Monday, February 23, 2009

Self Starter or Loose Cannon?

I’ve heard it said that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, but I think it depends in large part on the length of your eyelashes.  And on the kind of environment that the leadership operates in.  Like a nimble Silicon Valley software start-up might be a little different than a federally regulated gas, electric and water utility; at least in how they might treat a person who demonstrates initiative.  The terms self-starter vs. loose cannon come to mind.

A Six Sigma Black Belt told me the other day that when he looks at an organization’s metrics, his radar is modulated to detect the three indicators of a lazy organization:  a dataset including only metrics that fulfill regulatory requirements, metrics that are structurally simple to gather, and metrics that make the organization look good.   Appearing nowhere in this dataset are metrics that actually help to get things done faster, better, or more cheaply.  In case you didn’t know, doing it better, faster, or more cheaply are the three best ways to put money in someone’s pocket, sometimes your own.

So which beast are we serving when we do our jobs?  The CYA-Metrics Beast that provides cover, fulfills compliance needs, makes us look good, doesn’t stress us out too much, keeps us free from blame, but doesn’t actually improve anything?  Or the Make-a-Difference Beast that actually applies those critical thinking skills that our parents and educators worked so hard to shape in us?  Joining that critical thinking with risk taking willingness-- by proposing  the new idea, by persuading a colleague to try it a new, more efficient way, or by daring to say, “The Emperor has no clothes!” at the next self-congratulatory metrics review meeting could bump our organizations (and our nation’s) productivity to greater profitability.  And given our dire straits in the macro-economy,  there really isn’t too much choice.  Like strategist Mark Nittler used to say at PeopleSoft, “Processes and tools don’t make up organizations…People do.”  Let’s wag that dog and take control of our processes and tools back.  Now is the time to think critically, to risk, and to be willing to improve.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Super Success at Failing

What’s it like to be 13 today?  I just saw a  13 year old gymnast in a pink leotard score a phenomenal 14.65 on her tumbling routine.  I thought of my 13 year old son who has brains galore but earns Ds and C minuses at school.  He couldn’t concentrate for more than 30 minutes unless vast sums of money or perhaps vast quantities of screen time were offered as rewards.  Maybe I ought to say “won’t concentrate” instead of “couldn’t concentrate”.

I look at the Olympic performing 13-year-old gymnast and wonder if she makes her mother coffee in the morning, with lots of skim milk, and then zapped in the micro so it returns to its piping hot state.  I wonder if she can ace every single verbal SAT question I hand her way. 

I found it ego-centrically embarrassing at first, that my son was choosing such underperformance.   I wished, at times that he was some sort of underperforming employee who I could meet with, write a memo about, put on probation, follow up with, and either re-integrate into the team or laterally move him out, or possibly “take steps”. 

Some people say, “Give him consequences!”  Like we don’t already.  I don’t have much left to take away from him; what else is left? Bread, water and a dark closet?  Others say, “Work with him!”  Yeah while he stretches eight  math problems into 30 minutes each? No one gets dinner, the other high performing kid gets neglected, and I’m insane by bed time, exhausted the next morning?  There just aren’t enough hours in the day for my precious but underperforming son.  Let him sink?  Yeah, and then I look back in five-ten years and blame my lack of intervention. "If only I had coached him more when it was easier he wouldn't have sunk so low into habitual sloth," I'll tell myself.

I give thanks that we're a close family and fairly balanced emotionally.  We are in touch, we do stuff together, we laugh often and deeply,  an no one's on drugs, depressed, or "at-risk" of destructive behaviors.  But the 13 year hold has puberty ahead, and I expect things could get tougher.

Performance management is so much easier in the workplace, when you have the ace card to play; separation.  But in family, that’s not an option…we stick together through thick and thin.  Let my 13 year old test me. I’ll just keep doing my best, even if he keeps doing his worst.  May Heaven help us all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Check Your
Cognitive Distortion at the Door Please

(This blog is dedicated to my main squeeze and managing partner WCB. Your hope and happiness float me along when mine's missing.)

I had a boyfriend once who could drive his BMW through the jammed San Francisco Sunset District at 5 p.m., stoplights and all.  He could get us across the Golden Gate into the open-er spaces northward; to Mt. Lassen Park for a quick camping weekend.  He didn’t drive competitively to beat others.  He didn’t cut people off.  But he spotted lane openings and used them safely, and the whole Friday night escape thing was more like gliding out of town, less like battling one’s way through the muck.  Greg was a CPA and had a thing for efficiency.  And he knew what he could control, and bad drivers weren’t within that circle.

Another boyfriend loved to drive on the weekends, in an aimless, “Let’s discover a truck stop,” kind of way.  We always had the best tunes from his seemingly infinite library of cassette tapes, which he’d swap out during the week.  Slow and strange drivers would thwart our efforts at aimless driving nirvana.  He’d coach them along with phrases like “Come on, Darlin’….you can do it,”  like he was talking to a stubborn, but loved, horse.  Ira was a Fed Ex driver during the week and knew how to kick ass on the road, Zen Master style.  He would glide in and out of lanes, avoiding the incompetent, the troubled, the distracted driver. Yet he, too, did this while avoiding the hackle-raising so common to territorial drivers.

Which brings me to the musings of Duke Stump, a top brand builder, formerly of Nike, now principal of NorthStarManifesto. Stump says that we’ve forgotten the focus on how we think, rushing instead to some seemingly righteous judgment comprising what we think. He arrives at this conclusion following attendance at his first-ever TED conference (Technology Entertainment, Design…but so much more than that).

“Have you ever noticed how there is this insatiable urge on behalf of all us to dictate what to do whenever there is an issue? Asking questions has become a lost art. [Itals. mine] Why did this happen? What is the systemic cause? How can we reframe the issue to consider the whole? It was therefore refreshing to attend a conference that shared HOW TO THINK versus WHAT TO THINK. Nice.”

If you want to really see the maturity (or what I call spiritual generosity) of a person, Maya Angelou provides a handy lense. “You can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights."  We reveal ourselves in traffic too. Not to mention restaurants.

Cognitive Distortion is big name phrase for the kind of self delusion that makes us feel injured or harmed by others. It means we distort the situational facts as we let them into our cognition, into our consciousness, into our head and heart.  A Buddhist  might say, “Remember compassion, remember that much of what is out there is suffering, when you let it in, try to detach and lessen that suffering for yourself and for others. Use compassion to do this."   

A Christian might say, “Remember the master plan and the puppet master out there. It is all is part of our divine reality. Try to have compassion for the jerk-meisters among us, and pray for them.  Remember, don’t participate in the madness, which merely escalates it.  Use compassion to do this." 

Matthew McKay in his seminal 80s classic, Self Esteem, discusses techniques for coping with the pathological critic--a nasty mental beast who uses cognitive distortions of all varieties like a terrorist uses plastique.   Somehow, it is the rapidity of the cognitive distortion that leads us to the rapid-fire (yes pun intended) judgment/misunderstanding that stresses us, or worse.  Again the technique is to recognize and separate from the auto-judgment.  Compassion for self and others is a useful tool for accomplishing this mental judo.

Sounds easy to do in the isolation of reading and Internet browsing, where critical thought has room to romp.  But in the hurly burly of human and mechanical interaction--driving, office politics, producing deliverables, getting the kids to school on time, yada yada yada--it’s something else completely. Or is it? 

A fish doesn’t see the water it swims in.  We ought to do better and try to see the influence of cultural modernity upon us. We’re swimming in a sea of strong, silent, jump-to-action heroes.  Sam Keen writes beautifully of the ethos and pathos driving masculine archetypes.  Consider Eastwood’s Dirty Harry,  Stallone’s Rambo, and even the slightly more multi-dimensional Jack Ryan of Tom Clancy’s novels and films portrayed by Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck .  Take orders or don’t;  but either way the acceptable options revolve around a  jump-to-action bias.  The assumption is that rapid-judgment shows confidence and provides for accurate situational interpretation.  Heck, even Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade can do that.  Correcting for cognitive distortion sounds downright effete.

So looking at the how of our thinking process isn’t exactly heroic in today's goldfish water.  Quieting the pathological critic when alone or questioning the assumed course of action in deadline sensitive situations…we don’t exactly see those behaviors modeled all around us in the cultural modernity we’re swimming in.  But we can look for it and find it if we try. 

Change is far simpler than we think.  Eastwood has been doing it with his choice of roles—check out Gran Torino for the come to Jesus moment on all this supposed heroism stuff.  Let's remember what we're already quite certain of; kids are always watching what we do; they’re not listening to what we say.  So let’s do better, let's model the brainy compassion that keeps us sane, and tamps down the madness.  Use compassion as your tool.  Gently question the deadline.  Carefully explore someone else's randomly bad behavior.  Ask more. The rest will come.




Sunday, February 01, 2009

Be Smart and Win Fabulous Prizes

Smart use. Smart upgrades. Smart power. Smart people.  The prevalence of the word “smart” is beginning to tug at me.  Hillary Clinton says to her State Dept. staff that in foreign policy the U. S. will wield smart power, reminding staffers that they themselves are at its heart.  “At the heart of smart power are smart people, and you are those people.”

Conservation enthusiasts brand themselves with “smart use,” and recommend smart use of resources like water, gas and electricity.  It means using less, which lowers expenditures and also shows good stewardship of the Earth’s resources serving both the individual and the common good.  Apparently stupid use is for spendthrifts and for the environmentally un-enlightened.

I was pondering whether or not I would blog on smart this and smart that. It seems curmudgeonly, in the Andy Rooney vein, to complain about the emerging prevalence of the term “smart.”  Then, when I saw an ad in the local Sunday morning paper for the Computer Guru, advertising “smart upgrades,” my decision was made for me.  Once is notable and twice is an accident. Although three is not yet the zeitgeist, it’s definitely an emerging pattern.

I live in a town that likes to think it is smart with the highest per capita concentration of PhDs in the U.S.; many of them physicists who work at the national laboratory here in Los Alamos, New Mexico.   But most here would agree that our civic life suffers from analysis paralysis. Decisions are so overwrought, over-analyzed and so frequently revisited and reversed that very little actually happens here, except the random yet seemingly inevitable demise of local small businesses.

The word smart here comes into play.  If Los Alamos is so smart; why can’t we apply this magic elixir called intelligence to civic issues in need of remedies, such as retaining small business, attracting business, and creating decent wage jobs diversified from the gargantuan national laboratory that dominates our local scene?  Most smarties would agree that these are wise goals.

I’m a fairly smart cookie myself, but have made some epic blunders in my life, which might indicate an intelligence vacuum.  In many instances it was the kindness of strangers and of friends that bailed me out, as they gave freely of their emotional momentum to fuel my rebound, with no thought of return.

Such gifts of kindness make me wonder about smart use, smart power, smart people and smart upgrades.  What if kind power, kind people, kind use and kind upgrades motivated effective behaviors targeted to produce beneficial results; however those results would only be for others, and not for oneself?  Are we devoid of the desire to be kind, over the desire to be smart?  Is self-interest implicit in the recent upsurge in usage of the term smart? Consider Obama’s inaugural speech where he mentioned that helping one another by extending economic opportunity to the many isn’t just charitable, but is the “surest route to our common good”.  What kind of chord does that strike in your heart and mind?

Reach back now to freshman Philosophy 101.  Remember John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism?   Free marketeers and the Chicago School of Economics draw from the wellspring of Mr. Mill’s thought.  The pragmatic Chicago law professor Obama is not afraid to draw upon that strain of thought either; especially if it aligns with where our national intellectual sentiment already lies.  Let’s help one another, but not out of liberal guilt over government’s shortcomings for solving social problems.  Let’s help one another, but not out of charity or religious duty.  (Obama included the approximately 12 million American “nonbelievers” too).  Let’s help others out of something we all can agree on, the pragmatism  of self-interest.  Helping others helps us, or so said President Obama as he set the tone for the next four years.  He might be right for the economic realm; but consider, also, the emotional benefits.  As they say to millions of addicts and alcoholics on the road to recovery,  “Service keeps you sober.”  And as we like to say in my home, “Get over it, and help someone with a bigger problem than yours.”

Perhaps being smart about things involves being kind to people, but it doesn’t seem that way, in the word’s latest usage.  Are our highest, most charitable selves smart in the application of our gifts?  Do we give to the deserving and use our smartness to determine who they are?  Or do we give to create benefits that will return to us individually, or to our smartly defined larger group? Is it simply possible to be kind to others, no questions asked, without being considered a fool?  Whatever the answers, it’s appropriate to consider a greater integration of the heart and mind, and of our left and right brains, in our civic life, our leadership, and our daily decisions. 

As neuroscience continues measuring and peering into our brains and nervous systems, localizing behaviors formerly attributed to subjective emotional whims; the “heart” will take the hit.  There is a place for kindness and subjectivity in our daily actions, our civic leadership, and our political economy.  And it’s neither stupid, nor smart, to trust in generosity of spirit.   It's a risk with a return and we can take it or leave it.