Archive | October 2011

that unpredictable life…

some developments require immediate attention…life issues trump organizational issues…will resume next week.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Being Quirky May Lead To Success…But Success Is NOT Defined By Quirkiness: Reflection on Steve Jobs’s legacy

“Quirky” might imply, or be a substitute for, “obnoxious,” “arrogant,” “insensitive,” “thoughtful,” “visionary” or “genius.”  The adjective can be uplifting or pejorative; success is not likely to be defined by one characteristic, however strong it may be.  The stories associated with Steve Jobs’s management style, principles and philosophy certainly can provide volumes for management students for years to come.  After his recent passing, many of these stories resurfaced:  He could be short with colleagues; at times, he’d mercilessly shred someone’s ideas; he micromanaged; he made mistakes; he could be arrogant, and on and on.  And he had awesomely uncanny visions which over the years broke ground in computer technology, and in marketing strategy…again, and again, and again.

promising sign?

Every so often, someone like Jobs renders management theories, models, principles, or lessons weak, useless, or pointless.  That’s fine; keep some of us who study organizations in the humble lane longer.  But most of these mavericks are exceptions rather than the norm. (And by the way, one does not ‘aim to be’ a maverick, nor does one talk about oneself as ‘being a’ maverick!) Does that mean we cannot draw lessons from them?  Of course, we can, with caution!  If we don’t have the substance with which to make music like Mozart, mimicking his “arrogant” posturing is mere rudeness that wouldn’t make a shred of musical difference.  If we don’t have the innate ability to think outside of the box, like Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, ignoring all the bureaucratic reports on the Challenger disaster or bypassing interviewing management in NASA in the investigation of the Challenger disaster would merely be foolish.  But, owing to the key difference between being a genius and being merely rude, after Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-ring’s plasticity was compromised in freezing temperature, we thought, “of course!”  Steve Jobs was in that category of genius who not only asserted that he knew what he was doing, when his vision became reality we said, “but of course.”

Do we as the collective let geniuses get away with incivility?  We can preach that we shouldn’t, but in general, we often give perceived “stars” wide latitude.  If their ideas turn out to be right, we forgive them, but if wrong, then, we complain.

There are at least four aspects about Jobs’s approach that struck me as laudable:

  1. He thought globally.  He always envisioned computer technology that would be friendly for everyone, especially in education.  He wanted to make Apples available to every student.  Yet,
  2. he would not sacrifice the quality and aesthetics of the products.  So, none of the Apple products is moderately priced. It is not like Ford wanting every American to own an affordable car.  When the product is good, there will be buyers.
  3. He owned up his mistakes.  He might argue with colleagues about ideas, and he might throw his weight for his own ideas, but if others could present him a better one and prove his to be inferior, he would be the first to embrace the better ideas.  This is one major characteristic I do admire in him.  Few managers would ever admit making mistakes, especially openly.  Sometimes, when big corporations apologize, they rarely exhibit authenticity.
  4. This is the most important point:  He built PRODUCTS.  When Silicon Valley was white hot, many business owners would just build up their businesses to sell in order to make a profit.  Jobs’ response was (paraphrasing), “that’s sad, what did they produce?”  I think the financial market is the antithesis of making things.  They have made no contributions, none, to our understanding of how the world works.  Well, maybe they did, about the ugly side of human greed and stupidity.  But that’s not much of a contribution.  Apple products may not be breakthroughs like the telephone, telescope, automobile, airplane, etc., but the gestalt of “Apple” will make a chapter in the history. 

I think geniuses not only help us humans advance in our knowledge and creativity, they also highlight the innate paradoxes of human nature.  So, yes, I also give them wide latitude because they help me appreciate life and beauty.  That’s a big deal to me.  Keep searching for that beauty!

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Managers And Business Students, Go Watch “Moneyball:” Lessons from a movie

I am so indifferent to baseball that my attitude won’t register on any scale.  Yet, I wanted to see “Moneyball,” the movie.  And I thoroughly and utterly enjoyed it, despite the baseball jargon that hurt my head.  This entry isn’t about reviewing the movie, plenty have already done so; this is a review of ideas/lessons drawn from the movie for management students of all stripes.

The premise of the movie is something I addressed before, based on the quote from Einstein:  “We cannot solve problems by the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Oakland’s baseball team had a measly budget, yet was expected to compete against all other giants whose budgets were exponentially bigger.  The conventional wisdom was, and still is, the bigger the better.  When Oakland’s stars got scooped away, the team was anemic in both financial backing as well as talent.  What can the general manager (GM), Billy Beane, do?

The scene in the trailer that caught my attention months ago was this:  After losing to New York, and with their talents being lured away with millions in salary, Oakland’s GM was at the table surrounded by white senior citizens who were the team’s talent scouts, talking about potential stars, but not really seriously since they couldn’t afford it.  Mr. Beane had enough, and said something to the point that they couldn’t solve the problem using the same kind of thinking over and over again.

Just what Einstein said.  But none of the scouts got it.

By serendipity, Beane met his future assistant, a young fellow with a Yale undergraduate degree in economics, and he gave the GM a totally different way of looking at baseball business operation, one that’s based on statistics, factual data.  Some of you who have read my other posts know that I don’t give much daylight to stats and data per se; what matters is how you use the data.  Hence the 2nd major theme for me:  The data used for scouting potential players was the individual’s own track record, not the aggregate.  I’ve always said that stats can be useful, but their usefulness is limited because they inform us only about the aggregate patterns.  So, what this movie highlights for me is that when data about the individuals themselves becomes available, the information becomes much more pertinent.  Related, a key question raised by Mr. Beane that resonates with me is when he asked the scouts what winning looks like, their answers were all about the aggregate and the stars’ powers.  What Beane said instead, Who gets on base?

But that’s not how baseball operations are usually done.   The theme of the movie is about thinking outside of the box.  One of my arguments in my PhD dissertation is:  If you want to have a competitive advantage, you don’t try to copy what others in the same industry do.  You do study and understand your competitors, but you need to be different, profoundly and fundamentally different, to create your own distinctive advantage.

The final lesson for me is that people who are game changers threaten others in the industry, even though they may be regarded as heroes by outsiders.  That’s why the “strategic termite” approach, discussed two entries ago, by flying under the radar, is much less threatening while still effective; however, it would be unthinkable in the volatile baseball industry.

These are great ideas and lessons.  One other major lesson from the movie that I wouldn’t ever recommend concerns the routine trading of players; that’s just degrading to me.  But that theme alone is worthy of study and a lengthy article.  I am not getting into that; we are on a long overdue R&R in Canada.  More mini lessons next time.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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More On Socially Constructed Reality: Using multiple metaphors/interpretations of reality…for a better future

We see the same event differently.  That’s a truism; the data is all around us, every day, all the time.  Just look at how we view our socio-political environment, or how we grasp our work issues.  Within my family, we children all loved our mother and agreed that she was an awesome woman, but within that image, we each had different reasons.  Yet we keep wondering why other people can’t see events in our way, at home, at work, in this society.  So be it.  But for a collective entity to engage in effective and efficient production, there needs to be some convergence on how we execute our respective responsibilities.  When all the rules, regulations, job specifications, manuals are written and spelled out, we still can’t function without attending to those pesky “relationships.”

Rules and regulations, anything that’s written down and specified, generate little disagreement (well, we can disagree on whether there needs to be these rules or not, but once specified, we know what to expect), but how we react to expectations, and how we feel about them varies from individual to individual, and it largely depends on our values, our worldviews, our backgrounds, our specific job situations and the roles we play.  Further, whenever we cannot immediately verbalize our general reaction, we may choose a metaphor to represent how we feel.  I once heard a colleague describe someone high-up in the administration: “She must eat barbed wire for breakfast!”  Knowing who my colleague was referring to, I thought that was a fantastic image, but of course, if I probed further, I probably would find the reasons behind this outburst somewhat different from what my interpretation would have been.  Metaphors are useful, but not always constructive until we delve deeper.

In my last entry, I described how a manager was portrayed by his colleagues in different images/metaphors.  And through discussions of these images, this manager hoped to modify his style to better work with peers and direct reports.  We can do similar exercises for organizations at large; today, I will use one image and see some of the different interpretations we can generate. Once again, Gareth Morgan provides an excellent example in his Imagin-i-zation, evoking the image of a spider plant to delineate how an organization may move toward decentralization and self-organizing.  A spider plant has a central bunch of leaves/stalks, and several offshoots fanning out with the next-generation of bunches of stalks. From this simple image, we can construct many variations for “how an organization is,” as well as “how an organization can be.”


The mother plant grows very big and healthy, but the offshoots are rather weak and small.  If the mother plant is a big organization and the small ones are various departments or divisions, one can say that this extremely centralized organization wields too much control; the various divisions are just doing the core’s bidding without much chance to be creative.  I have in mind the old-style communist regimes.  In many modern organizations, they’d be hard put to practice such centralization without quickly choking off profit sources.  Even in today’s assembly line manufacturing (which traditionally is more centralized), workers are allowed/encouraged to offer input where improvements can be made.  Certainly in the dynamic globalizing environment where rapid deployment (why do we keep borrowing terminology from military?) and rapid responses are the norms, some forms or degrees of decentralization is almost a necessity.


So, in the second image, we may have a sturdy central plant, with a bunch of offshoots (too many, too few, how do you judge?) that seem to grow steadily and maybe are ready to go solo.  Many conglomerates would fit with this image.  The logical follow-up questions would include:  How do you maintain connections with the nearly- or newly-independent offshoot(s)?  Or, how to strike the balance between nourishing the central plant while feeding the offshoots as well?  Another offshoot may be sprouting, is it really good for the whole plant?  These questions and considerations form the source of many conversations.


Same scene but with a few leaves and/or offshoots that are brownish and withering.  Should they be pruned away or be given more time to see if they recover?  When do you cut the loss?  If this is about a division of, say, 100+ people, cutting it won’t be an easy matter, and who should be involved in this decision?


What would be the source of nutrients?  source of water?  If this is the type of plant that needs pollination, should the source be from internal units or external “bees and birds?”

And so on.  The point here is that a metaphor may not accurately depict the organization, but it can help generate conversations.  If the central plant is too heavy and seems to inhibit the growth of offshoots, what is to be done?  If more offshoots are desirable, how does one gauge and maintain the amount of nourishment for them?

Morgan terms the tie between the central plant and the offshoots “umbilical cords.”  Since these metaphors are used as a starting point, there is no need to strictly adhere to reality.  So, the “umbilical cord” for the spider plant may be split into different strands, and each strand represents different type of expectations and agreements, etc.  One strand can be “vision and rules” with which to indoctrinate the offshoots so that there is coherence without the central office taking on too much authority.  “Resources” can be another strand, so that the central office can keep an eye on which division (offshoot) is anemic and which one is a bit bloated.  Accountability is crucial for decentralized operation, so that the offshoots can be fairly autonomous yet with clear expectations and responsibilities.  Yet another strand can be “rewards.”  Of course, then, at some point, we may want to have yet another conversation about “just how many strands do we need?”

As I said, different images generate different dialogues.  But this begs more questions:  How is the conversation possible? Does the organization encourage it? Allow it? Tolerate it?  Who initiates it?  At what level?  I’d image that a conversation that is initiated by the top would generate a rather different kind of discussion than if it is pushed by the lower rank or outside consultants.  It is not unlike an individual seeking psychotherapy, in that the recognition of the need and the finding of a therapist are more than half of the battle.

In honor of Steve Job’s passing, we should all take bold steps and initiate some difficult conversations.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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You See Banana, I See Potassium: Whose reality is more real?

it's fruit; it's food.

Banana is my least favorite fruit – I prefer juicy ones – but I eat it for the potassium kick, especially important during ski season.  Of course, I don’t “see” potassium, but that’s what the yellow stick signifies to me.  In truth, I much prefer Michael Pullen’s notion of eating “food,”- from his In Defense Of Food:  An eater’s manifesto –– not “protein,” “omega-3,” or “potassium” for that matter.  But I use this comparison to make a point about how our respective “realities” do not always nor necessarily coincide perfectly.  Sometimes, these discrepancies become profound problems, far beyond the superficial “communication problem.”  However, applied differently, one can also use these discrepancies to make changes for the better.

Gareth Morgan provides a much better example of our social-political differences with the image of “pig” in his Imagin-i-zation:  New mindsets for seeing, organizing, and managing.  So, “what is the pig?” is the caption for a drawing of a pig in the center, surrounded by a number of people with different perspectives of the animal, such as an unclean animal to a Muslim, livestock to a farmer and a butcher, a food source to a wolf, a story to a child (as in “The Three Little Pigs”), a sick animal to a vet, or just a plain pet, etc.  A simple question, maybe, but the answer depends on who you are and what is your worldview; in other words, reality is socially constructed.  (Note:  I do subscribe to the notion that physical reality has more permanence.  Gravity is here to stay; we do need to breathe in oxygen…till CO2 messes it up, etc.   But even in this domain, relativity and quantum mechanics have shaken some of the foundations as well.)

distorted....but what?

While differences could create problems, different images can offer different insights.  Morgan offers these interpretations as examples:  If we see organizations as “cultures,” we will go look for all the shared meanings, values, ideologies, rituals, etc.  If, on the other hand, organizations are viewed in terms of political dynamics, we’d see the power plays on a daily basis.  Or, if we see organizations as a “prison-“like environment, we can probably detect how various individuals and groups seem to be trapped in their belief systems that bring about destructive outcomes.

Of course, organizations are likely to be all of the above and then some.  The point is that once we latch onto a certain lens or filter with which to view our organizational environment, we tend to follow the assumptions associated with that particular lens and off we go.

baby purple potatoes!

We all love using organizational charts, for various purposes or realities.  On the one hand, it may give us a sense of who’s who and the rung s/he occupies in the hierarchy.  Immediately, we are bounded by a rather militaristic structure with all its attending features.  Yet, often, the secretaries who typically occupy the bottom rungs of these ladders are the ones with most knowledge of how the organizational operations are actually run.  So, flip the charts upside down, you may actually get the “real” picture.  Nowadays, the rapidly evolving computer technologies and demands from globalization have made organizations much flatter, yet more complex and more dynamic so that at any given time, organizations are much more fluid.  This presents very different challenges for managers than in those earlier days when operations were more mechanical and driven by routine.  There isn’t, and has never been, a set of management styles from which to choose; a manager would be wiser and better off by creating her own styles, tools, and skills.

of course you know what this is

Morgan proposes using different images – imagin-i-zation — to help managers gain insights into their work styles for improvement.  The principle is similar to the 360 review process where a manager gets feedback from direct report, peers, and supervisors, with major differences in the images people, including managers themselves, provide.  It’s like looking into an infinite array of mirrors, except there would be different images looking back at you.  Here is an interesting conundrum for you:  Walking down the street, would you recognize a doppelganger coming your way? That you are facing yourself?

Anyway, in the example Morgan gave, a manager sees himself as “giraffe, tornado, spice, and Sherlock,” corresponding to, respectively, “overview of things;” “moving quickly in tackling emerging problems;” “add spices,” and “ getting into the bottom of things.”  His colleagues, on the other hand, view him as, “ant, lion, whirlpool, kitchen blender, Robin Hood, and the brick-laying pig from the ‘Three Little Pigs’.”  Some images here do overlap, though with different interpretations.  He is industrious like an ant, but tends to want things his own way.  He is strong and impressive, like lion, but also can be intimidating.  Powerful like whirlpool but overwhelming at times.  Robin Hood is a good image?  Yes, but “it’s always for his own cause!”  The pig image is about cleverness and resourcefulness, but the flip side of being “insensitive to the needs of others” also applies.

Now this exercise does require a degree of willingness and courage from all parties involved.  Please don’t try it on your own without some experienced people, a good consultant for example, to provide guidance and a safety net.  But the exercise can be very powerful; it offers more candid responses and room for vivid and meaningful discussions.  And more fun and intriguing.  I do often wonder about the degree of honesty in typical 360 feedback, even when given anonymously.

Love mushroom, but don't like the look of a group of wild ones. Out of my garden!

Morgan challenges some managers with the image of a “strategic termite.”  Very few took heart to it right away, or even after explanations.  We tend to be stuck with the negative connotations of the termite image.  But Morgan has a good point in using termite, at least in the context of Africa.  For most of us, we can appreciate from some nature films the image of termite mounds in which some mounds can be as tall as 10+ feet; some look like arch because different mounds connect at the top.  The reason for Morgan to propose the “strategic termite” image is that termites, being blind, without any blueprint, somehow build these palatial structures bit by bit, incrementally, opportunistically.  And the outcomes are rather impressive.

In certain type of situations, for humans, mostly when resources are limited, agile maneuvering is critical, culture is entrenched, and planning is futile with time and money wasted, managers need to be opportunists, taking small steps, to try, to nudge, to chip away, to build small mounds.  In small experiments, failures are less likely to catch attention, but successes can be built upon.  There are several cases presented in the book that would warrant some close study (worth a trip to the public library).  One particular HR manager worked for a big retail business organization that is highly decentralized.  He had little budget and staff.  To attempt any grand training and development programs would either not be granted or would quickly drive to failure.  So, he paid close attention to some line managers’ operations, and grabbed opportunities when he saw them arise.  He offered tailored-made programs for these middle-level managers.  As favorable results began to spread, more managers requested his assistance.  Whenever budgets became tight, he had no worries since he largely used a small circle of outside consultants and could trim or expand as he saw fit.  In this manner, the majority of his operating costs was covered by the requesting managers.

This HR manager did not have a strategic plan (not that he could afford a formal one), but he did have a vision of how he could add value to the organization.  Based on his vision, he built his programs incrementally, and gradually earned reputation and respect.  He knew his results would be difficult to prove, and so by focusing on small programs, he could avoid the evaluation and metrics-mindset that typically accompany any formal training and development programs, thus further minimizing his operating budget.  The manager himself said it best,

“We try something, and if it doesn’t work we bury it.  If it does work, we hoist it up the flag pole, and give others a chance to see what can be done…Many senior managers want to see change, but hey don’t know how to drive it, or how to behave…They find it threatening.  But if we do good stuff for them and for the line managers, and people say that it is good (italic original), they support it…If you ask for permission to do something within the context of a formal plan, you find yourself having to go higher and higher in the organization.  But if you can find a line manager who has an interest, and give him a modest proposal, he’ll usually say ‘yes.’”

And no memos, no reports.  Sweet, isn’t?!

weeds? or pretty grass?

In a different example, under the subtitle of “just do the small stuff,” it was about a big government agency undergoing changes.  Really.  The unwritten slogan, from Red Tape to Green Tape, quickly caught on.  People liked the concept, especially the distinction:  “Red tape means you’re telling someone you can’t do that.  That’s what the rules are.  Green tape means helping someone to go forward…here’s how you can interpret the rules to meet our needs.”  Indeed, when we start with a “NO,” we kill all possibilities.

So, think about “maybe’s” to open up possibilities.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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