Archive for the 'The Working Life' Category

New Year

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I am growing tired of the plethora of articles elucidating the 3, 5, 10 easy steps to getting yourself smarter, better, stronger, faster, more organized, richer, happier… Sure,  given the hackneyed New Years resolution rituals we engage in, it is understandable.  But really, given all the news stories indicating we will all fail on these resolutions I am not sure why anyone feels compelled to write about it.

I have come to a realization recently.  The one thing I try to do (and it is not a resolution) is to spend 20 minutes early in the day reading poetry.  Yep… I said it…   POETRY.  There could not be a more useless activity to engage in.  It is like an anti-resolution.   Sure it is an activity, but it is not a list packed with all of the frenetic anxiety of hurrying to get something done.

Why do I do this?   It acts like a physical exam for me.  It makes me slow down, and pay attention to things I routinely overlook.  I know my state of mind immediately.

One of the other utilitarian benefits is that it makes me think in analogies and similes.  Being able to use these in interactions with others has proven to be one of the most powerful communication tools available and it exercises my imagination which is the only way I have successfully solved any problem.

I am not suggesting to anyone that they go out and buy an anthology of poetry. I am sure that most are as sick of being told what to do at this time of year as I am.  But if it makes you curious,  go to the library and check out this book ; I never liked poetry until I read it.  Want to dive right in? Try this which should, if you are healthy, make you laugh. Or, if you want something to think about, this  he like (T.S. Eliot) was a business executive, living in the real world in addition to being a poet laureate.

When I am trying to gather my thoughts and plans for the new year this is the poem I read.  It helps me focus on the why more than the what.

THE GOLDFISH FLOATS TO THE TOP OF HIS LIFE
by Ted Kooser

The goldfish floats to the top of his life
and turns over, a shaving from somebody’s hobby.
So it is that men die at the whims of great companies,
their neckties pulling them slumped in the shower,
their hearts blown open like boiler doors.
In the night, again and again these men float
to the tops of their dreams to drift back
to their desks in the morning.  If you ask them,
they would prefer to have died in their sleep.

Walter Mitty

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If you read the original short story written by James Thurber you will get a very different story than what you see in Ben Stiller’s movie version.  The original story leaves the reader wondering what kind of delusional looser Walter Mitty is.  He seems feckless and spineless and the story ends that way.  It’s as if his day dreams are a coping mechanism to stave off the feelings of guilt and shame at the life he has trapped himself in.

Not so with the movie.  Although Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty may look dispensable to the obnoxious frat boys who are brought in to transition LIFE Magazine to a digital publication, the viewer senses something deeper in his character.  As the story unfolds, one sees that the trauma Walter Mitty experienced earlier in his life may have driven him to create a world that is rich in imagination yet small and controllable.  As the interactions with his family indicate however, he is not a social misfit.  His world is not so small that he cannot provide for the various needs of his elderly mother and irresponsible sister.

In so many hero stories there is a point where the protagonist says “this far and no further”.  What was it for Walter Mitty?  It might have been the inspirational gift from the intrepid photographer played by Sean Penn.  Maybe it was the imminent demise of the work both of them were doing?   Whatever it was, the situation clearly presented a line Walter Mitty would not be pushed past and it awakened in him a part of himself long-buried.  You might say he was brought back to life.

“Be properly scared and go on doing what you need to do.” – Flannery O’Connor

Is there a point you will not be pushed past; so urgent that you stop living in your head?

Thomas Merton said that “A man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live”.

Are you living?

Frozen Man

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James Taylor wrote a song in 1991 that he included on the “New Moon Shine” CD entitled “The Frozen Man”.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFvGq-52I8I.  It’s a song inspired by a National Geographic story on the lost Franklin Expedition which sought to discover a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.  The article chronicles the subsequent expeditions that tried to find out why it failed. They found the remains of some of the members of the expedition amazingly well-preserved.  Taylor’s song goes on to imagine the fate of one of these men as he is, through the miracle of science, brought back to life.    He experiences a kind of second death in isolation and alienation from the modern world.

The bitter cold that had the average national temperature at 14 degrees last week had me thinking about this poor guy.    Not only is it a cautionary tale for those wanting to cryogenically preserve themselves (a la Ted Williams), it is also a warning about letting résumés and profiles go stale.

For many, this is the time of year to take stock of career paths and decide what changes ought to be made.  I wondered how many of us appear like John Torrington (frozen dude above) to the people who review our LinkedIn profiles or résumés.   I decided to put my own to the test.

I exhumed my résumé and was horrified. The summary contained at least 5 of the most overused words (to say nothing of the subjective descriptions), and there was nothing in it telling anyone what I am interested in doing going forward.   I am busy with salvage and reconstruction.

One of my favorite verses in the song is:

“It took a lot of money to start my heart

To peg my leg and to buy my eye

The newspapers call me state of the art

And the children, when they see me, cry”

It serves as a reminder that if I don’t regularly  review and update my work skills and interests, I will end up the functional equivalent of ‘the frozen man”.

Is your résumé a tombstone?

I found this website really helpful.  http://www.careerealism.com/

Brevity

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Today is the 150th anniversary of The Gettysburg Address.   Lincoln was not the Keynote speaker and his address was only 271 words long.

If I asked you, who the keynote speaker was on that day I suspect you would not know.  Although I knew the speech was 2 hours long, I could not remember the speaker’s name (Edward Everett).   Even if I had,  it would have been for the length of the speech, not its substance.  How many times does this happen during an entrepreneur’s pitch?

Although I know that garrulous does not always equal gregarious I have a hard time remembering it.  And when I forget, I too suffer the fate of Edward Everett.  In the end, people walk away confused, exhausted or irritated.  Length does not translate into depth, and the goal is to capture an audience’s interest not hold it hostage.

In John Mayer’s song ‘Gravity’ he says “twice as much ain’t twice as good…” and I confess that I hear those words in my head when I am in some conversations or presentations.  When I am lucky, it happens when I am doing all the talking and it serves to get me to be quiet and listen.

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The best advice I have ever gotten on this challenge is from Tom Skerritt’s character in “A River Runs Through it”.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4php_B1LQiM .  If you read Norman MacLean’s story on which this movie is based, you know he lived it (it’s only 100 pages long).

Remember: Try to make what you say or write shorter and have the humility to know that your words are not ends in themselves.

Culture SMEs and “Pelada”

Pelada: (Portuguese) 1. poor, 2. bald, 3. skinned 3. naked 4. second rate soccer game.

I love the rich meaning used in Brazil to describe pickup soccer games. Sure these games are not world cup matches, but the style in which the games are played (with a freedom like being naked) makes players world cup caliber precisely because it promotes free experimentation and risk taking (in short independent thinking) they would never try out in a formal game. Yet, without that skill they would never make it to the biggest games.  If you are a musician it is the essence of jam sessions and at the heart of creating new music. It is the soul of Jazz.   For more on this Read: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130419/us-national-team-pickup-soccer/#ixzz2ikZhE5iY

The speed of the game of soccer requires players to incorporate what they learn in “pelada” to adapt to the fluid nature of the game.  But they play “pelada” (yeah we do it here in the US too) for one reason. It is really fun and the joy they get from it makes them the great players they are.  Is there room for “pelada’ in your business?

An overly hierarchical or command and control style of leadership (like you see in American football and in many businesses) does not work in Soccer.  The game is simply too fast for a regimented approach that includes sideline instruction and narrow understandings of position.  It stunts creativity and adaptability which are both necessary for the game to be fun and successful.  Watch a high level soccer match and see how little instruction is being shouted from the sidelines. There is no time for plays to be sent in.

Just as I bet your love of baseball did not start with discussion of the infield fly rule or the virtues of the designated hitter.  (I confess, I stole part of this analogy from a priest www.wordonfire.org).  Nobody is going to love working for you because they get to spend time learning your system or the structure you have in place so they can dutifully  execute it. (Do I smell cult?)  It better be compelling, worth doing  and flexible; something they can ‘belong to’ rather than ‘fit in to’ and capable of adapting to the dynamic nature of business (you know… like culture). Only that will lead them to want to know about your systems, structure and leadership style.

Hierarchical command and control environments promote and perpetuate the SME culture. (This LinkedIn interchange highlights the risks, and fits nicely with the soccer analogy about ‘speed of the game’)

Brett Gibson We don’t hire SME’s. We hire those who can think for themselves and provide value to our clients. #SoftwareCulture

Dan Clark I think you hire both really. It’s a Venn diagram no? 

Brett Gibson Not really. SME never makes up for toxic behavior. Hire for DNA – not skills alone. Ability to learn trumps the arrogance and lack of collaboration skills often accompanied by a supposed industry SME. That’s where SME turns to SMA. The ‘A’ is anatomical and should be vetted for during the hiring process. Our industry moves so quickly that hiring for skills outdates itself within a year. The ability to learn is the hallmark of the knowledge economy. The ability to look out for the best-interests of the client cannot be found in the skills of the SME. They are more interested in scolding others who don’t follow the exact practices of their latest religion.

It s true for business, soccer and apparently American football too.  In the words of recently deceased and former head coach of the Houston Oilers Bum Phillips: “Two kinds of players ain’t worth a damn: One never does what he’s told, and one does nothin’ but what he’s told.” (Thanks To  @micjohnson for retweeting @JPosnanski).  Ironically SMEs can be both and are ill-suited for football, business and they sure ain’t “pelada”. If you are continuing to hire SMEs what does that say about your culture? Is it making the game too fast for you?

Culture or just Cult

I am fascinated by organizations that decide to implement a culture.  I am sure it issues forth from the best of intentions, but beginning this way ensures it will end up a cult instead of culture.   If you doubt it, I have one question:  Is your company something people ‘belong to’ or ‘fit in to’?

Culture is something people ‘belong to’, they  know it through experience and it is hard to capture in a mission statement because it implies freedom and support to take risks to succeed and fail.

A cult (no matter how benign or altruistic) is something prescriptive that people try to ‘fit in to’; the focus is not freedom but about following the leader, staying in line, asking permission, and having the right answer.  (Yeah, grade school and perhaps most of our work experiences were more cult than culture.)

Culture is like fire.  It’s essential for survival, controlling it eventually puts it out and it destroys us if we don’t tend it.

Culture:

It is as you might guess from a Latin word Cultus, a noun meaning a lot of things: tilling, care, tending, training, education, high living, worship, reverence, veneration.

As far back as the time of Cicero its meaning has been associated with cultivation of the soul.  In the 17th century it focused on betterment or refinement of individuals usually through education and promotion of individuality and even waywardness to achieve expression of the authentic self.   In the 18th century it began to refer to large groups of people or societies with particular aspirations or ideals.  Culture is primarily understood now as a unique shared spirit among people that gives them identity.

This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology in medicine made discoveries that explain how the body’s cells communicate, illuminating our understanding of how nerves in the brain transmit signals, how the immune system attacks pathogens and how hormones, like insulin, get into the bloodstream.  It led to the commercial application of affordable insulin production.  I found it interesting that one of the winners, Randy Schekman emphasized the need  in his interview with NPR for funding research in what he called “basic knowledge”; knowledge not in service of practical application.   His point was that if they had been doing research for a specific (and thereby limiting) practical application they might never have made the discovery.    Schekman’s comment points to the risk of ignoring the 17th century concept of culture that promotes “wayward freedom” allowing the research to go where it will.

Do the practical ends sought in business impose limits on culture? Is there room for wayward freedom in work? What are the implications for innovation?

Impostor Syndrome

I had the pleasure of attending the iKC2013 “unconference” yesterday and one of the topics of discussion was the impostor syndrome.  This breakout session seemed to generate a lot if not the most attention.

For those unable to attend this fascinating discussion I will try to summarize it.  I have attached perhaps the most succinct description of the syndrome as captured by this pithy drawing by Jessica Hagy.  card3259If you have never seen her work it is hilarious, thought-provoking and true!  http://thisisindexed.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/card3259.jpg

There was a great deal of discussion about tools and techniques people use to fight off the tendency to tell ourselves we are not worth it, we have no right to be doing whatever it is we are doing, etc…

Issues:

  1. Keeping up with the Jones’.
  2. Fear of failure that is wildly exaggerated.
  3. Keeping clear the distinction between who I am and what I do.
  4. Too much focus on what we think others think of us.
  5. Focus too much on how my results compare to others’.

Quotes:

  1. “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” (see also Simon  Sinek)
  2. “Do it to be better; not to be better than that guy.”
  3. “Don’t let killing it (stories)kill you”.
  4.  “You can only lose what you have.  You can never lose what you are.” Eckhart Tolle
  5. “I am beneath no one, no one is better than me.”
  6. “Some may be better at doing but they are not better at being.”
  7. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  8.  “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

Books helpful on the topic:

  1. ‘The Passion Test’- Janet Attwood
  2. ‘Focus’ –Tory Higgins
  3. ‘The War of Art’ – Steven Pressfield
  4. ‘Let Your Life Speak’ – Parker Palmer
  5. ‘The Heart Aroused’ –David Whyte
  6. ‘I Thought it was Just Me’- Brené Brown
  7. ‘Dare Greatly’- Brené Brown

Other Resources:

1. http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

2. http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html

3. http://99u.com/

Is our work environment making people tools?

I have been having a lot of conversations these days with people on the difficulties of getting the right person in the right job.  It might be the one thing that keeps every business owner awake at night. 

There is a lot of effort being put toward making sure the person has the actual skills they say they have, and that you actually need.  In some cases (like programming or engineering) that is essential, but as those who hire and manage people know, it is by no means the only consideration.   I don’t know if he coined this phrase but Brett Gibson www.silverfernsoft.com has a saying that captures this quite well.  “We hire for skill and fire for attitude.”  I know there is no end to the stories we could all tell about people who had the technical job skills but lacked other critical (but sometimes hard to identify) skills to be successful.  Why does this keep happening?

I can’t help but wonder if one contributing risk is that we treat people (inadvertently) as purely a means of production.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should hire and keep people who do not contribute to the success of a business.  Yet, when we focus on production only It is dehumanizing. It reduces the person to the level of an object or a machine even a tool.  

Speaking of tools…when this happens it can actually encourage the employee to behave in very uncreative ways.  Remember the quality movement adage: “Be careful what you measure; it drives behavior.”?  If the employee feels objectified or feels that the goal is only about production, they will be very tempted to become the tool that can perform to those measures.  They begin to focus on just what you are measuring.  In short they stop (or never start) critically thinking. 

Critical thinking involves risk taking, a willingness to put the accepted business practices on trial, or to think in radically new ways.  Are you comfortable with that?  Are you willing to invest the time it takes to  do that?  If there is not a demonstrated tolerance for it in your company it would be considered stupid to be the first one to test for that tolerance.  This is one case where the advice I give to my daughter about boys is true of employers: “watch what they do and ignore what they say”.  

Everyone wants to be successful.  If there is an overemphasis on measures they will likely end up performing like the tool you may have inadvertently told them you wanted them to be. 

If you want a real measure of your culture, how does your company view the last person who took a risk that failed?  How would your employees tell that story?

Work/ Life Balance fantasy

It might be one of the few times I am not exaggerating when I say that work life balance is a preoccupation of most if not every working person in America.   I am fascinated with this quest and people’s obsession with it precisely because it is doomed from the start. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the desire is a bad one. I am saying that the way the goal is stated makes it doomed. In seeking balance, we are acknowledging a conflict, a set of opposing forces.  If you think of examples they are always an exercise of one force working against another.  So we are  alwys forced to make concessions.  Compromise is said to be the way of the world and yet I find myself feeling sick trying to accept what it has done to me.”- Douglas Coupland

As long as we frame the challenge this way there will be anxiety and guilt. Not a path to peace if you asked me. 

What we ought to be aiming for is integration.  But that requires us to dig a lot deeper.  


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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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