Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Algebra or Calculus?

The great thing about traveling to for work is when you get to spend time in another country with people you don't normally get to spend time. The time difference, the stress of the unknown, and the lack of sleep is a powerful combination for creating some strong conversations.

One of my friends last night brought up the subject of leadership styles. Specifically, we were discussing how much help to provide people who are struggling. Do you provide them all the answers, and cover for their short-comings? Do you hold them accountable which invariably leads to some very upset and stressed individuals? Is there somewhere in the middle between direct involvement and letting them work things out for themselves?

We didn't necessary arrive at conclusions, and I don't think we were trying for any. It was more one of those casual conversations where you can see people working out what they think by talking and questioning.
To be in the weakest camp is to be in the strongest school.
- Heretics
For my own part, I think it very much depends on what is at stake in the endeavor. If very much is to be gained or the downside of failure isn't necessarily survivable, then stepping in with more direct involvement is probably warranted. On the other hand, as a matter of course, I tend to give people plenty of room to work things out themselves. Some might even say I give people too much wiggle room.

The funny thing about leadership is how different it can be than management. In some ways, managing people is much like solving an algebra equation. The variables are fairly limited and constrained so a solution is pretty easy to work towards regardless of how complicated it might at first appear. Contrast that with leadership which to my mind is more like doing calculus. You have to solve for multiple functions simultaneously and while the simple algebraic operations come into play, they are manipulated in much higher orders.

In any case, I do consider it a privilege to discuss these topics when approached. There is still much to learn and refine.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Seeking Simplicity

Large projects are very different from small projects. Large team dynamics work on fundamentally different rules than small team dynamics. This isn't something that would be readily apparent or appreciated in its fullness unless and until you have slogged through them both.

My recent endeavors allow me great insight into the working mindset of a variety of people around me. It is a great joy for me, that even after all this time, I still am able to find refinements in my own thinking just from watching the mental meanderings of others. It is a great sadness that reverse is so infrequently true. Alas my communication skills are just inept. Hence the blog.

As I compare and contrast the endpoints we each inevitably reach as we drag our thoughts to their logical conclusion, I am reminded of the how and why I metaphorically strive to drink the Juice of Sapho during each and every conversation. If the thoughts do not acquire speed, the sheer number of available pathways looms large and grows faster causing us invariably to become overwhelmed. It is only when thoughts acquire speed that we can indeed make progress. Much like any orbital mechanics problem, if you want to go faster, you have to slow down.

I've written often of the need for simplicity and generalization as a means to efficiency. Efficiency is often used interchangeably with speed as speed is often a side-effect or result of efficiency. When I speak of generalization (which leads to simplicity, which leads to efficiency) you will often find it described in terms of elegance. And I am not the only one who strives as such:
When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.
-- Richard Buckminster Fuller
While we often search for aids that allow us to go faster, such as the Juice of Sapho, we often forget that the most direct way to increase our speed, is simply to go slower.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Taking My Own Medicine

Do you ever have the same conversation repeat itself with more than one person in just a very short span of time? It recently happened to me.

We were discussing skills that one might need to be a better consultant. Please ignore for now the sweeping generalization that is "consultant". In reality, the different people I conversed with are from different walks of life, attempting to be good at very different things. I am generalizing because the conversations were so very similar in context if not content.

The gist of the context was how important being able to take in a breadth of information, efficiently identify what is important, organize your thoughts succinctly about that information, and articulate a response quickly. For almost any form of knowledge-based service, this is a crucial skill. Whether you are providing technology leadership about a specific solution, personal leadership about a career, or creative leadership as part of sales, the patterns are similar. Admittedly I only came to this after the fact, once the conversations had transpired.

In each case, we were discussing how one gets better at that process. Each of them used different language to describe their process, but each provided the same answer: practice. When we dove into what the process looked like for the purposes of identifying how one might go about practicing the fundamentals, the same pattern emerged. Again, I didn't realize they were the same during the conversations only in retrospect.

As we discussed what are the fundamentals that one should practice, again the same concept came out: writing. Writing is widely understood to be one of the best means for helping you practice organizing your thoughts. The ability to make thoughts concrete so they can moved around, weighed, and compared is only possible by writing them down. Almost every form of self-help, get-better, be-the-best scheme out there has a component of writing. But I have found that writing by itself is not enough.
For Practice to be Effective it should be:
1. Written.
2. Relevant.
3. Read.

The more feedback the better. The more public, the more feedback.
If you are going to write there are two additional factors that should be considered. The first is relevance. Why put time into something that isn't interesting to you? It needs to be something you can be passionate about or you won't stick with it. You won't really put in the energy if you don't care about the subject you write about. I have found that you can truly write about any subject that matters as long as it is relevant in your thoughts.

The second factor is that it must be read. For some people this only means that they themselves must be willing to come back after some significant time has passed and read their words. If no more than that is done I believe some benefit can be gained. In fact, I feel that only once it is read is any significant benefit to be gained from the writing.

If at all possible though, the greatest benefit is by sharing your words. Share them someone close if that is all you dare, share them with the world if you can. The feedback to be garnered is where the real learning comes in to play. If you recognize that your writing is the practice for your thoughts, then you need the feedback to know how to get better.

Before you think I am only talking about blogging or something, let me caution that there are many ways that aren't as obvious as a blog to engage in writing and get feedback. You can join a user community and participate in the forum posts, you write letters to the editor of your paper. You can read other blogs and post comments. There are dozens of opportunities to find subject matter that is relevant to you, write about it, and have it be read. Do you have email communities at your work? Read and respond! Not into public displays of writing (PDW)? Keep a journal and have your friends, advisors, therapist, read it over.

If you want to learn to think fast and articulate well, practice your writing. You can even start now, write me a comment. ;-)