Learning to See

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

The updated version of an older quip; “I’ll believe it when I see it.” A study of human perception or any familiarity with today’s media environment, however, should convince you that “I’ll see it when I believe it” is more accurate and more illuminating.

When I was about eight, I began to complain that I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard. The nun’s simple response was to move me up a row in the classroom. When I continued to complain after reaching the front row, someone finally thought that a trip to the optometrist might be a good idea (this was circa 1961 when routine vision screening wasn’t the norm in elementary school). A few weeks later I had my first pair of glasses with a strong prescription.

I recall marveling on the drive home. It had never occurred to me that you were supposed to be able to read street signs from inside the car. The wider world wasn’t fuzzy after all.

I was doing just fine in school. If I hadn’t mentioned something, who knows how much longer it might have taken to discover my weak eyes. Nobody could see the problem until they believed what I was saying.

Although I was doing fine, I was working harder than I needed to. I was overpowering the problem rather than solving it effectively. Can’t see the board, move closer. Still can’t see it, move closer still.

What’s been on my mind lately is what lessons did I take away from this experience without seeing them at the time.

There’s the obvious lesson that effort is rewarded. Most of our systems hammer this lesson home. I think there’s a second, more subtle, lesson. If the results are good, then the effort was well spent. Because effort is worthy it’s hard to ask what can be accomplished with less effort. Powering through is an easy strategy to understand and to implement. “Working smarter” makes for a nice slogan but is much more difficult to put into practice.

I’ve certainly been guilty of trotting out the slogan. I suspect I still have a lot to learn about putting it into effective practice. I did take a look at this quite a while back with a look at how we might go about balancing diligence and laziness. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the question of how to put in less effort.

A shaky reminder about ground truth

I haven’t posted here since before the Summer started. The simplest excuse (and it is an excuse) is that we’ve been traveling quite a bit.

Earlier this month, we were in Morocco in Bin El Ouidane. That put us 200 kilometers northeast of Marrakesh when an earthquake struck another 120Km to the southwest in the Atlas Mountains. We felt it where we were but much less intensely. There was some chatter in the hallways but things seemed to settle down pretty quickly. Woke up the next morning to news coverage about the earthquake “near Marrakesh”, which was our destination for that day. Our group met for breakfast and discussed what our options might be. Meanwhile our guide was not responding to messages or to a knock on his door. Mustafa eventually surfaced to let us know that we were still going on to Marrakesh, although we would be shifting to a hotel outside the Medina and likely adjusting some of our other scheduled activities.

Driving into Marrakesh, we saw families camped out on the median out of concern about aftershocks. That was the only evidence we saw as we pulled into our new hotel. The hotel seemed equally unscathed. The images on the news were much more disturbing. The next morning, we got to see for ourselves. We drove along the outskirts of the Medina and could see damage along the walls encircling the old city. We then walked into the main square and could see a damaged mosque in one corner. What we could also see that the news reports didn’t show was how concentrated the damage was and how tightly framed the shots were to highlight the damage.

The rest of our day played out much the same; a mix of concentrated damage and surrounding normalcy. Meanwhile, we were responding to anxious messages from family and friends who were hearing only one part of the story. From their distance, we seemed in the middle of a tragedy. From where we stood, the tragedy was still distant. That tragedy was still 120 km further away in the Atlas Mountains. We were mildly inconvenienced. People in the mountains died.

All of this has had me thinking about stories. Telling stories is always about perspective and framing; what do you highlight, what do you leave out. So too with consuming stories; what has been left out and why. Through it all, what you’re trying to tease out is ground truth.

Finding Your Voice and Honoring Your Sources

 

There is no new thing under the sun
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)

What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.
William Ralph Inge

I’ve spent my career wandering back and forth between business and academe. One of the smartest hires I ever made (smart in the sense that she was smart and my decision to hire her was equally smart) will be rolling her eyes right now if she reads this. Opening with a quote annoyed her no end; two quotes will likely push her over the edge.

New ideas are the driving force now for both business and academe. How new ideas are treated, however, is quite different. In academe everyone cares about intellectual capital provenance. Ideas have a history and the history matters. There are a host of practices and norms for maintaining that provenance.

In business new ideas have been the purview of a handful of specialists, despite recent debates about patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines (for example, With a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver likely, time to rethink global intellectual property rules - CNN). What you can do with an idea is much more pertinent than where the idea might have come from. Academic practices for connecting new ideas to their history don’t have much of a foothold in this realm. Certain ideas become linked to names—Porter’s 5-forces, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Christensen’s disruptive innovation—but more often than not ideas simply appear without attribution or genealogy.

Why does any of this matter? Treating ideas as free floating entities becomes a problem as decisions are woven out of more complex, interconnected webs of ideas and analysis. You want to be able to deconstruct both successes and failures to be able to keep making progress.

Learning to fail

I grew up in the Midwest. It is as flat as advertised. Snow meant days off from school, snowball fights, and snow forts. Mountains were something I visited in the summer. That they sometimes had snow on top was of photographic interest only.

Life brought me to the East Coast and children brought me to ski lessons in my 40s. When I was 48, my youngest took up snowboarding and I decided to follow along. You don’t learn to ski or snowboard in a classroom; you do it on the slopes. So, you fall down a lot. Then you fall down less. What makes it work is instant feedback. That’s what good instructors offer. One of the best pieces of feedback I got was to accept that a snowboard run was nothing more than a connected series of controlled recoveries.

If you weren’t on the edge (figuratively and literally) of falling down you weren’t doing it as well as you could. Learning and doing were inseparable.

The world of efficiency pretends that you can separate learning and doing. If you control enough of the variables, you can get away with this strategy for chunks of time. If you stay on the bunny slopes, you can control the variables. But only at the expense of learning. If you avoid the edges, you never get better.

You can choose to stay away from the edges. The problem is that the edges keep moving. Often in your direction, despite your best efforts. Better to accept the world as it is and develop ways to operate with that reality.

Effectiveness is the shorthand I’ve adopted for this spot. More than anything else, it depends on accepting that you can’t separate learning and doing. It’s an accident of history that we’ve been able to pretend otherwise.

Sure, you can find guardrails while your doing is clumsy. But you have to be seeking out the edges where things get scary. The best way to manage the scary is to find others looking for the edges.

Our edges and our comfort zones never align. Collectively we know more and can do more than any one of us can individually.

Inventing Sails

My CEO and I were arguing as we drove north along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. He was concerned that I was too focused on insight at the expense of execution. As he put it “95% of the people in organizations are just pulling on the oars, they don’t need insight.” My response was to ask where did sails come from if everyone was pulling on the oars?

New ideas are scary things to most organizations and to most executives. Managers like order. For all that we praise entrepreneurs in today’s world, we get very uncomfortable when too many ideas are floating about. Most of us are, in fact, pretty comfortable pulling on the oars as long as someone is pointing towards something that looks like a worthy destination. We all point and laugh at the person playing with tying a sheet to an old oar to see what happens. Until the oar turns into a mast and everyone wants one of their own (or says it was obvious all along).

The people who want to play with things to see what might happen are a source of constant anxiety for those who favor order. They are also the source of great rewards. Managing the balance between risk and reward has vexed those in charge for as long as there have been people in charge.

In a slow-changing world, you can manage this problem by carefully limiting and constraining those who like to play with things. Create an R&D lab and wall it off from the day-to-day operations of the business. Set up a new business development group or an innovation lab. Call it what you want. Just keep the crazies under control and out of the control room.

We don’t live in a slow-changing world. We all have to learn to live with a degree of craziness and take ownership of some level of control. There’s no way to simply pull on the oars and let someone else worry about how to steer.

Things you can’t teach

In high school, our younger son rowed crew. More specifically he was the coxswain charged with managing and navigating the shell with eight rowers in front of him. It was his first race ever after several weeks of learning the basics.

We drove to Toledo to watch the regatta. Not only was Derek a novice rower, we were novice rowing parents. We found our way to the river and, with the help of other parents, figured out which boat was Derek’s as it proceeded along the 2000 meter course. This was a “head” race, which meant that the boats were racing against the clock rather than against each other. You could see boats strung along the course all rowing furiously.

As Derek’s boat passed by at the 1500 meter mark they came up on a buoy marking the course in the river. The rower in seat 2 caught the edge of the buoy with his oar, popping the oar out of its oarlock, and stopping the boat dead in the water. Somehow, Derek and the rowers restarted the boat, now with only seven oars working, and finished the race. Working our way down to the finish, we learned that the boat had managed to finish in third place. The rower in seat 2 eventually needed ten stitches in his forearm but the crew was thrilled with the results of their first ever race.

After the race, I was talking with another dad, whose son was a couple of years older. Kris’s comment has stuck with me;

“We can teach Derek not to hit a buoy. What we can’t teach is the presence of mind to settle everyone down, restart the boat, and finish the race.”

A few years later, that boat won a national championship.

I sometimes think that effectiveness hinges on understanding things you can learn but can’t teach.

Striking a dynamic balance

Bottom Line Program Cover

During my second year in business school, I co-produced the annual student variety show. My co-producer and I ended up dipping into our own shallow wallets to cover budget overruns.

To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time the show produced an artistic success and a financial failure. That was a decidedly un-business school result. Although we named the show “A Bottom Line” in homage to “A Chorus Line,” we lost sight of our bottom line in pursuit of our vision.

It’s taken me years to sort out the lessons contained in this experience. At a systemic level, it’s impossible to cleanly separate efficiency and effectiveness. It might have its merits as a rhetorical strategy but real world situations demand that you attend to the balance between them.

Efficiency concerns dominate because we’ve worked out most of those details. Effectiveness was the purview of a handful of decision makers near the top. Now, effectiveness matters to a wider swath of the organization. I believe this is true but, ironically, I don’t know how to make that argument effectively.

Yet.

Operating from Values

 

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels“We need you back in the office now, Anthony’s team just got fired.”

Although not quite the crisis it might appear, I still had a problem to deal with.

Anthony was one of my partners. He was leading a training simulation with a team of our new consultants. The simulation was a recreation of one of our client engagements. We had taken a 12-week project and compressed it into a one-week scenario. The scenario attempted to recreate both the business issues and the look and feel of working in the field.

Anthony was leading a team of six junior consultants. The team would interact with the client via email, phone interviews, and face-to-face interactions with “clients.” The “clients” consisted of my small team manning the email and phones plus a couple of retired senior executives playing the role of the client CEO and CIO. We had a timeline, an outline of how the week should play out, plus a collection of documents and exhibits that could be shared with the consulting team as the work unfolded. Think of it as a giant case study that would unfold as the week progressed. It was more of a map than a script.

Whether a map or a script, there was no part of the scenario that included pissing off the client enough to get fired. Nevertheless, Anthony managed to do precisely that on Day 2. Moreover, my client CEO had ordered Anthony to vacate the premises immediately.

Bad time to have gone to lunch.

After a bit of strategizing with my team, we broke character and I facilitated a debrief of the “firing” with Anthony, his team, and the client. This offered the junior members of the team a peek into the dynamics of managing client relationships they wouldn’t otherwise have seen and gave us a path back into the simulation for the remainder of the week.

The ultimate test of this training strategy came a few months later as team members went out into the field for real client engagements. Their consistent report was “we’ve seen this before and we know what to do.”

Our training design was born of resource limitations. As much by luck as by design we had stumbled on deeper lessons for our work. We were learning how to navigate environments without a script and without rehearsal time. We were developing perspectives and practices oriented to an improv logic as the world demanded more responsiveness and adaptability.

I’ve come to believe that navigating this environment requires a shift in perspective and a set of operating practices and techniques that can be most easily described as improv adapted to organizational settings.

In place of detailed scripts, we were learning to operate from core principles and shared values. Our learning environment gave us a safe space to experiment with and work out how to apply those principles and values.

Racing ahead to what?

I went to an exceptionally good high school. That was courtesy of a nun in my parochial school who recognized I wasn’t being sufficiently challenged in the school I was in. That school got me into Princeton University. Moreover, it got me credit for enough college level work that I was on track to graduate in three years. I opted to major in Statistics on the theory that I could use that to pursue a graduate degree in any number of fields.

This seemed like an excellent plan for a kid from the Midwest on a mix of scholarships, my parents digging deeper than I ever appreciated, and work study jobs (including one as a dorm janitor). Going into my second year, I found better jobs as an electrician and stage carpenter at the university’s McCarter Theater. I also made time to get involved in student theater, so I wasn’t just grinding away at classes. Sleep was occasionally hard to come by but that was more about enjoying the experience than about working.

Midway through my second year I started to ask what was next. Not whatever argument I had made to get permission for my three year timetable but what was I actually thinking would happen when I did graduate. In my quest to move through the process as efficiently as possible, I had given no real thought to what that efficiency would buy me. I was approaching a finish line to one race with no real sense for what the next race was going to entail.

Nor did I have any words or concepts to bring to bear on these questions. My father had gone to college on the GI bill after serving in the Navy during WWII. He was the only one of his siblings to get a college degree. I was the first in my generation to think of college as a path to follow. My cousins were baffled; why would anyone spend the time and money for college when there were good union jobs to be had?

There was a huge amount of tacit knowledge I lacked. I was so ignorant I wasn’t even aware that I was ignorant.

Fortunately, I did something sensible despite my ignorance. I hit the pause button. I dropped back to a four year timetable. Slowing down was a necessary step. It bought me time to start figuring out the questions I needed to be asking.

Whining or Learning

In the early weeks and months of getting Diamond off the ground, we were intentional about the kind of organizational culture we wanted to create. Within the founding group we had decades of cumulative experience, mostly in organizations known for the strength of their culture together with a sprinkling of less pleasant experiences. 

In those early days, we spoke of “getting the band back together.” We were based in Chicago after all, so the Blues Brothers reference was a natural. 

Of course, what we were trying was more complicated. We weren’t getting _a_ band back together so much as we were trying to create a super group combining and mixing the talents of people who had been stars in their own groups. 

Consulting egos are rarely small; possibly never. Everyone had an opinion, often several. Whatever status or authority we might have had in prior organizations was politely acknowledged and promptly ignored. How things were done at McKinsey or Accenture or Booz or wherever was evaluated on the merits not the pedigree. 

More often than not, the differences were more cosmetic than substantive. Over time we were cobbling together a creole consulting language of our own. 

Sometimes the noise levels got out of hand. After one incident, one of my partners ordered up and distributed “No Whining” buttons to all of us. 

It was good for a laugh and a boost in morale. And it did help lower the temperature on some conversations. While I had a fraught relationship with this partner, I had also learned that their instincts routinely beat my analyses. Disrupting a conversational cycle before it degenerated into a shouting match helped. 

Unfortunately, “no whining” too often defaulted to no conversation at all. Labeling inquiry or pushback as “whining” was equivalent to “shut up and do it my way” or “if you can’t handle this, we’ll find someone who can.”

These sentiments might be marginally acceptable in some circumstances. If the work is sufficiently routine, problem solving can devolve into selecting a workable answer from a menu of known responses (I was about to suggest that you Google “the bedbug letter” but Snopes.com has a more interesting take—FACT CHECK: The Bedbug Letter.

I don’t live in that world. Neither did Diamond. And, if your work is knowledge work, neither do you. You get the problems that don’t have clear solutions. Which means you have to listen more carefully; to those you work with and to yourself. 

You must learn to distinguish between “whining”— a vague complaint that something isn’t fair—and the spark of discomfort signaling learning that needs to happen. Forbidding “whining” makes it harder to recognize the learning signals embedded in discomfort.