Archive | June 2013

The Perils Of Blowing The Whistle

I don’t mean the perils for the whistle blower, but for the collateral damage and the missed opportunities to address some truly critical issues.

The current Snowden affair has given me much to think about.  I will focus more on the social psychology of whistle blowing than commenting on Snowden’s actions per se.

I contend that the impact of the majority of whistle blowing cases is never cut and dried, or black and white.  There are too many unintended consequences and ripple effects, and there is too much collateral damage.  Even in the case of Enron where most of us applauded the downfall of the scumbags, the top managers of Enron who clearly cheated, there was unfortunate collateral damage.  Think of all the people who lost their pensions and/or jobs, through no fault of their own.  In particular, people in their 50s who lose jobs are much less likely to find equally paid jobs, from Enron’s case or otherwise.  Should Enron not have been exposed?  Enron would be caught sooner or later; so, in the grand scheme, the damage is less if the error is exposed sooner rather than later.

This is part of a bigger scheme.

This is part of a bigger scheme.

Many of us feel viscerally aligned with underdogs, sometimes even romanticizing the whistle-blowing act.  Upon closer examination, however, we find shades of grey in any underdog actions.  Some self-righteous individuals may even regard themselves as heroic “watchdogs” in a system and wear underdog-status as a badge of honor.  But what is really going on with regards to the perpetual whistle blower?

Organization W (OW) is heavily involved in scientific pursuits; some branches handle dangerous materials all the time.  In such an environment, there are the inevitable watchdogs and oversight offices.  Someone in the oversight organization thinks he has the responsibility of keeping laser-keen scrutiny on the dangerous-materials work at OW.  He takes pride in calling out any errant practices at OW, indiscriminatingly, and sees himself as a “whistle blower.”    Thus even when OW provides scientific proof that strict adherence to a particular requirement is counterproductive or even hazardous, or the interpretation of the requirement is demonstrably wrong, our whistle blower would not budge.  With no scientific background, why is he in the position of judging the criteria for conducting scientific work?

The above is a mundane example, but illustrates some of the subtle aspects of the nature of the whistle-blowing act and actor.  I suspect that variations on the theme of such obstructionism are fairly common.

When a whistle blowing act becomes sensational, we get caught up with only the most glaring aspects and neglect to address some other fundamental issues.  Did we take care of the underlying structural problems that had allowed Enron to manipulate for years?  I fear not.

In the current Snowden case, not only there are no serious actions to address the violation of the fourth Amendment of the Constitution, there is little movement in addressing the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) law and the secret FISA court.  Strictly speaking, NSA didn’t break any law in mining our data, but we continue to evade the question, is what is legal automatically ethical?  And while we are always suspicious of government or other large entities — perhaps rightly so most of the time — somehow we almost automatically embrace one lone person’s judgment call.  Why?  Should we not examine and re-examine the practice of privatizing government functions?  Is it really cost-effective?  Certainly not based on Mr. Snowden’s annual salary.  Should we allow government security issues to be handled by private contractors, who don’t seem to be subjected to the same rigor of clearance check as government employees are?  The list is long, but we probably won’t ever get to them.

In defiance of the trend to make no distinctions, I will say this strongly:  I find Julian Assange dubious at the very least.  Mr. Assange’s WikiLeaks website could have been truly heroic in the cause of the silent majority, but his making no distinction in publishing whatsoever comes his way is just as unethical as the actions of the entities he wants to take down.  In the case of US Private Manning, the divulged classified information has the potential, if not already realized in fact, to literally get people killed.  Among the published classified information were details that caused many people working under cover to have their identities blown – people who, like Assange, oppose what their governments are doing, but who unlike Assange take tremendous risks in their opposition.  What Wikileaks, through Assange, did in the case of Manning was nothing but a sheer data dump, with no distinction and no responsibility.  When unwilling participants’ lives are threatened and terminated, I find the act of data dumping revolting.

Using natural resources for a very effective fence.

Using natural resources for a very effective fence.

The way most organizations handle classified information is the opposite of data dump: essentially an indiscriminate data freeze.  It’s a lazy way to manage information and consolidate power.  Once we put “classified” on any work, we gain power of secrecy and escape accountability.  As for those who aren’t supposed to have the access to classified information, how do they judge the nature of the information and its ramifications when revealed?  They have no overview, no system perspective, with which to assess the information.  I do not suggest that just because most of us don’t have access to a whole system perspective that we shouldn’t expose unfair, criminal, or shady acts.  It is a judgment call on the whistle blower’s part, and for the rest of us, we need to take time to examine issues more closely and with care.

Whistle blowers are like scapegoats (and sometimes heroes); they serve as the repository for our collective frustrations and other emotions.  In rushing to celebrate or condemn the act and the actor, we shortchange ourselves on other equally important issues.  The act of whistle blowing and the information it reveals are only parts of a larger system.  Collateral damage may be inevitable, but if we attend to the interconnections of the parts in a system, we stand a better chance to reduce the damage all around.

There is too much going on around July 4th.  I will resume in this space on July 14th.

Enjoy your holiday.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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There Is Culture (in an organization), And Then There Is Culture (in larger context).

The January issue of National Geographic has an article about genes in explorers and how a culture and a certain gene may have evolved around exploration.  Of course, typical of scientific discoveries, this one is still in the works, and no firm conclusion should be drawn.  What attracts me, a social scientist, are three notions:  1.  The gene alone, 7R variant specifically, doesn’t direct some of us to take the risks to explore…anywhere and anything.  2.  We need to develop skills with which to explore.  3.  People carrying 7R will lead less satisfying lives residing in settled communities while thriving in changeable environments.  In other words, it’s a matter of fit.

A desire, or a strong motivation, doesn’t get us far.  Maybe this is one of the reasons I have always felt wary regarding motivational speeches.  Doing/Acting requires skills.  Of course, even before acquiring and developing skills, we also need to know what specific skills to aim for.  I take decent-to-good pictures, but have never really seriously engaged in understanding how to take great pictures.  I have only myself to blame.  In contrast, a friend of mine, in less than three years, has taken methodical steps to propel herself into being a semi-professional.  To each her/his own…ultimately, it’s the matter of fit that’s really important and most difficult.

Going up

Going up

An organizational culture in which issues of fit between employee and her job gets little attention is likely to favor rules and regulations; the converse is true as well.  An organizational culture that’s obsessed with rules and regulations would probably focus on what and how an employee should perform, instead of concentrating on how to develop the said employee.  An organization that does not value its own people isn’t likely to put customers at the top, despite superficial claims.  Apple and Google are known for valuing customers and encouraging employees to think outside of the box (not withstanding the current NSA brouhaha).  They don’t just say so; they demonstrate through products and customer services, and they give employees “free” time where they can design whatever project/product they fancy.

Managers not only need to make their (good) intentions known, they have to show, through organizational structure, what their intention truly is.  Saying that the organization values creativity is empty.  Giving employees “free” time to explore and allowing certain types of mistakes would be true communication.  In an organization where the whole culture seems to impede employees’ daily work, the burden on lower-level managers (to give their people more room to maneuver) is heavier, but it is not impossible for lower managers to do good for their people.  A lower manager can still empower her people, by taking the institutional impediments onto her own shoulders.  If mazes and volumes of paperwork are in the way, a manager can help expedite the otherwise sluggish procedures.  If a direct report feels bogged down by layers of bureaucracy – and lets loose some frustration upon colleagues – his manager can help by giving the frustrated employee more responsibilities and authority.  In this manner, the frustrated employee gains better understanding of where the impediment actually lies in the procedures.  This then could in turn lead to better working relationships with others and help diffuse tensions.

We perceive and receive cultural values through informal learning, either within an organization or outside in a society.  However, as the size of the cultural confine reduces, the values tend to erode more quickly.  Cultural values are much more robust at the national level, much less so in big organizations, and are further diminished with the decreased size of an organization.  A lowest level, a manager can attempt years of good by instilling empowerment in his people, but there is little guarantee that the spirit will remain with the next manager.  Sometimes, the spirit quickly dissipates even as the manager is preparing to exit; people start strategizing to protect themselves against the unknown incoming replacement.

In the National Geographic article, the exploration culture got spread across the globe through tribes’ migrating patterns and marriages.  This is not likely to take place within organizations.  Migrating individuals within and between organizations can spread values only so much.

Going down...looks worse.

Going down…looks worse.

As I recuperate from my surgery and begin the rehabilitation process, I have noted the staying power of my cultural heritage.  Chinese emphasize moderation and modesty (bragging is a huge sin!), and when I grew up in Taiwan, physical prowess was deemed inferior to intellectual pursuit.  Despite the decades of immersing myself in the American culture – and embracing it – I am finding myself in need of injecting intellectual analysis into my physical prowess in this rehab process.  My recovery is pretty remarkable, according to both the surgeon and physical therapist.  If I say great things about my physical state, I feel like bragging.  So I temper it with some analysis or levity to ease my conscience.  However, if I were involved in some team sports, my team’s culture would definitely have impact on how I see the recovery and how it is received.

Life should be less complicated than that.  What happens to simple joy?  Since I am my own boss these days, I am veering toward the direction of “simple joy.”  I am impatient with my recovery but am happy with the rate of my recovery.

May you find joy around you in the coming week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Fantasy Of Pager-cide

There are obvious ways to murder a pager.  A big hammer is immensely satisfying, for instance.  Running over it with a car a couple of times, forward and backward, or backward then forward, is less satisfying.  I want to hear that crunchy sound up close.

I don’t think I am a violent person by most measures.  I can talk a good violent talk but hesitate when it comes to execution.  That’s why it’s pure fun to fantasize, especially in my current state of post-operation-getting-over-anesthesia, alternating between pain and painkiller-induced light headedness, and disorientation followed by brief periods of lucidity.  Having just had knee repair surgery, it’s good to sit/lie around in body, wonder and wander in mind.

Of course, the poor pager is totally innocent; it’s only the symptom.  But where would I go to vent my years of frustration with what this pager has done?  It bugs me daily, and frequently twice daily, for no serious reason other than, “this is to inform you that **** is up and running,” i.e. “this is to tell you there is nothing important to tell you.”  There have been periods where we couldn’t escape the noise even on Saturdays and Sundays.

Poor little thing!

Poor little thing!

This is not my pager, and that’s why I can afford to bad mouth it.  It’s my dear husband’s; part of his job is to be informed of the status of this one contentious (and cantankerous) facility.  However, there is the situation of “being over-informed” or even “over-concerned,” both in individuals and in organizations.  And in both cases, it can amount to a choking or suffocating environment for humans.  People in the organization who are on the list for this facility’s updates have been treating the daily multiple beeps like part of the meaningless white noise background.  It’s as if, for each announcement, there is first a warning announcement that the announcement is coming before the actual announcement.

I am typically spared the late afternoon update since my husband is still two hours away from coming home for dinner.  But the 7AM alarm has inadvertently woken me up enough times that I see red, or steel, in this case.  We hope that in the coming weeks, this pager will transition to history in our home life.  Even my husband’s stepping down/aside/backward/forward has been taking months, and is still not totally resolved.  Everything seems to creep and crawl.  There are too many failings within this otherwise remarkable organization with thousands of brilliant minds.

Poor little pager has been unfairly caught in my sideline frustration and wrath.  It’s a perfectly innocent device — the pager, that is — that’s been so abused as to lose its original meaning and function, i.e. sending truly urgent messages.  Were it not government property I’d be happy to dispose of it and give it a proper burial.  Since I cannot really kill it, I can only fantasize the murder.

Drop it in the toilet (and I am not fishing it out for anybody).  Trebuchet it over the canyon.  Blow it out of a potato gun.  Dissect it bit by bit, and send bundles via snail mail to some grand poobahs.  I feel better now.

The fog of my mind will, hopefully, recede more rapidly in the coming week.  I need to find a more comfortable workstation to accommodate the bulky CPM (continuous passive motion) machine for my knee.  In other words, I aim to write on more serious, or thornier, issues.  Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Thinking Outside Of The Box Can Lead To Success…And Sometimes, Devastation

…in the for-profit sector, the more value you produce, the more money you can make. But we have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make $50 million selling violent video games to kids, go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”  — Dan Pallotta

Curing the Charitable Curse

Curing the Charitable Curse (Photo credit: jurvetson)

Who?  Dan Pallotta was the chairman and CEO of Pallotta TeamWorks, and he has interesting ideas regarding investing in, growing, and raising funds for charity work.  I had never heard of him till recently when I stumbled upon a TED Radio Hour on NPR.  I listened to his full-length TED Talk (link below) and read the Harvard Business case study on his company (obtainable for $6.95).  I am both intrigued and impressed by his unconventional thinking and methods, and dismayed by the challenge imposed by the conventional banality.  Trying to change a deeply-rooted cultural perspective, however, may require more than one extraordinary entrepreneurial talent.

Most of the social ills or diseases we face as humanity are enormous in scale: poverty, AIDS, clean water, breast cancer, or any kind of cancer, etc.  The progress, when there is some, is slow and painful.  It is as if we can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to commit to curing, eradicating, or even “simply” reducing some of these horrors.  Pallotta noticed the issue of scale and thought big social problems require big scale solutions.  He said, “Our [charity] organizations are tiny up against them [social problems], and we have a belief system that keeps them tiny. We have two rulebooks, one for the nonprofit sector and one for the rest of the economic world.”  Hence, the quote I used to open this entry.

Pallotta wanted to build a “for profit charity” on the assumption that bigger return requires bigger and longer-term investment.  For his first organized AIDS event, biking for AIDS research, he raised $50,000 seed money, and netted – let me repeat, netted – one million and thirteen thousands dollars.  100% of the net went to the benefit.  Based on this idea, during the nine years of Pallotta TeamWorks, the company raised $108 million.  Again, that’s net.

The success, however, only invited media’s conventional scrutiny and public outcry.  When the key sponsor, afraid of the “bad” publicity, pulled its support, Pallotta’s company of 360 employees and 16 national offices ceased to exist overnight.

The media focused on the organization’s “overhead,” typically about 40% of the budget. Pallotta TeamWorks used part of the seed money to advertise, such as full-page ads in New York Times, Boston Globe, etc, and full-color brochures.  This was money well spent.  For the first event, the $50,000 seed money that brought > $1 million, $40,000 was spent on advertising.  Would we quarrel with a for-profit organization on such return-on-investment ratio?  As Pallotta TeamWorks grew, it wanted to attract bright young people to work for the organization, so it offered competitive salaries (against the private sector) to candidates.  As Pallotta explained, “Businessweek did a survey, looked at the compensation packages for MBAs ten years out of business school, and the median compensation for a Stanford MBA, with bonus, at the age of 38 was $400,000. Meanwhile, for the same year, the average salary for the CEO of a $5 million-plus medical charity in the U.S. was $232,000, and for a hunger charity $84,000. Now there’s no way you’re going to get a lot of people with $400,000 talent to make a $316,000 sacrifice every year to become the CEO of a hunger charity.”

A box in the sky is much less restricting!

A box in the sky is much less restricting!

It can make sense for people to take on $400,000 annual income, and then offer tens of thousands for charity.  Essentially, these well-off few get accolade for generous charity donations, and may be invited to sit on the board of the charity organizations where they can throw their influence.  Such an equation is a lot more attractive.

Of course not everyone’s life goal is making a lot of money.  However, when the gap between working for a charity organization and working to make a nice life becomes so glaring, the ones sitting on the fence will likely choose the good pay.  Is it just a matter of commitment?  Do we truly regard people who are willing to take below-average pay for “good” causes, and working to exhaustion, as “noble?”  I concur with Pallotta’s chiding that “we confuse morality with frugality.”  This is yet another either-or false dichotomy that we have artificially imposed upon ourselves.  It’s all based on deficit thinking that we have to fight for a limited size of a fixed pie.  What Pallotta has demonstrated is that if we can grow the pie, everyone benefits.  Wouldn’t the poor and the sick be better off from a larger pie?  Wouldn’t we all be?

The organization that decided to ditch Pallotta TeamWorks arranged its own charity event the following year.  The outcome?  “The overhead went up, net income for breast cancer research went down by 84 percent or $60 million in one year.”

Pallotta TeamWorks was crucified by the media for its “overhead.”  Yet, when the overhead went up and income went down the next year, there was not any hint of scrutiny and criticism.  Journalists claim that they only report “facts,” focusing on the four “w’s,” what, who, where, and why, and one “h,” how.  In this case, the journalists employed only their conventional and superficial tool box, and not even very well.  They glossed over the why’s and the how’s.  When we examine a charity organization that is run on for-profit model, should we still hold it against the non-profit model?  When some one, or an entity, operates outside the box, how shall we evaluate the actions and outcomes which are, by definition, likely to be unprecedented?  At the very least, we may want to consider suspending our judgment till we can construct an out-of-box perspective.

Does Pallotta have such a strong ego that he let himself be blindsided?  I would say yes except that he had talented people working for and with him.  Egos do not usually groom outstanding potential successors and welcome exceptional talent.  Pallotta had several people working with him, who were equally committed to outside-of-box thinking.  Why was he blindsided?  We all are from time to time.  Were there ways in which he could have better handled the media and publicity?  With his case as an example, I am sure we can come up with some possibilities.  One approach would be to invite journalists to document some of these events, from start to finish.  Or, offer some public education seminars.  Have beneficiaries provide testimonial cases.  Have participants of past and present offer their success stories, especially how events organized by Pallotta TeamWorks differ from others.  I am sure more imaginative people can come up with better ideas.

Abstract pushes boundaries.

Abstract pushes boundaries.

What I find disheartening in this case is that facts do not speak for themselves.  For those who claim that “numbers speak for themselves,” they neglect to add, “it  depends on what numbers you want to focus on.”  It’s that pesky “socially constructed reality” playing again; what I consider to be important numbers and facts may not reflect others’ choices.  Why is it so much easier for us to embrace a medical breakthrough, or a new tech gizmo, but are suspicious of a social entrepreneur’s advocacy and even success?  It’s worthy of a dissertation, but I am more interested in your opinions.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Management Equation

Ambiguity of causality underlies most social/management issues.  Even when we detect a strong correlation, it is based on long horizons and large data sets.  Yet, we tend to blame managers for most problems and begrudge them credit for any accomplishments.  On the other hand, managers seem to claim credit all too easily and too quickly while rarely, if ever, honestly admitting their mistakes.  Of course, before we can even assign credits and mistakes, we have to define them.

For profit-making organizations, the definitions may be relatively easier to define.  Advertisement, brand recognition, defects, recalls, market share, production costs, etc…there are plenty of tools available as yardsticks for measurement.  However, when products are in the form of services, the delineation of successes and failures gets a little fuzzier, and when we go further into the R&D area, the ambiguity of causality gets even muddier.  Such complexity multiplies quickly for not-for-profit organizations and government agencies.

Badlands really mess with my mind, and I love it!

Badlands really mess with my mind, and I love it!

What lead me onto this path was a comment made by a research-scientist-turned-manager-back-to-pursuing-science, “Research is replete with mistakes and failures, so you remember that rare success.  Mistakes and failures in management impact people’s lives, so that’s what you remember, and when there are successes, you don’t know if you deserve any credit…most likely, you don’t.”  I think this is a rare individual who dares to be honest.  I was struck by the distinction.  I also wonder if similar failures/mistakes to success ratio applies to social research.  Social scientists feel elated when they get more than 35% variance explained from a multiple regression analysis that involves several variables.  So, for instance, we wonder if employees’ productivity can be explained by their (say) satisfaction with work environment, direct supervisor’s involvement (not too much), financial compensation, and promotional opportunities.  > 30% spread among four variables is a strong result!  Upon reflection, I have hardly heard of mistakes and failures in social research.  This parallels the social/management world because of the difficulty of establishing causality.

I am still trying to make some sense out of this scientist’s observation.  Are physical scientists more humble because by nature they have met many failures and mistakes in their careers?  Not from what I have observed, and I have known plenty of scientists in my life; they are human just like the rest of us, with all the foibles.  I am more intrigued by the impact of management decisions on people’s lives.  Given such impact, wouldn’t managers want to deliberate their decisions with much more care?  Not from what I have seen, heard, and observed.

The majority of managers are nice individuals, with good intentions most of the time.  Only as a collective, “trapped” in the organizations (through the labyrinth of structures, regulations, thick layers of group dynamics, etc) these managers think and behave in ways that might not always be congruent with who they are.  Either that, or they have to modify who they are in order to be comfortable in the management “suit.” Many people move into the managerial positions because they think they can use the positional power to realize their ideals.  It is probably fairly common for them to think, “I’ll improve this unit/group/division when I become the manager!”  So what happens on the way to being a manager?  “Role suction.”  This is when the force of the group dynamics largely defines the managerial role; this force is stronger than what an individual actor can do…unless and until he has a good grasp of the group dynamics in which he is immersed.

Someone once made a crude observation, upon hearing yet another reorganization scheme, “Same monkeys, different trees.”  When that company later decided to send its managers “back to the bench” and install new ones, the observation was, “Same trees, different monkeys.”  Once in the role, the newly minted manager may very well be so swamped by various pulls that she no longer has the time to review and reflect upon her original ideals.  For instance, empowerment is such a lovely concept that most intelligent managers would claim to embrace it.  Except…to execute it, to act on the desire and knowledge, requires time and patience.

So, at the bottom of the managerial ladder we find a deep pool of good intentions.


These ambiguous rock formations…and I can interpret them however I want.

I contend that precisely because managers make decisions that impact lives, it is tough for them to publically own their mistakes and failures, especially in our litigious society.  Further, since causality is so difficult to establish, it is fairly easy for managers to cover their errors.  The very ambiguity of causality, however, also allows managers to claim more credit than they really deserve because, after all, managers need external validation.

Sometimes, I just need to ruminate.  For a more thorough exposition on power and organization structure, you can explore my long series on the complex dynamics of power and intergroup dynamics (begin with this one). Till next time,

 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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