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 are...at 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.

Ans: An Elevator Pitch. I'm Not Kidding. (Part 2 of 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 articles on the power of an Elevator Pitch. In Part I, I described the elements of an elevator pitch.  With this post I want to give an example and I want to share a pain free way to develop your elevator pitch so that it doesn’t feel like you have yet another item on your three page To-Do list.

So here is an example:

“The contact centers mission is to drive continuous improvement in Customer Satisfaction while maintaining or lowering our Year-over-Year Cost/Contact. We have been doing a great job on cost reduction, but CSAT and our order attach rates are flat. Going forward, we are going to slow down the cost reductions, and reinvest in better outcomes for our customers: We are aiming for 20% improvement in both CSAT and attach rate over the next 12 months. We will accomplish that by 1) adding simulations to the new hire assessment process to strengthen the team, 2) using designed experiments to align the offer to the customer profile, and 3) leveraging agent-assisted automation to ensure accurate call recapping, which has been a big source of customer dissatisfaction.”

It has all four of the elements of an elevator speech...the mission, the current score, what winning looks like, and how we will win...and you can say it in about 30 secs.  OK, you have to say it rather fast but it was close!

So some of you might be saying, “OK, I get it. I can see how it might be helpful. But it is going to take me some time to develop and scrub this. How am I going to find time for that? Have you seen my calendar? I’m back-to-back-to-back.”

A calendar that is too packed to write an elevator pitch will have to be addressed in another post. For now, I will accept that you don’t have time and offer a suggestion that it is almost impossible to have an excuse for: develop and rehearse your pitch in the shower.

For the most part, there shouldn’t be too many distractions in there. No phone. No internet. No text messages. The dog and your kids aren’t in there buggin’ you, at least I hope not. If you listen to the radio in the shower, I am guessing you could catch the news or your favorite tunes at other times until you have this down. In a six to eight minute shower, you could run through your elevator pitch several times. In a matter of days, it would be smooth and compelling.

So now you have an elevator pitch or you will soon (unless your showers are way more interesting than mine). If you have excuses for why you can’t develop your elevator pitch in the shower, please entertain us in the comments section!

Getting clear on the four elements of an elevator pitch is a good start towards better execution.  However, in Part III, I'll share my thoughts on the two key steps which will help ensure better results.