Category Archives: Learning

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Advertisements

Rules I Try to Live By

So the idea for this post began last week when a GovLab fellow was telling me that he thought he was finally figuring me out. (GovLab is a leadership development/innovation program I work with at Deloitte Consulting; actually I think of myself as the GovLab Yoda. I was of course interested in anyone willing to talk about me for an extended period of time. Bring it on!) And he said that a phrase he associates with me now is “And another way to look at this is…” This pleased me as I pride myself on being a contrarian thinker–a natural rebel trait. (I was going to edit out the word thinker and just say contrarian but I actually believe there is a difference between a contrarian and a contrarian thinker. A contrarian will say NO to many things; a contrarian thinker just wants to always examine the other side before coming to a conclusion–if indeed a conclusion is appropriate.) (I can tell already this post will contain many parenthetical statements.)

Anyhoo, I said, “Well Yes. I think that’s right. But another thing I’m trying to impart is that…”

1. Nothing is insignificant. My 32-year career as an intelligence analyst taught me, at least, that anything and everything can matter. In the early 1990s I read a book called Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop, which pretty much changed my intellectual life forever. complexity(If indeed it can be said that I have an intellectual life.) The book is an easily-digestible introduction to the principles of Complexity science. What it taught me is that big changes can be started by little things and ever since then I have thought of myself as an Analyst of Little Things.

2. You never run out of bullets. While we’re on lessons drawn from my analyst career, this phrase was told to me by a manager early on in my apprenticeship. He was recounting some work he had done as a young analyst on an insurgent or guerrilla group somewhere in the world. He had figured out, literally, how many bullets this particular group had, how many bullets they used per day, and therefore thought he knew exactly the date when the guerrillas would run out of bullets. My boss’s manager had saved him from this rookie mistake with the sage advice that “You never run out of bullets.” I.E. something will happen, some contingency will occur, that will upend your careful projection. As you can tell I never forgot that piece of advice. A more general and perhaps useful way of rephrasing it is: Linear Projections Ain’t So.

3. Everything stays the same…Until it changes. The last of my analysis-related rules. Change is a slippery rascal. It taunts you with false hope. (Or endless anxiety if you fear the change.) And then, many times when you’re least expecting, it pounces on you like a cat.  (All blog posts benefit from a Cat Gif)

153 cat gif

The world is just chock-full of rulers, practices, conventions, assumptions long past their Best By Dates. (It was even worse 30 years ago I think.) Estimating when the change will occur is pretty much a loser’s game. Even guessing correctly just once will mark you as a genius forever.

This rule also draws upon elements of complexity thinking. Everything looks like it’s staying the same because the change energy is brewing underneath the status quo line. Up until the moment it breaks through, you probably won’t be aware of the change. It’s not unlike how little earthquakes presage huge volcanic eruptions.

Being able to anticipate the imminence of big change is the ultimate test of any analyst, I think. As I said prediction is difficult, but understanding what is brewing below the status quo line should be the goal of every analyst. Always unpack claims that any kind of analysis is right 90% of the time. How much of that number is accounted for by correct predictions of continued stability?

4. The ends never justify the means because rarely do human projects reach their ends. So LIVE your Means. I don’t think this needs much explanation really. Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. Live your principles…all..the…time. 

5. The best thing God made is one day after the other. My grandmother used to say this. My grandmother’s name was Obdulia, but she was better known as Doña Yuya. (A friend of mine enjoyed that name so much that she called her car that.) As I write about my abuela I realize I never once heard her boast about herself.abuela

6. Try to see the humor in everything. It is particularly important to see the “funny” in things that are making you mad, like bureaucracy, or people who aren’t thinking, or the Internal Revenue Service, or our current political system.  (Come to think of it the American political system has zoomed way past humor and is now making a strong bid for absurd.)

7. Everything has meaning. It’s your problem if you don’t appreciate it.

Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour

A couple of Sunday morning metaphors, one illuminates why change is hard.  The second is Lessons from a CIA Manager #23: Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough.

I actually just posted some quick words over at RebelsatWork.com on why rebels need to stop advertising themselves as destroyers of the status quo. By making that your focus, you risk confusing the means with the ends. But you can read more about that here.

In that piece I used some garden metaphors to describe the more subtle relationship between forward change and the status quo. And I was reminded of what people say about home remodeling. Builders always say it is easier and cheaper to build a new home from scratch than it is to remodel extensively an existing structure. And they’re right. Making structural changes while retaining that which is good or necessary of what already exists has got to be just about the hardest of organizational activities. But sometimes that’s the only path that’s available to you as a rebel.

  • To build a new business from scratch you have to stop doing the work and providing the services that presumably people still need. A non-starter.
  • To gain enough backing to start making at least some of the necessary changes, you have to take into consideration the views of those who love the organization and its culture in a Billy Joel kind of way or Bruno Mars. Unless you can figure out how to fire them all, or transport them to a parallel universe, you have to make change happen with the talent you already have.

Second Metaphor. Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough. Here I was inspired by a tweet this morning in the regular Sunday morning tweetchat #spiritchat .

Too much compassion w/o healthy detachment from another’s processes leads to compassion fatigue #spiritchat

 It’s from Debra Reble. (now that’s a cool last name.) And it reminded me of the difficulty I had in senior positions trying to reconcile the desire to be compassionate with the larger responsibilities of leadership. The last ten years or so of my Agency career I actually had an articulated goal of being MEANER, although a coach I worked with convinced me to think of it as becoming more powerful. (That was helpful.) I thought of it as being less sentimental, not having less compassion. But it’s the same thing. I recognized that my responsibilities to a broader group of people meant I sometimes had to take actions or make decisions that were harmful to an individual, perhaps even someone who was a good friend. (You can justify your actions by saying that you are promoting a greater good, but really, are we that confident of the causality between our actions and desirable outcomes? I’m not.)
But the answer I learned was that you can’t abandon compassion/sentiment. You have to balance them constantly against the demands of management like you need to balance water and flour in a dough. Water makes the dough stickier; flour makes it less so. And anyone who has made any pastry or pizza crust from scratch knows that its’s a process of constant adjustment. There is no school solution. It’s all in knowing the feel of the dough in your hands. And only experience will enable you to translate that tactile feel into knowledge for making better decisions and interventions.
Too much compassion without detachment from your personal attachments leads to decision mistakes.
Too much leadership without compassion for human realities leads to group misery.

Just a Few Last Thoughts about the Internet

Sitting here on a Sunday evening…the usual internet surfing on the laptop. Have about ten tabs open on my browser (using Chrome these days having just about given up on I.E.).

Absentmindedly click on the tabs sequentially, like flicking through the cable channels.

  • There’s my Facebook page.
  • Signed out on LinkedIn.
  • MNBC reports an Emirates flite dropped suddenly over India, 20 hurt.
  • Wikileaks still leading with the Collateral Murder story
  • Lead Tweet features the professional rabbit breeder I inexplicably follow, also inexplicably named the_turtle
  • Looking up information on Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate: Waiting is sustainable, a place of its own harvests
  • The bloggers are starting a comment frenzy over Stephen Hawking’s advice that we should not contact alien life. (and am struck that considering what we should do when we meet aliens is now talked about reasonably, without sarcasm or embarrassment. There’s a theory that somehow–intuitively, access to the multiverse, whatever–we develop a sense as a species for what is about to happen and without conscious thought begin to reflect it in our conversations, so that trending topics in forums such as Twitter actually can be used to predict the future.)
  • And the Houston Astros are recovering from their horrendous start

It took about 15 seconds to cover those topics. And just for a moment, the slightest tug of transcendence penetrated my consciousness, only to bounce away, like it was frightened by my material nature. The experience of soaring across topics in seconds is without precedence in human history. It’s become so commonplace that we usually lose sight of how shattering it is of our previous experiences and models of human behavior. What I know and am aware of at any given moment dwarfs, I think, what the White House Situation room in its entirety knew in 1960, 1970, 1980.

One of my favorite sayings is:

Quantity has a Quality all of its own.

The quantity of information and connections is changing the quality of the person, the society, and the species. Really, we have no idea of where this will end.

Leadership Lessons from Galaxy Quest (Friday Afternoon edge-taker)

Friday afternoon…time to take the edge off the week.

I’ve written before that, as a veteran of many a leadership course–can’t you tell?, I grew quite tired of having to draw leadership lessons from required viewings of war movies. (Henry V is always a favorite here, although to be fair that is one of the more nuanced of the lot.) And I offered up that it would be great fun to work up a leadership seminar based on the movie Galaxy Quest, a sendup of the Star Trek genre. (For those of you who don’t know the movie, well first shame on you, but it features Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and several others. They play the actors of a Star Trek-like TV series who many years later make their living by attending fan shows. The problem occurs when the group of actors meet up with a distant alien population, the Thermians, who understood the old TV shows to be historic documents. When these pacific people are threatened by a belligerent enemy planet, they build out all the technology exhibited in Galaxy Quest for real but now need the experienced crew, i.e. the actors, to make it all work correctly. Here’s the trailer.) (It looks like the whole movie is currently available on YouTube, cut up into scenes, if you’ve never seen it.)

So the clips available (legally) are limited, but the clip below actually captures one of my favorite leadership moments. Tony Shalhoub, who plays the engineer “Scotty” character–Tech Sgt. Chen, has been asked to help the gentle Thermians with their engineering problems. The Shalhoub character’s only real expertise, however, is eating, but watch how he engages the Thermians with his questions to draw out the answers they don’t know they already have. So here you see the importance, as a leader, of listening, asking the right questions, and encouraging your colleagues to think for themselves. This has the extra benefit of being a scene cut from the movie, so even if you’re a Galaxy Quest fan you haven’t seen this scene before. (You only need to watch the first scene in this clip, but you may enjoy the others. The clip does seem to play slow most times, but usually plays better if you click through to YouTube itself.)

There are many other wonderful lessons in the movie about the importance of being corny and emotional as a leader and about how a group of selfish actors become a selfless team. Unfortunately, I’m not enough of a hacker to isolate the scenes. But maybe some day, when I’m a high-priced consultant and can afford the film rights…

Happy Weekend!!!

Friday Afternoon Edge Taker–2

While in Florida doing the spring training thing, I met one of my college roommate’s fellow ushers at the Washington Nationals ballpark in Viera. This is a new acquaintance for my longstanding friend Susan and as the three of us were having lunch the usher mentioned she had worked in Germany for 30 years as a school nurse in the DOD school system for military dependents. Oh, I had lived in Germany as a kid, I said. I remembered it fondly, particularly my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Fisher, whom I consider the best teacher I ever had. Mrs. Fisher was a Japanese-American and the only other fact I remembered about her personally was that she liked Lana Turner movies.

Susan’s fellow usher said: Mrs. Fisher!! One of my best friends in Germany was a Mrs. Fisher who was a Japanese-American. She had retired and was now living in Chicago.

Could it be? Yes, it could be. I now have Mrs. Fisher’s email and will send her a note reintroducing myself. I hope she remembers me from 44 years ago.

And I got to thinking about the incredibly strange, surprising, scary, and yet at at times incredibly uplifting journey life can be. Of course this is just some 1 in a trillion coincidence. No matter that the previous day I had been thinking about what metric I should employ to decide among the options available to me in my second life. And I had decided, I should choose the option which offers me the greatest opportunity to learn. Nah…it is just a coincidence, I’m sure.

But I’m reminded of the great book I read more than ten years ago, Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley. If you check her website you learn it is now in its third edition. One of the most inspirational statements I ever encountered came from that book’s first edition. In the epilogue, it used to say, but now I think it has been rewritten, that we should live our lives in confidence, knowing each step we take brings us closer to understanding the meaning of our lives.

Leadership Lessons from the Passage of Health Care Reform

I’m sure others will soon, if they haven’t already, write on this topic and I imagine the business schools will take it on as a case study, but the passage of health care reform strikes me as chock full of practical leadership-management lessons. My interest is not in the pros and cons of the legislation, but rather in the approach President Obama took as a leader of the process. Leadership is, after all, a value neutral proposition; history has shown many times over that great leaders can do horrible or wonderful things. Often only the passage of time will reveal which is the case.

Health care reform of course suffered greatly from a dynamic already discussed in this blog–reform efforts are expected to be letter perfect from the get-go, even though the status quo itself evolved unevenly in fits and starts over a very long time period. It is this dynamic that almost always places reform efforts in defensive positions, regardless of their merits. So to lead the effort to pass the legislation, President Obama had to demonstrate great persistence. But it was more than just persistence. The President had to indicate, by his actions not just his words, that passage of the health care reform legislation was his single most important priority (Lesson 10). That’s why it was particularly effective, I thought, at the end when the President postponed and then rescheduled his Asia trip to stay home to continue twisting Democratic appendages. Whether the postponements were genuine or part of a considered strategy hardly matters. Creating drama, after all, is a useful leadership strategy when you’re in a difficult struggle. Battlefield commanders have long known this. (The need to create drama is part of what I’m driving at when I say in Lessons 7 and 8 that Leadership is emotional and corny. If you’re above a little theatrics when something is really important to you then you do not understand fully the high emotional content of leadership and followership.)

Another consequence of Obama’s dramatic personal interventions in the Republican/Democratic congressional death match was that he was able at key moments to reframe the debate. The televised working sessions with Republicans were really about trying to regain control of the context of the legislation. Whenever you’re involved in a change effort, you will find those who don’t agree with you will likely first try passive/aggressive approaches. If those don’t work then they will still, I think, try indirect approaches such as reframing the terms of debate. This you must avoid at all costs. Just think back on the number of times a reform effort you considered worthy was ambushed by issues that were only tangentially related to the central thrust.

By the way another leadership lesson was illustrated by President Obama’s sessions with Republican lawmakers. And that is Lesson 4–conflicted, crunchy meetings are usually a very good thing. In this case I think both sides of the debate gained by discussing the substance of their disagreements, rather than the headlines.

But I think the most important lesson to be illustrated is #12, first articulated to my knowledge by Ron Heifetz of the JFK school: leadership is disappointing your followers at a rate they can tolerate. To get the legislation passed, President Obama had to abandon several goals that were and still are dear to his core followers. He certainly disappointed people and, although he carried these followers  in the health care vote, only the passage of time will reveal whether in the end they will tolerate the disappointment. One of the disappointments these followers carry, no doubt, is the regret that President Obama was not more heroic. What do heroes do? They fall on their swords. But as Lesson 13 states: heroism is not a leadership strategy. Why? Well, you can’t be heroic very often; it does not bear repetition. And in the end, heroism depletes your leadership savings account, leaving you with nothing to call upon to face the next challenge.

And so I’m reminded of Lesson 19: Leaders essentially have bank accounts that contain the deposits of their employees’ trust. Unlike the spending habits of the American public in the last decade, leaders need to draw down upon those trust accounts very carefully. You will gain new deposits when you meet your employee’s expectations but remember more often than not you’re in the business of disappointing them, so make withdrawals carefully. If you don’t you will find that when you most need your employees’ discretionary energy, your trust account is overdrawn.

From the Swamp of Inertia to the Road to Success

Writing about the Swamp of Inertia this morning made me think of one of my most favorite websites. Strange Maps, and a posting from it last year of a 100-year old or so map of the Road to SuccessThis map deserves careful study. Judging from the outfits individuals are wearing it must come from early in the 20th century. I think it is very sweet that near the pinnacle individuals must pass through the Gate of Ideals. And I just love it that early on people can be waylaid by entering what appears to be the garden of Bohemianism. I have to say I think I would have ended up there myself. Click here to get to the original posting on Strange Maps. Warning: you can get lost in this website for hours and it doesn’t have a map of the way out.

Personalized Work

David Warlick is a North Carolina-based educator and consultant who keeps a blog, 2 cents worth. His most recent posting describes the transition education is making, as a result of the information, communications, and technology revolution, to personalized learning. As someone who believes work itself will be reconceptualized in the next decade or so, I found many parallels between education’s major transition points and where work is likely to go. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could ever take individuals who have learned through the process he describes and then shoe-horn them into jobs as they are currently designed.

His major points are that personalized education:

  • Will be fueled by questions,
  • Provoke conversations,
  • Be responsive, i.e. be interactive
  • Will learn from mistakes, and
  • Will lead to personal investment from the learner and contribute to his/her evolving identity

(I reordered Warlick’s points slightly and did just a little wordsmithing, but I think I’m true to his ideas.)

Personalized work follows along similar lines. What do I mean by personalized work? Most jobs today are still designed according to some archaic position description, this is certainly very common in the government environment. These descriptions are infrequently updated. (I remember at the CIA it was always a very bureaucratically fearful time when the professional job redescribers descended upon your office.) (This makes me think of another post that would be fun to work on: When Bureaucrats are Scared, but I digress.) But if you just think about it, doesn’t it seem nonsensical that in this day and age we would organize the work of our mission around position descriptions that can frequently, I think, be more than a decade old. But it’s not the vintage of the description that’s the real sin, it’s the fact that you could never find a single person who could perfectly perform all the tasks required. So because of the perceived need to order work in ways that the bureaucracy and pay system can best handle, we actually make inefficient use of people, our most important resource as we are often and unattractively reminded.

Is there another way to organize work? YES!! Innovative organizations are beginning to work with new designs that actually allow them to match tasks to the best-suited individual. And they use technology to mash the two up. Every manager needs to visit and become familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I’ve made more than forty dollars there so far as a worker, enough to finance my MP3 purchases, but I digress.) At Mechanical Turk, large missions and jobs are being atomized into minute tasks, allowing individuals to self-select the tasks they are both good at and enjoy. What a concept!!!! I actually believe this approach could be applied to many tasks, including some missions of the federal government.

Another approach to personalizing work is to bring the aspects of game design into the work environment. It is an odd phenomenon that millions of individuals, many of whom have important positions in their analog lives, voluntarily and happily spend hundreds of hours a year playing computer games such as World of Warcraft. They solve complicated problems, collaborate and form trust relationships with people they’ve never physically met, and all for very little tangible reward. And yet some, when they come into work, mail it in. What is wrong with this picture? What is it about how work is designed that is demotivating, while game design engages individuals? Could it be factors such as immediate feedback, transparency, personalization? For more on this topic, check out recent books such as Total Engagement for eye-opening discussion on why games are not the opposite of work.

Anyway, this posting is already too long and there’s still much more to say and do on the topic. These changes are fueled by technology, but I don’t in any way consider myself a technology expert. I associate myself with David Warlick’s own description of himself: Technologists get excited by the light. I get excited by what we can shine that light on.

Lessons from Peter Drucker

Before I go any further in my self-indulgent listing of lessons from my 32-year career,  let’s link to lessons from someone who epitomizes life-long learning, the great management consultant Peter Drucker. This lovely piece, which is making the rounds of Twitter today,  has Drucker reflecting on the 7 most important lessons he learned as a knowledge worker. A couple that stand out for me:

  • An editor-in-chief early in his career who reviewed the team’s performance every six months or so by discussing as a group what 1. they had done well; 2. things they had tried to do well; 3. areas where they had not tried hard enough; and 4. areas where they had failed.
  • The only way to make a difference is to make a difference in the lives of other people.

All 7 of the lessons are gems, but the two I cite above resonate most with my career experience. We have to find a way to engage everyone on the team in productive conversations about our performance; this is too often not done well or not done at all in the federal environment. And the secret to managing is to focus on helping people learn and grow. We don’t manage organizations; we facilitate people.