Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sucking the Soul Out of Experience

I just read an article in the NY Times titled, How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers, which got me thinking about the introduction of tools and process in any industry.

You can take a new tool or process (measurement in this case) and see the pendulum of use swing hard in the opposite direction in the hopes of maximizing the assumed benefits. We overuse it until we understand its limitations at which point use typically stabilizes.

We're kicking it, throwing it, stretching it, and jumping on it much like a young child does with a new toy in an effort to understand how to use it. The new favorite toy is often promoted as the best thing since sliced bread...until it is not.

I fear that is the case with data and measurement today. We all carry measurement devices in our pocket or wear it on our wrist. We are so acutely aware of the thoughts, feelings, and physical state of ourselves (and others via social media, text, etc) that our comfort with data and measurement has grown substantially -- but at what cost?

Well, that's what is at the heart of the article. We're always looking for ways to prove, validate, and justify, which means we tend to turn to more tangible methods to measure results. The output can be incredibly informative, but it can also suck the soul out of the experience.

I've seen this in my work with managing projects and coaching people. The latest and greatest tools and processes come and go with many being touted as THE answer to our management, dieting, exercising, happiness, relationship prayers. The latest fad is applied, practiced, assessed, and curbed accordingly with an eye to the following:

1 - How easy is it to use
2 - Does it yield reliable results
3 - Is it flexible and adaptable

That last bit strikes me as the most interesting. It seems the promoters of productivity measurement within the medical and education communities are riding the hard swing of the pendulum at the moment and the realities of the ride are now settling in (just read some of the reader comments for the article and you'll see it!).

This is reinforced in part with the closing couple of paragraphs in the article noted above. Avedis Donabedian was a key influencer in the quality measurement field and developer of Donabedian's triangle which states,

"...quality can be measured by looking at outcomes (how the subjects fared), processes (what was done), and structures (how the work was organized)."

Before Donabedian died, it seems he stepped back from his process to look at it with a more human eye. Described as a "hard-nosed scientist," he surprisingly said, "The secret of quality is love." 

This is curiously absent from the Donabedian triangle...

The point is we can't forget what motivates people who enter the helping profession -- love, altruism, the desire to help others. Excessive measurement strips the human side of effort out of the experience and leaves a vacuous, gaping void (and many disengaged employees).

I would submit that same thought can be applied to any field. One of the wonderful things about work is that it offers you membership to its community and the mission it serves.

Community embodies love, support, and inclusion. So, whatever the latest and greatest process or tool to hit your industry, it should be tested with an eye to those it serves. Process implementers can avoid the hard swing of the pendulum by taking incremental implementation steps.
There are too many people, and too few human beings. ~Robert Zend

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Startup Roller Coaster: Like "Quirky" Another One Bites the Dust

ShopTOS TOS Logo
April 10, 2013 was my last blog post here. I return with a new post one year after leaving a startup where I spent a year and a half working with a team to build a digital presence and customer experience for The Outdoor Shopper (ShopTOS), an outdoor shopping television show. We experienced rapid growth with a small team and an even smaller investment. In that short time we accomplished the following:
  • 840 percent website traffic growth and 1,365 percent e-commerce sales growth in six months
  • 618 percent Facebook fan growth and 1,546 percent Twitter follower growth in nine months
  • 2,556 percent product catalogue growth in one year
  • Daily, sometimes multiple times a day, show airings on notable channels like Pursuit Channel (amazing people with whom to work), the Outdoor Channel, and the Sportsman Channel
  • Implemented a digital content, advertising, and video production strategy that showcased outdoor product inventors and their products (fantastic people like Shawn Malloy of Altera Alpaca), created a direct manufacturer to customer relationship, and connected people to outdoor experts and celebrities like Jimmy Houston (who is absolutely delightful), Bruce "The Alligator Man" Mitchell (who is as genuine and sweet as they come), Kinion Bankston (who's raw voice, candor, and big personality make him a favorite among many), Nancy Jo Adams (who is a talented, innovative female presence in a space that still underserves women), Jay Ducote (who is just as fun and "hugable" off screen as he is on), and Tom Buck (who is whip smart, kindhearted, and has a great literary voice) 
jimmy houston, alison sigmon
Author on the production set with Jimmy Houston
The concept was good with its production, television broadcast, and drop shipment commerce model, but alas, TV broadcast and production costs, among other things, proved too much for the business. LOTS of people -- employees, vendors, and contractors -- did NOT get paid and investors lost money in the end. Some of us employees and contractors worked over seven months for NO pay or a third pay rate. Let me emphasize: This is not a complaint; we made the decision with eyes wide open. It was our choice. We did it because we were deeply committed to the concept, devoted to the people and manufacturers involved, and profoundly loyal to each other, but more about that at the end of this post...

Although we didn't come close to the $185M raised by Quirky, a crowdsourced invention start-up company that filed for bankruptcy last week, size, valuation, etc don't really matter when company fails. It's painful for all involved.

For the life of the venture, we moved fast and furiously to build and migrate to a new e-commerce platform and CMS platform, implement a business strategy roadmap, establish a digital presence, and connect inventors and customers. It all seems a bit like a blur from platform migration, content publishing, process creation, team building, and rebranding to marketing, advertisement, vendor management, and product sales.

recycling electronic trash
As I emerge from the startup haze (you know exactly what I mean if you've done it), I'm reminded of the pitfalls to avoid and process steps one should never skip. Looking back on the experience, I can see we were in the midst of an entertainment and viewing evolution. Television remains the 800 lbs gorilla, but it was clear during the operation of ShopTOS that a viewing and interaction shift was firmly underway. We were working feverishly to get ahead of the trend by offering the show online, changing the show format to better accommodate viewer interests, and aligning broadcasting with seasonal experiences. We were also working to upgrade and refine the product catalogue to support niche, innovative, hard to find items that would take us out of the no-contest, margin draining competition with Cabela's, Bass Pro Shop, and Amazon. Basically, we were working to pivot the business, but we ran out of money in the process. It's a familiar tale - like Quirky and so many others.

Everyone says startups are exciting, gut wrenching, and unforgiving which is absolutely true - this was my third startup so it's a well-worn path by now. Each time I think I know what I'm getting into only to be surprised (again). It's not unlike being in war, which I experienced during the first Gulf War. It's a roller coaster of issues, situations, and events that pummel scrappy but devoted little teams who somehow find a way to get up each day only to do it all over again in the face of these things:
roller coaster
  • Tons of ambiguity
  • Emotional ups and downs
  • False starts
  • Fast planning and even faster crashes
  • Lack of information
  • Risky decisions
  • Never enough communication
  • Uncertainty about what the pigs and the bears are (Read The Mission, the Men, and Me for more about that)
  • Never ending list of "high priority" things to do
  • Limited funds
I was reminded that some things stay the same no matter the type of startup you join. You'll always need:
  • Talent to get the work done
  • Discipline to work on a lot of things a little bit everyday
  • Wisdom to make changes rapidly in response to issues, insights, and situations 
  • Patience to work the plan (and stick to it)
  • Awareness to know when to get out of your own way (thank you, Wendy Lea for that touchstone reminder)
  • Trust the people you hired and listen to them
  • Understanding of margins and operational costs (budgets matter even in the beginning!) 
  • Analysis of the numbers early and often
  • Processes for the repeatable activities in your business (recreating is a time suck) 
  • Vision to build a narrative the team can get behind
  • A very thick skin
  • Ability to pivot 
  • Recognize when tenacity is a mask for denial
Each startup reveals something. Every time I go in wondering what will be different. I wonder what we will learn or be reminded of as the team moves through the startup process. Well, this time was no different. The slippery slope of the business began in February 2014. During that time we tried everything we could to save the business, but deep down we knew we were treading water if we didn't get a serious infusion of cash. In the meantime, it was the people and the relationships that kept the business afloat probably too long past what was fair to all involved.

After this experience, I am again reminded that people truly are the greatest asset of any business. At ShopTOS we all were quite different as individuals, but underneath we had the shared values that served the business in the best and worst times: devotion, commitment, tenacity, adaptability, and fierce loyalty. The people behind the scenes in any business are the real heroes. 

We've all moved on. Some of us are still working together on new, exciting projects that will no doubt yield more colorful war stories. In our new business we are looking at resurrecting a software concept for human capital development and management for which I had a provisional patent back in 2007. The time seems right with the new tech out there to circle back to it.

Would I do it all over again? You bet...in a heartbeat. Roller coasters fun. ;)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: The "magic" of your mind

In the previous section of the book I'm writing called Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects that is posted here, we considered how to define the situation in front of us as part of the Separate step of SED the process. The next part of the chapter explains what's happening in the background of our mind as the first impression of the situation takes shape. 


The thinking (and feeling) process explained

Many years ago I was curious about how our mind can react so instantly to people and things around us. At the time, it seemed to me impressions and thoughts came out of nowhere like magic, but I knew that didn't make sense. So I started doing a bit of research to understand the process. My hunch was if we better understood this seemingly magical process we might have an opportunity to respond more thoughtfully and intentionally when communicating with and responding to others.

So, how long does it take to form an impression of someone? Well, if you believe recent research, it takes between 100 and 150 milliseconds. To give you a sense of just how brief that is, we can use an example from language. All languages have phonemes which are sounds unique within that language. In English, we have the phoneme "cha" which takes about 250 milliseconds to say. Yep, that’s fast, but how is possible that impressions can pop up so quickly?!?

The brain has three major parts - the brainstem, the limbic area, and the cortical area.  The brainstem is the oldest part of our brain, and it is the bit we share with the lower ordered creatures on the planet like snakes and other reptiles. This is the part of our brain that takes care of autonomic functions like breathing, digestive processing, eliminating waste, etc. The brainstem regulates all those functions and keeps them in check which simply means we don't have to chew up our awareness with saying, "Come on, heart, pump" or "Breathe, lungs, breathe..."

The limbic brain is what one of my children affectionately refers to as the “feeling” brain. This section is the seat of our memories. When events occur, it is this part of our brain that tells our mind and our body how to feel in response. So when we encounter a long lost friend, see tear-jerking commercial on television, or hear someone crying or screaming, it's this part of our brain that calls up a memory which then triggers the chemicals inside of us to flood our body with emotion.

The cortical brain is the newest part of our brain, and it is considered to be our “thinking” brain. This is the part that uses logic to sort information and give it some order. It allows us to assess what we’re experiencing in our environment and then respond which is obviously critical to survival. The rub here is that it’s slower than the limbic brain. Remember that 100 to 150 milliseconds stat? Well, it’s the limbic brain that’s quick on the trigger. The cortical brain needs a bit more time - about 3.6 seconds to be exact.

I think you know where I’m going with this...

Flowing out the 100 millisecond to 3.6 second process

Just like most things in life there is a process and first impression response is no exception. There's a lot of science to this process, but to keep it simple, I’ve clustered the thinking/feeling process into three groups:

- Collect
- Respond
- Filter

Collect, Respond, and Filter have lots of things going on in each. What's interesting about the process is how it gets developed, and what's even more interesting is it doesn't just get created and stop. It actually grows, changes, and evolves over your lifetime. Your experiences, the people in your life, the things you do all inform this process. What does that mean to you and someone with whom you are working on a project?

Well, when you sit down to have a conversation with that person, you might think you and the other person are the only two people there, but actually that’s not the case. The reality is that you BOTH are bringing loads of people and experiences into the conversation. It’s these past experiences that help you make sense of the current experience.

In the next installment, we'll take a deeper look how these three groups work to deliver such a "magically" quick response. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: Get a handle on yourself first

Almost everyone wants to write a book until they really start writing it. That's me - I'm actually writing two: A nonfiction and a novel. 

For many years I've had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people in corporations and government agencies around the world. They have shared their stories and concerns with me in a search of solutions to very real problems. Interestingly, the problems they face are less about the mechanics of work and more about the human side of getting work done. In response I've made a concerted effort to learn and share as many facts, best practices, and processes as possible in a effort to address the behavioral aspects of their work that chew up much of their day. 

Now I'm finally doing it, and it is just as daunting, tedious, and scary as I thought it would be. I'm soldiering on despite knowing I'll have scores of revisions before the final product is finished.

The title of the nonfiction book is Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun whether it's in your professional or personal life. Some people don't have an issue with delivering bad news, and that's fantastic. I'd love to hear about your approach and technique. But there are those of us who do have a harder time sharing and responding to bad news. These are the people I hope this book will help.

Over the years I've experimented with an approach that is the foundation of this book. In an effort to get your response and feedback, I thought I'd start publishing pieces of the book chapters here. Writing can be a lonely endeavor so I'm looking forward to sharing the journey with you. 

Here's a segment of Chapter 5 which addresses the "Separate" step in a model I call SED.  SED stands for Separate, Evaluate, and Deliver. I look forward to your comments either here or via email.

Separate: How you do it

Maybe you’ve experienced a situation like one of the following:

Your project sponsor has significantly reduced your funding but still expects the same scope.

A major issue discovered during testing will require an additional three months work which will impact the critical due date. Oh, and by the way, in anticipation that project would wrap up on time, you’ve already started ramping up management of a new and even larger project!

Two primary project stakeholders can’t seem to get aligned on a solution for a crucial part of system build. The situation has eroded quickly and now they are refusing to work together.

You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the mandate.

Change is a reality on projects. I’ve always said I would love for a plan to be etched in stone right out of the gate, but we all know that’s not possible. There are simply too many variables and unknowns so in the spirit of Rolling Wave Planning we lay out the plan to the best of our ability and then respond and make adjustments to new information along the way.

The management part of this is using processes to collect, integrate, and distribute information and work requirements. There are are many fine publications that illustrate in detail the processes that support this. I’ve listed recommendations for these publications in the Appendix section of this book should you like to explore them further.

What is not necessarily covered in equivalent detail is how to assess, respond, and manage the emotional experience of change on the stakeholders (and you). Because bad news is likely the result of a change, we’ll break down the parts of the SED model to help you be more effective with assessing, responding, and managing the emotional experience of it.

Step 1 of Separate: Define the situation/event
Bad news is on the table: Now what?

To put a new spin on an old quote, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine," but for the sake of project management let’s make a slight adjustment:

To err is human; to separate and sort before responding, divine.

When we first become aware of a situation or event, it’s natural to jump right into a bunch of assumptions.  It is even more natural to make one of those assumptions your conclusion before you’ve fully assessed the situation. This is just the way the mind works - we use mental models to quickly assess and respond to the situation at hand.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our mind is constantly sifting through tons of information in an effort to make sense of the environment and experiences around us. The human brain likes order and will work very hard to create it as soon as possible. It’s important to understand the following:

"Context is the reality of the situation around us. Without context, our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts & recognize patterns that aren't really there. We connect the dots without first collecting the dots." From the book The Mission, the Men, and Me

The upside of this is that it enables us to rapidly respond to a variety of situations, to innovate, and to create. The downside of this is we make a ton of assumptions that miss the mark. As a matter of fact, research shows 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are correct, but here’s the rub: 50 to 60 percent of the time those assumptions are NOT correct.

Hmmm...time for a reality check, you say? Yep, you’re a quick one. :)

Let’s take a look at how that process works.

Making sense of information

Maybe you’re standing around the airport gate waiting to board your plane and a interesting person catches your eye.

Perhaps you’ve just been named project manager of a project that’s been in progress for several months. You steal a quick glance at the team before getting down to business.

You’re at a networking event and you see someone who looks like a person you met before. You walk up and introduce yourself, but suddenly realize this isn’t the same person.

What’s happening in your head during the initial moment of those situations? In what seems like an instant, thoughts creep up into your consciousness. You might reflexively make a statement about the person in your head, and then counter that thought with an “Oh, where did that impression come from?” Possibly you simply react without any forethought. Hopefully there’s no fallout from that potential “uh-oh” moment which is where you act on the thought without thinking about it.

So, how long do you think an instant is if you quantified it? Perhaps you’re thinking it is only a few minutes or several seconds.

What’s going on with your reflexive response? Maybe your response is that you “just know” or it’s “intuition.”

How can you form an impression of someone else so quickly? Where does it come from? Perhaps you simply assume that being on the planet and having a variety of experiences just gives you license to make quick decisions and conclusions without vetting them.

If any of those responses rolled through your head you’re not far off, but as with most things, there is a process we naturally follow.

In the next post, I'll address The thinking (and feeling) process explained which will address the process we following.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quote to recalibrate

When I saw this quote earlier today, it felt very appropriate and timely. 

Helping others be successful and feel loved helps us get out of our own way and deepen our experience of living life.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Social Train Wrecks And Why We Feel Compelled to Watch

Okay, I have to admit it. I like to watch. Yes, it’ll probably come as a great surprise to many of you that a therapist watches others. 

Well, NEWSFLASH… Apparently being a watcher of others doesn’t require you to be a therapist. It only requires that you be human. The experience of watching is one of the most fundamental processes we have for learning how to be in the world with others.

But not all watching experiences and the reasons we do it are the same.

Charlie Sheen, his tiger blood, AND his vmail rant to Denise Richards. Lindsay Lohan and her revolving jail stay experiences and vain attempts to stay “relevant.” Anthony Weiner and his bulge on Twitter. Mel Gibson and his taped racist rant. Dad’s letter and computer shooting rant on Facebook. Your high school friend’s public declaration for an old flame that ends with an even more public divorce followed up with a steady stream of sickening lovey-dovey posts between the newly betrothed. Oh, and did I mentioned that you’re Facebook friends with ALL OF THEM – him, her, the new woman and her now ex-husband???

People learn by watching others doing a variety of things essential to survival. Social learning theory is not new so it’s not some big revelation that we learn by watching others. Teachers, parents, spiritual guides, and other significant people in our lives model behavior and demonstrate socially acceptable ways of being and interacting with others.

We are curious by nature and seem driven by a need to know. That need to know varies among people. Some people have a need to know about political events. Others have a need to know about sports. Apparently many people have a need to know about celebrity. Watching others gives us something to talk about. It gives us something to do. It’s a platform for kicking around ideas, testing moral assumptions, and validating personal and social values.

Watching helps us feel connected to the world around us.

No navel gazing
“Whatever pleasure the experience of the possibility of being ignored once provided has been canceled out by the fear of being excluded, by the fear of not being counted. We don’t know ourselves through the quiet moments of contemplation where we suspend our social mimicry; instead we know ourselves when our social striving is represented back to us through social media’s scorecard.” ~From the article Selfishness and Self-absorption by Rob Horning

Now, this is the most basic way to think about watching others, but it is only a start to our watching ways. As a matter of fact, I think there are levels of watching that kick off a chain reaction of emotional and physical responses that are unique, exciting, and sometimes even scary. The experience can range from passive acknowledgement to delusions of access to the people and situations we’re watching.

We watch to gather information, to judge, to assess, to get ideas, to compare, to inspire, and even to get aroused. Our response to watching is linked to our purpose for doing so. For the longest time we only had social events to do our watching, but television and film changed all that by offering people privacy to passively consume things rarely seen or experienced in real life. This medium works well for many, but it was a one-way experience until the Internet came along.

Watching didn’t start with social media. Reality TV cut a more direct path to watching social and personal train wrecks, but with the introduction of the Internet and mobile devices, suddenly the experience of watching assumed a whole new level because it became an interactive experience.  It also took on a faster-than-the-speed-of-light pace. Pre-Internet trends would take months and even years to form. Now it can happen in the matter of days or even hours, and lucky us…we have a front row seat if we want it.

People can now safely linger in the shadows of cyberspace and not just consume experiences of their choice to their heart’s (or loin’s) content. They can now influence it, interact with it, and actually create it. Watching takes on a range of experiences from passively glancing at your friends’ Facebook posts to actively engaging adult entertainment experiences or even illicit behavior via the dark web.

There are positives and negatives to watching. The upside of watching others is when we see other people doing good deeds. Seeing others doing nice things is infectious and can put us in a better mood as it turns out.  It can also inspire people to try something new or different, generate empathy, and ignite national and global campaigns.

The downside of watching is becoming obsessed to the point of stalking or the appearance of stalking. When the behavior gets to this point, it can be considered clinical voyeurism and should to be treated by a professional.

Morbid curiosity is a natural part of the human experience. We just seem to have an attraction to what’s been dubbed “macabre voyeurism.” We are attracted to and hang with the Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, and drama-filled Facebook friend situations in search of a logical, other-side-of-chaos experience as noted in Eric G. Wilson book Everyone Lovesa Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.

I see it as a form of entertainment. Humankind has had stories since the beginning. We’ve written them, watched them performed, and starred in them. It offers an escape, a fantasy that’s different from our day-to-day operational existence. We’re glad the dramas aren’t ours, but we do enjoy watching them because they show us the riskier, more uncertain side of living.

Maybe the social train wrecks reflect some darker or crazier side of self we all like to pretend doesn’t exist within us or we’re aware of it but simply keep buried or managed. Perhaps it’s a form of vicarious experience. It’s through others we can experience extremes without the messiness or responsibility of the resulting fall out. That’s part of the joy of Halloween, mascarade parties, and fantasy play. For just a little bit of time we can roll up our social facade and play in safety. In between those times, we can just go on watching others.

What do you find interesting to watch in social media sites?

Originally published at tokiilab.com and business2community.com.