Archive | January 2011

Diversity or Multiculturalism — It’s all about working with differences

variety of eggs…some made with real ones, and some are ceramics and porcelian

Diversity or multiculturalism is not a goal; it’s a process.  A process of working with differences; a process that has always existed although without a name until recently; a process that will continue to exist for the next millennium.  Race and gender were some of the first-noted categories, but now more and more groups have been added to the list.  Like research on leadership, research on diversity and multiculturalism has been abundant, and abundantly described in books, journal articles, newspaper reports, TV programs, etc.  I have read many of them and have conducted several workshops, but in this space, I just want to illustrate a few ideas that really resonate with me and to relate some personal journeys.

This is how I propose to frame today’s entry:  The biggest challenge in daily work life (or life outside of work) is how to converse across the differences we see, feel, or experience.  At this level, it’s partly about inter-group dynamics, such as conversations on race between an Asian and an African-American, or on gender between a white female and a Hispanic male, and such are the recognized diversity issues.  But there is another level, within-group differences, that isn’t as often recognized or addressed. I mean the differences within any group you can think of, differences of race, gender, religion, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, foodies, eat-&-run types….the list is endless. “Asian group” applies to at least a quarter of the world’s population but do they all share the same cultural values, or think similarly?  Such further distinctions of differences are sometimes described as multicultural.  But this begs the question, where do we draw the line of this list of groups?  As we keep adding categories onto this list, eventually, we will come to the point where we started it all:  It’s about all the differences, but particularly the differences in how we think.  All these group labels do contribute to how we think but it’s the combinations of several groups’ cultures that help define who we are.  The focal definition of any difference at any given time lies locally, between you and me as we face each other and detect that difference that we have to either address or avoid.

A black female Ph.D student in a prestigious school that is predominated by white males (big surprise there!) gets two typical conversations, often one-way from others to her: color is really not an issue, and they would be more than happy to help her in any way should she find the academic work too much (i.e. if she can’t keep up with it!).  In such conversations, her voice is not really sought out, unless she stands firm and asserts herself, running the risk of being regarded as belligerent.  There are a few Asian students who rarely if ever get these conversations; instead, they are either stellar performers or fly under the radar quietly following their advisors’ direction on research projects, biding their time to get their degree.  By and large, race is usually not a wedge issue among students.  One has to wonder if economic class is playing a greater role here, but that’s a volatile issue that I will not touch in this entry.

would you know what this is?

it’s a french butter dish

We seem to get stuck at the superficial level of handling these types of differences and often the conservations become prescribed.  You walk down the street, see a man in a power suit, and make certain assumptions about him, thinking he’s probably professional, and you might wonder what that is and if he’s successful.  But perhaps, he just had a tense and a not-so-great job interview, and he’s down to the last $100 in his savings account.  Or, you see an Asian woman wearing a track suit (for all we know, she could be an American), wearing a somewhat harassed look, you wonder if she is as smart as the stereotype would have. And so on.  There is a beautifully written passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.  What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Of course, we have to make certain assumptions in our daily life; otherwise, how could we possibly get any work done if we had to restart every conversation with basic definitions?  At this point, I will just say that so long that we are aware of our assumptions, we have a chance to verify them.  Lacking some basic awareness, and without checking if some of those assumptions are correct, allows hurtful feelings, repressions, resentment, and all other negativities to happen.  So, yes, it is important to raise awareness.  The problem with a lot of prescribed conversations in awareness-raising workshops or courses is that we get stuck at the level of politically correct terms and don’t know how to get deeper.

not just a hammer; also a useful exercise tool for tendonitis

To get deeper, just search within ourselves for clues.  Most of us have a few friends and acquaintances who are very “different” than we are, however you want to define those differences.  Even within (especially within!) our families, we often experience profound differences. Reflecting upon those experiences which we have managed to live through and achieved positive outcomes, did they not provide us a sensation of expanding our horizon?  Recall some details:  With whom did these experiences occur?  How would you describe them?  How did the exchanges come about?  What did we talk about?  Why did it feel great?  Staying with those moments is likely to give us clues about conversing across differences.  Of course, not all differences are equal; some will evoke more uncomfortable feelings than others.  But like everything else in our lives, the more difficult conversations are the ones that stretch our imagination and expand our perspectives.

Sometimes, I think it is equally difficult, if not more so, to have conversations across the differences within a group.  How many people you know who have more “issues” with their family members than with someone of different racial background or religious background?   Similarly, within a racial group, there can be painful dealings with members’ own differences.  Or just look at religious groups!  But often, when facing an “adversarial outside” group, these within-group differences can be temporarily suppressed; we rally with our “own kind!”  If we don’t, “disloyalty” is usually the first assault that gets hurled around.

I think it is usually within one’s affiliated group, be that based on identity, work, family, or whatever that’s most important to a person, that one experiences most keenly the tension between holding onto one’s individual identity and group identity, or between individualism and collectivism.  Diversity or multiculturalism is a very personal topic to people because whatever categories/groups you choose, they help define you. Personally, negotiating those boundaries has been a lot harder than dealing “straightforwardly” with visibly different group members. Every one of us has some stories to tell about balancing between these two desires and handling such tension.

Appreciative Inquiry stresses stories.  For good reason, as stories provide context and depth; it is through stories that we form relationships with others and begin to understand each other.  Most of us feel more ourselves when given chances to narrate our stories, from beginning to end, as we define them.  While stories can still be misinterpreted, they also offer more information on which we can base our inquiry and further clarifications.  It is also a whole lot easier to remember a story than a theory, or a hypothesis. Remember, the “essential is invisible to the eye!”  One must be wary of those that can be immediately categorized.

ingredients for….

Another important reason for using stories is that all of us possess several identities.  For example, I am a daughter, a mother, a wife, a consultant, a painter, a gardener, an enthusiastic cook, etc., and not necessarily in that order of importance.  Some of my colleagues and I adopt the usage of multiculturalism for describing ourselves at personal level.  I don’t always want to choose only one dimension of myself to present to the public – in fact, at any given moment, I possess several of these identities simultaneously — and using stories allows me to better relate the complexity of me.  In a prescribed dialogue, we tend to paint each other in one dimension, and leaving us feeling utterly misconstrued.

…chicken pot pie, with a not-so-traditional look

During a few months’ stint of working in a diversity office in a large science organization, one conversation really struck me:  the diversity office staff voiced their “concerns,” in fact, feeling downright indignant at the work “attitude” of the majority of the scientists in that they tend to work long and odd hours.  Some staff actually advocated imposing restrictions on office hours with the reason that “these people need to take care of their personal life!”  It is perhaps true that some scientists are rather obsessive, but a lot of them actually feel “relaxed” when they are immersed in their work, mentally relaxed, that is.  I saw this type of difference, between professional groups, as one of the most profound schisms between groups at a lot of workplaces.  When these differences are conflated with race, gender, and whatnot, the world gets complicated to navigate through.  In next entry, I will use a delightfully titled article, “Fix the Women” for a more succinct illustration about complicated organizational dynamics viewed through the lens of diversity.

There is another type of difference at work that is rarely discussed: the difference between introverts and extroverts.  The majority of managers are extroverts, and I don’t think we need to conduct another social research project to understand why.  And since the world is dominated by extroverts — according to Myers-Brigg study — introverts by nature are not likely to make a fuss about it.  So, for instance, the concept and the emphasis on teamwork, while certainly having merit, does not address the ramifications of “making the introverts work in a team.”  I am by no means suggesting that introverts are not capable of, nor taking pleasure in, working with others.  However, the nature of extroverts is that they get “energy” by being with others; the opposite holds true for introverts.  So, for introverts, why shouldn’t organizations be aware of their needs as well, and provide them ample space and time to be alone so that they can “recharge” themselves?

to make something…

I think of diversity and multiculturalism like cooking (I like it, what can I say?).  Each ingredient or equipment can be interesting by itself, but it’s the combination that produces a flavorful dish or an awesome dessert.  Sometimes, we may yearn for a simple fruit – and we do need them – but more often than not, it’s the complexity of combining ingredients from different food groups that provide us with the necessary sustenance to live fully.  So it is with our development.  We may prefer to sharpen our professional wit by hanging around with like-minded, but ultimately we need different ideas from different quarters to push ourselves onto the next level of development.

matcha green tea french macarons

So, till we get to the next level or next blog entry (2/13),

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

Great Skis, Great Skiing, to Great Organizations – From personal development to organizational development

I have been working on four books for the past few weeks; two are about personal development and the other two are about organizations (see listing below).  The overlapping messages are generally about living with passion, learning to release creative energy, staying disciplined and having fun. While skiing with my family recently, they began to meld together for me.  So, this entry is both personal and organizational.

  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander
  • Core Transformation by Connirae Andreas & Tamara Andreas
  • Creativity in Business by Michael Ray & Rochelle Myers
  • Good to Great, and Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins

my son’s great new “rocker” style of skis

My son has been a ski patroller since he qualified at age 14.  He is a great skier, and his new latest-technology skis just make him look more awesome!  He’s passionate about the sport, and he finds tremendous fulfillment in his patrolling knowledge and practices.  On this most recent family ski trip, I demoed some new skis using the same latest technology. My dismay that the technology seemed to have overtaken my skills lasted about 10 seconds, then was rendered pointless by the joy of the new level of skiing.

instructions on the new skis…great sense of humor

I learned how to ski when I was in my mid-20s, and the first few years’ ski trips were the typical young working professional’s once-a-year few days of fun punctuated by 360 days of regress.  My skiing ability didn’t get the momentum needed for steady progress till we moved to the southwest in 2002.  Now, with a mountain that is only 20 minutes away, we enjoy the learning curve that 20-to-30-plus-skiing-days-a-season can offer.  But I still have anxiety at times and get tense on my skis; I can tell it when my thighs hurt and I get exhausted quickly.  Yet whenever I do let go, there is a buzz in my spirit.  The latest skis I demoed allowed me to soar; the confidence they gave me took me to a new high.

the evolution of my son’s skis; all have rendered great service…2nd from the left has served me well since last season.

Every so often, I reason that at my age, I should willingly accept whatever my level is.  Then, restlessness creeps in and I have to push myself, either through some lessons or different skis.  I didn’t used to even consider skiing on moguls; they looked terrifying and just looking would rattle my knees.  Then, I was introduced to the then new technology of parabolic/shaped skis.  All of a sudden, I found myself seeking out moguls and my knees were just fine.

great skiing

Jump, now, to Jim Collins’ first sentence in his Good to Great: “Good is the enemy of great.”  Of course, I can be content with good skiing, restlessness aside; only I am affected by my level.  Organizations affect, and are affected by, many more people.

Mr. Collins lays out seven principles for good organizations to become great:  1.  level 5 leadership, which I had discussed in the past entries; 2.  first who…then what; 3.  confront the brutal facts; 4.  the hedgehog concept; 5  a cultural of discipline; 6.  technology accelerators; and 7.  the flywheel and the doom loop.  Some of these are rather self-explanatory (Mr. Collins’ book provides ample examples).  I will briefly review the “hedgehog” and “flywheel” concepts.

nature’s great abstract

The hedgehog looks inoffensive and endearing, till the quills stick out to prick you.  Its grounded steadiness (it is rather short!), combined with its defensive quills, makes the creature a formidable opponent against otherwise cunning predators, such as a fox.  So, a company that might offer a burst of brilliant cunning strategy isn’t likely to grow its business steadily even if it might capture a significant market share for a little while.

Mr. Collins further develops the hedgehog concept into three overlapping circles:  what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what drives your economic engine.  If my son were to enter the fields of material sciences and engineering, he might do well in making and testing skis!  Metaphorically for organizations, the hedgehog embodies what the organizations are really about at the core, and mustn’t forget.  It is about what an organization can be, and not about strategy, market position, or goals, which are things an organization sets or does.  However, given what I learned from Appreciative Inquiry’s framework (see my second post in Oct., 2010), I’d modify the “best in the world at” to “best for” and that little change immediately opens up more possibilities.

For instance, Southwest Airlines does not just aim for on-time performance, low fares, or competent flying, though all are important for an airline and Southwest does them well.  More importantly, Southwest aims to be good for their customers and potential customers, and that’s why in a troubled industry, Southwest can shine while the other airlines – which may emulate the surface aspects but don’t act as if they understand what their business can be best for — have continually suffered.  Have you ever tried to talk to real agents from different airlines?  My wait time with Southwest has always been reasonable and at times downright enjoyable (and they give you the option of calling you back!).  Similarly, Enterprise car rental seems to gather a group of all cheerful and delightful people, which make me always choose them when their prices are comparable with other outfits.  As a consumer, you always can tell when an organization is genuinely attentive to your needs.

an unexpected great shot from the plane ride

One caveat about the concept of core:  I think if the organization defines its core too narrowly, for example by a particular product line or a single technology, it limits itself and risks slipping into obsolescence and oblivion.  It’s not about the quantity of aspects or items composing the core; it’s about balance between a broad vision under which several possibilities can exist and definitive outcomes on which people can focus. Nylon brought DuPont tremendous profit especially when nylon was novel and exciting, but in the course of time and competition nylon became a commodity and its profitability eroded.  Had DuPont made “nylon” its core, the company would have eroded with it.  Instead, the company viewed “engineered materials” as one of many “better things for better living” as its core, and has continued to prosper. But just because an organization stays true to its core doesn’t guarantee its success; that’s but one step.

a view from a skiing slope

Related, the “flywheel” is about steady improvement over time; with momentum gradually building up, the wheel/organization eventually transforms and takes off.  There is no flashy launching of some product/program or momentous announcement.  Every delivery of result builds for the next step and on and on, so that when looking back, people within the organization cannot point out when the “first” push took place.  Now, outsiders may have very different perspectives.  The “doom loop” is the opposite; it usually happens whenever a new manager comes in with her own new objectives and terminates the efforts made by predecessors, often aiming for some dramatic “breakthroughs.”  Such a grand gesture only disrupts the organization’s momentum.

This is also true for skiing.  The “aha!” moments usually occur only after you work on your techniques for a while.  I don’t immediately get or do what my instructor tells me to, even if I grasp the principles intellectually.  It took a long time before I hit the moment of “turning with your ankles and feet” (I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye) while it was relatively easier to learn to keep my upper body quiet.  Controlling the bigger body part is easier than the smaller parts, especially when the small parts are bounded by unyielding stiff boots.

same view with telephoto lens

Behind all these efforts in organization, though, lies the most important foundation, the “right” people.  Mr. Collins emphasizes that it is critical for managers to understand that putting the right people in your team precedes what your organization/team is about.  He uses the metaphor of “putting the right people on the bus.”  As for how to choose the “right” people, it’s about getting the best qualified people.  This principle is intuitively appealing, but it is like saying “buy low and sell high” to win in the stock market, the devil is in the how.  Most of us have been interviewed and some of us have interviewed candidates for jobs.  No matter how carefully you go through the process, there is always a strong likelihood of disappointment on both sides; there is no guaranteed process.  So, the question is:  What to do when you have the “wrong” person?  Ideally, the person realizes that he’s on the wrong bus and chooses to leave.  How often does that happen?  Again, theoretically, if an organization is managed well, and the environment is collegial, then the wrong person would quickly realizes the mismatch of her position.  And by the way, qualified person doesn’t necessarily mean “genius,” especially “genius with a thousand helpers.”  What happens when genius leaves?  You lose the momentum.

In Collins’ book, there are detailed examples and narratives of how the combination of the “right” people do work, but you won’t find any check list to guide you.  It’s not that kind of book.  There is a degree of faith and confidence that a manager needs to develop.  When I do trust my skiing skills, there is definitely a lightness in my being.

Another part of this principle of “first who…then what” argues that qualified people who are diligent and disciplined are self-motivated to stay on regardless of the tasks.  However, if people are “lured” to work on certain aspects of organization’s development or products, what happens when that work is done?  What will they do when the bus reaches destination?  Their motivation may not easily transfer to other dimensions, or the next journeys.

ridge after ridge…

The final point about this particular principle that resonates with me is the notion that you put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.  “Managing your problems can only make you good, where building your opportunities is the only way to become great.”  When I was in graduate school, once in a blue moon we had to do group projects.  I remember in one of these projects, one of my classmates proposed that we each choose the aspect about which we’d want to learn more, preferably an aspect that was our individual weak point.  My reaction was that I should invest more heavily in aspects I enjoyed and then, I would have more motivation and energy to improve in other areas where I wasn’t good yet.  One approach was based on scarcity mode and the other on abundancy mode.  A pair of great skis put me in abundancy mode, and I excelled.

more aerial shot

One word about technology.  Great companies do not emphasize technology; they use it when it suits their purposes but technology does not drive their organization.  (Of course, many great companies develop and/or sell technology, but they are not composed of technology.)  If I hadn’t already possessed some skiing skills and known how to appreciate the difference between good and great skiing for myself, the latest-technology model wouldn’t have impressed me nor given me such pleasure.

Do these principles for great organizations apply to the social sector, i.e. not-for-profit?  Why wouldn’t they?  In Collin’s monograph that focuses on the social sectors, he argues that the notion that the social sector should become more “business like” is “dead wrong!”  EXACTLY!  How many times have we, the public, lamented over the disasters the private industries have brought to the overall economy, from Enron, savings & loans debacle, to the current mess we have been in?  So, why should we uphold business practices as sacrosanct?  For-profit organizations have multiple sets of resources to throw at their problems, a luxury that social sectors fundamentally lack.  So, if anything, the more successful social sectors’ operations should be the model for business.  The distinction does not lie between for-profit organizations and not-for-profit, but as Mr. Collin points out, should be between good ones and great ones.  At some level, constrained resources provide the mother lode of creativity.

frozen lake from the great height of an airplane

I am still learning how to release my creativity.  I will share with you my aha’s when I finally learn the how’s.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

A Confession of an Organization Blogger

all that wide open space with nothing but virgin snow!

Maybe it’s the 3-week hiatus from writing for this blog; maybe it’s all the holiday food; maybe it’s having too much fun doing things with my son who soon will have been home for a month on his college winter break.  My mind is everywhere and nowhere.  I have some ideas about organizational issues on which to write, but oh, my, I just couldn’t muster the energy or the focus for it.  Eventually, I decided to just write something a little personal, and all of a sudden, felt a weight lift off my shoulder!  A friend’s response to my decision was, “it is your blog!”  Indeed, but this professional commitment and integrity are pretty serious stuff.

However, my son’s presence is substantial.  It isn’t that he demands my attention; he doesn’t; he’s fiercely independent.  But he is our only child and his days around the house will only be fewer as he grows and progresses…as it should be.  It isn’t that we do a lot of things together or talk much, but even the silent and easy companionship is something to be cherished.  Yes, it’s all excuses.

this is one corner of my neighborhood

But this personal dilemma isn’t unfamiliar to a lot of people who have to constantly select among working, having some fun, doing some exercise, committing to family concerns, keeping up with friends, and just setting aside some down time for personal rest or reflection.  I don’t work for an organization, but I still have to plan my days in order to “feel” productive.  I am lucky to be able to live my life pretty much according to my design, and yet, I still box myself in at times.  The ability to allow oneself to be true and truthful does not come easily, certainly not for me.  Aging has helped me to relax my need to control, as well as heighten my sense of self-awareness.  But the two people from whom I have learned most are my husband and my son, with whom I have grown and around whom I feel most comfortably and truthfully myself.  Now, for those who don’t know me, would you have guessed my gender through my writing?  I am sure you have!

Yesterday a bunch of children’s books arrived; they are gifts for a baby-shower for a friend this weekend.  It’s a tradition we picked up from another couple of friends who gave us a batch of books for our newborn son almost 20 years ago; we love this tradition.  One of the books is Harold and the Purple Crayon.  So very enchanting.  Harold couldn’t fall asleep and so he started walking with his purple crayon and created whatever came to his mind as he walked along.  Sometimes, he’d draw something he loved, and other times, he was caught off guard by unintended consequences, such as a fearsome dragon to protect his beloved apple tree!  The fear caused his hand holding the crayon to tremble and before he knew it, the wave lines he accidentally drew became an ocean, but thinking quickly he drew a boat…etc.  A lovely adventure Harold had, and my son and I enjoyed the adventure many times as we read the book together.  But in re-reading it yesterday, I thought, “If only organizations can be as quick witted as Harold, as imaginative and creative as Harold, as delightfully impish as Harold, and as willing to absorb mistakes and take measures immediately as Harold.”  Organizations seem to be very good at drawing themselves into “sub-optimal” situations, such as aping each other’s skewed ways of encumbering their employees, but are unable to seize the opportunity to draw themselves out of such situations. Sometimes, I think dozens of business books cannot add up to the wisdom in a single one of our children’s books.

Of course, my favorite children’s books aren’t necessarily yours.  However, wouldn’t it be a delightful experience if during one lunch hour at the office, people brought their favorite children’s books and read to each other?!

just another snowy path

We are very lucky that our son is still willing to “play with” us still.  We’ve skied a couple of days already this winter, and will do more together.  Of course, he’d rather ski with his buddies, but when he skies with us, he’s happy too.  Young people are very good about living in the moment.  Sometimes, I think we need to be more in touch with young people for a bit of “living now” and engaging them in our “planning for future.”  Why not let high school students go into local organizations, listen in on some boring planning meetings or weekly staff meetings?  Why not send in some top executives to local schools to lead field trips and Q&A during snack time?

For the last year, I felt stuck in my painting; this is usually a sign of a development phase when I or my skills will be morphed.  But there is always the possibility that I just can’t paint any more.  Of course, the only way to find out is keep on painting, more frequently than I had been doing.  In December, in responding to a friend’s invitation, I took a stained glass class, which turned out to be a wonderful experience, and very satisfying!  There is something to be said about hand work, and work that has a clear beginning and ending.  I don’t know how many paintings I started and just couldn’t finish, yet a few paintings that I pushed myself to finish turned out rather nice.  A dear friend of mine, who passed away a few years ago, often pushed me to trust my instinct.  I still don’t do it as often as it probably is good for me.  Like this week’s post:  Had I followed my instinct and decided earlier to forgo the regular organization topic, I might not have wasted time moping about!

I hope that I will keep on learning till the day I die.  My mother turned 89 last October.  When I left after a week-long visit to celebrate her birthday, I left with her my old iBook, and now she’s addicted to it.  She’s another point of inspiration for me.

one of these elks might have been a regular visitor to our backyard…good thing we have a high chain-link fence

Our brain is our biggest and best asset; no one can take that away from us.  So anyone who looks down on those who value learning is an embarrassment to humanity.  American society is funny about that; we cherish people who bootstrap themselves to become successful but are suspicious about the education that enabled success.  I will never apologize for my hard-earned education, and we have taught our son that value.  Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, is one of my heroes.  In his delightful little book, Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman?, he mentioned that he’d never experienced drugs because he valued his brain too much to risk them.  It resonated with me.

In honor of my son’s presence this month, the pictures in this post were ones I took with him on a photo-shoot for his class in high school.  I felt very privileged.

sunset…i drive by this view a few times a week

In the next couple of months, I will have heavy traveling schedule, so realistically, this blog probably will be a bi-weekly event.  This blog is still in its infancy and will continue evolving.  I would greatly appreciate any feedback.

I hope you all had a great holiday, and that 2011 is shaping up to be better for all of us.  Next post will be on 1/23/11.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent