Sharks Sink

August 30, 2009

…if they stop swimming. I know this because I have 3 children under the age of seven and have become incredibly knowledgeable about sea creatures, dinosaurs and transformers. It turns out that they don’t have swim bladders like most fish. If they stop moving they sink.

I think many people (including me) are a lot like sharks. Some people are content to be in an entirely stable, relatively unchanging situation. That’s wonderful if you are one of those people. I’m not and I know I have a lot of company. For the rest of us, we’re usually looking for some new challenge. It may be personal (learn the guitar) or it could be professional (achieve a career goal), but whatever it is there tends to be something.

Having stipulated that many of us are seekers and often restless in our desire for something new, I want to hit on a challenge I see a lot of people face as they try to achieve these dreams. Many mistake “dreaming” for getting off the couch and making the dream happen.  If you find yourself thinking “I really wish that…(fill in the blank)”, but can’t think of anything you’ve done in the last few weeks to make that wish more likely then you’re not working at it. You’ve stopped swimming and are sinking.

So swim.

I’ve written in the past about exploring interests and beginning transitions. All that advice still holds. It can be as simple as calling a mentor and asking advice. Don’t have one? Then find one by asking for some introductions to people that seem interesting. Most people will give you a little time if you are polite and flexible about their schedule. 

I also think that if you can’t get yourself going on something you should reflect on whether it is either important or useful for you. I tell students of mine that when you’ve been told what to do to achieve some goal and can’t get yourself to do what you KNOW you need to do, then you’ve answered an important question. You must not have wanted it that badly.

Another important outcome of action is wisdom. I am a HUGE believer in active learning. You can read, meditate, think and do all sorts of wonderful mental activities. Ultimately to progress, however, you have to actually do something. Young people tend to undervalue the importance of grinding. Sticking to a problem and following it through is what yields comprehensive knowledge and wisdom.

I see so many want to do a 4 month project on some business topic and then be an “expert”. Guess what? Until you’ve lived through the consequences, struggled with the client impact and had to adjust course based on more data you haven’t really learned. Or at least not the right lessons.

I love this quote from Dr. Frank Crane, a Presbyterian minister and author of a series of essays early in the 20th Century.

“Out of action, action of any sort, there grows a peculiar, useful, everyday wisdom.  Truth is rarely found by the idle.  Nor is it the result of deep and long study.  It is a sort of essence that is secreted from a concrete deed.”

So if you are fully content with where you are, awesome! (I mean it). I am always admiring of people who have found their place. For the rest of us, if you have things you want to get done then you need to swim. Otherwise you’ll sink, falling short of whatever dreams you may have.

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I’ve seen this before…

June 27, 2009

Why are some people so good at “seeing” things and how did they get good? In my opinion, “experience” is really just the development of a personal set of cognitive heuristics for dealing with what’s in front of you. In basic terms, you develop a sense of “I’ve seen this before and I have a pretty good idea of how it goes…”

This idea off pattern recognition, evolution, ecosystems and systems thinking has always fascinated me. Back when I was still in school, I can remember the effect the reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and James Moore’s The Death of Competition had on my thinking about business and relationships: the interconnectedness of it all. Some of their thinking is dated and gets a little abstract, but the core ideas, that there are a limited number of truly distinct patterns of interaction out there is a useful one.

This was brought to mind this week as I’m reading Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (on my favorite new toy – Amazon Kindle DX!). He is a paleontologist describing the evolution of human physiology. Great book, but the relevant point that sparked this post was a series of quotes he made regarding his learning process as a field worker locating and identifying potential fossils.

He starts by describing his essential blindness compared to experienced colleagues. The following are a few quotes that lay out his progression in awareness and thinking:

“Finally, one day, I saw my first piece of tooth glistening in the desert sun. It was sitting in some sandstone rubble, but there it was, plain as day. The enamel had a sheen that no other rock had; it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Well, not exactly – I was looking at things like it every day. The difference was this time I finally saw it, saw the distinction between rock & bone. … All of a sudden, the desert floor exploded with bone…as if I were wearing a special new pair of glasses and a spotlight was shining on all the different pieces of bone.”

“ Over time, I began to learn the visual cues for other kinds of bones: long bones, jaw bones and skull parts. Once you see these things, you never lose the ability to find them.”

“Twenty years later, I know that I must go through a similar experience every time I look for fossils someplace new…I’ll struggle for the first few days…The difference is that now I have some confidence that a search image will kick in.”

“One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence.”

This lays out beautifully the progression you see in people’s lives and careers, IF they are paying attention.

The point is that as you get “better” (more observant, more experienced, etc.) you are developing mental heuristics. Your mind is being trained to think in new ways and short cut many steps based on experience, building new pathways in the brain. Malcolm Gladwell coins this “thin-slicing” in Blink.

I see two ways you need to develop and apply this pattern recognition concept. The first is simply getting better at it within a domain. This is essentially what everything above is really about. Develop deep knowledge and you can then get very good at a subset of things.

The second is to me what separates really excellent and creative thinkers and problem solvers from those who aren’t. Can you abstract and generalize patterns and apply them to new venues? Are you good at analogy?

Most problems are not new and many apparently unrelated problems are very often quite similar. This is what Senge gets at in the Fifth Discipline. There are a limited number of system archetypes and components that describe most systems, whether they be human, animal or natural.  

Effective general managers and consultants need both abilities. I have seen people promoted too quickly without broad experience struggle in that they are “learning on the job” at too high a level. Understanding all the moving parts of a $20MM business is easier to learn, but is much more like running a $1BB business than is going from running a $1BB function in a company to running a similar size/budget business. The business owner has more complex networks they are navigating.

Having said that, you will never have all the experience you need. So how do you manage learning curves? Well, being good at analogy and applying prior learning in other areas to a new problem is very effective. If you can’t you’ll struggle…a lot. (Curiosity, drive etc. all help a lot too!)

In my coursework, I try to teach people generic skills around problem solving  that are broadly applicable so they can be flexible in their thinking as we all have different cognitive styles. In part, this is to force people to apply themselves to answering questions themselves. If I tell you something you may or may not remember it, but even if you do you aren’t likely to understand it. If you go figure it out on your own, however, you’re likely to “never lose the ability to see” what you’ve learned as Shubin points out.

So, what’s the “so what?”

1)     Developing experience and expertise is about developing a sense of pattern recognition. This allows you to “see” things more clearly and with less work over time.

2)     You have to struggle through the hard work of developing this ability. It comes from doing. A guide can tell you what to look for and mentor you along the way, but the insight has to be yours or you won’t really own it.

3)     Being able to extend your insights into analogous environments is very powerful. Particularly if you want to be a general manager.


Is the juice worth the squeeze?

April 6, 2009

I’ve always been coached and offered the advice to people to be careful when they take certain actions. Make sure it’s worth it. I recently got a great summary of it when reconnecting with a former boss. He said where he grew up this is called “is the juice worth the squeeze?”

 

In difficult situations, there’s always a temptation to respond impulsively or do what feels good. Whether it’s an email, a “witty” response in a meeting or a significant political position…think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.

 

A common misperception I see people make all too often is that there are no, or limited, consequences to just saying what we think. This is soooo wrong. There’s a great scene in the godfather where Sonny blurts out a disrespectful and revealing comment to Sollozzo. Don Corleone’s dismissal of Sonny is “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.” In this case it ends for Sonny at a toll booth in a hail of bullets. I’ll summarize in saying the juice was definitely not worth the squeeze.

 

Obviously, most of our lives are not as dramatic. Nevertheless there are many opportunities to make a poor choice along the way. I’d encourage you to think through in certain situations WHY you would be responding or acting the way you do. My point here is to separate ethics from ego. A few that come to mind are:

 

1)    Making yourself feel better. This is entirely ego and almost always a bad idea. You’ll feel better for seconds…until you feel worse. The downside is generally worse than the few seconds of cleverness you get to enjoy. Not much upside here. The classic example here is emailing angry. Bad choice.

 

2)    Speaking truth to power regarding a likely poor decision. This is more complicated. Ego and ethics can get co-mingled and both sides can believe they are doing the right thing. My counsel is to think carefully. You are probably more able to be somewhat assertive as you are (hopefully) data driven in your concerns, have a fact base to argue from and are smart enough to frame disagreement impersonally. Just think carefully before speaking.

 

3)    Speaking truth to power regarding an ethical concern. This is where things get stickier. You need to think hard before responding and consider whether you completely understand the situation and the implications of acting. Making a major ethical stand can be heroic…or foolish.

 

First, assess the situation. MAKE SURE you have your facts straight and that you are on firm ground ethically. Lots of things can be gray. Being black and white in a gray world can be problematic. Second, be sure you are willing to leave or be marginalized if things go badly. When you fall on your sword, you are impaled. You may not survive so be sure you understand this.  Third, make sure you have assessed the bigger picture. Could you have a bigger impact by swallowing hard, staying and keeping other things on track?

 

4)    Acting in your own vs. others’ self interest. In the end everyone will know if you take care of yourself over others. Your reputation will suffer. Consider the implications before acting.

 

So think through how to respond in difficult spots. I’ll write my next post on how to handle some of these situations wisely to create scenarios where you can do what you think is right without blowing yourself up.

 

There isn’t a right or wrong answer in these areas. It’s up to you to do what’s right for you. Just think it through and make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.


Book Recommendation: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

February 7, 2009

Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) was recently recommended to me by a friend and former classmate. He feels Pink hits on an emerging trend towards different kinds of work and skills emerging. Then I put it together. Pink had also written The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, a manga style graphic novel on career management that I had seen reviewed in a few places. I decided to pick it up.

 

It’s great.

 

Pink lays out an entertaining, sometimes funny and most importantly brief overview of some core career management concepts.

 

Pink uses Diana, a magical career coach/sprite, to deliver the key themes in a step by step process. While torturing Johnny as he bumbles through trying to advance his career, six key themes are revealed as summary lessons learned from each “chapter” of the book.

 

1.      There is no plan

2.      Think strengths, not weaknesses

3.      It’s not about you

4.      Persistence trumps talent

5.      Make excellent mistakes

6.      Leave an imprint

 

For those who have read some of my posts or know me you can probably guess why I appreciate this piece. The positive, engaging, “find yourself” message that Pink delivers while also encouraging activity and progress lines up with my world view.

 

I have given a copy to all of my students and they all have said it was a fun and quick read. I recommend it to those who have grown up reading comics or who groan at the thought of reading hundreds of pages to understand a few key principles.