NUMMI – The Giant Moved One Foot Forward

In the Joint Venture (JV) negotiation between GM and Toyota for the NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated, link below), the labor union had to concede many of their usual taken-for-granted rights, such as seniority. Recalling the bad-to-worse workforce at the Fremont site, it would be insane for GM to rehire that same lot after closing down the plant. Yet, the UAW western region boss, Bruce Lee, felt compelled to give the same crew another chance because he believed that their poor behavior was the product of the system. However, before Lee got the green light to do so, understandably, labor saw him as someone who betrayed their trust.

Now Bruce Lee wasn’t naïve or a wide-eye idealist. He fully acknowledged the behavioral problems at the old Fremont site. He said, “It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well earned. Everything was a fight. They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly.” Still, his intuition and his understanding of the system convinced him to re-engage the same old hands. GM wouldn’t sanction doing so, but the Toyota executives believed that their system would change the workers. Of course, when Lee brought the proposal to the workers, they hated it, not least because the loss of seniority but everything was going to be different. They even vented their frustration and anger by burning a Lee effigy.

In the end, Bruce Lee held the aces: He had the jobs that the workers needed and with Toyota’s blessing he had hiring authority.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

My small step toward loosening my control in painting.

Being rehired was certainly a strong incentive for people to modify their behavior; however, a lot more was needed to sustain their willingness to transform. In retrospect, Toyota’s training groups of workers for two-week stretches in Japan was money well spent.

For the former Fremont workers, most of whom hadn’t travelled outside of California or the country, the trip to Japan was almost unnerving. Being in a totally different environment, not just the national culture but also the work culture, probably contributed dramatically to how these Americans reframed their own work attitude and changed their behavior. Not only did they learn that stopping the assembly line for trouble-shooting was encouraged, they were astounded to find themselves being asked to contribute ideas. Their opinions mattered; they possessed knowledge of how to get things done and done right. So, yes, “even” among assembly line workers, when invested with purpose, mastery, and autonomy, they could thrive and become more productive.

One related, “I can’t remember anytime in my working life where anybody asked for my ideas to solve the problem. And they literally want to know, and when I tell them, they listen, and then suddenly, they disappear and somebody comes back with the tool that I just described– it’s built– and they say, ‘Try this.’”

Underneath the excitement of new attitude and new workflow, however, lurked a sense of embarrassment. Weren’t Americans supposed to be the best? Weren’t they the leaders in this industry? Now the “little” Japanese were showing them not only how to do things differently, but even do it better? A little hurt pride sometimes can be a good boost…especially when you are given a second chance.

After two weeks of relearning and retooling, the workers from both sides had an emotional farewell dinner over sushi. Sushi! This was still in the early 80s when Americans were only beginning to appreciate this exotic cuisine. The Americans felt confident in their “new clothes.” When all of the newly trained workers returned and restarted the Fremont assembly line, they gave it their all. In December 1984, the first Chevy Nova came off the line and everyone was proud of the product. It took less than one year to establish (or, reestablish?) GM Chevy’s reputation.

Bruce Lee: “Oh, I was so proud of them, you can’t even believe. The fact that they did it didn’t surprise me that much, but how quickly they did it did. It was amazing. Here was these same people, who before– I mean, hell, they’d go out of their way to make life miserable for General Motors particularly. And, you know, they were old, they were fat. Because that was not a young workforce that we brought in there.”

By industry’s standards, such as number of defects per 100 vehicles, Fremont’s record was the best in the country. It was the same as for Toyota’s Corollas. In addition, the cost saving for GM was astounding. They had figured it’d take additional resources, probably about +50%, under the old management to get anywhere near the new record.

The title for this, "This Way Home."

The title for this, “This Way Home.”

Before NUMMI, the workers would keep their association with Fremont hidden, fearing confrontations with customers who had problems with the old vehicles. After NUMMI, one worker went around posting index cards on Novas parked on the street, with his name and address, asking for feedback. Largely positive.

So, you’d think the rest of GM plants would and should learn from NUMMI? The recent GM bankruptcy signaled to us that they didn’t. Changing a lumbering giant’s gait is just too hard. Stay tuned. Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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NUMMI – A Giant’s Atrophy

The higher rank one occupies, the harder it is to change for better/climbing higher. When you become # 1 — by whatever measurement — what’s next? This query is useful for individuals as well as organizations, but in this space, my focus will be on organizations – big, powerful, lumbering organizations.

I didn’t learn about the NUMMI case till a few months ago (from “This American Life”), but immediately recognized several management lessons. NUMMI stands for New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated; it was a joint venture (JV) between GM and Toyota, back in the early 80s. NUMMI opened in 1984 and closed in 2010. It was a success story as well as a sad failure story.whynot

Before NUMMI, the GM manufacturing plant at Fremont, California, was replete with problems, from negative attitudes to high percentages of rejected cars. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling were prevalent daily activities, right on the site. The animosity between labor and management was so deep that assembly line workers’ way of fighting management was to sabotage the cars at the line, leaving parts or Coke bottles inside the doors or omitting a few screws, etc. Both sides dug in in their power struggles; it’s as if they were living in their own self-created prisons. The dynamics exactly maps to the topmiddlebottom that I had previously described in detail. Absenteeism was rampant. On any given day, one out of five workers just didn’t show up. Mondays were the worst; there were times management couldn’t start the line.

GM had been losing market share for quite some time by then, especially in the small car market, and Japanese cars had been invading GM’s territory with quality cars. So, while top management in GM could never admit that the Japanese were turning out better cars – after all, GM had been number one in the world market for so long – they recognized that they had to do something. Toyota wanted to make further inroads in the US market, as well, to test Toyota management systems with American workers, and GM thought it might as well find out what all the fuss was about Toyota cars. In their joint venture, Toyota promised that GM would know everything about how Toyota made their cars.

Since Fremont Plant was “the worst of the bad mediocre plants in GM,” GM finally did its housecleaning. In 1982, GM laid off most of the workers and closed the plant. Next year, though, GM was in the planning phase with Toyota to reopen the plant under the JV.

Of course, not everyone in the system behaved selfishly; there were always a few diamonds in the rough. In his college days, Bruce Lee was the running back from the University of Arkansas, and had been the former UAW (United Auto Workers) Fremont chief. GM retained Lee to select a new crew for the JV. It surprised GM top management that Lee insisted on hiring back the same group of people. His reasoning? “…because I believed that it was the system that made it bad, not the people.” In the end, 85% of the new JV staff came from the old hands.

valle 2In 1984, Toyota started bringing the “old” Fremont people to Japan for training, groups of 30 at a time. The first group of Americans who went to Japan was apprehensive: How were they going to be received? Their arrival at the airport was a big news item, and the Japanese workers welcomed the Americans with gifts and smiles. There was one immediate noticeable difference: On average, the Americans were nine years older than the Japanese. Their age difference might or might not account for productivity difference; however, their physical size definitely did. Americans, being bigger than their Japanese counterparts, took an extra second or two to get in and out of the car while working on it. This added up to about 10-15% less productivity. Still, American workers could overcome this disadvantage…if they knew how.

The key in the how was in the “teamwork.” Well, there is teamwork, and there is teamwork. At the old Fremont, the team was huge, and the bosses got to dictate. At the Toyota plant, the team was of five or six people, and they would help each other, trouble-shoot together, and even stop the assembly line to correct mistakes or glitches. And all these were alien concepts to the Americans.

“Under the Toyota system, everyone’s expected to be looking for ways to improve the production process all the time, to make the workers’ job easier and more efficient, to shave extra steps and extra seconds off each worker’s job. To spot defects in the cars and the causes of those defects. This is the Japanese concept of kaizen, continuous improvement. When a worker makes a suggestion that saves money, he gets a bonus of a few hundred dollars or so.” Given my critique of “continuous improvement,” I will get into this potential problem in following posts.

At the GM plants, the cardinal rule was: You NEVER stop the line. Bruce Lee said, “You saw a problem, you stopped that line, you were fired.” Problems piled up. Even without overt sabotage, mounting numbers of rejected cars would be parked in the special lot for repairs at later times.

A veteran GM manager explained the rationale: “Because the theory was, they’ll stop it all the time. They don’t want to work, you know? They want to sit and play cards or whatever. That was a free break for them if the line stopped, so you wouldn’t give them the ability to stop the line.” This is quintessential Deficit Thinking (link). The foundation of this particular strand of thinking is one of the “bad management theories” I critiqued in my very first article.

In a way, Ford started the quantity over quality production. However, when the car was such a novelty and people weren’t terribly familiar with operating this new toy, they were willing to deal with constantly tinkering with the machine. That was way back, no longer the prevailing attitude in the 80s.

So at the Toyota plant, the Americans had to turn what they used to know and how they used to work upside down. As one American eventually learned, “Fix it now so you don’t have to go through all this stuff. That’s when it dawned on me that we can do it. One bolt. One bolt changed my attitude.” This testimony came from someone who used to pack his thermos with vodka back at GM Fremont.

tall trees

The newly trained American workers brought back new and shiny principles to the old Fremont environment and began the 2+ decades of quality production for GM…till 2010. The saga continues in the next week’s space in which I will explain how the 85% of the former workers were rehired…certainly not without protests and struggles. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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OMG! No Annual Performance Evaluation?!

Like late night TV show hosts having a heyday with political news, I take guilty pleasure in the recent rash of news and articles about workplace practices, such as the frantic pace at, the cosmic stupidity of using a work email address for an Ashley Madison account, and now, the new trend at several major corporations of eliminating annual performance reviews.  So, I will be writing in this space regularly for a little while.  I want to get into all of these topics – the story alone offers myriad of blog opportunities – but today, I’ll start discussing the ritual of the annual performance review that no one likes. Okay, there may be one person in the whole organization who likes it, the executive overseeing the performance review program.

In major organizations with more than 10,000 employees, managers spend 200+ hours a year evaluating their direct reports (average 8-10), which adds up to approximately $35 million. This quantity of time and effort competes with the rapidly growing set of other responsibilities imposed on managers. Of course, one can argue that many of the managers’ oversight responsibilities are self-inflicted, but that’s another topic. The point is that not withstanding all the time, money, and effort pouring into this annual ritual, organizations are not getting what the performance review intends – better performance from employees. In fact, “Brain research has shown that even employees who get positive reviews experience negative effects from the process. It often triggers disengagement, and constricts our openness to creativity and growth.”

How to evaluate the performance of this weird living tree?!

How to evaluate the performance of this weird living tree?!

It will not surprise the cynics among us that, despite abundant evidence for the null if not downright negative effects of performance management, at present only 10% of Fortune 500 companies have abandoned the practice, Microsoft, Metronic, Adobe, Accenture, Deloitte, to name a few. The latest that joined this growing “trend” is GE. GE now ditching the forced ranking system (which was once a trendsetting process made famous by the former CEO Jack Welch) has been viewed by many analysts as particularly significant, the potential tipping point.

I applaud abandoning the annual performance evaluation practice, but as usual, I am wary (and weary) of the “trend” or “fad” in whatever forms that replace the annual ritual. So what will be the replacement?

While most employees still need feedback, given the rapid pace of operations and technology change in today’s global economy, whatever happens in the once-a-year performance evaluation exchange is almost certainly outdated. Praise or critical remarks regarding a project done six or ten months ago carries little meaning for the employee’s current status or future development. Most companies that have replaced the annual evaluation have adopted a “just-in-time” feedback system. Many of the big organizations have their own internally developed app for instant feedback; employees (including managers) now receive feedback on the current work from both manager and colleagues. Note that one still needs to take the time to compose feedback, and the receiver still has to invest time in processing the feedback, but at least most of such feedback is (reasonably) current. And instead of a forced ranking of all employees, the practice nowadays is to judge a person’s performance against the role she assumes, and to assign salary and promotion accordingly. Kind of like “Back to the Future?!”

No practice, however thoughtfully laid out, is ever perfect. When feedback is provided anonymously, there is always the danger of platitude, sabotage, nitpicking, or just plain rudeness. After all feedback is gathered, the really nasty comments would stand out. Seeing comments radically different from the majority of other comments may warn a manager to allow a period of time to pass and determine if negativity gains additional momentum or credibility. Yes, if a person receives more negative comments than positive, that’s a strong indicator.

As I hinted earlier, the new practice doesn’t necessarily save time or money, but hopefully, the return on the “investments,” in the form of quicker feedback and in-depth conversations between manager and direct report, is a more committed, smarter, and more nimble workforce. Still, I am wary because whenever a practice becomes a trend or a fad, people are prone to doing it mindlessly. I’ll be watching this development with interest. Till next time,


 Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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HR, or No HR? That is the question…for some.

“Thank you” following action on a simple request, and “No problem” comes the reply.  Whenever I get such a response, my internal voice says, “I didn’t realize it was a problem.”  Yes, I can be picky about choice of words.  It’s the combination of the logic center of my mind and my heightened sensitivity resulting from “English as my second language.”  Of course, I wouldn’t really want to nitpick these taken-for-granted exchanges, which bear no consequences.  However, regarding other more common terms, we might make a case for the impact of their words on our collective psyche:  for example, “human resources,” or, HR.

In Mr. Bernard Marr’s thought-provoking article, with a provocative title, “Why we no longer need HR departments,” he proposes that the whole HR function should be eliminated.  Such an idea isn’t new, but is not expressed often, certainly not publically.  Of course, whenever we want to eliminate or dismantle a large apparatus, we need to be careful about where to lay the parts.  In the case of HR, where should we place all the people?  Setting aside the practicality, it is an interesting notion, isn’t?  When an organization grows, at what point do the owners begin to contemplate creating a whole new entity to handle HR functions?

Great resources, but a waste on beginners.

Great resources, but a waste on beginners.

I share with the author’s dismay for the misnomer, “human resources.”  I have often argued that a key aspect of “organization” is the web of relationships, between people, between functions or departments, between people and buildings, etc.  The relationships are the fundamental assets that move processes and create real products.  “Social capital,” relationships between and among people, comes close to describing what these relationships signify.  To regard human beings as just one part of the organizational resources, comparable to finance, equipment, or supplies, is denigrating at the very least.

Plenty of people, as indicated by many readers’ responses to Marr’s article, think that critiquing the words, “human resources,” is merely nitpicking.  Perhaps.

What’s more interesting about this article is the author’s analysis of general HR functions.  He outlines two major areas:  protector of corporate interests and advocacy for employees.  These two functions are different and too often diametrically opposed.  Of course, we can further divide the many roles and functions HR typically does, such as hiring (what happens to “firing?”), negotiating salaries, allocating health care costs, or other collective issues.  But the umbrella functional descriptions mentioned above still capture all the roles and functions.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Mr. Marr’s view to abolish HR, most of us – especially we who do not work in the HR area ourselves (more about this point below) – can appreciate that HR often seems to be schizophrenic when executing top management’s directives vs. helping with average employees’ various issues.  I am not suggesting that it’s always antagonistic between management and other employees, but they do seem to often be at crossed purposes.  Given that management is endowed with more than enough power outside of HR, I would advocate for a group (maybe “personnel department?”) dedicating itself solely to the welfare of average employees.  This isn’t about labor unions, rather about separating internal organizational functions that may be inherently conflicting.

I amused myself with reading some of the readers’ responses to Marr’s article.  The majority of the readers were downright hostile to the proposal.  Several readers commented on the author’s potential conflict of interest:  Mr. Marr is a consultant in the HR area, and often helps organizations do away with HR departments, with some successes (he wouldn’t advertise failures, would he?).  It is possible that Mr. Marr wrote this article with a self-serving purpose.  However, I can say the same thing about most readers who object to Mr. Marr’s article; they are largely associated with HR department in various organizations.

Can we ever get out of our own blinders?  What’s mine?  I welcome your feedback.

Lastly, Happy New Year (Year of the Horse)!  I am most partial to this animal among the 12-animal cycle.

Happy Year of the Horse

Happy Year of the Horse

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Are Female CEOs The Only/Best Role Model For Women?

Recent news brought to us stories of two prominent female executives of internet companies, whose decisions and publicity have stirred up some debate and reflection on women’s lives within and outside organizations.  Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” a semi-autobiography cum new feminism manifesto, offers women advice on how to advance in the corporate world by mostly evoking those dormant internal strengths.  Sandberg is the current chief operating officer for Facebook.  Marissa Mayer, the (fairly) newly appointed CEO of Yahoo and a mother of a still infant son, took the telecommuting option off the table and required all “Yahoos” (how cute!) to be physically present at offices.  Mayer’s decision wasn’t targeting women, but inevitably shifted the spotlight to many female Yahoos.

First, Mayer is the CEO with the authority to make decisions as she sees fit.  Since any changes are ultimately personal, some employees would always be unhappy.  I do question the draconian nature of this sweeping change, but it is Mayer’s call.  Most Yahoos will adjust eventually and maybe a small number will leave.  Second, and more importantly, is the purpose of this change.  Mayer claims that face-to-face interactions are more conducive to spawning creativity and more effective communications.  Is this still true in the internet age, especially in companies that were founded on internet language?  So, I wonder if the decision was based on facts and evidence.  Or, was it to demonstrate that she is tough?  Like a man!

Sandberg asserts that the next phase for the feminism movement should focus on women’s own internal motivations and strengths, rather than on external factors such as government policies and corporate practices.  She would have little quarrel with Mayer’s decision, for sure.  Currently, the buzz is less about the content of the book than Sandberg’s design for propelling her message forward.  She’ll receive MSM’s red carpet treatment for the publication of her book when it’s rolled out in mid-March, and she wants to generate many “Lean In Circles,” study groups for professional women across the country.  She sees herself as someone running a social movement.  Not surprisingly, Sandberg has been receiving both enthusiastic support and criticism.  I say “not surprisingly,” for two reasons:  1.  Women don’t think as one group!  (What identity group does?!)  This was true during the 1960’s feminism movement.  Why should it be different now?  2.  There are never clear-cut, either-or, perspectives in understanding the human psyche.  Placing emphasis on only one dimension, internal strength in this case, automatically invites controversy.

There are many discussion points on both of these two women’s latest developments, but I am sure most of you have gone through most of the pros and cons.  What has intrigued me is the point of singling out these two women as role models.

Is CEO with multimillions in personal assets the only definition of “success?”

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop...

Naturally beautiful even as petals drop…

Ms. Sandberg has a cadre of staff to help take care of her enormous house and two children.  In showing her understanding of what ordinary parents have to deal with, she related the story of finding lice on her daughter on one of her business trips.  The discovery was made on the corporate jet.  Horror!  Ms. Mayer took only 2 weeks maternity leave before heading back for work.  But she had a nursery built right next to her office, out of her own pocket.

In what ways are these outliers our role models?  In what ways can these superstars find resonance with a single mom raising two children on a medium income, without much assistance for childcare?  However much strength this single mom can muster to push for her own career and educate her children, she surely would welcome some relief from external policies.  Even mothers with true equal partners who share all chores would cherish any external assistance they can get.  In fact, both parents would appreciate assistance from outside the family.  Any relief from the daily stress (see my previous post) isn’t just for the person under stress; it’s a blessing for all whose lives are touched.

While Ms. Mayer is talented and decisive, she is not all that different from the traditional male CEOs.  That in itself is not a point of contention; but then, why should she be particularly inspiring to other women?  Does Ms. Sandberg not see the irony of her advocacy for women to rely only on their internal resolve? when the MSM’s lovefest with her has given her attention and the royal treatment for her book and her design of the “social movement?”  Who amongst us ordinary women, even with a mountain of internal strength, could have commanded such spotlight?

There has been too much emphasis on celebrity and moneyed culture in our society these days.  Want inspiring female role models?  Look at that single mom who had to work two jobs to feed her family, but eventually sent all her children to college and got herself promoted to be a supervisor (and finally shed the other job).  How about a woman, growing up on a farm, who was the first in the family to get a college education and eventually became the “teacher of the year?”  Yet another woman, raised by a truck-driving mom, got an MBA while married with a child, worked as a science writer; she had a wicked sense of humor and a heart of gold.  How about any of the female astronauts? Or female Nobel Laureates? And then, there was a woman who was abused and later abandoned by her husband.  She had only a high school education, but managed to raise four daughters on her own, sent them all to college and two got Ph.Ds, and eventually left a small legacy to her children.  The list has no end of such unsung heroines.

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting...but beautiful still?!

Dramatization certainly makes it interesting…but beautiful still?!

Folks, discrimination crumbles in the presence of ego and self-aggrandizement.  Pretty women are just as unattractive wearing ego and/or self-aggrandizement as men.  Meaningful feminism is about being free/freer, rather than being bounded by convention and defined by wealth.

Emulating the superficial aspects is simultaneously easy, uninspiring and crippling.  Dig deeper and soak up the complexity; a little luck from external assistance may go quite a way.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Feeling Threatened By Creative Ideas?

Whenever I propose that people, of all ranks, take some time to reflect, to chill, to converse with children, to play, or for heaven’s sake, to eat a lunch without reading  memos or emails, I know how difficult it is to actually do any of these activities.  The people at the lower rank can’t do so comfortably without the ‘permission’ of management or the safety-in-numbers provided by colleagues.  If the proposal comes from the people in the positions of authority, some of these managers may feel as if they are imposing yet another “activity” (even if it’s just for fun and relaxation) onto their direct reports who have already exhausted their discretionary time.  Such is organizational life these days.  But the paradox of life is that the more you think you can’t do something outside of the regular domain, that’s precisely when you really need to engage in something not directly or wholly related to work.

Aberration, playfulness, or exploration into the unexpected terrain…these are the bedrocks for creativity and innovation.  But…

The success/failure of creative and innovative measures in organizations are all related to implementation, or the lack of it.  It’s a form of the Knowing-Doing Gap to which I referred in my earlier post.  To begin with, creative and innovative ideas signal potential changes which are generally viewed with skepticism at best and downright hostility at worst.  However, those who are directly responsible for generating the new ideas and/or pushing for the implementation do not themselves experience skepticism or hostility (toward the validity of such an idea).  This provides one glaring clue:  Involve as many people in the changing process as early as possible.

Ideas machine

Ideas machine (Photo credit: yesyesnono)

Second, creative and innovative ideas are anathema to organizations which are, at their core, about orders, procedures, rules, predictability, etc.  Just putting the words “creativity/innovation” in the organization’s mission statement means zilch; it’s just paying lip services.

But more importantly, we need to ask some basic questions:  Do we really know how to recognize a creative/innovative idea when someone presents it to us?  Is there a framework to assess such potential idea(s)?  If it’s in the scientific or technical arena, there may be more guidelines and signposts by which to judge the idea and the consequences of its implementation.  But if it’s in the managerial domain of personnel, relationships, emotional assessments, etc., that is much harder to assess.

Markus Baer in a recently published study, “Putting Creativity to Work:  The Implementation of creative ideas in organizations” (Academy of Management Journal, 2012, vol. 55, No.5, 1102-1119) provides some insightful analysis of why creative ideas are rarely implemented and suggests some pathways to achieve more frequent implementation.

Putting Baer’s points plainly, managers are generally reluctant to implement potentially creative ideas because that would upset the routines of production.   And managers are responsible for production output, or so we believe.  What’s more, if the idea-bearers themselves do not push the ideas further for implementation, their ideas will remain just intriguing thoughts on paper.

Therefore, for creative and innovative ideas to blossom into fruition, the idea-bearer needs to be motivated and to mobilize her/his social network toward implementation.  Further, the idea-bearer needs to especially cultivate network ties who not only will buy in the value of the idea but have the authority and power to advance such an idea for implementation.  Once an innovative/a creative idea is conceived –by no means a small matter – the pathway to implementation is fraught with typical political maneuvering.  Those who are good at creating ideas are not necessarily equipped with political acumen or social skills for such maneuvering.  However, a highly motivated individual with an innovative idea still can find a champion or two to push for implementation.  Of course, even finding a champion requires powerful convincing and persuasion, not a small task either.

A social network diagram

A social network diagram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In scientific organizations, many idea-bearers are introverts, who while motivated may not be comfortable with networking.  This does not mean it’s hopeless for them; they can rely on writing as a persuasive tool and focus on only a handful of people who are in positions of power to help implement their ideas.

In other words, implementation process is boring and messy and yet terribly and utterly necessary and essential to realize a creative idea.

And all this doesn’t address the forces that oppose potentially creative and innovative ideas.   What would some people of authority and power do when faced  with “perceived threats” posed by innovation/creativity.  After all, to some, changes mean upsetting the status (quo).

In sum, when a creative/innovative idea occurs, it cannot be just about the idea-bearer’s motivation and networking ability in implementing the idea.  For every action, there is a reaction, or counter-action.  The idea-bearer and her network ties have to be keenly aware of not just the usual obstacles but also the opposition of “no.”

But finally, I still go back to those basic questions:  Do we know how to recognize a creative/an innovative idea? Enough to make sustained pushes?  Do you know how?  Please share.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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It’s Hard To Avoid Talking About Sandy

About the hurricane, I will say this:  I hope the recovery and rebuilding will put people’s lives on track in an orderly and speedy manner.

One of the many lessons from the storm for organizations:  During calm periods, we build our foundation, assets, and most important, relationships.  When crisis comes — and one can always count on some crisis coming — we will be better equipped to weather the crisis and maybe even move toward a better future.

Plenty of work units, organizations, managers, and employees seem to experience crises daily, weekly or bi-weekly.  Where would they find the time to “simply build” when they constantly oscillate between managing the latest crisis and catching up after it?  Embedded in all the managing crises, and catching-up work afterwards are the continuing power plays and politicking.  And if one needs to rely on politicking to solve and manage crises…it’s a self-referencing downward spiral.

On the recovery efforts on hurricane Sandy, Jon Stewart in the 10/31 Daily Show said it well, “Once you remove political and partisan gamesmanship from the situation, performance improves dramatically.”  He gave that segment the name of “Institutional Competence.”  Sounds oxymoronic, but it can happen when the situation becomes dire.

If only Sandy can be this “gentle…”

However, I have to concede that playing power games is fundamental to human nature.  So, to rid of any political gamesmanship, in politics or in organizations and in many cases in families, is unrealistic.  My point is not to advocate the impossible: Let’s stop playing politics.  What I propose is:  Be mindful of our desire to use power, and be especially mindful of how we use power and for what purposes.  It’s easy to hide behind a highfalutin disclaimer, “I hate playing politics,” or, “I avoid power plays.”  It is a lot more helpful if we embody and increase the level of self-awareness.  When we are aware of where we are going and what we want – and are brutally honest about this – we are less likely to create painful obstacles for others.

Parallel to the lesson from Sandy, we need to be constantly updating our infrastructure; this includes building and maintaining relationships for organizations…as well as actual buildings and equipments.  We know this, but we keep finding excuses for not doing it.  Time to revisit the knowing-doing gap lessons.

An afterthought – not original – what if all the millionaires and billionaires who have contributed so heavily to the current election contributed instead to building our nation’s infrastructure?

Right now, Sandy’s victims have enough painful reminders all around them.  I hope as recovery efforts continue, the political officials will continue to keep their power plays in check.

Till next time, a calmer time I hope…

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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