In June’s Wired, Clive Thompson tackles the challenge modern organizations face when trying to strike a balance between creativity and productivity. An excellent article. Thompson notes that groups need to employ a new skill: metacognition…thinking about thinking. Instead of applying a ‘one policy fits all’ on how to work or obsessing as to whether to promote one versus the other, managers need to flex the work policies depending on the type of mental work being performed. If it is to crank out a big report, work from home. If it is to come up with ideas for the next big thing, work in the office where ideas can be quickly exchanged.
Today’s reality is that the rigidity of yesterday’s corporate policies are out of sync with the fast-paced needs of today’s (and tomorrows) business environment. Adapt or die.
As I considered this post I reflected on how my project outcomes have often been positively affected by intentional delay in initiating research or making decisions. Some may call it procrastination but to me, it is the “art of delay”. It has always been about timing… about being ready… or achieving a certainty about a course of action. According to Frank Partnoy, author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay”, delay management is one of life’s most difficult skills. I agree… but the world is not so forgiving.
I’ve yet to read Partnoy’s book as I just discovered it while preparing to write this post but what I gather from Bruce Dorminey’s Forbes review (link below), is that it centers on the delay of decision making. This is indisputable yet part of “the art” is in how to get away with it and survive in your job! Certainly, if you’re successful in the end, you’ll receive praise for being wise, insightful; you may even be labeled visionary. Conversely, if you fail you’re labeled as lazy, unreliable, and poorly organized.
Delay is generally viewed as being on the precipice of failure and further, intentionally doing it is viewed as weakness… a procrastinator. We celebrate the “man of action” and his “can-do” attitude who jumps in to save the day whenever it’s needed. The reality is that patience, observation, and developing understanding are far more important and often far more difficult to do.
I came across this German phrase as I was reading a recent New Yorker Magazine (Feb 11&18, 2013, pg 8). The phrase apparently translates to “Whoever has the choice, has the torment.” The writer was eloquently alluding to the notion of limitless career choices and how such a notion can be more overwhelming than empowering. She argued, in fact, that too much freedom induces paralysis, so that in having too many choices, you make none. She lamented that perhaps she would have felt more free if she had been born decades earlier when women’s choices were limited to specific roles.
As I read on, I was drawn into past work experiences where I felt this paralysis of not knowing which path to take or which choice to make. This is a common issue in development projects and speaks directly to the probability of a successful outcome and to minimizing project cycle time. Learning to deal with such ambiguity is a keystone for successful scientists and project managers. I’m not sure if there’s a magic formula for developing one’s capability in this area, but for me, patience is indeed a virtue and impulsiveness a sin.
As a scientist, I feel most comfortable with “letting the data lead”. Generally, it is our lack of knowledge and experience that limits our ability to make decisions. Therefore, when in doubt, just do something! Research the literature; perform some basic experiments; develop fundamental understanding; and above all discuss your ideas with your colleagues. Their various perspectives will help develop insights that will surprise you.
Experience has taught me not to panic when faced with uncertainty. It is nothing to fear. Have faith. Know with certainty that resolution will always come. It may not be what you expect nor may it be what you wish but it will emerge. Be patient, be thoughtful, and always seek understanding first. Solution follows
Whenever I start a new project, I use the following equation to guide my assessment of our odds of success.
Ps = (K x E) / C - U
Ps = Probability of Success
K = Knowledge (what we know)
E = Experience (what’s been done)
C = Complexity (how many things can go wrong)
U = Uncertainty (things out of our control, what we don’t know)
My career has been split primarily between two disciplines, R&D and manufacturing support. I learned early on that manufacturing, per se, was not my strong suit although I particularly enjoyed the problem solving opportunities it presented. The manufacturing environment is obviously production oriented and extremely short-term focused; with a need to maintain a high consistency of quality 24/7. In contrast, R&D is pretty much the opposite.
Using R&D personnel as manufacturing support presents a clash in culture; a battle of wills; and often disdain between the parties. The reality is that the two disciplines demand vastly different skills and approaches. In manufacturing, survival depends on fast reaction with an almost instinctual knowledge of “the knobs to turn” to correct the process and keep it in spec. Experiential knowledge rules and this only comes from paying your dues on the floor and fighting the day-to-day battles you inevitably must endure.
Problems develop, however, where there is little precedence; where experiential knowledge is limited. “We’ve tried everything!” they cry after systematically testing the process. This is the time, however, when one needs to stop and reassess the situation with the key question, “Do we really understand the problem?”
In manufacturing, root cause analysis is often used to attack problems but can be insufficient because it doesn’t usually get at the “why”, only the “what”, and can be subject to a high degree of bias by those using it. Their emphasis is on speed to solution, not understanding the problem. In my opinion, this gap is the biggest obstacle in resolving persistent manufacturing problems. Increasingly, it is also an obstacle in new product development as we seek to shorten the cycle time.
My philosophy has always been to seek understanding first and solution will follow. Yet, this approach often causes consternation in management. How many times have I heard, “Why are you taking us down that rat-hole?” Yet, when understanding is reached and solution is found, my rat-hole becomes their path to glory.
In the Forbes article, “Why You’re Not a Leader”, Mike Myatt presents an excellent discourse on “You’re not a Leader if….” He laments the many people in leadership positions that really don’t qualify and provides a very good perspective on how to recognize the shortcomings. One comment that struck me was:
Leadership is about caring about something beyond yourself, and leading others to a better place – even if it means you take a back seat, or end up with no seat at all.
Myatt’s quote caused me to recall a former boss who, at our monthly birthday lunch for fellow employees, would always serve everyone drinks. I was always surprised to see a Division President filling and handing out drinks to everyone. Indeed, his “service to others” model was reflective of his leadership style. Looking back, he incorporated that spirit into many aspects of his life.
I do think Mike Myatt’s basic premise, that only a select few can be leaders, is a bit harsh because leadership isn’t always about being at the top of the heap, getting praise from the masses. Leadership can come in small ways by the lowliest of the employees. Leadership comes in service, whether its serving drinks or demonstrating some other act of kindness, we all can be leaders through example.
About 36 years ago, I recall sitting in a locker room with my high school football team, hanging our heads down low. It was halftime and we were losing, which we did not often do. Coach Hutchins was talking…. no, he was yelling. Red-faced, pacing, I still remember the veins bulging from his neck, sweat on his brow, clipboard in his hand swinging to and fro. We were playing lousy and he didn’t want to hear excuses because he knew we were better. He was demanding more from us…. Nay, he was urging us to demand more from ourselves, to step up our game, focus, to work together to achieve success.
I don’t remember the final score of the game and I don’t remember if we won but his words have stayed with me over the years and they have kept me from lying to myself; from making excuses. I marvel how his impact on me that night was profound as it has permeated so many facets of my life over the years. I can only hope that those I lead, coach, or parent can be affected so positively in their lives.
I had always thought that this quote was original to my coach but I’ve recently found that it is attributable to Billy Sunday, a popular baseball player of the late 1800’s who later turned into a well known evangelist.
In the article How Corporate Culture Affects the Bottom Line, (Investopedia – see link below) it is argued that a positive corporate culture can improve employee productivity. They posit that while each organization is unique their culture “is largely formed by the attitudes of the employees within the company and the procedures enforced by that organization.” The article goes on to highlight some ways to enhance a “positive corporate culture” such as flexible working hours, promoting creativity, providing time for fun, creating a unified team, recognizing excellence, providing greater accountability, promoting strong customer service, and being “contagiously positive”. Basically, the message is that a happy employee is a productive employee leading to an improved bottom line. Really? I’ve known many happy employees over the years who were really, really unproductive.
I definitely believe culture is a strong force that plays into a company’s success or failure. However, I believe that it’s less about making employees happy and a whole lot more about making them feel valued, respected, and believed in. Building a winning team is not always easy and its not always fun but the satisfaction comes from being part of something larger than yourself, being inspired by a common purpose, and making contribution that you know is valued and recognized by your teammates.
“a group of individuals arranged in rank order in terms of relative dominance and subservience. Those who are higher in the dominance hierarchy usually have greater access to food, sex, and other desirable things.”
I came across this definition while reading about monkeys. Why was I reading about monkey’s you may ask? I was researching “corporate culture” and the search just led me there. How appropriate!