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.
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.
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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