The suspicious villagers said, “If you don’t have any food, what are you going to make in the pot?”  The soldiers said, “We are going to make stone soup for everyone.” The soldiers went to a stream, filled the pot with water, dropped a large stone in it, and placed it over a fire. Some of the villagers become curious about what they are doing and gather round. While the “soup” is still heating up, one soldier says, “As good as it is, a little bit of garnish would make it even better.” One villager hears this and thinks what harm would it be to add a little of the parsley I have and runs to fetch it. Though still a bit hesitant about these soldiers and what they are up to, another villager decides she does not mind parting with a few carrots to help them out, so that gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, hears about the stone soup and sees the carrots and parsley and says, “Wouldn’t this be better with a few potatoes?”  “As good as this soup is,” the soldiers say, “some potatoes would make it even better.”  “I have some lamb.  Would that help?” says another villager.  “Why yes that would make it even more interesting,” say the soldiers.  More and more villagers walk by each asking about and adding another ingredient. Finally, a thick, rich, delicious pot of soup was enjoyed by all.

T-groups were a cornerstone of early OD work and, in some ways, they are a fractal of all OD work.  Whether it is team building, Future Search, a visioning workshop, or Change Management…just like the soldiers, you have no idea what you will end up with.  You have a general direction and a bunch of techniques, a diverse group of people with different agendas and you just push play.  You don’t know if or when the problem will be solved and you don’t know what the final deliverable will look like.

You could let this depress you or you could let it lead you to approach your work with less hubris and a humble, service orientation.  In this way you help the group create what the collective is able to create and not some preconceived image in the facilitator’s mind of “how these things are supposed to go.” 

Sometimes you end up with a satisfying soup.  Sometimes you eat boiled rocks with parsley, at least at first.

But in time, with continued eyes-wide-open assessment, courageous conversations, and effective problem solving tools, people come to see that more is needed and more is possible.  Stances soften.  Common ground is discovered.  People find ways to lend their shoulders to the wheel.  The broth thickens.

All good things in all good time.  Not facilitator time.  Group time.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Four Horseman of the Relationships Apocalypse (Part 1)

We are all engaged multiple relationship networks:  family, extended family, neighbors, associations, hobby groups, meet-ups, religious groups, country clubs, friends, significant others, spouses and on and on.  Relationships are essential to our health and happiness.  They bring us joy and laughter and immense satisfaction.  They also make us nuts with all the drama and hurt feelings and processing that seems to be concomitant with maintaining them and even having them.

We have all said to ourselves about people we interact with... "Why does this have to be so dang difficult?"  I am not suggesting that the people around you don't in fact make things way more complicated than then need to be.  But since we can't control others, it is expeditious to look at what we might be doing to add to the complexity that we experience.

And in fact I think there are four things that all of us do to one degree or another that makes our relationships more complicated and difficult than they need to be.  I say "do" but I really should have said "think" because these things I am referring to that muddy the water are all thought processes.  I'll cover the first two in this post and the other two next week.

There is a familiar concept in social psychology known as The Fundamental Attribution Error. Wikipedia defines it as "the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain the behavior of someone else in a given situation rather than considering the situation's external factors." One thing that is super interesting about the Fundamental Attribution Error is that it is not a good explanation of how we interpret our own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and more frequently taken into consideration.

Said in plain English, when you crash your car into another car from behind, you are not careless or mindless person...the roads were slick and the sun was bright and it was in fact the other person that really was the lousy driver for stopping so suddenly.  When someone crashes into you from behind, they are not just an idiot, they are a %$*&%^% idiot.

When someone says or does something, we make attributions about who they their core...and don't take situational influences into account for them as much as we do when explaining our own behavior. 

This attribution error mucks things up at both the individual and organizational levels. For example, despite real strengths, we might give up on someone we are managing too quickly because we attribute their mistakes to fundamental character flaws and tell ourselves we should cut our losses. 
At the organizational level, I repeatedly saw in call centers mistakes being attributed to the agents "who just don't get it" and "don't try hard enough" (and worse) and obviously need to be coached and coached again as opposed to figuring out why the mistakes keep getting made and looking to error-proofing solutions that don't involve speculating about the agents' genetic heritage.

This mental tendency distorts our perceptions of people and situations, leads to sub-optimal problem solving strategies, puts us on guard, and has us looking for more confirming information for our new hypothesis about them.  None of these outcomes are fertilizer for our relationships that help them grow and sustain us.  They are all weed killer.

Think this tendency is not pervasive?  Try this quick check:  think about the people who you are in some kind of relationship with that you currently find most challenging to deal with.  Do your explanations for why they are so difficult involve labels you have placed on them about who they are/what they are like or are they descriptions of the situational variables that are what's really driving their choices and behavior.  I could be wrong, but I think Quod Erat Demonstrandum goes about here.

As insidious as the Fundamental Attribution Error is, it actually has a precursor that is the second of the four horseman wreaking havoc in our relationships.  It is actually a fundamental attribution error that happens before the Fundamental Attribution Error.  It is best illustrated in the well known Zen story of The Empty Boat:

A man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, "Hey, hey, watch out! Turn aside!" But the boat just comes right at him, faster and faster. By this time he's standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it's an empty boat.

Continuing with the wrecked car theme, if a tree limb falls on our car, we aren't going to be happy about it but we are also not going to blame the tree.  We won't make attributions about the tree.  The tree won't be an idiot that needs to pull it together.  When the leaves start to fall off the tree in the Autumn, we won't say, "See, I told you so.  There that careless tree goes dropping stuff again."  We will just call the insurance company and get our car fixed.  Care to wager on the likelihood of getting that kind of matter-of-fact response when it is another driver that damaged your car?  Smart money is on the sidelines.

If the wind blows sand in your eye at the beach, you rub your eye.  No drama.  No Sturm und Drang.  If kids running around kick up some sand and it gets in your eye, never mind what you think of these particular kids, you head riffs on and on about how is it possible that an entire generation has become so thoughtless.

I am not advocating Pollyanna kumbya here.  This is not ignoring the fact that people do cause us difficulty.  That they sometimes speak and act without thinking.  That they don't carry on in ways that are a far cry from what we want. It is also not to say that we have to like it.  It is also not to say that you shouldn't say something that might prevent the situation from occurring again.

It is just to say, there is an easier way to roll that won't have you asking..."why does this have to be so dang difficult."  Just try to deal and minimize the mental melodrama.  You have to anyway. If you don't want to be psychological or spiritual about it, just think about it as a process improvement step:  take care of business without all the wasted mental motion:  rub your eye, fix your car.

Try it for a week and see what happens.  One thing that will happen is that you'll be a lot easier to be around.  And don't be surprised if suddenly you find the people around you are a lot easier to be around too.  Insert a wink about here.

I will cover the last two of the four horseman next week.

Please share your comments below.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Schrödinger's Cat and the Value of Uncertainty in a Gotta-Know-Everythting-Right-Now World

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger suggested the following thought-experiment. A cat, a flask of poison, a radioactive source and a monitor are placed in a sealed box. If the monitor detects a single atom of radioactive decay, the flask is broken open, releasing the poison which kills the cat. You have no idea when the radioactive source is going to decay and therefore at any point in time you have no idea if the cat is dead or alive because everything is contained in a sealed box.

According to Wikipedia, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that, after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead, not alive or dead, alive and dead. This is the notion of quantum superposition, where both states exist simultaneously…until, when the box is opened, the events are observed, at which point the multiple states collapse and you observe a live cat or a dead cat.

The cat gets all the press, but honestly, the cat is just a prop. The star of the show is the box because it's the box that puts the observer in a state of “not knowing,” which creates the superposition.

OK, great, superposition, parallel universes, observer-influenced outcomes…why would anyone care other than the Sheldon character on the TV show The Big Bang Theory?

Let’s take the thought experiment a little further. What happens when Schrödinger opens the box? Yes, he either finds a live cat or a dead cat. But what also probably happens is that some judgement forms about the state he finds the cat in. If it was his cat, he might think it’s a really good thing that the cat is still alive. Or it might have been a neighbor’s cat, which had been killing the birds in his yard, and therefore he might think it is a good thing that the cat is now dead.

But imagine the following scenario. Let’s say the cat was Schrödinger's and when he opens the box he finds his cat is dead from the release of the poison. Schrödinger thinks this is horrible and he and the whole family are sad for weeks. So he goes and gets a dog to assuage everyone’s grief. Six weeks later there is a fire in the house and the dog’s barking wakes everyone up so the whole family escapes safely. Now Schrödinger might have a different view of the cat’s death and think, at the end of the day, it was not such a bad thing after all.

There is of course nothing wrong with being really sad and then really relieved aside from being a little whipsawed by ones reactions. This well known story suggests another approach. 

There was a farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "This is such bad luck," they said sympathetically. "Maybe," the farmer replied. 

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful this is," the neighbors exclaimed. "Maybe," replied the old man. 

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "Maybe," answered the farmer. 

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors exclaimed “What great news this is. You’re so lucky.” "Maybe," said the farmer.

Now many of course know this story but the insight here might be to see the farmer's reaction in the context of superposition.  In the story, the farmer’s neutral assessment… his “maybe”…creates a kind of superposition about an event and its implications which allows the farmer to maintain more equanimity and avoid all the ups and downs his neighbors go through.

In a different vein, there are even examples of the utility of superposition in the problem solving and creativity literature. In a study published 30 years ago, participants were either introduced to new objects conditionally (e.g., this could be an X) or unconditionally (e.g., this is an X), and the objects used were either unfamiliar or familiar.

For example, in the course of the experiment, participants might be told they had made a mistake with a pencil while there were several different objects, like a rubber band, sitting on the table in front of them. When they were told beforehand, “This is a rubber band,” only 3 percent realized it could also be used as an eraser. When they had been told beforehand “This could be a rubber band,” 40 percent figured out that the rubber band could erase their mistake.

Just like the farmer’s maybe, the experimenters’ could be framing creates a kind of superposition that allowed the participants to see other possibilities and find creative solutions. (Langer, E. & Piper, A. (1987) The Prevention of Mindlessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)

Every time something happens to us, we get to decide what that event means and whether we want to try to get more of it or whether it is something we want to avoid. Deciding an event that just occurred unequivocally means X and then riding the wave of emotional reaction…positive or negative…that accompanies X creates an observer effect that collapses a broader palette of reactions, options, and outcomes.

This is not to say you don’t respond. If the sales numbers that come in are below expectation, it is likely that action needs to be taken.

Here is one scenario for doing something: fists pounding the table, exclamations that “this is a disaster and drastic changes are coming,” and a concomitant sense of panic and dread all around.
Here is another: “Well this is not where we thought we would be at this point. Is the root cause in our assumptions or in our execution or both? Should we cut our losses and redirect resources or double down or are there other options we should be considering?

Under which scenario are you likely to find the team cooperatively coming together to address the issue? Under which scenario are you more likely to find people engaged in inquiry and exploration?  Under which scenario are you likely to find more creative solutions? Under which scenario are you likely to find a higher sense of employee engagement with the work and with the people they work with?

Mary Beth O’Neill said in Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: “When other people become reactive to the situation…the system loses the flexibility to deal with the challenging situation. It freezes and locks up …The leader’s own resilience is suppressed." For Ms O’Neill, job #1 for coaches working with executives is to help them face their own reactions so they can get quickly back to their creative center.

So give this a try: no matter what happens this week, do whatever you need to do to deal with it, but don’t put a definitive label on what happened. Say it could be good or it could be not so good, or “maybe” like the farmer and then just deal. See how that affects the way you and those around frame the issue, the slate of options you consider, and the way you take action.

And please share the ways you create superposition in your work and how that has helped you.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Ans: An Elevator Pitch. I'm Not Kidding (Part 3)

If the Answer is: “An elevator pitch. I am not kidding,” then what on earth is the question? The Question is: What is the fastest and easiest way to improve how you and your team executes?

This is a series of three short posts on the power of an Elevator Pitch. In Parts I and II, I talked about what constitutes an effective elevator pitch and gave an example and an easy way to develop one.
In Part III, I want to describe two key steps to help ensure your elevator pitch leads to more effective execution.

The first one is kind of obvious. For an elevator pitch to help you and your team, it has to be spoken and spoken often to real people and not just to the loofah in the shower. You share it with your team. You share it with your boss. You share it with your peers.

Sharing it everywhere you go is crucial. Don’t believe me? Alan Mulally, who took over Ford in 2006 right around the time it posted $12B loss felt this was so important that every Thursday during his mandatory Business Plan Review, he would introduce himself (!), say his top five priorities and say how he did on them the previous week. As Marshall Goldsmith described in his book Triggers, Alan wouldn’t deviate in content or wording and expected his team to do the same.

But the second step is even more important. Every time you share it, close by saying, “This is my assessment. What do you think?” Invite the people all around you to weigh in on what you are doing. Is that the right mission for your group? Is your performance summary correct? Are those the right goals and are they aggressive enough? And are the priorities for driving improvement correct?

There are so many ways this helps execution. First of all, if your employees or peers don’t agree with some part of this, it creates huge drag on what you are trying to do. Change is hard enough. Doing it while dragging a piano makes work unbearable. Their buy-in can help reduce that drag.

Moreover, if they feel they have had input on any part of this they are more bought in and more likely to lend their shoulder to the wheel. They plan and budget time and money, which greases the skids. And if you start to run into setbacks it is easier to rally support because others have some ownership.
Finally this approach reflects well on you as a leader. You are big enough and confident enough to invite input. And you are seen as someone who puts the organization and effective execution in front of your pride of authorship.

Speaking of inviting input, please share your thoughts below this post or this series.

Key Development Indicators (KDI's): Alexipharmics for "the Dumbest Idea Ever"

Dr. Bob Aubrey has been one of the vanguard thinkers and writers on Human Development in business for the entire 20+ years I have known him.  His thinking represents a unique blend of Eastern and Western philosophy as well as practical business, consulting, and entrepreneurial experience.  Further, no one working in this field today can match his global perspective and experience:  he speaks multiple languages and has lived on three different continents for decades at a time.  Like the old EF Hutton commercials, when he speaks on human development, especially for multinationals, it’s a good idea to take heed.

His latest book, Measure of Man:  Leading Human Development, shines a light on what is coming at a speed that few are prepared for.  The key thrust of the book is that the systems being used to keep score by individuals, businesses, and even countries are not only lacking, but often counterproductive to stated aims.

In Aubrey’s view, Human Development in particular is not getting the attention it needs.  You would be mistaken to think this is just Aubrey taking his lifelong hobbyhorse out for a ride.  This book was penned entirely in Asia where a handful of countries and their businesses are home to and employ close to half the world’s population.  Those countries and businesses know that developing their teams and citizens is a matter of survival.

Dr. Aubrey says that what is needed to thrust development into the forefront are Key Development Indicators (KDIs).  Right out of the gate he contrasts KDIs with their well-known older brother, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).  The KPIs used by businesses tend to be short-term focused and dominated by actions and financials.  Aubrey argues even country measures like the Happy Planet Index are incomplete as well.  KDIs on the other hand, are longer-term, learning-oriented, and focused on concepts like mastery, autonomy, purpose, and depth and breadth of relationships.  If Y = f (X), Aubrey believes happiness and financial measurements are the outcomes or Ys of getting Xs like human development right.

In thinking this way, he is in good company.  For example, a couple of years ago, much was being written about how Shareholder Value creation was misguided.  Former and current CEOs like Jack Welch formerly of GE and Marc Benioff from Salesforce were calling Shareholder Value “the dumbest idea ever.”  Firms were more than just shareholder piggy banks and had to invest in the development of associates, invest in innovation, and invest in studying, delighting, and winning over current and new customers.  By almost requiring companies to forego this long term thinking, an obsessive focus on Shareholder Value creation actually ran counter to, well, shareholder value creation.

Aubrey’s book provides the road map for leaders and companies looking to counter short-termism with a long term view on development.  He is a philosopher at heart so he approaches the challenge with a wide lens.  This is important and ensures that human development does not get narrowly defined as something as trivial as how many people have achieved a certain proficiency at Excel or one of the latest stat packages or how many have had a performance review.

Measure of Man lays out a taxonomy of development measures and provides multiple case studies for how they are being applied by leaders and HR professionals.  The book highlights leaders who are leveraging KDIs effectively and also those who are badly whiffing.  Both types of case studies are instructive.

He also takes on the “HR as business partner idea” and argues HR abandoned its core constituency (employees and their capital D Development).  HR can talk about business partnering until the cows come home, but until they understand what human development is, how to advocate for it, how to measure it, and how to change it, they will be nothing more than a Management cat's paw.

Some might view Bob’s frequent forays into philosophy as a weakness of the book.  In my view, this puts the book on the high ground while also remaining practical.  Further, there are a number of personal anecdotes that some may choose to skim through.  But again, to me, these reflect the fact that he is writing from the marrow of his experience and not trying to catch a trending wave just to get another book out there.

The book finishes strong as the final few pages provide ten predictions for coming shifts in Human Development.  These predictions are in some ways the payoff pitch and at the least are exactly what you want and expect from a vanguard thinker writing from the front lines of where Human Development is being wrestled with.

A final thought:  If the broad development of your team however large is an area of concern, you would be ill-advised to think you have lots of time to begin putting a foundation in place.  In my view, all ten of Dr. Aubrey’s predictions are “coming soon to a theater near you.”  If you are not towards the front of that line, you may not get a seat.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Cover the Ground You Stand On: Getting Clear on Your Position in a Conflict

I recently taught my Influence at Work class. The content is built around a simple model: focus on and bring out your position, focus on and help bring out the other's position, and focus on strengthening the relationship.  In the class, we used real conflict situations, either ones the participants had faced in the past or ones they were currently facing.

With this particular group, they really struggled with knowing what they wanted in the negotiation and then strongly and congruently advocating for it.  They knew what they didn’t want and they knew they did not want to "give in" to the demands coming at them from the other side. But even to succinctly state what they wanted to happen and why that was important for various stakeholders was, for many, a real challenge.

These are, of course, not issues for everyone. Every group and every participant is different.  Though I don’t know him, I am guessing knowing what he wants and pressing for it would not be an issue for Donald Trump.

I earned my black belt in Aikido from Sensei William Gleason in Boston. He was an incredible teacher with a wide range of teaching aphorisms that left lasting impressions. One expression of his that I really liked was when he told us we had to “Cover the ground you stand on.”

As with a lot of his teachings, they often meant different things at different times depending on the point he wanted to make.  But I took away from this one the notion that you have to know your position and you have to be able to cover or defend that position.  While his teachings were always martial, they resonated in spheres beyond physical confrontation.

I shared Sensei Gleason's powerful idea in my Influence class and we talked about the fact that it had two parts...1) the ground itself and 2) standing on that ground and defending it.

The group worked in pairs until each person could clearly and succinctly say what they wanted and why. This often took many repetitions.  Everyone learned how difficult it was to be clear and parsimonious with "the ask."  But everyone also learned how powerful that clarity and precision can be.

That is Step 1.  That is the ground. That is your position.  At the risk of being axiomatic: It is impossible to defend a position until you have one.

Once “the ground” was clear, it was time to see if they could defend it. Here again, the participants found this wasn't easy.  They learned that their bodies often belied their position. It is very common for people to leak power in tense situations: fidgeting, looking away, voice inflections that rise at the end of sentences, rapid speech, poor posture, etc.  These leaks often completely undermine any conviction one has about their position.

So in small groups with lots of support and feedback, the participants practiced plugging their power leaks until their gazes were steady, their three points were clear, their voices unwavering and their body language underlined their position. Nothing complicated. Most of us are simply unaware of the leaks and when we are made aware of them and eliminate them, the strength of our conviction shines through. Honestly, the before and after makeovers were impressive.

Got a conflict or negotiation coming up?  Here is a simple step you can take to improve your chances of coming out of it with more of what you want. Ask a friend to watch and listen to you state your position and the logic behind it. When you have finished, ask them if 1) your position was clear, 2) the stakeholder logic was compelling, and 3) your tone and body language reflected how strongly you felt about the issue.

When you have these three things are aligned, you are hard to say no to.  For as another teacher of mine, Dr. Max Schupbach, founder of the Deep Democracy Institute, says: "Congruence takes every trick."

Please share your thoughts below.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Gut the Chicken: The Problem with Generational Platitudes

I was shopping for a birthday card for my son. There was one in the poke-fun-at-generational-differences genre with this old geezer on the front. The outside of the card said something like, “Yeah, we had games when I was young too…” and when you opened the card it said, “…games like Gut the Chicken and Don’t Let the Fire Go Out. My favorite was Go Find Water.”

I didn’t buy it…my son doesn’t need any more ammo to help him rag on me…but I did think it was quite funny.

A lot of ink has been spilled on generational differences in the workplace and how to manage GenXers and Millennials. I sometimes wonder if all that ink is warranted. Of course there are nuanced differences between the generations and I am sure those differences can be helpful to keep in mind.

It is just that it strikes me that the subtleties of managing different generations might be the pebbles and sand in the Big Rock Demonstration: if you concentrate on the nuances you might forget to squeeze in those “Big Rock” issues that really matter…to everyone.

A recent article in The Economist said as much.  To summarize: there are generational differences, but individual differences are bigger than any generational differences and that both of these are completely swamped by human commonalities.

There are also practical matters here. Managers have a lot to keep track of. As they try to keep their team firing on all cylinders, it is a lot to ask for them to remember what generation someone is and what generalization applies to one cohort vs. another. Moreover, there is the challenge of trying to apply the nuanced approach in a way that does create a sense of differential treatment in the department.

Taking a more heuristic (guiding principles) approach would steer managers towards concentrating on the handful of issues that are of concern to everyone…the Big Rocks…and making sure those are right before trying to fine tune.

So what might those handful of priorities be?

One of the most popular TED talks to date is Daniel Pink’s The Surprising Science of Motivation. He makes the case that Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy are “…the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.” Pink defines them as follows: Autonomy…the urge to direct our own lives; Mastery…the desire to get better and better at something that matters: Purpose…the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

These are powerful issues for all managers to understand about their employees and try to get right. Does the work feel purposeful to the team? Do they have a sense of a larger mission? How important is Mastery to them? In other words, for their personal development agenda, how deep do they want to go into learning some aspect of the work?

And finally Autonomy. This is an area where so many bosses and employees get their wires crossed and you hear things like: “She doesn’t delegate enough.” “He is micromanaging me.” “I didn’t know we were working in a day care center.”

Here are some questions that can help: Are the employee and manage clear on the objectives for that employee? Are the resources that the employee can use without seeking approval clear? Are the roles and responsibilities (RACI/DACI) clear? Are the check-in schedule and the needed information to report out on both clear? Is the manager clear on what help the employees are looking for from her/him?

Such simple questions. So infrequently answered.

Looking for an edge in increasing your leadership and execution effectiveness with your inter-generational team? Start there.