Thursday, February 19, 2009

3 Tenets to Being Better

Lately, I've found myself having to teach a lot of beginner-level engineering techniques. Any time I work with people who are just getting started in their chosen fields, the same type of conversation occurs. They inevitably want to know how to get better. In some cases, they want to know how to be the best.

The funny part happens with those who take a while to get to the point of asking for help. You see, the good ones usually have achieved some small measure of success already. So they're feeling particularly competent and capable. And faced with demanding situations, where they find themselves out of their depth, they don't always immediately recognize it. And even if they do sense the impending doom, they don't necessarily want someone else to help them. They want to try and swim a little on their own first.

So whether they are really good, or they just think they are, they ultimately end up having to ask for the opinions of more senior people in their field. The more they flounder, the less helpful I can be. The less they struggle, the more help I can give them in specific situations.

Now the truly gifted ones don't just ask for help with a specific situations, they want to understand the principles involved. They want to know how to become better, which is more than just sucking less.

Over the years, I've found myself giving a lot of the same specific principles that are built on only a couple of foundational tenets.

  1. Learn the basics completely and comprehensively.
    Reading voraciously. Read everything you can get your hands on from people who are actually doing the type of work you want to do. Know the conventions they use, learn the language, the vocabulary and the slang.
  2. Build up your style, your repertoire of techniques, and stick with them.
    Pick the tried and true methods that you prefer and practice. Have defensible answers for your choices, so make them deliberately. Keep the number of techniques manageable and deviate as little as possible. Don't switch without overwhelmingly compelling reasons.
  3. Fail fast and when failure is cheap do it often.
    If you are doing something new, don't be afraid to take risks. Just make sure they are recoverable and inexpensive. Prototype, mock-up, white-board, sketch, and pseudo-code as much as possible. If something has the potential to go down, get to the stress point as quick as possible so you can address it quickly or get passed it.

A few things to consider about these tenets is that they aren't just about learning quickly. They are about unlearning quickly as well. You can't embrace something new until you get past your hang-ups from your history. When you can unlearn quickly you will be more creative and nimble in your solutions going forward.

Being deliberate in your choices means you will be more consistent and reliable in the majority of things you do; specifically the things that matter. You'll know the choices that matter because they are the things you chose early and from which you rarely deviate. When your choices can withstand fads, trends, and the stylistic preferences of others, you'll know they are well chosen and important.

There is more to just making quick choices. Your choices need to either fail quickly or last a long time. This is usually measured as effectiveness. To make more effective choices, you need focus, creativity, and deliberation.

This notion of making deliberate choices and sticking with them is an aspect of mindfulness. In the 2004 edition of Scientific American Mind, the first issue, you'll find some great technical details about the notion of mindfulness from a neuro-scientific standpoint.

I just know that people who are more mindful are more effective, and being the best is usually about being the most effective.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Just Beyond

Do you have friends that are continually pursuing the same goals? They have something they want/need and they talk about it all the time but never seem to get it? They might want a better job, to be in a relationship, more time, more money, or less stress. And with this friend, it doesn't matter what they do, the goal is always eluding them. Sound familiar?

I certainly run into my share of individuals like this. They always want advice, or help, or a connection. With enough practice, these individuals are easy for me to spot, even when I'm not very familiar with them. The trick for me is to notice the inconsistencies in their presentation. It's a bit general, but usually when the non-verbal signals get really disconnected from what's being said, it's a good sign that it is the words can't be trusted.

When our internal maps gets messed up, it can be hard to realize that about yourself. And if you are trying to help someone like this, you have to be aware that you can't necessarily trust what they say about their maps either. That's why being able to reconcile the physical signs and the spoken words is so important.

In cases like this you can do real damage if you take the words at face value. I have a colleague who has been switching jobs for years. He was never satisfied with the work, or the peers, or the bosses, or this or that. He would talk about his "dream job" all the time. Within weeks of taking any position he would invariably start to find all the flaws and unravel why this job wasn't perfect. Within months he'd be looking for a new job no matter how well he was performing, or how much was going "right" about the current job.

Over the years, I've done my best to help him with connections, references, etc. After all, you want competent, good performers to be successful. And for those years I was always listening to the words. One day I was distracted for some reason I stopped listening to what he was saying. That's when I noticed what he wasn't saying.

This prompted a round of questions to help figure out what was on his internal map. When we spoke about his current job, he reverted to a different verbal map and physical representation. After a few conversations exploring his maps, he was able to bring his maps into alignment and has been very happy in his latest job for quite some time.

What was difficult in this situation is that I'd spent so much time providing my friend what he asked for instead of what he needed. I was missing something so simple, so natural, so obvious. It was too obvious. And that's the quickest way to identify this situation, the sheer simple obviousness of what's being requested.

If the goal is so straightforward but the language and presentation aren't in alignment, there is usually something twisted in the maps underneath. Let me restate this with a few examples:
  • What's being asked for is the same thing as what they want. They want a better job so they'll . . . be in a better job.
  • What's being asked for can't be clearly stated. They want the "right guy" but describing what that looks like is vague and uncertain or changing.
  • The weight of the request is significant enough they have to change state to make the request. They have to change posture, stance, or level of fixation.

Once you've identified a misalignment with the underlying maps, you can take steps depending on the specific maps.

If you are finding yourself cycling on the same issues over and over, or just can't seem to reach that goal that is always just out of reach, try doing some map work. Make sure you aren't missing that crucial symptom that's just too obvious for you to have seen already.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's The How, Not The What

I am a big believer in visualization. I have found it to be an instrumental driving force behind change. In many ways my livelihood hinges on my ability to harness or create change within people and organizations, and I have often relied on the power of visualization in my work.

There is however an aspect of visualization that can be both subtle and startling. For me I bump against this tenet whenever I'm discussing future plans or goals. Especially when they are other peoples future plans or goals. I find myself talking more about how they are going achieve their desires, more so then about those specific desires. This actually works to my advantage because quite a few people only want to talk about the car they are going to drive, they aren't interested in what it takes to acquire it, so they learn to stop talking to me about it. ;-)

The Process is more Powerful than the Product

Have you ever heard someone say "It's the journey, not the destination."? This is a common sense way of explaining this same tenet. How you are going to go about doing something is more influential to your success than what you are trying to accomplish. How to use a tool is more important than acquiring one. The way you go about solving your problems will limit you more than the solutions you may or may not find.

This is a fully loaded tenet so I'm going to go into some more detail about how I apply this every day. When I'm talking to people who have goals, I don't start by asking them to visualize their goals. Instead I ask them to visualize the process of achieving those goals. I don't ask them what they are willing to do for their success. Instead I ask them what they are NOT willing to do.

This sounds pretty counter-intuitive until you realize that it is our limiting beliefs which truly rule our mental maps and models. Consider that guy you know who wants a bigger house. He wants the house, but he isn't willing to move to the middle of nowhere to afford it. That new car? But not willing to work an extra job. Fame? But not willing to wait tables and suffer the humiliation of auditions. Lose weight? But really enjoy dessert. They want to stop being hung over? But won't give up the weekend binge drinking.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? It isn't just about focusing on the limits. It's also about realizing that breaking down the limits is a process of change. It's fine to set a weight loss goal for 6 months out. But if you don't change your lifestyle in your little decisions every day, you likely won't meet your goals. If you want to have a comfortable retirement, but you are only contributing the minimums to your 401K, you'll likely not reach your dream. Afraid of speaking in public? Want to improve your self-image? Focus on the internal processes you use to restrict and limit yourself. When you can see the process you use you can change it.

The same is true with those people who want to talk about that better job or more money. When I tell them what they'll have to do to get it, they always do one of two things. They give themselves permission to do the necessary, or they realize they don't really want to do the necessary and they can finally stop obsessing over some future state and enjoy what they really have.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Bad Do You Want It?

The grind I currently find myself participating in has its advantages. Namely, the problems are complicated and haven't been solved by numerous other "smart" people who have tried for extended periods of time. I've had a week and been slowly making progress.

As is often the case with tremendously screwed up situations like this one, even some progress is met with skepticism and distrust for a while. I'm carrying the baggage of all the months and host of people who were here before. To cope with this I've been repeating another foundational tenet.

You haven't failed. You've only gotten feedback.

The trick to really complicated problem solving is realizing that you don't have to boil the ocean all in one go. You can take steps and make progress, sometimes just by ruling out things that clearly aren't the answer.

Thomas Edison has a good quote on this, Benjamin Franklin has one, and so does Albert Einstein. There are numerous other versions and misquotations, but they all can be paraphrased in the same supporting tenet:

You can only fail if there is a time limit.

Specifically in my situation, I have people who have already tried quite a few alternative solutions. So when I ask them to proceed down a path they believe they've already wandered, they resist. They fight every step of the way. But as is often the case, I'm able to point out something in the way that they failed which sets them on a new direction. Yesterday we had a breakthrough because I insisted on making someone follow my instructions even though we both knew it was going to fail. We needed to see the way it failed to clearly develop an alternative to the process. Once we saw that, I was able to twist the problem and put him on a path to success. Which in very short order he achieved.

When you feel like you are beating your head against the same wall, perhaps you need to consider. But if you continue to learn and improve even though you fail repeatedly, don't give up. Acknowledge the success of your feedback, twist the problem, and keep going.

Monday, January 19, 2009

We All Have Good Intentions

Here's another basic premise I had to recall today. Interestingly, it wasn't because of anything at work but in a personal relationship.

Behavior always has a Positive Intention.

This is one of those blindingly obvious things that just eludes as all from time to time. Basically, the point here is that anything someone is doing is because they are trying to achieve some goal for themselves. From their perspective, there is a reason and a motivation for their behaviors. Even in cases where those reasons or motivations seem irrational to us, or are hidden from them.

Our whole intellect is designed to pursue our desires and achieve our goals. Even in cases where we aren't aware of what those desires might be. For example, we see this in our preservation instinct and our self-defense mechanisms. Our brain resolves all the inputs and formulates responses that will further our internal goals. This is why some people are spenders and some are savers, some people are aggressive and some are timid, and so forth. Internally, they have goals in mind which motivate and drive their behaviors.

When you understand that people are never just acting in a vacuum, and are always acting in alignment with their goals, it becomes easier to empathize, understand, collaborate with, or even control them. When you are aware of their goals and motivations, you can predict or rationalize their behaviors. When you witness their behaviors, you can derive their goals.

To take this a little further, consider people watching a sporting event or chess match. It's easy to assume each player or coach just wants "to win". But the reality is that they have other goals which dictate the constraints and subordinate goals to winning. For example, they might want to manage exposure to risk, protect certain players or pieces, or have a preference for certain techniques or plays. These constraints and subordinate goals will impact their decisions and behaviors. So when people ask "Why'd he call that play?" or "Why did she try that attack?" they are only verbalizing that they don't understand these other non-obvious motivations.

The twist on positive intention is due to the nature of perspective. Often I would substitute the word Purpose instead of Positive Intention. This is because most people understand positive to "good" or "beneficial". In reality, the only person that is true for is the one demonstrating the behavior. It might very well be painful or hurtful or "bad" to others. But in their mind it's serving a purpose. Perhaps hidden and subconscious, but very real.

To put this in practice, pay attention to how people behave when the goals are very public. You will still see them act in unique ways which gives you clues to their hidden goals and motivations. For example, watching people shop is a great way to get a view into their psyche. Do they check prices first or follow colors? Do they check sizes before saying they like something? These are simple examples but they can be extrapolated to how people order food in a group, the questions they ask about the news, or how they act at a party. Are they thrifty, self-conscious about their weight, a leader or follower? The key to unlocking most peoples inner picture of themselves starts with simple observations like this.

In every situation, we are individually running all the inputs through our internal goal-seeker and deciding on a response that best gets us what we want. Watch what people do when the goals are obvious and you'll find out all those other hidden goals they don't even know about themselves.

Friday, January 16, 2009

You Get What You Put In

I'm starting a new endeavor and as usual, I need to review some of the things I've learned to make sure I can be successful. I'll be posting some small snapshot entries as I unpack my toolset for the days to come. Here's one I typically start with:

The meaning in a Communication is the Response you obtain.

This is one of those that most people think they understand until it slowly unravels in their mind. Here's another way to perceive this concept: Consider that you are trying to explain a concept to someone and they insist they understand your point but their words don't align to prove they actually do. If you continue making the same points with the same language they may very well shut down with "I don't want to have the same conversation again." then you've learned how to end a conversation with that person. This can be a valuable resource, especially for when you need to slow an interaction down.

Consider a different scenario in which you offer to help someone with something (say some action items they are responsible for accomplishing) and they abruptly retort "I can take care of it." then you have garnered a valuable response. You now know how to get them to snap at you if the need for that arises. You'd be surprised at how often being able to evoke a response is useful.

These are both negative responses, and I use them intentionally, because the positive ones are easy to ignore. To get inside both cases, you have to come to the realization that you are responsible for your own communication. Because of that, the response you get is something you can impact. If you aren't getting the response you desire, it's up to you to change your communication. If at all possible, change your words. If you can't change your words, change how you are saying it.

You might find these intrinsic in your own understanding, but if you are like me, you forget to keep these clear in your mind from time to time. So a refresher on how to have an impact with my communication was just the ticket.