Archive | August 2012

Adaptive vs. Technical – Framing for change

Computers are ubiquitous at work these days, especially for office work.  And computer security is, understandably, among the concerns for management.  Yet…

Here is a case for you:  You are a lower-rank manager and are told to make sure your direct reports, all 40 of them, be security-conscientious and not leave their computers unlocked while away from their desks.  What is your response, to yet more requirements and training sessions for everyone, including you?  And what solutions would you recommend?

I will lock my computer when I leave my desk.

I will lock my computer when I leave my desk. (Photo credit: theleetgeeks)

There is a currently available technology that a computer can use to detect whether the user is still sitting at the desk or standing at the workstation(some prefer standing while using their computers).  Imagine if you just get up to stretch your legs a bit, or use the restroom, and you are shut out and have to log in again in another two minutes when you return. For those who have a private office, they could leave and just lock the office door.  But most people work in cubicles these days.

Or, you can rely on the old technology, i.e. constantly remind people to lock the computer keyboard when they leave, even for just two minutes.  How long did it take you to recognize the flaw in this approach?  Yup, people forget from time to time…even if you give them a big poster to put above the computer.

Either of these strategies is by nature adaptive, tweaking the status quo a little to satisfy the latest demands, the situation on the ground, or to buy some time.

A permanent solution would be, for lack of better term, technical, actually altering the nature of the operation, and hopefully bringing some relief to the burden of requirements that people must remember.  For instance, you can get fingerprint recognition in the mouse.  But how useful is this particular type of mouse if you can only unlock the computer but not lock it?

Think about it (I actually did have to think hard on this):  When you step away from your desk, you probably have a dozen items on your mind, and locking your computer is not a top priority.  (If this were your organization, would you want this to be a top priority?  Wouldn’t you rather your people were wrapping their minds around bigger problems?)  When you come back to your station, you don’t need to be reminded to unlock the computer if it’s locked, you just have to remember how.  The unlocking phase imposes much less distraction and stress on people and their organizations than the requirement to remember to lock – each time, every time.  So, why not have the technology be commensurate with typical human behavior?  Maybe teach the mouse to recognize the absence of recognized fingerprints, or design other more clever ways to lock the computer.

One could argue that it should take only a few minutes to learn to remember logging out or locking up.  Really?? Remembering that a dozen times a day, adding these interruptions to the work flow or the creative flow, competing with remembering the 10 more points you need to make in the memo you’re drafting when you get back to your cubicle?  When I write, I step away from my computer at least a couple of dozen times per article.  If I had to log out and log in e-v-e-r-y single time, I would likely go through computers very quickly, and someone would find many computer carcasses in the dumpster.

Broken Computer

Broken Computer (Photo credit: miss_rogue)

Of course, I am not arguing against defending our national security or industry secrets.  But remember the Third Law of the Thermodynamics?  You cannot, ever, reach 100% safety and security without sacrificing 100% of everything else.  And each additional measure, when implemented, will consume exponentially increasing amounts of energy.  People will spend ever more of their precious time and mental bandwidth complying with the safety and security codes, and ever less to real productivity.

Now I understand the points made by one of my readers in his entry on “Whatever happened to modern thought?” 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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We Shouldn’t Be Dictated By Our Emotions (But we should pay attention to others’ emotions)

Here is a simple scenario:  You are a supervisor.  You walked in the office one morning and found one of your staff reading a newspaper, though it’s clearly during office hours.  How would you respond?

This actual scene took place in the early career of a C.E.O. who now heads a non-profit group.  In an interview article in New York Times’ “Corner Office,” this C.E.O. used this example to illustrate how she had learned to deal with someone who’s not quite self-motivated. When she encountered this staff member in the above scenario, her immediate reaction was, “I wanted to say, ‘that’s a ridiculous thing to be doing right now.’”  Instead, she mulled over and rehearsed what she wanted to say, which was “well, maybe there’s a way you can use that story to engage your students.”  What she did eventually was hinting around, and the staff member did get the message.  With more years of experience, her take-away lesson she offers now is:  Be direct and honest in your feedback.

weeds, usually en mass, can be interesting

In principle, that is true.  In practice, one needs to be direct without biting, and honest without being brutal.  Or, better, yet, it depends on the time, place, and the personality you are dealing with.  As usual, it’s easier said than done.

Granted, this example she gave was about a “repeated offender,” so her conclusion that the staff member was not a highly motivated person was probably justified.  But even there, an experienced and more emotionally intelligent manager would want to start by asking him/herself, “What can be done about this working environment to help motivate this person?”  It is much easier to go to the negative route by berating someone.  Similarly, if this staff member wasn’t a repeat offender, and was spotted reading the newspaper, what should the response be?  An immediate reprimand?  Even the response of “there’s a way you can use that story to engage your students” feels waspish.  Behind every action and behavior, there can be multiple possible explanations.  For instance, he might have had a rough morning, and was using a little time to read something to gather himself before beginning the tutoring where he had to interact with someone.  He might have been up early and working since 6AM, and now was taking a breather before plunging back in for the rest of the day.  He might have had an accident on the way to work and therefore needed a little time to decompress.  It does take time to understand whereas it takes no time and effort to render a quick snap judgment.

It is a manager’s responsibility to understand each and every one of her staff so as to better design the work environment and motivate people with as much individual tailoring as possible.  Everyone can see and recognize superficialities.  But behind every success/failure, there are deep layers of reasons; a wise manager would dig and understand all the layers.  Remember my mantra?  It’s easy to emulate the superficiality but much, much harder to create your own brand of success.

Later on in this short interview piece, the C.E.O. described her learning curve, and said, “early on, I realized that I’m really good with the people who are high performers.  I am not so good with the people who are not very good performers.”  I just wanted to scream, “No s–t Sherlock!”  But she did relate that by bypassing what she perceived to be low performers, and relying on high performers, she misused the resources and hurt the organization as a result.  This realization requires a degree of self-awareness that often seems missing in many managers.  I would like to know more about how she learned that lesson.

Indeed, it is typical of a mediocre manager to follow his desire to eliminate, by any means, such as transferring or downright termination, these “low” performers.  Of course, it is within the manager’s right to go nuclear, but he does so at the peril of future staff pool; most when hired would regard his organization as a stepping stone rather than devoting their talents for his sake.  In the long run, this manager would increase its operation cost because of the high turnover rate.

By definition, at least half the employees are average.  The key isn’t about hiring the most talented (I have pointed out the fallacy of such argument in earlier post), the key is making sure there is a good fit between the employee and her job.  And in order to find that fit, it would take time for a thoughtful manager to understand the real talents of the employee, what makes her tick, and what kind of pressure she can withstand, etc.  And some trial and error.  Indeed, it’s always about nature and nurture.  And there are no shortcuts.

Back to the interview article, I do applaud the C.E.O.’s honesty and respect her capability to learn and grow over the years.  Her take-away lessons to offer are:  1. “Don’t sugarcoat your feedback.”  And I might add, with thoughtfulness.  2.  One should ask during interviewing process, “when were you at your absolute best?”  and “what would your critics tell me about you?”  The former is very much in the frame of Appreciative Inquiry (link).  The later is a fairly skillful approach to tease out some honest self-assessment of the respondent; it is also a way to assess someone’s level of self-awareness.

In terms of the overall quality of the article, I wish the reporter would dig a little deeper, and like a good manager, forgo the superficial platitudes and offer some in-depth stories of the C.E.O.’s learning journey.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Sharp Contrast: Between facts and “imagined facts”

I have been planning to post an entry on “emotional intelligence” for weeks, but “reality” keeps intruding, i.e. current events, or more pertinent thoughts catching my attention.  So it is for today’s entry.

Recently, one opinion piece and one major event provided a fascinating contrast for management.  The event was the rover Curiosity landing on Mars, and the opinion piece was The power of negative thinking,” by Oliver Burkeman, in New York Times.

English: This artist's concept from an animati...

English: This artist’s concept from an animation depicts Curiosity, the rover to be launched in 2011 by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, as it is being lowered by the mission’s rocket-powered descent stage during a critical moment of the “sky crane” landing in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Curiosity landing on Mars is the culmination of tested imagination, calculation, scientific understanding, endless trial and error, and determination.  This fantastic achievement was based on heroic efforts of many.  (But, some “fans” have to obsess over the “Mohawk” scientist…sometimes, I really don’t understand human beings.)  It was, and still is, a huge team effort, but I wonder if the scientists and engineers at JPL, Jet Propulsion Lab, ever went through some team-building exercises?!  Google “Curiosity Rover” or “NASA Mohawk scientist,” and you will be rewarded (or dismayed?).

I don’t mean to denigrate the value and validity of team-building exercises – used appropriately and in the right context, they can be very informative and sometimes enlightening — I have benefited from a few and have conducted quite a few.  But like most management tools, phrases, or practices, “team-building” exercises get abused and become yet another target of cynicism.

Walking on hot coals

Walking on hot coals (Photo credit: all the good names have gone)

In contrast, Mr. Burkeman’s opinion piece in New York Times began with a report  of 21 injuries incurred by people walking over hot coals and were hospitalized for their burnt feet.  Perhaps, a reality check and some grasp of physics might have prevented the unpleasant outcome?  Those who injured their feet followed Tony Robbins’ (a guru in the self-help industry) teaching:  Walking on hot coals in barefoot is, somehow, a manifestation of one’s determination and positive thinking.  Isn’t this similar to behind-the-scene efforts of Curiosity team?  Only very very superficially.  If one learns some facts about coal first, one can easily avoid the injury.  Coal and especially coal ash are poor conductors of heat into surrounding objects, including human flesh, and so if one walks on hot coals quickly and lightly, one can avoid being singed.  Mind is powerful and useful, but positive thinking alone cannot defeat physics.  Tony Robbins’ teaching calls for mindlessly “thinking” that “positive thinking” is enough go succeed.

While I am all for using positive approach, such as Appreciative Inquiry, to build or change organizations, it has to be based on facts, a realistic assessment of the situation/condition, and numerous thoughtful actions.  I don’t think Mr. Burkeman would advocate for people to dwell only on negativity, and all the time.  His purpose in “the power of negative thinking” is to remind people of the need and value of facing the unpleasant reality in order to improve.  While I concur with the premise, I think the notion by itself, is traditional and conventional.  In the ever increasingly competitive global environment, organizations need to constantly engage in “out-of-the-box” thinking, a delicate dance between reality, facts, understanding the unpleasant, and imagination through play, as well as reiterations of trials and refinements.  Positive thinking is but one of many necessary tools; it cannot be the “be all and end all” goal, and still has to be grounded in reality.

The name of the Mars rover, “Curiosity,” is brilliant.  We need more of it; ignoring, smothering, or killing critical thinking is a sin.

Now I feel better.  Have a good week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Ever Growing Need To Control

Top decision-makers said, “EVERY single employee’s ‘time and effort’ has to be approved by their immediate supervisor, electronically.”  The top and middle level managers have anywhere from 3 to 10 people they need to approve, assigned probably to a handful of projects for each person.  The lowest “group leader” has to approve input from 25+ to 70+ direct reports.  Each employee may have 6-10 projects for which a cost code has to be allocated. The group leaders probably have memorized all the various codes they need to deal with, but would they really honestly know that John spent 10 hours on project A and 5 hours on project Z during that week?  So, the group leader just keeps clicking the mouse.  If the group leader gets distracted – which is more the norm than the exception – and if her computer sits idle for more than a few minutes, which goes with being distracted, the system shuts her out.  By the time she can get back to that unfinished task, she has to log in again.  In the meantime, she has to request a separate report, and wait for it to run, to find out if she has approved all members in the work group!

An outcome from appropriate amount of control…and you don’t paint additional colors onto it!

Furthermore, supposedly, all the “time and effort” should be submitted and approved by Monday morning.  Thus, the system gets clogged up on Monday morning and becomes even more sluggish than usual.  Remember that “idle” time, that the system doesn’t like?  So, most group leaders have learned to do this chore on weekends.  And their families say, “oh, well!”

The best part of this insanity is that if a “group leader” can’t get to everyone’s input  by the predetermined time on Monday morning, the system automatically approves the remainder.  When I learned all these features, I was utterly speechless.  Oh, by the way, the system REALLY doesn’t like “disapprove;” it leaves a quasi-permanent record and invites auditors’ suspicions.  I would love to learn how such a process had come about; what the rationales were, who in the world designed such a convoluted system, and who decided in its favor believing that they had done a great service.  For whom?!

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lewis Thomas said it well in his The Lives of a Cell (1974):  “If … I was in direct communication with my liver, and could now take over, I would become deeply depressed … [for I am] constitutionally unable to make hepatic decisions, and I prefer not to be obliged to, ever.”  And, “I’d rather leave all my automatic functions with as much autonomy as they please … Imagine having to worry about running leukocytes, keeping track, herding them here and there, listening for signals.  After the first flush of pride in ownership, it would be exhausting and debilitating, and there would be no time for anything else.

The obsession for control eventually leads to an endless downward spiral of out-of-control and becomes a slave to its own warped demands.  This is yet another outcome of not being able to make distinctions, not unlike “when everything is priority, nothing is priority.” The hilariously cockeyed notion that somehow this obsession for control of parts will lead to success for the whole, leads toward the biggest ultimate failure.

What was your reaction when you read the above quoted passage?  Do you have examples?  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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