Monday, December 27, 2010

Which Priority First? The Adjacent Possible.

The best laid plans....

It's that time of year for personal goal-setting. Similarly many new strategic plans are set in motion or get updated. But, it is always a challenge to determine what to do first. Everything seems to be a priority.

I discovered a term from biology called "adjacent possible" when reading Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From that helps in choosing which big thing to do before another. As he explains, "the adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can re-invent itself."

But, only certain changes can happen first. In simpler terms, it's like being in a room with four doors where one door is the best possible to open. The others lead nowhere "on the edges of the present" either because it's too soon for them to be opened or they never were a good idea.

However, once a door is opened the boundaries change and the next big thing might be different than you conceived it to be back in time. A new "adjacent possible" is before you, as if you were on a continuous exploration.

So, what does this mean for setting priorities? Current mind research indicates that we can focus only on about four big ideas at a time. So, narrow down your priorities to something manageable. Then, choose the one which "hovers closest on the edge of the present". The one that will help all the others along.

Project management types might call this breaking things down into milestones or smaller steps. Yes, that's true. But, this is really about what path to choose in the first place before breaking it down further or making a work plan or road map. The priority determines the path. The path shifts the world as you explore.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Does fact-free leadership have to be a common fact of life?

I am a scientist at heart. Being curious all my life, I have pondered big questions and small. For example, if the universe did not exist, would there be nothing? But, what is nothing? Stephen Hawking and many other physicists have enlightened me somewhat but the nature of the universe still seems highly mysterious to me.

OK. That’s a little deep. Nevertheless, I get pretty riled up if it’s obvious that our leaders, particularly those in the political realm, fail to be like a scientist exploring all relevant facets of a situation.

For example, I watched an interview of Lawrence Martin recently about his book Harperland. He could hardly contain his exasperation at the extent to which under Stephen Harper’s leadership facts in any realm are routinely ignored, unless they align with his view. The foundation of Martin’s training in journalism is to seek the truth as it is currently understood and verify with multiple sources. Although knowledge is always in flux, looking for the best of what we know is a fairly good strategy for anyone, including those in leadership and management positions. Otherwise we risk going down pathways that can come back to haunt us.

Lawrence’s bottom line is that democracy is weakened when our political leaders do not pay attention to evidence when shaping policy and strategy. Since organizations in which we work are of necessity becoming more democratic in order to manage risk, innovate and survive, “fact-free” leadership at the political level let alone in an organization can cause unnecessary problems. Not being democratic in approach as a leader seems odd and out of synch with the prevailing view that leaders and managers benefit from being “adaptive” in light of “swampy” problems.

Much has been written on the role of personal bias in decision-making. It plagues us all and is particularly dangerous in organizations as numerous management researchers have documented. While we have some companies that are hundreds of years old, such as The Bay, Stora and Twinings, most fail in 50 years or less (Aries de Geus, The Living Company). Poor decision making is at the root of most failures.

Our cultural upbringing, education and experiences over time all conspire to blind us. To make good decisions requires hard work and time usually though teamwork. As we perpetually live in time-constrained environments and are faced with a vast universe of conflicting knowledge, it is easier to fall back on conventional wisdom until something disrupts it.

So, how do we test conventional wisdom before it boxes us in? How can we challenge our biases when we are not even sure what they are?

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in their classic book, The Uses of History for Decision Makers offer a methodology:

1. What do you know?

2. What is unknown?

3. What are you presuming?

4. What is the situation like (from past history)?

5. How does the situation differ from others in the past?

6. What is the action supposed to accomplish?

After studying decisions both good and bad made by American Presidents in the 20th century, Neustadt and May concluded that past conditions can offer clues to future possibilities. Look back to look ahead, so to speak. A little bit of critical thinking can go a long way towards better decision making.

The ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving is one of the seven basic skills most often cited by educators for students to succeed in the knowledge economy according to Tony Wagner, a Harvard-based education expert and author of The Global Achievement Gap. Two others are collaborating across networks and curiosity with imagination. These apply equally well to the desired skills for people in the workplace especially for managers and leaders.

Fact-filled leadership with imagination will certainly help fill the global achievement gap. Einstein was right when he said that “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than the solution”. But this cannot happen without an open mind which counterbalances “fact-free” leadership.

It turns out that such openness can enlighten us, educate us and, as a consequence, change our minds. Such a journey is transformative or in Nelson Mandela’s words, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world”. It is also a daily endeavour.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Rage to Master. Do You Have It?

We inherit and we also become.

---David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us

As David Shenk so clearly points out, “talent is not a thing. It’s a process”. But it is so ingrained in our culture that geniuses are born, talent is scarce and there’s only so much you can change. Is this why we have to search far and wide for great managers and leaders? Is that why when we ask ourselves, “Who was the best boss you ever had?” we can usually come up with one but not two or more?

It turns out that we can all become more than we are IF we are intensely motivated to do so. Instead of the “nature: nurture” argument, “dynamic development” is the new paradigm for talent and well-being. Mediocrity need not be our destiny.

Since talent is a process, it can flower at any time in a person’s life. If you manage a team or larger you can become more effective at inspiring others to greater heights. If you are a parent, you can coach your children to reach beyond where they are now. The caveat is that you must work on developing yourself at the same time. We learn from those who are masters in their own right.

The only way is through “deliberate practice”, a term coined by Anders Ericcson and his colleagues to explain that talent is not the cause but the result of something. Read: lots of hard work and practice for hours on end interspersed with many failures on the road to greater success and mastery.

But how can you stoke your fires and those around you? How can you ramp up your “rage to master”, that “never-let-go willfulness and focus” to grow?

Here are some tips from the researchers on helping children develop. They resonate for adults too:
  • Nurture and encourage: turn up the volume and the frequency of positive and genuine feedback to create an environment of possibility;
  • Set high expectations as we develop to what the environment demands;
  • Embrace failure as a time to learn rather than as a built in limitation;
  • Encourage the growth mindset in each and every person. Open up their minds to the reality that their abilities are not fixed but are “malleable” and can develop with practice

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Broaden-and-Build": Positive Emotions are a Means to Many Useful Ends

Nothing is good or bad.
But thinking makes it so.

Shakespeare’s astute observations of the impact of how we think are as relevant today as four centuries ago. The “good” or “bad” show up as positive or negative emotions about an event. As thoughts determine our emotions and emotions drive motion, how we think matters. Good decisions depend on how we deal with the emotions associated with the issues at hand. Managers beware! You hold the emotional environment in your hands. Individuals beware! Your personal success depends on seeing the glass half full.

Environmentalists know this so well. Despite the proven reality of global warming and the detrimental impact of our throw-away society on the environment, our concerns far outstrip our actions to save the planet. The problem, according to branding experts, is that we don’t respond well to negative messages, especially those that seem beyond our reach. Futerra Sustainability Communications in its “Branding Biodiversity: The New Nature Message” offers these key messages to justify a positive approach to engaging people to act responsibly with respect to the environment:
  • Loss is all about extinction.
  • Love is all about awe and wonder at nature.
  • Need is the economic benefit of nature.
  • Action is messages that ask us to do something.

Futerra emphasizes that people have to be inspired and to see how they can act locally, within their own day-by-day realms.

Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory of positive emotions speaks to this. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher argues that “positive emotions… produce optimal functioning, not just within the present, pleasant moment, but over the long-term as well”. Positive emotions help people to engage and by association to produce more satisfactory, quality outcomes.

Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who specializes in creativity (what it is, how it is squelched or nurtured), would agree. Her considerable research on how “affect” relates to creativity at work points over and over again to the same conclusions: “Creative activity appears to be an affectively charged event” influencing “task quality, productivity and efficiency”. Why? The positive feelings make us more open to exploring novelty.

While there is a role for negative emotions in our lives (for example, spurring us to quick action under sudden life-threatening situations), positive emotions build our personal resilience and resources. They literally widen our moment-by-moment array of thoughts-to-actions tool kit. Hence they increase the probability of achieving better results at whatever we are up to. Fredrickson calls this ability of positive emotions to open us up to more possibilities “the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions”.

What are the positive emotions that make up a “broaden-and-build” supply? Four primary ones stand out:
  1. Joy spurs us on to play (unscripted), to reach beyond what we know and to look for creative options. It promotes skill acquisition.
  2. Interest urges us to explore, be open to new experiences, possibilities and information. It spurs us on to investigate. Interest adds to our knowledge base.
  3. Contentment is related to tranquility and serenity, savouring current life circumstances and recent successes. We feel more "together". The result is often a new sense of self and a new world view.
  4. Love, which is a combination of many emotions sparked by safe, close relationships, generates the joy and interest precursors of action.
Fredrickson also mentions pride and gratitude as important catalysts of broadening and building enduring adaptability. The latter can be developed simply by writing down each day three to five reasons why we are grateful.

The impact of positive emotions are their greatest legacy: when life takes a turn for the worst, as it does on a regular basis, the personal resources accrued from practicing and creating positive emotions enable us to face any “threats” and “survive” well through the event.

Fredrickson sees this durability as evolutionary. When our ancestors faced threats to life and limb their greater individual resources improved their odds of survival and thus the opportunity to reproduce.

What is the key message for individuals? Work hard every day at seeing the silver lining in life’s encounters. The subsequent thought-to-emotion-to-motion chain reaction will build personal resilience and as a consequence a path of greater success and satisfaction than not.

Organizational survival is no different. Managers play a huge role in creating the context for positive emotions to take hold, multiply and feed innovation and well-being. One easy way is to support employees in making progress in their work every day. That feeling of progress produces “powerfully positive emotions”!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Upside to Tiger's Legacy

Good judgment comes from experience.

Experience comes from bad judgment.

---Oscar Wilde

The rich and powerful have an extra burden to bear: resisting the temptations that easily come their way and in so doing demonstrating to others strength of character. If fame comes early in life, such as in the case of Tiger Woods, the test of character is even more difficult. It’s easy to get “messed up” if the normal process of growing up is interrupted. If parents and significant others around a young person get caught up in the “not normal” environment, checks and balances becomes endangered species. The same applies in an organization. If a boss’s “bad” behaviour is allowed to run amok wreaking emotional havoc among employees, “good” character takes a back seat to “anything goes”. The collateral damage is considerable.

In the early days of my career in the health field debate raged about who was responsible for personal health. The individual? The system? A combination? Stop “blaming the victim” loomed large among the proponents that it’s the system that does it. Other more hard-nosed pundits and researchers said flat out that when push comes to shove the individual is responsible. In the end, the consensus is that both matter. Which is more important depends on the situation.

With Tiger, something went awry in the development of his value-system. He joined a burgeoning group of sports celebrities, politicians and CEOs who have lost their way and been found out. The system of support that Tiger had, whatever it was, was insufficient to help him self-correct.

The upside to Tiger’s downfall is the lesson for the younger generation of golfers. Although his ex-wife Elin Nordegren professes to have been totally unaware of his infidelities, you can bet that within the golf community the guys knew but kept their counsel. That the most famous athlete in the world who happens to be a pro golfer can be caught and fall from grace leaves a strong message for all up and coming young pro golfers and athletes in general: watch your values and habits. They could come back to haunt you.

Thoughts and habits do define one’s character. We all have a choice and it helps to have a few stern friends along the way.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three Ways to Improve Group Brainstorming

Brainstorming has come under heavy criticism by academics in recent years. Originally developed by Alex Osborn in 1953, his promise to turn groups into creative idea-producers has not lived up to the hype. Current research repeatedly shows that although people might feel more creative in a group, the raw number of ideas developed and the originality of those ideas are consistently inferior to individuals working alone.

Yet, groups are a necessary part of working life, to innovate, make decisions and get work done. What can be done then to improve the quantity and quality of the ideas within a group setting?

Build in Time for Individual Thinking

When our minds have time to wander, ideas bubble up. Common answers to the question, “Where and when do you get your best ideas?” are driving the car, the shower or bathtub, walking, reading or noticing something that triggers an idea for something completely unrelated.

How can we duplicate this in the workplace?

The key is to provide some structure for reflecting on a problem by allowing each person in the group time to ponder in advance of the meeting. A pre-group meeting worksheet of open-ended questions is one tool, to be filled out voluntarily. If provided well in advance, ideas will have time to percolate even when a person is not actually filling in the questionnaire The ideas generated will be more in number and novelty and can be drawn upon throughout the group discussion.

Be Open to and Encourage Dissent

We have a tendency to bend to the loudest voices in a group or the consensus too early without considering a variety of options. That undermines the eventual quality of the decisions.

But, if a group deliberately takes time to respect a minority view, premature adoption of an idea is offset. Some studies show that it takes only one “authentic” dissenter to reduce conformity by two-thirds. That doesn’t mean someone should be a “devil’s advocate” for the sake of it. The easy way to manufacture dissent is for someone in the group to encourage members to challenge assumptions, to take a “360 view” of the situation.

Try Speedstorming

Speedstorming is a structured social interaction something like speeddating. It has been used successfully by researchers at a conference or other such group meetings to find potential collaborators. Since two to three people often create more ideas mainly because they have more “air time” than in a larger group, speedstorming could be one way to structure an exploration for good ideas and solutions for any situation.

Imagine pairs of chairs in a line facing each other equating to the number of persons in the group. A person is seated in each chair. For five minutes each person-pair shares ideas about a particular dilemma or goal, preferably developed by each individual in advance of the initial pairing. Each person adds to her own list. “Aha’s” are noted. Then, one person moves while the other stays seated and the exercise is repeated.

After the exercise, reconvene the group or groups for a fresh look at the challenge with many more ideas at hand.

These three methods and variations thereof help to focus a search for new and useful ideas, lessen the tendency to “group think” and mute the growth of an “us and them” dynamic. They enhance what Alex Osborn and other creativity experts know is fundamental to “thinking outside the box”: generating ideas (diverging) and assessing them (converging). The updated twist is two-fold: provide conditions for individual thinking whenever possible (or at least in pairs or triads) and let in/weave in the “dissenting” notions as they arise. The hard and fast rule of not judging while creating actually reduces the quantity and quality of ideas.

Combining Individual and Group Thinking

Fighting group think


Friday, July 23, 2010

How to reduce government:scare away the young folks

It's walking the fine line of being a positive leader of the federal public service, but at the same time pushing them and not being captive to them.

---Stephen Harper, CBC Radio Interview

Watch what you wish for, as the saying goes. The fine leadership line has to be the right one and one of the styles clearly unworkable for Gen X and Y is not “my way or the highway” or something mushy called “positive leadership”. They want the right kind of leadership at the right time, often characterized by “What do you think?” or “What do you know?” or “How can we get to this exciting goal?”. Come to think of it, so do baby boomers. But, they are already captive and awaiting their pensions.

The latest skirmish between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and federal civil servants on the Stats Canada long survey (now to be made voluntary which messes up the reliability of the data) illustrates to the younger generations that only the submissive should apply to the federal government for a job. It’s a brilliant strategy by a leader who wants to downsize without having to pay the costs of letting people go. Decide what you want in advance. Pretend that you have consulted. Pay no attention to any contrary evidence. Stare down the protesters, many of whom are experts in their fields about the matter in question. Do what you want anyway. The downsizing takes care of itself quite tidily. Speeds up the numbers who can retire but haven’t. Scares off any talented folks, especially the young, who want to make a difference.

Gen X and Gen Y want to be involved in decision-making, want to feel that their opinions count and most certainly to have fun. A dictatorial culture of fear is not on their checklist as a nice place to work. Further, as a highly educated bunch, they know a thing or two about “the truth”. The evidence from research does merit serious consideration in the decision making process. Debate, dissent and “brainstorming” help steer the path to solutions that have lasting value.

All generations and cultures value authoritative leadership: being visionary and passionate about a cause, valuing teamwork and getting the job done. Few like authoritarian leadership as it muffles wonderful talent and the potential for great innovation. Stephen Harper may only have meant that his opinion matters too and that he should be "authoritative" as a leader. But, in practice, his fine line seems to be bending toward "push" than "positive".

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Longer View on Change

How long change does take! With starry eyes way back when Canada and I were younger, I envisioned progress as a given. My mother, Margie, a fighter for all things unfair, had infused me with hope and possibilities. Surely the only way was up. But not so fast!

Well, on the whole, we are making progress: more democracies worldwide, more educated women in developed countries, many communicable diseases long gone, lower crimes rates, an acceptance that we have something to do with global warming, an African-American U.S. President and growing cross-cultural understanding everywhere. Much to celebrate.

But, wait. In developed countries, although women outnumber men in university, men still are the majority in leadership positions and hold most of the wealth, as Michael Adams, President of Environics reports. Many studies contend that women still do the majority of household tasks (that could be a key reason for women not being in many boardrooms!). In urban Canada, multiculturalism reigns but the sea of leadership faces is still largely white (my observations). Vaclav Smil, author of Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, estimates that a global pandemic is a 100% certainty in the not too distant future. He also says that it will take about 50 years to wean ourselves off fossil fuels on a large scale. Even David Suzuki, Canada’s foremost environmental evangelist is resigned to the slow pace of change!

So, I get it: change is non-linear and takes far more time than we expect. As with climate change, weather is erratic yet we can detect patterns in the climate over long periods of time and plan accordingly. Being adept at adapting and monitoring how to adapt and shape some events are the aces up our sleeves. As long as we have patience: this may take 100 years or more!

I now know what the book What We Believe But Cannot Prove means. Our day-to-day beliefs come from established theories but what about beliefs based on theories in progress?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The "Tender Beast" in Stephen Harper---His "Big Shaggy"---Isn't Being Felt Much

You can’t understand twenty-first- century politics with an eighteenth century brain.

---George Lakoff, The Political Mind

Descartes’ theory of humans wasn’t quite right. We use emotion to reason and we can’t always be reasonable. How we emote and reason---about 98 per cent--- happens unconsciously. Seasoned political and non-political leaders know this well. But, it can backfire.

As a presenter at the 20th World Conference on Disaster Management on the interplay of charisma, character and confidence in defining a leader’s impact, I conducted an informal survey of my audience. I asked participants to rate on a scale of ten the charisma of ten well-known political leaders, six men and four women, eight of whom are still alive.

Although I flashed a PPT slide of Harper smiling and holding a cuddly kitten, he came in dead last with an almost unanimous rating of zero. Well a couple of people gave him a 1. All others were rated four or better no matter their political persuasion. What’s going on?

George Lakoff in The Political Mind argues that “conservatives” generally operate in a strict parent mode: obedience, authority, discipline and punishment. They value order and don’t like ambiguity. On the other hand, “progressives” on the whole appeal to the nurturing parent model: empathy, responsibility for oneself and empowerment to carry out those responsibilities. They don’t mind chaos and see complexity a lot. Of course there are many who are in-between too. Prime Minister Harper comes across more “conservative” than “progressive”. This despite having implemented what some believe on both sides to be “progressive” policies in certain areas.

In this “Contextual Age” in which we now live, as coined by Daniel Pink where collaboration reigns supreme out of necessity, Stephen Harper’s mindset and subsequent style appear to be out of synch. Sometimes, striking the fear of reprisal into the hearts of people is necessary, especially in an emergency. But, as a daily default, “Big Shaggy” style---not effective.

The participants, from a variety of disciplines, were adamant: Harper is rigid, cold, inflexible, controlling and so on. If charisma is about being “inspiring”, “passionate”, “visionary” and “having a cause”, Stephen Harper simple does not rate.

I don’t think he’s worried either. But, maybe he should be. The management literature is replete with failed leaders who did not connect with people on a positive emotional level. Like damaging the environment, in the long run, it is unsustainable.

Related resources and Blog:

David Brooks (June 7, 2010). “History for Dollars”, New York Times. 

Daniel Pink (2005). A Whole New Mind.

Linda Pickard. (July 29, 2009). “The Jen Ratio: A More Nuanced View of Emotional Intelligence for Leaders”.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Southwest Airlines Lightened Weighty Issues

There’s no love from most airlines when it comes to slightly overweight luggage. The fees get slapped on even for a pound, unless the ticket agent takes pity. And that’s rare. Can you blame them with the price of oil, volcanic eruptions from Iceland and such? But, all airlines are not equal. Why is Southwest Airlines far more flexible than others?

Other airlines just don’t get customer loyalty the way Southwest Airlines does.

Our son’s “overweight” luggage fees in one month this year reached an all time high of almost $500.00 U.S. That’s not counting the cost of the tickets. Granted he’s a touring golf pro who criss-crosses the States with a bag of golf clubs plus his normal luggage in which he says he carries “his life”. But, no matter his efforts to economize, if a pound or three overweight he got “dinged”. Even when he was forced to stay overnight part way to his destination due to mechanical problems, the particular airline insisted on charging him. Again, this is not ten pounds overweight per piece of luggage but one to three pounds. You can imagine the customer experience at the ticket counter. Not much laughing going on.

Faced with the intractability of the airlines, our son vowed to re-examine every bit of his packing to get the weight down. He bought a bigger back pack (still within regulations) so that he could “carry on” his golf balls and shoes. He bought new luggage that “looked” lighter. He pared his clothes down and his toiletries. He weighed his luggage before going to the airport and thought he’d nailed it this time.

Despite his extensive travelling during his amateur golf years while at university and as a new pro, our son had never booked with Southwest Airlines. But, because of attractive prices and Southwest’s availability, he decided to give it a go. He was still almost a pound overweight for his golf clubs and his regular luggage. But SW waived overweight fees. Plus when he changed a flight a few days later, there were no change fees. Now that IS a new experience!

Customer loyalty is a deep experience of something not felt before.

The relief at having a reasonable ticket agent making sensible decisions was almost a shock. Customer loyalty? Our son is “in”. To seal his warm feelings for SW, he had David Holmes, a “rappin’ fight attendant, belting out the usually boring flight instructions.

Southwest Airlines excels at relationships.

Jody Hoffer Gittell, an assistant professor at Brandeis University studied Southwest Airlines in depth after 9/11. She wanted to better understand why it “has a consistent record of profitability and performance in a turbulent industry”. In her 2003 book, The Southwest Airlines Way, she explains that the differentiating factor between SW and other airlines is a focus on relationships: shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect, timely problem solving dialogue among employees and always “leaning toward the customer”. Other airlines have, for the most part, been unable to replicate this.

Quite frankly, I have expected the penny to drop since then and Southwest Airlines to succumb to the incessant turmoil and spiraling costs in the industry. SW hasn’t been without controversy, most recently when it booted out Kevin Smith, a filmmaker, because he was too fat for one seat. But, when Kevin, who has over a million followers tweeted his distress, the airline went overboard to fix matters with him through multiple tweets to him, an apologetic blog and some fence-mending on booking a flight.

How many customers did SW gain (versus lose) with the handling of this incident?

We are social beings and thrive or not on relationships. Southwest Airlines at the least understands this and strives to build bonds whenever it can. Individual employees at other airlines do so too. But they don’t quite have the strong culture supporting them as do employees at SW. In an imperfect world, focusing on relationships like teamwork and customized problem-solving on the front-line are not easy, especially when the bottom line is a constant worry (and some customers can be difficult).

Yet, ironically, the soft touch helps the bottom line.

Related blogs:

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Architecture of Talent: Myelin Makes Perfect

Skill is insulation that wraps around neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.

---Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Why do we admire talent?
Highly talented persons are awesome to behold. They fill our minds and bodies with joy, amazement, admiration, and quite often relief because they cracked the intractable problem we were facing for which we wanted their help. They make our lives easier, guide us through the jungle, entertain and uplift us with their prowess and often simplify the complex world in which we live. The superhighways in their brains sheathed in myelin, the insulator of nerve cells and facilitator of speedy transmission of impulses, enable their expertise to shine through unconsciously. This is not innate. They have built their skills step by step over many years through “deep practice” or “deliberate practice”, Anders Ericsson’s term for operating at the edges of our ability and reaching further through targeted practice.

Deep or deliberate practice which generates and sustains top talent is not yet in the “DNA” of organizations
We could do with more attention to “myelin-building” in organizations, especially in developing stronger managers and leaders or individual contributors who must participate in teams and relate well to customers and stakeholders. Most of us have experienced a “deep practice” world throughout our formal education. Through a succession of courses and multiple years of “training” our expertness in a particular professional or technical domain flourished. Thereafter, despite the continuing education requirements of our respective associations, a growing body of research indicates that we tend to plateau or deteriorate, unless the circumstances of our jobs enable the right kind of expertise development.

Scientists and educators have been tweaking the “deliberate practice” phenomenon for about 150 years
In the last ten years or so, a proliferation of popular press authors has brought academia out of the closet enriching our understanding of the nature versus nurture debate. They include Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated) and David Shenk (The Genius in All of Us) among others. It is now clear: we can “nurture” our talents if we attend to the process in a certain way. Our raw natural capabilities are much more malleable than hitherto believed in the 20th century.

It’s rather scary and exciting: the architecture of our brains is in our hands. The thoughts we choose and the practices we implement send signals to our “living brain”. Since nerves that fire together stay together, the more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes the circuit.

The “deep practice” technique is straightforward, but execution cannot be done in isolation
The “sweet spot”, as Daniel Coyle calls the “uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities where our reach exceeds our grasp”, can be developed with four easy steps:

  1. Pick a target
  2. Reach for it
  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach
  4. Return to step one.
Sounds simple, but what target? And, how can you truly evaluate what you are doing? The goal is always self-sufficiency and being your own coach. However, outside coaching is almost always necessary to “scaffold” a person to another deeper level of knowing and skill. Educators are well aware of impact of the “scaffolding” technique such that they routinely use it as a support structure to help their students master a task or concepts. In addition to educators, coaches of sports teams, elite musicians and artists, who intuitively “scaffold” their emerging prodigies, are soaking up the overflowing research on the “architecture of talent” and testing it in the playing field and the classroom. Thanks to the “bridge” writers between academia and the real world, the blueprint for expanding the talent pool is seeping into organizational life too. But, at a snail’s pace in comparison. Deliberate practice is a heavy investment in time and effort for any person. If you are a leader-manager, your commitment to “deep learning” can make a significant difference to your performance as a master coach and by association that of your team. To achieve such exceptional skill means terrible difficulties along the way. Are you ready for such a sacrifice? Related blogs:

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The New Tiger as Anti-Hero: The Fall of a Superman, the Rise of a Human

Virtue is not a necessary qualification for heroic status,

---Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Heroes: Saviors, Traitors and Supermen

George Bernard Shaw warned us long ago to “beware of the pursuit of the Superhuman”. His rationale: “It leads to an indiscriminate contempt for the Human”. Are we now in danger of vilifying Tiger Woods because he is only “human”? Or, are we ready to see a different kind of hero emerge, not in our eyes but in his?

Tiger’s fall has shaken the equilibrium of golf, the industry as a whole, the players within, the sponsors and anyone else with a stake in the business. When once we admired Tiger’s confidence and mastery at a game that drives most people to distraction, we now have to re-evaluate our “hero”. Yesterday’s metrics don’t apply.

The history of heroism is replete with scoundrels and truly good people who have risked life and limb to advance society. For both, their extraordinary gifts often raise their level of moral peril because of the bubble in which they live. As Aristotle once wrote, “There is no law which embraces men of that caliber. They are themselves the law”. Heroes must call on their moral instinct. Unfortunately in Tiger’s case it failed him.

When asked by a reporter in his first news conference since his demise in November 2009 and before the 2010 Masters if he really knew what he was doing, Tiger professed he did not. He was duping himself and duping everyone else. How could that be so?

In Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, Mark Hauser, professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, argues that we have evolved a moral instinct. It is more like growing a limb than being told by government or a religious institution or our parents what to do. It is a universal moral grammar that grows within each child to make rapid judgments about what is morally right or wrong: not to kill, lie, steal or break promises. It is instinctive, innate and unconscious.

In Professor Hauser’s view, “the role of experience is to instruct the innate system, pruning the range of possible moral systems down to one distinctive moral signature”. So it is for Tiger, although painful, that he has done some pruning in recent months to reveal more clearly to himself what he stands for and how he wants to conduct his life.

Tiger now is conscious about his moral signature. He has awakened from a not knowing place. He speaks of returning to his Buddhist roots which quite likely have far greater meaning for him now. As someone who has practiced tens of thousands of hours mastering golf, he has only begun the practice of a new moral signature.

The famous physicist David Bohm viewed health and wholeness as one and the same. He also acknowledged that the journey to wholeness is not easy: “Man has sensed that wholeness of integrity is an absolute necessity to make life worth living. Yet, over the ages, he has generally lived in fragmentation”.

Tiger has had two selves. He is working on one. No superman anymore. But truly more Human.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Margie's Mad: Loblaws Has Dumped Too Much Labour on Her Shoulders

After paying $80.00 at the Loblaws Superstore checkout, Margie had to bag her own groceries. She was not in the 1 to 8 item so-called fast checkout line. Just a regular line where she expected regular service.

When Margie objected, she was told it was for efficiency’s sake, to get more customers through. Margie was downright enraged. First, she objected to doing work for Loblaws so that it could be more efficient after having handed over $80.00. Secondly, she suggested that having roving packers would be very efficient while customers are otherwise engaged keeping the process moving and paying the bill.

With other customers glaring at her for making such a fuss, she asked to see the manager. But she answered her demand at the same time as the cashier said out loud: “the manager is in a meeting”. Thought so. The stand-off ended with Margie being given a contact number for head office.

The customer service representative showed no sympathy. That’s the policy and that’s that! When Margie suggested that the Galen Weston Sr. and Mrs. Weston would never have to pack their own bags, the representative went bureaucratic chiding Margie for mentioning their names. No sense of humor there.

The only exception, Margie was told, was for seniors and the disabled. Now that really sent Margie into another tailspin as she feels quite strongly that neither of those groups should be singled out as “victims”.

Margie, as with the cashier, got nowhere with the customer service rep. Even when she said that will be the last time she will shop at the Superstore, it mattered not at all. The rep did not ask for her name or telephone number.

Over the years, Margie has likely spent tens of thousands of dollars at Loblaws in its various incarnations. No more. She has willingly supported the Loblaws’ labour force by being a loyal customer day in and day out. No more.

Margie is 83 years old and sharp as a tack. She may have another ten or so years to go. A lot of money walked out of Loblaws' door a few days ago. If you also count the people she talked to and who are equally unhappy about the downloading of labour to customers, that adds up to a considerable amount of money.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Avoiding the Slippery Slope of Negativity: Rebounding from What Life Throws at Us

During the Olympics, we lived in a surreal world. There were so many moments of joy and lots of disappointments too. Overall, the experience was uplifting as we celebrated the efforts of athletes to better their best. We were on a high, especially when Canada beat the US for hockey gold.

It was a welcome relief from the downbeat news that dominates our media. Positive experiences and messages have a hard time surviving among the weeds of travail and suffering. According to Tal Ben-Shahar, who lectures on positive psychology, articles about anger, anxiety and depression outnumber those on joy, happiness and satisfaction by a factor of 21:1!

Yet, to be creative and push the edges of our minds, inspiration partners better with perspiration than negativity. Inspiration opens us up to generating possibilities and seeing opportunities despite difficult circumstances. In evolutionary terms, it’s the only way to go for individual and group survival.

Imagine if each one of us were a little bit better at fending off the negative and cultivating the positive. It’s not easy as the reality of life is that failure, frustration and suffering abound. Nevertheless, if more of us can improve how we rebound, then maybe we will have more shared Olympic moments.

One way is to alter how we think about or evaluate our thoughts in response to an event. Cognitive scientists tell us that our thoughts drive emotions and emotions drive motion. It follows then that we have the power to change the meaning we attach to the event and thus our actions. We can cope up or down. Our choice.

The “3Ms” serve as a mirror for our unrealistic or realistic reactions to the unfolding of life’s events:

# 1: Magnifying the Failure. Avoid over-generalizing (“No one liked my idea therefore they won’t like any of my ideas.”)

# 2: Minimizing the Success: Avoid tunnel vision, focusing on the one thing that went wrong rather than the nine that went well (Giving undue attention to the one bored or disengaged person rather than the nine excited people).

# 3: Making Up Meanings: Avoid personalizing or blaming (beating yourself up instead of problem-solving your way out, taking charge).

The Olympic athletes are proof positive of the power of thoughts driving emotions and emotions driving motion. No reason why we can’t practice that too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cut Tiger Some Slack: He's Not a Preacher or a Politician

Scratch a man or a woman and you’ll find a child.

~common saying

Most would agree that when Tiger gave his 13 minute “forgive me” speech on February 19, 2010, he looked haggard and nervous, his emotions close to the surface. The commentary afterwards ranged from understanding to downright nasty: empathetic versus unforgiving. In the unfolding Tiger story, we are all actors struggling with “learning to become more conscious, competent human beings”. We’re not in the habit of cutting our superstars much slack, often because we hold them to a higher standard than ourselves or an equal standard. The Tiger Woods of the world though are engaged in the same melodramatic journey of life as we are. It’s a perilous journey fraught with unexpected twists and turns that call our character into question frequently.

We don’t dispute Tiger’s competency. Groomed from the age of 2 or so to be the greatest golfer in all time, he’s well on the way. On the deeper “who am I?” human question. It appears not.

Think about it. Did he have much time to ponder his inner life beyond what it takes to put a little white ball into a hole in the middle of a “lawn” faster than competitors? Deep grooves there in his brain on that one. A bit mixed up on the more general: “What’s the right thing to do in life?”

Adults have a cognitive life cycle just as children do. Debate rages in academia about how to characterize the evolution of an adult mind, in general. For simplicity’s sake, Erik Erikson’s typology offers some insight into Tiger’s struggle.

Erikson poses three interconnected, evolutionary stages in adulthood each with its own identity and life satisfaction dilemmas:

Love: Intimacy vs. Isolation (Young Adults, 20 to 34 years):

“Am I loved and wanted?” “Shall I share my life with someone or live alone?”

The challenge at this stage is to develop a mature sense of the meaning of love and how to love. How to form long-term commitments to others. How to be "in relationship" at work, in the community, with family, to contribute.

Care: Generativity vs. Stagnation (Middle Adulthood, 35 to 65 years)

“Will I produce something of value?”

The virtue to be developed during this period is to “care”. To put energy into guiding the next generation, contributing to society.

Wisdom: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Seniors 65 years and onwards)

“Have I lived a full life?”

Starting with our 30s, the virtue to be fully developed by our "golden years" is deep self-understanding. Combined with contemplating accomplishments and looking back on the people in our lives, we have the opportunity to achieve great satisfaction with our efforts over many decades.

Applying Erikson’s view of adult development to Tiger, he’s still grappling with commitment. He’s only 34 years old!!

No excuse though for leading a double life. But, in the context of the bubble he grew up in and the fame and fortune that ensued, we can understand how he veered away from the ethical, healthy path. We recognize from his words that he’s learning how to accept help from others. He has activated a part of himself that likely has been under utilized: “life-reflection” in which he develops self-insight and a self-critical perspective. He’s just a newbie at this!

Although he wasn’t as smooth or emotionally demonstrative as a preacher or a politician typically is, Tiger made it clear that prior to the Thanksgiving 2009 incident that blew his cover, he was only thinking about himself. He was “at effect” of impulses. He was not thinking about the impact of his behaviour on his family, his golf buddies, young people who look up to him, his sponsors, etc. He was, in his mind, above the fray, “invisible” and was free to play by social rules different from the mainstream.

Tiger is now consciously trekking through a mind-jungle. When he clears a new path, he will be somewhere he’s never been before. He will see himself in the world differently. He will see others anew. It’s taxing. It’s painful. And, it is courageous.

Many adults don’t reflect enough. Consequently, their “geniuses within” never reach their full potential. For Tiger, this may not be the case. He’s working on it, probably as hard as he does his golf game.

Tiger asked us to look into our hearts and support him in his journey. Let’s do that especially if you are older than 35 years. It’s what we are supposed to do: care for the generations behind us. Support them to succeed because we should know: the only way to success is through failure.

Unless we recognize the extent to which our present is determined by our past, we make the same mistakes over and over again.

~Manfred Kets de Vries, Leader on the Couch.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

No shortcuts with Mindwork, Tending to the Genius Within

Like any lifestyle habit, keeping our minds in good running order is a work in progress. Self-confidence, emotional resilience, happiness and calmness all come and go. They must be renewed daily and moment by moment. If we don’t work at it, our minds deteriorate. We can become mind wrecks as easily as coach potatoes.
Trouble is it takes time to freshen up our minds and time is one resource we never seem to have enough of. Weekend long meditation retreats are not in the cards for most of us. Family and work demands consume us. “Stayin’ alive” is a full time occupation.

Fortunately, there’s lots of advice available to show us how. Check any bookstore. Self-help books abound. Go back to the “golden oldies” in your bookshelf. Similar messages. And, now with neuroscience backing up many of the self-help claims, we’re “good to go”. Except, that a daily routine for our minds is elusive.

Olympic athletes have entire systems of support behind them to be on the cutting edge. Canada’s Olympic Committee, in partnership with the private sector, Sport Canada and the Federal government, has made significant investments in neuro-and bio-feedback equipment to boost athletes’ mind preparation. In addition, athletes have open access to sports psychologists, dietitians, biomechanical experts, exercise physiologists, massage therapists and other experts. Further, a team spirit is encouraged as part of building the “can do” spirit of helping each other to succeed.

How can we do this for ourselves so that we can be “Olympians” in our own pursuits and passions? Certainly we can make more efforts to feed the work place with positive messages and encouragement in which we focus on bringing out more “the geniuses within”. Collectively, that’s powerful. Any obstacle can be dealt with.

It all starts though with each of us tending to our own genius within. That takes works every day. Deliberate work and practice.

If we can become more physically fit with ten minutes here and there or, better still, 30 to 60 minutes daily, then so can we with mind fitness. The techniques are all around us: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, laughing, visualization, inspirational books and speakers, singing, doing good works, viewing family photos…. A silent, calm brain enables us to be mindful. A noisy brain, “mindless”.

The key is to structure mindwork into our days, a routine like many other aspects of our life, which keeps us on an even keel. Here is one way to do it.

In the morning or before going to sleep, do a combination of 30 minutes of mindwork exercises such as:

- 2 minutes of deep breathing

- 10 minutes of inspiration reading & reflecting

- 8 minutes of reviewing goals, aspirations, insights, appreciation for people in your life

- 10 minutes meditating or equivalent, such as yoga

Done more diligently, mindwork wards off the ghosts past and polishes our natural talents. In a noisy world full of the unexpected, this is one sure fire way to live more fitfully in the present.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Message to Any Leader Anywhere: Neglect Retail Leadership at Your Peril

No bond, no trust
No trust, no credit
No credit, no progress
---Andrew Romano, (January 22, 2010). The Trouble with Barack. Newsweek.

Scott Brown brought retail leadership to Massachusetts. Despite her solid track record and capabilities, it appears that Martha Coakley did not. Legions of political scientists, pollsters and pundits know this well. So do employees everywhere who wish their managers would really connect with them at the visceral level.

A few years ago, I interacted with about 400 employees engaged in a merger. My role was to help the transition, build cultural bridges, get them talking with each other to kick start relationships. At every session, the voice and presence of a president past arose to haunt us. “Dave” was most beloved by all in one of the organizations. His kind of leadership was what they valued.

“What was it about Dave that you really liked?” I asked. The answer was always the same: “He cared”.

I continued probing: “What did that look like?”

“Well”, they replied, “every morning, he walked through the office and said hello, asked us about our families and work.”

“Tell me more”, I said. I wanted to better understand how Dave ticked. Almost in unison, they recited that he was not always in meetings, as was the case now with the new leaders. Furthermore, he listened to them and took action.

I don’t think it mattered that Dave could not act on every issue, every “whim” of employees. They knew that Dave had to consider many factors. But, they gave him a fair amount of slack on “substance” because he connected with them emotionally.

Ironically, if Dave had just connected and not taken action, he would not have been revered and missed. There are limits to “retail” leadership.

The expectations are high for Scott Brown, a newly minted Republican senator. So are they for Barack Obama to take lessons from Mr. Brown. Both, however, are in the same boat. People want to see and feel progress at the every day life level. In the end, substance does matter.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Allure of Twitter: At Least Three Reasons

Twitter has me wrapped around its little finger. I avoided venturing into its realm for at least a year and a half after one of my tech gurus urged me to do so. Twitter’s apparent silliness stopped me dead in my tracks. Who on earth would want to know what I am doing right now? So the conventional wisdom went in my circle of colleagues. No peer pressure there.

The hardest part of any new “thing” (writing the first few words of a report, trying a different technology, beginning a project…) is getting started. By chance while at a conference perusing the books for sale I discovered Twitter Power by Joel Comm. Just for me, I mused because I did not have a clue how to crack into the Twitter world. Once I delved into Twitter Power I knew “tweeting” was for me.

Tweeting is like an information stock exchange: The more I participate, the richer my own learning. It’s chaotic, for sure. But, I get to pick what I want when I want.

Tweeting is perfect for avid readers: I get to share ideas from my broad array of reading resources as they inspire me. On the run so to speak. I don’t have to write a report on the ideas or a coherent blog. Eventually I will but for anyone who is interested, there they are in raw form.

Tweeting is an easy way to be part of various communities: To belong and share is a primal human driver. We know ourselves through others. The Twitter community opens up the world literally much faster than any other means I have used to date.

Twitter is a cornucopia of swirling ideas and in the field experiences. As an academic at large, who values real data from the trenches, it couldn’t get better.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Welcome to Airport Prison: Who'd have Ever Thunk?

The impact of 9-11 continues to reverberate as in the wise saying by Deng Ming-Dao centuries ago: “A deviation of a hair’s breadth at the center leads to an error of a hundred miles at the rim”. Now we are down to debating the definition of a “small purse” to get through airport security and customs and being stripped of our belongings as carry-ons.

Four hours before my daughter’s flight out of Pearson International Airport before the New Year, we were trying to figure out the new rules of air travel. What is a small purse? Could she take her guitar (it was a musical instrument)? Was her back-pack within the guidelines as it contained her computer and music system peripherals? What about books or magazines to read during the flight? No simple answers were available from the airport website. We were left in a web of confusion.

Decisions made: her Prada-like purse (about 30 by 15 cm.) was probably in line with the criteria but we decided to bring a variety of purses just in case. Sure, computers and musical instruments were allowed. We therefore reasoned that she would check her guitar and have as carry-ons her purse and back-pack. But, as a back-up, we brought along another smaller suitcase on rollers to be checked in with whatever if need be. We also made sure we had some of those grocery store recyclable bags for stuff we might have to turf from her main luggage. Doesn’t this sound exhausting?

At the airport, we found relative calm and enormous frustration. Our betting average was 50:50. The airport personnel were enormously helpful and flexible. But our stress level reached an all time high as we scrambled to fit the vague criteria for getting through security and customs.

Can’t you picture the terrorists in celebratory overdrive dancing around in glee as we ratchet up our heart-rates permanently in this post-9-11 world? Health planners take note: add terrorism and our leaders woeful inability to plan strategically to the list of heart disease factors. Until our political leaders move beyond their “knee-jerk” reactions under the heading “one size fits all until it’s proven you are not a terrorist”, we cannot relax except in the comfort of our homes. Not good for business or personal development and well-being! A more inward world view will not help us evolve and prosper, according to evolutionary biologists and economists.

So, what did we have to do? The Prada-like purse was the only item my daughter could carry on the plane. If she had had her computer and peripherals in a regular computer bag (like a business person typically does), that would have been allowed too. And books? Well, we managed to stuff one into her purse. And, the extra piece of luggage came in handy for my daughter’s back-pack items as another check-in piece for which we were not charged. Very sympathetic airline personnel.

However, that wasn’t the end—stopped at the entry to security because daughter did not have a tag on her purse labeled “carry-on”. Back to the check-in counter for a tag!

Who’d have thunk we’d ever be in “airport prison”? I had images of what it must be like for first-time prisoners as they enter prison on day one. A slow reduction of freedom as one personal belonging after another is taken away and one size fits all clothing is issued. The world is getting smaller and more difficult to navigate. The principle of freedom, proudly the foundation of democracy, is in need of a heart transplant.

Where do we go from here? Short of a revolution akin to the French one in the 1800s or that which is occurring in Iran today, we need political leaders who embrace uncertainty proactively by planning with the long-view in mind and enacting policies as a result which target the right people, not all people. A strategically smart approach like collaborative scenario-planning and the sharing and adapting of relevant best practices would begin to rebuild our trust, confidence and freedom.

Ironically, the 9-11 issues remain: silos and partisan politics still rule the day. They are the biggest barriers to our freedom and prosperity.

On an encouraging note, history has proven that progressive change is often driven locally and at the edges. Millions of people tirelessly working everywhere do collectively change the world. It’s another way to view the “deviation of a hair’s breadth”.