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    Wednesday
    Sep052012

    Self-assessments: You can't be honest even if you want to be

    Exhibit A for your consideration from Business Insider:

    "The Romney Campaign Is Hammering Obama For Giving Himself An 'Incomplete' Grade On The Economy"

    The Romney campaign is slamming President Obama for saying in a local television interview in Colorado that he would give himself an "incomplete" grade on fixing the economy, blasting the president for not even awarding himself a passing grade.Obama characterized his record on handling the economy as "incomplete" when KKTV News reporter Dianne Derby asked him what grade he would give himself. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was quick to respond to Obama's remarks this morning on CBS. “Four years into a presidency and it’s incomplete?" he said on CBS' "This Morning" with Charlie Rose. "The President is asking people just to be patient with him? 

    Forget the politics on this example, that really isn't the point. The point is no matter what answer/grade the President gave himself, his opponents and detractors would have ammunition and opportunity to go on the attack.

    Answer the question too positively or optimistically - 'The economy is doing great, we are on track to have everyone in America back to work, a chicken in every pot, a shiny new car in every garage, etc.', and he gets destroyed as being colossally out of touch and remote from the reality many are facing across the country.

    Go too negative and self-critical - 'Well, unemployment is still over 8% and has been that way for years, the price of gas is climbing, the national debt is out of control, etc.' - and the other side will jump all over that, painting him as not just a failure, (they are doing that already), but as one who admits his failings and is likely in over his head.

    Now you can agree or disagree with his policies, but either way Obama is a sharp guy, (again keeping politics out of this), so he tries to answer the question, do the self-assessment, with a bit of a hedge - he rates his performance as 'Incomplete' and tries to do the sensible thing, highlight some of his accomplishments, (he wants to get re-elected after all), but also pointing out there are some areas that still need improvement and focus, (thus trying not to come off sounding like naive and disconnected with reality). But in trying to play both sides against the center, in a way, the 'Incomplete' sort of comes off as kind of hollow, flat, and unsatisfying. And of course his opponents jump on that as well.

    The truth is, the question is mostly unfair, since every possible answer is 'wrong', (sort of like the 'When did you stop kicking your dog?' question). And this recent, and widely reported example of a self-assessment points out the problems inherent in any kind of self evaluation, which are used in the workplace by lots and lots of organizations as the jumping off point for an annual performance management process.

    In fact, I'll bet the hatred that many folks profess for the typical performance management process stems from the fact that it usually starts with the self-evaluation, a process step and exercise that is almost impossible to get 'right' and difficult even for the most self-aware to complete in a manner that actually adds real value to actual performance.

    As Obama's recent 'Incomplete' reminds us, and in the word of the ever-prescient Admiral Ackbar, (yes, I am making an Admiral Ackbar reference), 'It's a trap!

    Can you ever win the self-assessment? 

    Can you really be honest evaluating your own performance and effectiveness and not come off sounding like a pompous jerk?

    If you've figured out the secret, maybe the re-election campaign could use your help.

    Tuesday
    Sep042012

    First day of school

    Today, September 4, is the first day of school where I live in Western New York. 

    The first day of school is almost like a second chance at a New Year, the unofficial start of a four month sprint to the end of the calendar year, at which point many if not most of us will take stock of the last 12 months, organizing events into little mental win and loss columns, and just as likely set a course for the next 12 months, usually in hopes that whatever disappointments the just concluded year revealed, that the new start the turning of the calendar page provides can help to wipe away regret and point the way towards something better. In a way, the first day of school is a built-in status check or reference point on how the year has progressed.Generic image of school buses

    For me, as I think about where things sit as the bus pulls away, I am one of the really lucky ones I'd say.

    I am doubly fortunate to have both a really interesting and challenging job and to have the the flexibility I usually have in my schedule that I was able to seem my new middle school son off to this morning, as well as be able to see him when he returns home this afternoon.

    Lucky for sure.

    Recently, a friend, an executive in her organization told me about the first day of school preparations where she lives, a part of the country where school started a few weeks back. The day before the big day, as she left the office, she casually mentioned to one of her team members something like, 'Goodnight Mary Sue, I'll see you tomorrow around 10 or so?'

    Mary Sue was a little taken aback, and asked, 'What do mean, I plan to be in at 8:00?', (her 'normal' start time). 

    And my friend said, 'Well I will be in at around 10, tomorrow is the first day of school in my town, and I definitely don't want to miss getting the kids off in the morning. I would think you would want to do the same, so take care of them, and then come in after that.'

    Mary Sue was momentarily speechless, and then finally replied, 'Thank you, thank you very much, that really means a lot to me, and no boss has ever thought to offer to let me be with the kids on the first day of school. I will be in just as soon as the bus leaves.'

    We study and ponder and measure and opine about engagement, motivation, performance, blah blah blah. Honestly, it's all getting kind of boring. Managers and leaders, (and certainly employees), simply remembering that the organization is composed of actual living, breathing, feeling, and caring people, and occasionally acting upon that realization is probably in the long run more important to the success of organizations and our ability to feel like we are doing the right thing with our lives.

    I do believe I am a lucky guy. I'd guess I would call Mary Sue lucky as well.

    Happy First Day of School!

    Friday
    Aug312012

    Thirteen versions of the same thing

    Neat piece on a photography blog called Canonblogger a few days back titled 'Can You Shoot Thirteen Views?' which challenged readers, I'm assuming them all to be fairly serious photography enthusiasts, to pick an object or scene, anything really, and shoot thirteen different photos of the object, adjusting and changing lighting, exposure, etc. to create a collection of similar but slightly different images of said object.Source - Canonblogger

    The point of the exercise? That the simple process of creating 13 versions of the original image, or new takes on the existing idea for the image, is likely to produce something much more interesting and valuable than what existed at the starting point.

    From the Canonblogger piece:

    Go get your camera and pick some random object in your room, office, or wherever you happen to be. Now what?

    Take 13 pictures of that object. Make each one different! Change the angle, change the light, change the object itself. It doesn't matter what you do, just do 13 different things. I can guarantee you that at least one of those photos will be something new, unique and even compelling.

    Kind of a neat and really simple exercise, particularly given the near-zero cost of digital imaging today, (each additional picture on the camera's memory card costs essentially nothing), and considering the amazingly accessible and powerful tools and apps like Instagram that are available to photographers of all skill levels.  Creating 5 or 10 or even 20 'versions' of an image has never been more possible and approachable.

    Why bother? Well as the post suggests, the more images one takes of an object, the numbers do increase the likelihood of creating something new and compelling, that much seems obvious. But for me, there also might be a lesson about our perceived capability to experiment, speculate, and explore in other areas beyond simple digital photography.

    Most everything we do, projects, processes, even technology development, seems to start from a fixed place - a given set of assumptions, circumstances, work that has gone on before we get our hands on whatever mess opportunity we are inheriting. That starting point, maybe 'Image 1' in the 13 images example above, often determines a large part of the eventual outcome of the endeavor, sort of the old 'Where you end up depends on where you start' gimmick.

    If you buy-in to that theory, or at least suspect it might have some truth to it, then taking perhaps just a bit of extra time at the start, to challenge assumptions, to examine more closely the status quo, to really honestly assess whether constraints are real or just imagined might prove valuable and open up a wider range of possibilities, and eventual outcomes as well.

    The 'Take 13 images' example reminds us, even simple things like objects often can tell much different stories when viewed just a little bit differently. If that is true for static objects, it is no doubt true for the more complex ideas and relationships and technologies that you might be working today with as well.

    Have a Great Weekend!

    Thursday
    Aug302012

    I'm not really properly motivated

    Most readers who are parents would likely agree with me when I say that of all the challenges we face in various parts of our lives, that convincing a stubborn kid to do something, (or more likely, to continue to do something so as it becomes a habit), is probably right up these on the frustrating and maddening scale.

    When the kids are really young, say less than 5, logic and reasoning are (mostly) useless as negotiating tactics, and once they get a little bit older they develop a pesky ability to apply their own forms of logic and let's say unique world views to bat back most of your well-reasoned and completely reasonable demands. Never mind that as parents we almost always give up really fast trying to actually see the problem from the kid's perspective, after all, it is the one time in our lives when we have (pretty much) absolute power in the negotiation. And breaking out 'Because I said so' or 'Because I am the parent and you are the kid' might both be fully valid, accurate, and successful ways to put an end to any discussion around behavior modification, they also feel kind of hollow and depressing to have to rely upon, at least too frequently.  Dilbert.com

    Whether it's a reluctant kid who can't see the inherent wisdom in simply doing whatever it is you want him/her to do, or a pesky colleague, manager, or subordinate at work that for some reason is having trouble seeing the brilliance (or at least the logic) in whatever fool idea you are pushing, it seems to me it is getting more important all the time to appreciate the absolute value of being able to have your ideas, if not adopted wholly, at least understood and maybe, maybe even supported by collections of folks that have their own ideas about how things should go. Like the kid who does not seem enthused about mundane activities like 'room cleaning', the truth is most folks won't naturally or willingly see the value to them of listening to you, making the 'I'm the boss/parent/teacher/coach' your all-too-frequently uses fall back position, and discussion-ender.

    I know all contentious debates do need to come to an end for any progress to be made. The kid's room has to be cleaned, homework has to get done, the TPS reports have to go out, and on and on and on.

    But how the debate ends I think is important, and how the accumulation of these endings over time begin to impact the ability of any type of leader, be it a parent, manager, or coach, to get people around them working towards mutually beneficial ends matters.

    As a parent, if you keep pulling the 'Because I'm the Dad' line, it is probably a sign of some other kind of problem, perhaps a little bit of a lack of seeing their point of view. As my 11 year old explained to me recently, 'It's not that I don't want to, it's just that I'm not really properly motivated'.

    Sure, I could have trotted out the 'Tough luck kid, I am the Dad', (I actually think I did), but there certainly was the feeling that I should not have had to go there. That the kid should have intuitively understood the wisdom/logic/importance of whatever it was I wanted him to do. And the fact that he did not, well, that was completely and totally his problem or failing, not mine.

    That's how it works when you are the boss, right?

    Monday
    Aug272012

    Could a robot do your job?

    I've run about a gazillion posts on this site over the last few years about the increasing encroachment of automated technologies and the continual forward progression of smarter and smarter robots that are relentlessly replacing human workers in all manner of capacities and in more and varied industries.

    Robots and robotic technology and their growing presence in the workplace are no longer new or even novel subjects. But still, even when I know I have read hundreds of these kinds of pieces, and written more than my share of similar, every month or so a new and detailed examination of the new era of robotics at work gives me pause, and smacks me across the mug as a kind of reminder that while we like to talk about some vague concept called 'The future of work' as some kind of nirvana of social, mobile, and virtual collection of random and fantastic collaborations, that really this 'future' has just as much a chance to look grim, dystopic, and (mostly) lacking in actual people.

    Do yourself a favor and take some time to read 'Skilled Work, Without the Worker' from the New York Times. The longish piece written by John Markoff does a thorough job presenting examples of the ever-growing application of robot technology in the workplace, particularly in areas and in functions where robots had previously feared to tread, like in distribution centers and even in sportswriting.

    If you don't have the time or are not as inclined as I to read yet another 'robots are taking our jobs' piece I will save you some time with three paragraphs that will give you the flavor of the article, and hopefully make you stop for a moment or two to think about your role, your company, and the real 'future of work' our children will inherit"

    Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own industry.)

    Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.

    Such advances in manufacturing are also beginning to transform other sectors that employ millions of workers around the world. One is distribution, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprinters can store, retrieve and pack goods for shipment far more efficiently than people. Robots could soon replace workers at companies like C & S Wholesale Grocers, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, which has already deployed robot technology.

    Sure, you can read pieces like this, or read posts like many of the ones I have done over the years about this topic and think - 'That's interesting, but I don't have to worry about that. I'm a knowledge worker,  I'm a leader. No robot can do my job.'

    Maybe so. Maybe no one robot can do your entire job as it is constituted today. But probably some element of any job could be fully automated, and who is to say that a more flexible approach to both role definition coupled with we know will be the continuous improvement and advancement of robot technology would change the way your organization looks at all kinds of jobs, including the ones held by smarty-pants knowledge workers like you.

    So if the question is really 'Could a robot do your job?', it is increasingly looking like there are only two possible answers. 'Yes' and 'Not yet.'