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    Entries in workplace (80)


    People, not projects

    In between games of the NBA playoffs this weekend and as I was digging through a couple of weeks of 'saved' items in my Feed reader, (anyone still using feed readers?), I came across a link to a Quora thread aiming to address the question 'What made Xerox PARC, (the legendary reseearch shop in Palo Alto), so special?'

    One of the responses, from Alan Kay, offered eight reasons why PARC (and the earlier ARPA) were so effective, and in reading Kay's observations, I thought the first five were pretty applicable to just about any organization that is faced with the need to remain, (or become) innovative and dynamic.

    The first five points are below, I think they pretty much are self-explanatory, so I will just repeat them here and send you on your way on a sunny Monday:

    There was a vision: “The destiny of computers is to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world pervasively networked worldwide”.

    A few principles:

    1. Visions not goals
    2. Fund people not projects — the scientists find the problems not the funders. So, for many reasons, you have to have the best researchers.
    3. Problem Finding — not just Problem Solving
    4. Milestones not deadlines
    5. It’s “baseball” not “golf” — batting .350 is very good in a high aspiration high risk area. Not getting a hit is not failure but the overhead for getting hits. (As in baseball, an “error” is failing to pull off something that is technically feasible.)

    Really solid stuff, I think.

    Start with a vision, but one that is short, cogent, and easily rallied around by the right people. Then set about giving those right people support and space to execute on that vision. And allow 'misses' from time to time, after all, even the best baseball players fail more than 60% of the time.

    Easy, right?

    But much easier said than done. Probably why we still talk about legendary places like PARC all these years later. They are the unicorn stories we keep having to cling to.

    That's it, I'm out. Have a great week!


    Blue Monday

    Blue Monday is not just the name of a New Order song from the 80s, it is also the designation given to the third Monday in January (that is today, in case you are still sleepy), by the British academic Cliff Arnall. Dr. Arnall postulated that a combination of factors including gloomy winter weather, holiday debts, time since Christmas and a general lack of motivation conspire to make this day, the 'bluest' or most depressing day of the year.

    And while it might be easy to pass off the idea of Blue Monday, or any most depressing day of the year as kind of a silly joke, I think like all good jokes there is at least some truth lurking within. For most of this past weekend (at least here in the USA), the news was dominated by extreme winter weather events, the impending inauguration of a new President that without getting into the politics of it, seems to have at least half the population in a tizzy, and punctuated by your favorite sports team losing in the big game.

    It is really, really easy to get a little down this time of year. Yesterday I thought I saw a small sliver of blue sky in what has been a typical, relentless, and yes, depressing series of gray, wet, and cold winter days. I actually stopped what I was doing to stare for a minute, (maybe I should have taken a picture), at a sight I had almost forgotten about. Immediately after completing this post, I am booking a trip to someplace warmer and sunnier.

    I'm joking, but only kind of. When you think about the concept of Blue Monday, and think about how you fired up you were, (or were not), when you were forced to crawl out of your warm bed and face the cold, dark, and potentially icy day, then I bet for many of you, (and the folks you work with), Blue Monday does not sound all that crazy.

    It is tough out there. It is especially tough today, if Dr. Arnall's formula is even a fair indicator of how the combination of weather, work, and personal pressures all seem to come together and smack you in the face this time of year.

    So here's my advice, (I hope to take it myself), for Blue Monday. Go outside, (if ice is not falling from the sky, I mean). Pet your dog. Or find someone else's dog to pet. Take a real lunch break. Call a friend. Eat something that is not on your diet. And finally, most importantly, be nice to each other. We are all in this crappy Blue Monday together.

    And if all that fails, feel encouraged that as bad as it gets today, well, things are only going to start looking up from here.

    Happy Blue Monday.

    Have a great week!


    Learn a new word: The Grey Swan Event

    For some fun for a snowy Friday, (at least in my part of the world), let's have another installment of the often imitated but never duplicated 'Learn a new word' series, wherein I share the definition and give a couple of examples of a word, phrase, or concept I never knew before recently.

    You likely have heard of the term 'Black Swan', an event or occurrence, (sometimes even a person of rare talent), that is unpredictable, (really NOT predictable), is incredibly unique, happens infrequently, and often has significant consequences. Some examples of 'Black Swans' could be a disruptive new invention, like the internet, a global conflict like World War I, or a business or economic event that could not be predicted like the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. 

    Black Swans are so rare, so unpredictable, and so unique that generally speaking it is a waste of time, energy, and resources to try and predict them or forecast or plan for them.

    But not all unusual or unanticipated events are true Black Swans. Some of these, at least in theory, could be foreseen or at least imagined. These kinds of events are today's Learn a new word', these are the 'Grey Swans'. The Grey Swan is an unlikely, but impactful event that generally lies outside the base case for business planning but can, if you have just a little bit of ability to think laterally, be envisaged.

    The chart on the right created by Nomura Securities shows a few of these Grey Swan possibilities from the world of global economics and finance. Some seem kind of crazy, and some, maybe not so much out ot the realm of potential economic events.

    When Nomura put together these possible Grey Swan events, they were purposefully seeking to identify, and more importantly try and plan for, events that are not being generally discussed, remain under the radar, but if they did occur would have significant, and potentially negative consequences for the bank's business.

    The lesson for the rest of us as we wind down 2016 and think about our plans for next year?

    Maybe build in a few Grey Swans of your own into your scenario planning for 2017. Maybe the CEO AND the COO might both resign in the first quarter. Maybe the new administration will dramatically reduce the availability of foreign worker visas, or maybe Amazon will decide to get into your business, and disrupt the heck out of everything you do.

    Who knows? That's why these kinds of events are called Grey Swans.

    Sure, they probably won't happen. But if one does, it sure will be good to be the guy or gal who saw it coming.

    Have a great weekend!


    The Geometry of the Deal

    So do you want to know what I did this past Saturday night? 

    Scratch that, I assure you that you do not, as you would likely become distracted having to navigate the simultaneous emotions of boredom, pity, and incredulity.

    So let's pretend for both of our sakes that I didn't spend a good portion of Saturday night re-watching (thank you Amazon Prime), the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift, a 'based on real events' telling of the late-night TV wars of the 1990s following the retirement of TV legend Johnny Carson, long time host of NBC's The Tonight Show.

    (Ok, just between us, this is what I did on Saturday night, don't judge, and roll with me on this)

    Quick recap of the movie's key elements: 

    1. Johnny announces his plans to retire from TV in May of 1992, giving NBC effectively a full years notice and time to select his successor

    2. NBC has to decide who will be the next host of The Tonight Show, an extremely important decisions because (at least in 1992), The Tonight Show was still very popular, and extremely profitable. This was a big deal for NBC, (and their corporate owner at the time, GE).

    3. There are only two candidates. One, Jay Leno, who was well-liked, funny, (he was), and had become Johnny's regular guest host in the last few years of Johnny's run. And two, David Letterman, who had been hosting the Late Night Show on NBC, (the 12:30AM show that ran right after Johnny) for the past 10 years, and who was also popular, if slightly more edgy and hip than Leno.

    4. The rest of the movie, (I won't spoil it for you, as if I need to worry about dropping a spoiler for a 20 year-old movie), runs through what happens in the run-up to NBC's eventual decision, and the chaos and corporate drama which almost immediately ensues.

    I decided to watch this movie again for one specific reason, and that was not because I could not remember who did get The Tonight Show.

    No, it was because I recently was in a discussion with a friend regarding a real-life contract negotiation, and during that discussion I wanted to advise my friend to essentially 'think bigger', to not necessarily get bogged down in trying to 'win' on the small items, but rather to try and garner support for something more expansive, something more wide and far-reaching, frankly for a pretty significant re-interpretation and definition of the business relationship altogether.

    And then the phrase I was wrestling with trying to articulate finally popped into my head - I wanted him to change 'the geometry of the deal'.

    And then, I remembered where I first, (and I am pretty sure the only) time I heard that phrase - the movie The Late Shift.

    About a third of the way through the movie, Letterman comes to realize that NBC intends on awarding The Tonight Show host job to Leno, and is frustrated and confused and doesn't really know how to move forward. His ally (and Carson's producer), Peter Lassaly advises Dave to meet with a Hollywood agent, something Dave has in the past had no interest in doing. Lassally does convince Dave to meet with one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, Mike Ovitz, and the 'geometry' line comes from Ovitz, when he sits down to meet with Letterman and Lassally.

    (Note: I can't find a clip of just the Ovitz meeting, below is a YouTube embed of the full movie, fast forward to 35:12 for the meeting, which is only a little over 2 minutes long). Email and RSS subscribers, click through.

    Here's the text of the Ovitz speech as well, in case you can't be bothered to mess around with the clip:

    Michael Ovitz: Peter, I know Dave's circumstances, and so I know why you're here. Dave is a star of such compelling stature that frankly it makes me personally angry he finds himself this abused. We pride ourselves here at CAA in developing a career plan for our clients that protects them as much as it enriches them. David has set such an incredibly high professional standard and yet he is going disturbingly unrewarded. That just doesn't make any sense; it's simply bad business practice. Obviously, we have an interest in establishing a business relationship with you Dave, and you Peter. Frankly, we have worked out a career plan for David, and it includes securing everything for Dave that he wants. EVERYTHING. Of course that means an 11:30 television show. Dave will be offered an 11:30 show, and he will be offered it by every network. The geometry of the deal will be far larger, the studios will be in, the syndicators, the full range of the entertainment industry. We shall frame a deal that will make you one of the giants. And if you give us the privilege of working with you, CAA will take care of everything your talents deserve, and his spirit desires.

    Awesome, right?

    And if you did watch the clip in the movie when Ovitz makes the speech you will catch his confidence, his preparedness, ("Peter, I know Dave's circumstances"), and his all-around dominance of the proceedings. Dave leaves the meeting much more confident himself, which is how all the best coaches, agents, teachers, leaders, or bosses make the people they work with feel.

    But most of all, and why this is so cool is that phrase - 'The Geometry of the Deal'. It's been in my head for 20 years, and now, hopefully, it's in your head too.

    Go kick some a$$ this week.

    I will try to as well.


    It's not too early to start planning next year's vacation

    Even though it is only mid-October, I found myself spending a decent amount of time this past weekend thinking about 2017 vacation plans. It could be that I am still a little tired from coming off the recently concluded HR Technology Conference, which is for me the busiest week of my year and am still in needing of some R&R. Or it just could be, and now that I think about it I am sure it is this, that if I don't take some active and purposeful steps pretty soon to lock in some vacation plans for 2017, that I run the risk of not actually making it happen at all next year.

    Why? Why do I think it necessary to try to plan out some time off 5 or 6 or maybe even 9 or 10 months from now? That seems a little ridiculous. I mean, I normally take a very short term view on life. I don't like to commit to things or events too far in advance, as something ALWAYS comes up. Heck, I don't even buy green bananas any longer. Who has that kind of time to wait? Sure, buy this banana today, and MAYBE it will be ready to eat by Thursday.

    The main reason I think to start thinking about and planning next year's vacation now, or at least soon, is that if I don't, and I suspect many of you will be in the same predicament as well, (my USA readers anyway), is that the vacation just won't happen. American workers leave a RIDICULOUS amount of unused vacation days on the table each year. A recent study released by the folks at Project TimeOff, (they maybe should change their name to 'Project We Never Take any Time Off'), concludes that as many as 658,000,000 paid vacation days were left unused by American workers in 2015.

    And this unused glut of vacation days comes at a price, to both the workers themselves, (I suppose 'ourselves'), and the organizations as well. From the individual's perspective the benefits of disconnecting from work are real and they are readily apparent - the need to decompress and break away from what is for many a busy, stressful workplace, the chance to spend quality time with family or friends, and even the added and often unexpected benefit of generating new or interesting ideas to solve workplace challenges with the burden of the day-to-day temporarily removed from your mind. And for organizations, they clearly are better served by a workforce that has the opportunity to get away from work once in a while, to recharge, and who generally return from their break more engaged and more energized, (and often with new ideas and perspective). Add in the estimated $272 Billion liability of unused vacation time sitting on American companies balance sheets and you see for organizations there is also a tangiible financial benefit to employee's actually using their vacation time. 

    So why don't American workers use more of their earned vacation time? 

    The Project TimeOff study offers a few reasons, but the most prominent one boils down to organizational culture - most managers do not encourage staff to take time off, over 60% of managers themselves don't take their allotted time off, most leaders don't encourage taking vacation either, and employees (and managers), don't feel secure enough that needed work can get done if they are off on vacation. 

    It all adds up to the situation mentioned above, 650 million unused vacation days and pushing $300 billion of vacation liability on the books.

    What can be done about this to reverse these trends? A few, simple things really. Make sure your people are not punished, (or feel like they might be otherwise negatively impacted), by taking time off. Make sure that 'taking time off' is part of the normal year-end or year-start planning and goal-setting processes for every employee. Do your best to stave off the 'hero' mentality in so many workplaces that seems to equate 'time spent at work' with 'high performance' or dedication. There are a few more suggestions in the The Project TimeOff study which is a good, quick read, and I encourage you to check it out, and especially show it to your managers of people as well, they may not realize the influence that they have on staff.

    So is it strange that in the middle of the first month of the 4th quarter of the year, often the busiest of times for many organizations and workers that I am pitching for you to think about next year's vacation? 


    But if you don't, or if you put if off to a time when you are not so busy, (whenever that is), ask yourself when you will actually take the time to plan for the time off that you know you need. The data shows that most of us are not very good at doing that.

    And once I get my travel plans set, I will be sure to gloat about them here.

    Have a great week!