Safety and exploration

Photo by eyeliam

I am currently reading the wonderful book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks. In it, Brooks discusses the work of John Bowlby:

He theorized that what kids need most are safety and exploration. They need to feel loved by those who care for them, but they also need to go out into the world and to take care of themselves. Bowlby argued that these two needs, while sometimes in conflict, are also connected. The more secure a person feels at home, the more likely he or she is to venture out boldly to explore new things. Or as Bowlby himself put it, “All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.” [Emphases added]

When I read this paragraph it immediately made me think of management practices. The need to create a safe environment where people can re-group, reflect and improve on one side.  The need to allow people to venture into unknown territories and attempt novel approaches without fear of retaliation one the other side.

Bob Sutton emphasizes how managers should act as human shields:

The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.

At the same time he points out that great bosses believe in making it safe for people to take risky actions and “fail forward,” by developing a “forgive and remember culture”.

I usually don’t like to think of managerial relationships as parental relationships as these induce an automatic bias towards hierarchy and… well, paternalism. However, as Brooks points out based on Bowlby work, the parental duty includes an important balance between creating safety, cohesion, rules, order and most importantly love and allowing the child to venture into unknown territories that enable growth. I think it might be beneficial for managers to think in these terms of safety and exploration when designing work environments.

How are you creating safety and exploration for your employees?

Elad

Next action: ask why?

Photo by blakeburris

In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?

Elad

The never ending struggle for motivation

Photo by Personal Development Blog

I just finished reading the epic fantasy novel The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie. It is an amazing book by one of the best epic fantasy authors I know today. I am amazed by how many great quotes from this book I accumulated in my Kindle clippings file. I wanted to share one with you as I believe it resonates with the internal struggle each of us has every day:

Another stretch of silence, then Shivers turned to look at him. ‘You’re a decent man, aren’t you, Craw? Folk say so. Say you’re a straight edge. How d’you stick at it?’

Craw didn’t feel like he’d stuck at it too well at all. ‘Just try to do the right thing, I reckon. That’s all.’

‘Why? I tried it. Couldn’t make it root. Couldn’t see the profit in it.’

‘There’s your problem. Anything good I done, and the dead know there ain’t much, I done for its own sake. Got to do it because you want to.’

‘It ain’t no kind o’ sacrifice if you want to do it, though, is it? How does doing what you want make you a fucking hero? That’s just what I do.’

Craw could only shrug. ‘I haven’t got the answers. Wish I did.’

Shivers turned the ring on his little finger thoughtfully round and round, red stone glistening. ‘Guess it’s just about getting through each day.’

‘Those are the times.

‘You think other times’ll be any different?’

‘We can hope.’

I think I never read such a well written portraying of the never ending debate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

The profit or the right thing? Take the job that offers more money or the one that inspires you? Do something safe or something daring?

For some the answer is obvious. The internet is filled with authors who will tell you that you should always chose “the right thing”. I tend to agree.

And still… I find myself doubting… I find it hard to follow this advice. I know people around me find it hard to. I know that the fact that it is a hard means it is probably worth it.

And still…

The ingenuity of the quote above is that it recognizes this struggle. It recognizes that for some people the obvious answer is not that obvious. It’s about making a decision every day at a time. And it leaves us questioning what should we base our hopes upon?

How is your struggle going?

Elad

Do you have a culture of perceptions or a culture of appreciation?

Photo by ozmafan

Thomas J. DeLong writes in HBR.org on the Busyness Trap:

I frequently talk to MBA students about their careers and aspirations for life. Some of these students worked on Wall Street, and when we talk, a number of them admit that the key to their success was creating the illusion of hard work. One said that he and the other associates would leave their suit coats on their chairs at the end of the work day to make it seem that they hadn’t left for the night — that they were somewhere in the building doing work — when in fact they had gone home.

“We have these little tricks of the trade to create the impression that we are absolutely committed to the organization, even when we don’t have any work,” he told me. “It’s part of managing expectations and our images.”

The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.

When I read this part of the post it reminded me of a Seinfeld episode called “The Caddy” where George got his car keys locked in his car and ended up being promoted because of it:

George: Assistant to the General Manager!! You know what that means?!? He’d could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry, I’m a heartbeat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And, it is all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He see my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of  them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

The myths that more is better; that being active equals being effective; that productivity comes out of constant action; are all conventional wisdoms that should be rooted out of our lives. Increased attention, reflection time and actual conversations are much more effective than all this busy-work. As the comments to DeLong’s post point out, the issue is not only the busyness by itself. It is the culture that supports it. It comes from distorted incentives, hazy norms and unclear management focus.

When I read about the “coat trick” in the post I felt sorry for those people. Think about the kind of culture that creates this kind of behavior. The managers at that place created a culture where it was necessary to cheat in order to give an appearance that you are “working properly”. Sad indeed. While this is a great overstatement, I am not surprised that kind of culture brought on the indifference that led to parts of the financial crisis. When a major part of your culture is based on deceit, it shouldn’t surprise you if it migrates to all parts of your organization.

As some of the comments suggest, the culture described is due, in part, to a lack of focus on outcomes. One commenter, David Kaiser, wrote:

Ultimately, smart bosses, and smart clients don’t care about input (how hard you work and how much you sweat), they care about output (what got done, results), and if you can create a lot of value without a lot of effort, so much the better. Aren’t these the people you want to work with and work for anyway, as opposed to those who want you to prove something through “face time” and the appearance of “hard work?”

I write a lot in this blog about the balance between outcomes and process. I think this is a great example of how a focus on process can go wrong. Yes, hard work, perseverance and commitment are important. However, when you create a culture of perceptions instead of a culture of appreciation don’t be surprised if you end up with George Constanta, Lord of the Idiots, as the Assistant to the General Manager.

Does your organization have a culture of perceptions?

Elad

Internet, changes and business models

Photo by hyku

Today, I listened to a great podcast from Planet Money dealing with the effects the internet is having over the music industry. In the podcast, they present Jonathan Coulton, who is making about half a million dollars per year just selling his music online with no label to support him. The discussion focuses on whether this is replicable and what it means for the music internet.

While I enjoyed the podcast immensely, I did finish with a bitter taste of disappointment. The story is told well and its hero, Coulton, is really relatable. However, I found the commentaries to be a bit simplistic from both side of the argument. Especially, the very shallow argument doubting whether Coultion’s story means a change for the music industry. I was expecting a bit more from a podcast dealing with economics.  At least three truly interesting economic issues have not been covered:

  • Distribution of wealth. In the “label model”, few artists and a few labels (and executives) made a lot of money. Do we prefer to have a few mega-artists making a lot of money or do we prefer many niche artists making reasonable sums? This is a microcosm of this bigger economic question (not only in the US). How can the internet affect the distribution of wealth?
  • Efficiency. I think the “Coultron model” makes more sense. Economics is about efficient use of resources. Are big labels using money to efficiently make art? No. Because of huge transactions costs. The labels, were (maybe still are), essentially a cartel or monopoly.  Monopolistic entities are (usually) not the best way to manage resources. What kind of economics is driving this change?
  • Death of The middle-men. The music industry is an example of industries that relied on middle-men and are slowly dying (see also newspapers, publishing and the movie industry). When transaction costs are almost zero and everybody is reachable, there is no need for a “power of scale” middle-man. Just check out “gapingvoid.com” or “the domino project”. As the story illustrates, there is a need for a new, smaller, savvy middle-men that will help artists focus on their art while taking care of some of the administrative stuff. What about them?

These are all issues to think about relating to the changes the internet is brining to business and economic models. The change is here. It keeps developing. You don’t have to be in the music business to be affected. It affects all of us. Isn’t it time we started realizing that? The question is what are we (as societies and individuals) are going to do with the opportunities it presents?

Elad

The categories of happiness

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Yesterday, I read an article that was sitting in my “to read” folder for a while. It is called: “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson. Most of the article is highly technical but I encountered two interesting paragraphs that I want to share. Today I want to talk about this paragraph from the article:

We work under the assumption that happiness is a scientifically unwieldy term and that its serious study involves dissolving the term into at least three distinct and better-defined routes to “happiness”… : (a) positive emotion and pleasure (the pleasant life); (b) engagement (the engaged life); and (c) meaning (the meaningful life). Our recent research suggests that people reliably differ according to the type of life that they pursue and, further, that the most satisfied people are those who orient their pursuits toward all three, with the greatest weight carried by engagement and meaning… We continue to use the word happiness, but only in the atheoretical sense of labeling the overall aim of the positive psychology endeavor and referring jointly to positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

Like every other goal in life, the first step to achieving it is to break it into smaller, easier to handle, steps. In some way or another, all of us have the goal of “being happy” somewhere in or mental to-do list. However, I think that this breakdown into three distinct categories is a great way to start the long journey towards it.

In addition I like the fact that authors emphasize two important issues:

  1. People differ in the proportion of significance they put on each category.
  2. One category by itself is never enough, it is about a mix. This means that the people who are trying to sell us a silver-bullet solution to happiness are scan artists. It also means that it is not wrong to dwell in a little bit of transient pleasure now and then. Life is not only about meaning and engagement but also about simple hedonistic delight.

In particular, the breakdown into three distinct categories can help managers and leaders create better environments and workplaces. A mix and match of the three categories allows for better planning of a happy workplace. More importantly, the understanding of the preferences of each individual allows for a personalized approach that supports and sustains the individual employee’s motivation and happiness levels.

So, how do you think about happiness in your own personal life and in your work setting? Do you find the three categories to be helpful?

Elad

Full citation: Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (2005) “Positive Psychology Progress – Empirical Validation of Interventions” American Psychologist Vol. 60, No. 5, 410–42

Book review of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Imagine you are asked to watch a short video (above or here) in which six people – three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts.

Can you do that? Probably…

But what if at some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla?

Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is “yes, of course I would.” How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed?

The fact is that when this experiment was done at Harvard University several years ago, half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.

I actually did the gorilla experiment myself a few years ago. A friend showed me the video and told me to count the passes. Of course, he did not tell me about the gorilla. I actually ended up seeing the Gorilla. I was surprised to see people after me try it and miss it. I remembered the experiment and if somebody asked – “Hey, did you see the one with the gorilla”, I would say yes. I did not think to heavily on the ramifications of this experiment.

That is until I read The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Where I also found out that the reason I saw it is probably due to the fact that I been playing and watching basketball for years. People with that kind of experience are much more likely to see the gorilla).

In the book, the authors, take not only the gorilla experiment which is academically termed “inattentional blindness” or “illusion of attention” but 5 other “everyday illusions” (The illusion of memory, The illusion of confidence, Illusion of knowledge, illusion of cause and The illusion of potential) and skillfully explain them in both scientific and everyday examples. It is another very scary but equally fascinating journey into the fallibility of the human mind and human nature’s inability to admit that fallibility.

While the entire book was insightful, the first chapter, describing the first Gorilla Experiment (and its replications) as well as some of its real world implications was the chapter if found o be most compelling and novel. The recurring lesson for me was that our most basic beliefs and instincts can widely deceive us. As the authors put it:

We think we should see anything in front of us, but in fact we are aware of only a small portion of our visual world at any moment. The idea that we can look but not see is flatly incompatible with how we understand our own minds, and this mistaken understanding can lead to incautious or overconfident decisions.

As someone interested in human relationship and how professional conversations (like a feedback session) I find this to be especially important. Observing people give feedback for years I always wondered – How can they miss the clear signs the person in front of them is giving? Why do they continue to say what they planed when it is obvious the person is not responding?

While this has to do with listening skills and assumptions, one thing I realized while reading the book is that it has do with expectations. Or more academically phrased:

Your moment-to-moment expectations, more than the visual distinctiveness of the object, determine what you see—and what you miss

If people can miss a gorilla, standing right in front of their eyes because there are not expecting it, why shouldn’t they miss more subtle auditory and behavioral cues? The issue is coming to such a conversation with expectations that define what you will see and hear.

When you connect that to the Illusion of knowledge – the fact that people mistake knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens, and then mistake feelings of familiarity for genuine knowledge – you understand that the assumptions and pre-held conceptions people enter a conversation with can actually make then blind (or deaf) to the person sitting in front of them.

This does not change what I thought about situations of feedback and how to handle them it just reinforces the prescriptions and the habits for good communication. It does, however, help me understand a little bit more about the process that goes inside people’s brains and the reasons to some of their behaviors.

I recommend you read the book as I do believe that many of the illusions described in it (although not all of them) can be at least dealt with to a certain extent by being more aware of the shaky foundations of some of our beliefs. While reading the book is not enough (there should be a process of turning the information into knowledge and then into wisdom, I think it is a great starting point.

Elad