Archive | June 2012

Imagine Working In A Universe Of Introverts…

There will be many fewer meetings.  Doesn’t that very idea immediately release weight and tension? even for extroverts?  Where meetings are necessary, they would be short or shorter.  Better yet, at least half of the needed meetings would be done via email, which may generate more thoughtful comments and ideas, as participants take the time to think, reflect, and validate before espousing.  Downside?  The extroverts might get stir-crazy needing more face time.  So extroverts can go chat up others who are of similar temperament.

Can introverts become effective managers or CEOs?  Of course!  Jim Collins’ “level 5 leadership,” a kind of quiet leadership, is largely derived from the data of effective managers, a topic I examined more closely in an earlier entry.  These people do not need the limelight; in fact, they prefer to work under the radar.  They tend to be methodical, pursue data and facts, and aren’t likely to hover over others’ shoulders; after all, they themselves would like to be left alone to do their work.

Imagining doing this painting by a committee!

I can keep on dreaming, but lacking the sci-fi writing background and skills, I should stop now.  And admit that a whole world run by introverts would come to a screeching halt.  For one thing, who’s going to run the stock market?  After all, stock market is a major wheel in the running and growing of the economy.  Yet, yet…having fewer talking heads in the media would lighten the airwaves, and the screaming “reality shows” might be replaced with teaching how to paint dreams, sewing ideas, or exploring caves!

The bottom line is:  We need variety.  But, I don’t feel as if there is a true embrace of “variety” in the workforce or in the society, not in the honest recognition of the different ways we think and operate.

I’ll bet that if you examine more closely and reflect a little deeper, you realize that many of the workplace performance evaluation criteria are for the most part in favor of extroverts’ predilections.  For example, “The number of team projects you have participated in… and have driven to successful execution [the more conspicuously, the better],” or, “relevant professional conferences you organized or at which you have been invited to present.”  This lopsided evaluation can be easily remedied.  Just ask a few introverts to provide input, preferably via writing, rather than meetings.  I am not saying that introverts would never be involved in meetings.  I am, however, saying that by giving introverts a chance, they can bring fresh perspectives on different ways to look at the world and to operate at work.  In describing “Level 5 leadership” Mr. Collins presents a textbook picture of introversion at work, but what is most surprising about his description is that he himself was so surprised by the discovery that introverts can be effective.

a sport enjoyed by a variety of people

What are your suggestions for evaluating an introvert’s job performance?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Socially Constructed Diversity – The meaning of differences lies in the eye of the beholder

Should minority members immediately and automatically latch onto diversity issues and causes?  If a minority member wants to free herself from the bond of categories, wouldn’t assuming another category, Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, etc. be just as binding?  When a minority member has experienced profound and prolonged persecution from the society, it is perfectly understandable why this person may want to align with his minority group.  As the United States is moving toward a society in which non-white will become the majority, the term “diversity” will take on different meanings, different struggles, and different dynamics.

For this post, what I really want to discuss is another layer of diversity that’s often missed, ignored, or totally unacknowledged: the introvert–extrovert continuum.  This continuum cuts across so many other categories that we need to study it more.  Susan Cain’s “Quiet:  The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking,” demonstrates that a lot of management practices are based on extroverts’ worldviews.  Many of these practices are endorsed and advocated by business schools which are run by, yes, mostly extroverts.

A wonderful place for extroverts to get energy

Let me just discuss one aspect delineated in the book:  Brainstorming.  It’s a terrible and unwelcoming idea for introverts, and it’s proven to be not all that effective even if only extroverts participate in such a session.  Yet, like several concepts that have been proven wrong, such as tying executive pay to company performance, motivating employees with little carrots and big sticks, or emphasizing competition in any circumstances, industries still hold onto them.  However, working by internet connections, brainstorming can be very effective if the process is managed well.  Not surprisingly, most computer technologies and internet services have been brought about largely by introverts.

In other words, introverts need time and space for processing information and contemplation to achieve better productivity.  What’s more, it turns out that allowing time and space is rather conducive for extroverts too.

A truly diversified working environment is structured to allow people of various working styles to be able to choose their own time and place to work.  Research demonstrates that introverts are more willing and comfortable with cooperating with others, if they are allowed to choose when and where to do the cooperative tasks.  Some well-known high-tech companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Pixar, have created different and open environments that encourage people to create more spontaneous conversations, i.e. not scheduled meetings, and cooperative work habits.  Far more creative and innovative activities have come out of such environments than from the tried-and-not-very-true brainstorming.

a setting much more to my liking

Today’s working world is very different from when Robert Townsend ran Avis in the 60s.  But in his Up the Organization, he did have a few paragraphs on “racism.”  He understood it clearly by saying that “stamping out racism will be a process, not an act.”  I wonder what he would have thought and practiced on the issue of diversity and the introvert-extrovert continuum.  I conjecture – and he did advocate – that he would say something like the following:  The best way to tap into an employee’s talent is to find out what she’s really good at and to match the job with her qualifications and working styles.

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to all the dads out there!

I will continue on this continuum.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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From Celestial Wonders, to Creative Minds, to Organizational Constrictions

The recent solar eclipse and the Venus transit made me think again about creativity and mind.  I watched both events with awe, more a visceral appreciation than driven by any particular scientific principles.  The knowledge and technology that have made it possible for us to witness the beautiful bright rim around the black moon and the extraordinary sunspot-like black disk against the orange ball (as viewed through a small telescope) are mysteries for most of us.  And most of us take and enjoy such fruit with scant gratitude toward those who have created it.  We take so much for granted the daily conveniences in which our lives are embedded; we don’t even pause now to think how far the human mind has traveled.  These days, vacuous celebrities win our attention; mindless games and shows occupy our minds; the people who actually create and innovate are pushed aside, and those who manipulate money – not real products nor products of creativity – get to sit in the driver’s seat.

The economics Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, discussed this last point in his recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.  He stressed that corporations nowadays reward short-term financial gains over long-haul innovative and creative activities.  Indeed, most of the technological breakthroughs have come as a result of happy accidents.  How can you program a scientific discovery?

underground…above ground…all created by ourselves

How do all the above points relate to organizations? From the perspective that an organization is the collection of tens, hundreds, thousands of precious minds, it is all the more mind-boggling that organizations seem to strenuously obstruct what these minds can create.  This was the premise of Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization; its tagline is: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits.  He didn’t provide a 12-step program for making profits; instead, he focused on (1) how to treat people right, (2) how to make the work environment conducive for people to want to work, (3) how managers can get out of the way and make sure that there are as few obstacles for people as possible.  Follow these basic principles, and profits will come.

However, instead of providing nutrients in the work environment, management seems to be obsessed with weeding out all the elements that are inconvenient to them, not to the working people.  It is so much easier to apply pruning shears, pesticides and weed-killers in a garden or an orchard.  But if you want to grow veggies, fruits, or flowers, those items will do just the opposite.  You would think that for an organization emphasizing science and technology, management would want to encourage those minds to explore, to pursue all avenues of creativity.  The local science organization with which I am familiar is the antithesis of such pursuits.  I imagine asking the top managers in this organization to provide an actual list, with evidence, of things they use or do to nourish their staff.  This is the organization where people seem to spend more than 50% of their precious time and brain power on compliance, 20-30% on preparation for actual work, proposals, documents, planning meetings, etc., and then whatever is left on the actual science.  As an outside observer, I want to scream.  For the people working inside, what’s their recourse?

I plan to write about this fairly famous organization in the near future.

I suspect one of the main forces that motivate managers/decision-makers to keep focusing on enforcement/compliance (certainly true in our local organization) is the prison wall they create for themselves.  Once they latch onto an agenda – which might have been a necessary cause at one point – that becomes their main focus, and what their jobs are all about.  Combining that with a sense of power and the need for control, creativity and innovation get pushed aside, and short-term gains, especially financial, represent one more feather in the power cap.  For not-for-profit organizations, while they don’t aim for financial gain, the process of acquiring financial backing often becomes constraining (or constricting?).

boundary, yes; constriction, no.

Managers need to have some type of brakes in the system to signal them to go back to the basics:  What do people on the jobs need?  What do customers want? And more importantly, what is the organization good for?

Do you know what these brakes may look like and how to construct them?  I welcome your input.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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That’s “mergers & acquisitions,” my least favorite topic when I was in graduate school.  I can understand the buzz enjoyed by the people who do the negotiations, but the usual and high rate of failures (70%) after the deals are sealed leave a bad taste in my mouth.  More so for those whose lives got messed up as a result of M&A!

Robert Townsend had some choice words for M&A as well, such as, “someone always ends up being screwed.”  In principle, Townsend was very much against the whole practice.  (see his “Up the Organization”)

Recently, I came across an interesting article on Gizmodo, titled “How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.”   The key points the article makes are:  1.  Yahoo wasn’t and still isn’t a great innovator in internet technology.  It basically sets itself up as a directory of links, and sells spaces for ads.  What’s the core of the business?  2.  After acquiring Flickr, the corporate development favored integration over innovation.  What are the old and new cultures?  3.  Yahoo never really understood the customers’ needs and what’s behind a website’s, any site’s, community.  Who are your customers?  It’s always “customers first, stupid!” 

The author put the failure of the Flickr acquisition squarely and totally on Yahoo’s shoulders.  I have one reservation:  Why did Flickr owners agree to the deal?  They thought they’d be a better fit with Yahoo than the other potential partner, Google.  So, at that stage of courtship, I’d put the responsibility on both sides.   But once acquired, it is Yahoo’s responsibility to find ways to help nurture Flickr to expand, and it should allow Flickr to be the driver on that front.  Instead, Yahoo forced Flickr’s users to have to deal with one extra layer, Yahoo.  For instance, when a Flickr’s user opened her file, she’d be immediately bounced to the Yahoo homepage for sign-in.  If she didn’t have a Yahoo account, she had to sign up with Yahoo first.  After the Flickr’s old community revolted, loudly, Yahoo had to change back to Flickr’s old ways.

While Yahoo pressured Flickr to work with Yahoo’s corporate development, meaning finding ways to be integrated into the Yahoo services, Flickr missed many opportunities to potentially lead some of the nascent online services and cultures.  Before the acquisition, Flickr could have advanced its service to become the new (and perhaps better) “Facebook;” after all, its photo sharing was a huge component of social networking.  Or, it might have grasped the emerging smartphone culture and assumed the “Instagram” role.  It might also have the potential to do video sharing as well.  Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…

As for “integration vs. innovation” in an M&A case, I feel ambivalent about it.  A significant portion of M&A failure is rooted in botched integration, a task that’s just so much less sexy and more onerous to execute than the high-rolling negotiation.  However, when an organization has made an acquisition and then has to choose between the two goals, given limited resources, I personally would always go for innovation, particularly where technology is concerned.

I think the bottom line is that when businesses put the bottom line as their major focus, they lose in the long run.  A business, any business, is built upon a product or a service, paid for by customers.  Back to Townsend’s simple assertion:  Focus on what your business is about, and do the best for the customers.  How complicated is that?!  Of course, the details in the operations are always far more complicated than first realized.  But that’s why it’s all the more important to focus on the fundamental what and for whom.

Welcome, June…  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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