Tag Archives: metaphor

Merry Humanity to You!!

Today my mom and I engaged in what is becoming a Christmas Eve ritual for us: noshing on burgers and fries at Gott’s Roadside diner in the Napa wine region of California. We’ve spent Christmas week in Napa for the past four years, gently sipping and eating and wondering what it would be like to spend the other 360 days of the year doing the same. During previous visits I had noticed the custom at Gott’s to use pseudos for your pickup name: “Fang, your order is ready, Fang!” I’d been anticipating all year what I might call myself the next time I visited Gott’s. I settled on a category: Greek philosophers.

I’ll let my tweets record what happens next:

How did Aristotle become Eristonald, I wonder? The person taking my order didn’t flinch when I said Aristotle. Didn’t ask how to spell it; in fact just confidently keyed my chosen name into the computer. Now, as is the case in fast-food jobs, this person was quite young and it is entirely conceivable and understandable that Aristotle had yet to enter her consciousness. But why ERISTONALD?

Does she know an ERISTONALD?

How could she so confidently type in a name she was clearly only guessing at?

There’s something lovely about her phonetics (or quirky about my pronounciation.). The ERIST syllables seem to suggest another language.

Is correct spelling just an eccentricity these days? or  Is correct spelling not a core Gott’s competency?

The poor person who had to announce to the world: “Eristonald, your order is ready, Eristonald” looked at me for an explanation. When I told her it was supposed to be Aristotle, she was relieved but only shrugged.

And then it all struck me as charming. Just another lovely example of sweet human imperfection. And how silly it is for us to get caught up in conceits, however small.

Which gets me to Christmas and religion. This time of year some of us think more about religious and spiritual matters than we normally do. And the pleasure I got from the sweetness of “the mistake” made me think about one of my main problems with most religions–the insistence that the goal of existence is human perfection.

I can’t help but think how silly this idea is. Human perfection seems perfectly pointless. Our charm lies in our clumsiness. Our grace is that we forgive each other our mistakes–or at least we should. And our passion comes from the desire to improve. Without the desire to improve, I just don’t understand how we can be very human.

There’s nothing profound here, I’m sure; it’s just one of the ways that the emotional logic of mainstream religions escapes me.

Like the promise of eternal life. First, I REALLY hate being bribed into religious belief. Sure, just play upon my fears. Second, I can’t think of a worst fate for humanity than eternal life. And if it’s eternal, perfect life, I’m really trying to understand what could possibly be the point of that.

I’m much happier just trying to be a productive member of the human team, making sweet mistakes that in time others may learn from.

Merry Humanity to All.

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.

What is your Toothpick? (and what do you do when you get screwed?)

So today I was assembling some Ikea outdoor furniture. I’ve probably assembled close to 50 Ikea pieces in my lifetime. This one was a little more complicated than I was used to. It was called Applaro, as Ikea is wont to do, but with Swedish double dots above the first A and the O. It had 14 total steps involving an adjustable back and the ability to fold and store it away.

ImageSo of course I was sweating it. I’ve had experiences when I’ve been assembling, let’s say a futon, when I’ve got to the like very delicate point where it’s supposed to do the futon thing and fold away, and realized that I’d put everything together exactly backwards. And I had the flu that time as I recall. (To be fair that was not an Ikea piece.)

Nothing that bad happened this time. My first problem though was when one of the screws wouldn’t tighten nicely into it’s groove. Luckily, a very good friend of mine who is very handy has told me that many such problems can be solved with the strategic insertion of a toothpick. And so I did. And so it did.Image

And this got me to thinking about management. Yup, just sitting there on my deck on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic. I suddenly, in a flash of revelation, saw the toothpick as a metaphor. So as a manager, what’s your TOOTHPICK? What’s that thing you always do when things don’t go right? We all have toothpicks. I suspect we all revert to our primeval management instinct. Mine is always to have a conversation. I know, it’s not very commanding and certainly not very sexy. But I find it very effective. It fits my style. It builds on what I’m good at. During my career I fretted once or twice or more that my management style was not “strong” enough for the CIA. But no matter how hard I try, I do “mean and nasty” rather poorly. And I would like to think most people who’ve worked for me would say I’m not controlling. But you would have to check. In the end, however, I decided I could only be the very best version of myself. That was truly my only path to excellence. So my question to you is do you know your toothpick? You have one, I’m sure, and if you don’t know what it is, you need to figure that out.

ImageThe silly screw problem got me to thinking even further. Now in this case the screw just wouldn’t tighten from the get go. I never got a chance to overtighten it. But I’ve had that experience too. When you twist just once too often and the whole dynamic falls apart. Now that’s clearly a metaphor for management. The manager is always trying to influence matters she can’t fully control. And when he tries too hard, when he responds to uncertainty by becoming more controlling, almost always nothing good happens. In fact, he and his team gets screwed.

In the end the AAPLARO was assembled more or less as IKEA intended. I did lose a piece when it fell through one of the cracks in the deck and into the crawl space full of ivy. Luckily, I have a drawer full of leftover IKEA parts from previous assemblies. I can always find what I need there.

The Angry Birds Guide to Organizational Change

This is such a cheap, exploitative blog post that, really, I’m just ashamed of myself. But at least I can say it’s authentic. Like  several other million people on the planet recently, I’ve been playing Angry Birds. I’ve completed all the levels, but haven’t gone back to get the 3 stars. And as I whiled away, oh I don’t know, maybe ten hours on the game, about half of them on plane flights, I got to thinking, there’s something about these crazy birds attacking the Pig Castles that’s like a metaphor for organizational change, more precisely for the quixotic charge of the rebel trying to bring down the status quo. And if you know me at all, I’ve yet to meet a metaphor I didn’t fall madly, if only temporarily, in love with.

So maybe there are some people out there that haven’t played Angry Birds yet. Or, like I ten days ago, had only heard of the mania but hadn’t actually seen the game. So let me explain it briefly. These green pigs steal the eggs of some local birds. The pigs construct these Rube Goldberg-inspired castles to protect the eggs and assorted other  treasures they pick up along the way. The now Angry Birds, which have unique offensive characteristics, launch themselves against the castles like Avian Kamikaze. Your task is to direct the birds in an optimum way against the pig castles until you bring them down. Here’s a nice little cinematic trailer that summarizes the setup.

So what have I learned about organizational change from directing my birds against the Château de Cochon (sounds cooler in French, methinks.)

1. It’s all about the angle of attack. Not all the birds are equally powerful, some drop bombs, some mirv into multiple birdheads, others speed up and penetrate the targets like torpedoes. But it’s rare for a bird, until the end when the Red Giants emerge, to be able to take down the Pig Castles or even do much damage unless you precisely aim it at a critical junction or weak point. We organizational heretics, we would-be topplers of the status quo really spend too much time on frontal assaults, getting beat up because we’re not willing to analyze the best place, time and way to make our arguments.

2. It’s all about trail and error. I know there are some gifted Angry Bird players who never waste a shot, but for most of us the sweetness of the game play is in the learning slowly, often painfully incrementally, the best way to get to the pigs. Here’s a part of the metaphor that doesn’t apply that well to organizational change. The rebels and organizational heretics certainly don’t get that many chances to reshape an organization. But we do usually get at least a couple. Observe what goes down very carefully. Learn from it. Share lessons within your rebel alliance. And then, like the birds, take a couple of aspirin, dust yourself off, and try again. BUT IN A DIFFERENT SPOT.

3. Stop banging your heads against Brick Walls.

4. Show some patience and let some of your moves play out over time. Angry Bird kamikaze attacks against Pig Castles often play out slowly. Sometimes when you don’t think you’ve landed a particularly powerful blow, the superstructure nevertheless begins to sway just enough to bring down the entire Château.

5. Resistance can be found in unexpected nooks and crannies. At the higher levels of Angry Birds, there can be upwards of a dozen pigs in the castle. Naturally, we concentrate on bringing down the obvious Pig Leaders, but even when we’ve used up all our bird attacks, a small seemingly insignificant pig lurks in the tall grass to defeat us.

6. It’s all about the sequencing. The larger Château de Cochon can require about ten Angry Bird attacks and many of your early launches appear to do very little damage to the superstructure. But your final assaults won’t succeed without those early attacks. All organizational heretics need to think hard about where to begin their campaign against the status quo. And organize it like a campaign!!! I think one of the things that kills change initiatives is that the status quo defenders have much better tactics and strategies than the change advocates.

And Finally…

7. Sometimes you just have to chip away.

Anyway, that’s what playing Angry Birds taught me about organizational change. Any others?

White Noise

I was in Manhattan this weekend doing the Broadway show thing, staying at a hotel in the 50’s on Lexington Avenue. Great location but the street noise makes it tough to sleep. No matter how high up you are, you can hear what’s going on in the city at that very moment, the sirens, the loud, perhaps somewhat sloppy couples, the trucks in reverse. The second night I tried to create more white noise by turning the thermostat down, forcing the fan to run continuously. It masked the street noise and, at least for me, made it easier to sleep. But it got me to thinking that white noise isn’t just something you create to sleep in a Manhattan hotel room; white noise is a condition of most organizations. White noise is the foreground of regularly scheduled activities and, dare I say it, make-work that mask the sounds of the real work and concerns of the individuals in your organization.

Being a RecoveringFed, I’m familiar with all the white noise we have in government. President Obama appointed Jeffrey Zients to be the government’s Chief Performance Officer in part to whack away at the white noise in government, although to my knowledge he’s never used those terms to describe his mission. So what are some specific examples of the white noise that get in the way of hearing reality:

  • The litany of regularly-scheduled meetings, all with a specific liturgy, from which one could not deviate. Aaaaargh!! Haven’t you been hungry sometimes to discuss what’s really happening–the true truth–at a meeting? Have you ever been the one to try to initiate that conversation? Fun, huh? So instead of admitting, for example, that the workforce doesn’t take seriously the latest edict from up high because it knows from past experience that we have no mechanism to follow-up on compliance, we instead discuss the text of the official announcement. White Noise!!
  • The entire industry of official announcements and organizational newsletters is a classic example of White Noise. Smart employees, i.e. most of them, approach these documents as if they were deconstructonist literary critics, scouring the texts for hidden meanings and what was not said. (This reminds me of my visits to the area of France known as Languedoc where Nostredamus lived off and on. When you tour the region, you visit this one village, Alet les Bains, which legend paints as a town in which Nostredamus lived. Not because he ever wrote about the town (and he wrote extensively of the region) but because he never wrote about the town–a clue to its importance to him. But…..I digress.)
  • Metrics. Measuring the really important–your organization’s progress toward its goals and your staff’s progress toward their personal bests–is a key executive function. But I’ve seen too many metrics that are nothing but make-work, and boy, do they take a lot of work!! How do you know which category your metrics efforts fall into? Has your organization first had a serious conversation, reviewed at least annually, about what specifically it wants to accomplish in a given timeframe and how tactically it plans to get there? Unless you’ve had that conversation, your metrics are almost certainly White Noise.

And the list could go on.

So, how does one break through White Noise? One tool are in fact social networks, which are, at an elementary level, simply trying to make transparent and persistent the sounds of the city, the conversations that are going on anyway among your employees, your customers, your clients, and your colleagues. There is NO WORSE feeling as a manager than to be the last to know. And there is no worse indictment of your performance as a leader. Encouraging a culture in your organization and within your network where people want you to know the truth is one of the most powerful tools you can have as a manager. And as a tactic nothing makes transparency easier than the simple, intuitive platforms with which most of your employees are already familiar.

But it will be hard at first. Senior leaders, and for some reason I think government executives suffer from this more acutely,  flinch when they hear what their employees and customers really think. They would rather, I guess, not hear the sirens, the loud arguments among their staff, or even about the individuals and processes threatening to throw the entire organization into reverse. They live under the delusion that if you don’t hear about it, it’s not really happening. They turn on the White Noise.