Overcoming the inertia of indecision

In many areas of endeavor, high certainty is a rare commodity. Of that I am quite certain ….

The stress that goes with coming to decisions can stop people cold, effectively freezing them, their families or entire organizations till one is confident enough to proceed. This angst does not occur in a vacuum; it is the result of past failures and disappointments, complete with the criticism and shame that accompany them. It’s no wonder people wallow in indecision.

But as my manager once quipped (and this is a favorite of mine): “If you can’t make a mistake you can’t make anything.” Thomas Edison, after all, had thousands of “nice tries” on the way to the incandescent light bulb. His story is really one of persistence, not indecision. He was committed to a goal.

I’m writing about those who can’t even get that far. The inertia that can governs people is a dangerous habit that stops lives cold at each and every crossroad.  Over time, it is more dangerous than the mistakes that are so feared.

So it’s vital for someone who’s prone to this to develop steps to avoid it – to actively, progressively and quickly make decisions. Here are some of those steps:

  1. Gather intel – It seems obvious, yet the fear of proceeding even forbids the first clear action to come to a decision – learn about the parameters, procedure and possible outcomes of the different options before you. This can involve reading, searching the internet and most effective: talking with parties who have been there before. How truly bad is it to fail?  How truly great to “succeed”? It’s the testimony of those who’ve been there that can go a long way to encourage the procrastinator.
  2. Use pilots – There is no rule that says you have to commit everything you have to one path or another. A limited trial is an excellent way to test the waters and see how a decision would work if you fully made it. Of course a woman can’t launch a pilot pregnancy, for example. But she can try making the adjustments a pregnancy and parenthood would entail (except for the gestation part) – like taking care of someone’s young child for a weekend.  Of course many decisions are not as final as having a child, but the commitment level should be high.
  3. Fail quickly and cheaply – One of the precepts of the Agile development process is extremely useful in making decisions. This differs from the pilot approach in that the investment can be much higher. But it is the same in the limited time of such a commitment. It is obviously preferable to have a disaster after a month than after two years. Another perspective to this is that a limited time sprint of a project is a vital part of decision making. The truth is, none of us really know what it is going to be like down a certain path until we do it.
  4. Learn – Gathering intel is a first part of this, but formal schooling – even seminars – and learning by doing (see Fail quickly and cheaply) should all contribute to the knowledge of the decision maker. It’s also vital that what is learned is not only tactical truth but strategic principle. A single failure or success should contribute to knowledge and not stand on its own.
  5. Don’t personalize failure or “there is no failure” – Put simply, you must fail. It’s required. What culture does to people who fail is call them failures. Clearly that is extremely destructive thinking if you let it in. So … don’t! Things that didn’t work out are arguably more valuable than things that did. That’s not a “rose colored glasses” statement, it’s data. There are no failures really, just lessons learned. One set of objectives was not achieved, but another set was. Make sure you record the life lesson objectives. You’ll need them later.

There’s no reason to freeze in your tracks when it comes to choosing paths. Usually it’s the shame of past failures that keeps people stuck. No matter what faith (or “none”) you are, I want to share what I do with shame, as demonstrated by Christ:

Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God:

Scorn shame – HATE it. Not the people spewing it, but hate its effect on you.

That is a whole other topic, but it’s important to recognize what’s eating at you during points of indecision. And take steps to get out.

When umpires get it wrong

A while ago I figured out why I have always been a baseball fan. Sport – particularly that one – is analog. Drama gets played out on the field that we see in our lives. It’s a replay or a sidebar to all that has happened or is happening. The characters have similar analogs – pitchers are those who put their best foot forward and present their goods, skills and personalities. Batters are those who – a third of the time at best – send them packing. And they do it by being scrappy – bunting, beating out an infield hit or Texas-leaguer – or masterful – culminating in the grand slam home run.

There are two teams with management and strategy honed for each game and each season.

And there are .. umpires.

I was watching the Red Sox bat in the 9th inning at Yankee Stadium last night. Here’s another reason I’m a baseball fan – you can’t script this stuff. Of course bases loaded. David Ortiz is up. He strikes out. Not because there were 3 strikes thrown, there was one (ok if pitch 5 was a strike there were 2). He is called out on strikes that were not strikes. Here’s the pitch placement:

Umpire Ron Kulpa is an evil villain today in Red Sox nation as he would be among any fan base rooting for the team that he victimized. And I’m sure his performance will be analyzed by the big wigs in MLB and maybe something will come of it.

But I’m more interested in the analog, as I said above.

So first, who are the umpires in our lives? That’s pretty easy – they are or bosses, the authorities, the government. And I must include God, as we perceive God.

And it’s no wonder why people get so steamed when they get it wrong; when our players get judged unfairly. But the analog is deep, and deeply instructional, because when umps mess up:

  • We are reminded who our authorities are. That is, who has power over us. Sometimes we can change who they are, sometimes not. But there are ultimately two responses to the rule of authority – acquiescence or rebellion. In the face of injustice, both are perilous. The former because it can ignore what’s really inside of us and the latter because it considers our position higher than it is and, as St. Paul said of the authority – “he does not bear the sword for nothing.”
  • We see disappointments that had nothing to do with us. Our projects are canceled, we lose our jobs or even more tragically, our marriages or families. Again, it had nothing to do with us. But we struggle to believe that because we know we’re not perfect. Because in disappointment we always try to find a reason so we can try to avoid it next time. So we blame. Ourselves. Now it might be true that we did have something – and maybe a lot – to do with it.  That is, it wasn’t a bad call after all.  But the truth is that the tendency to blame ourselves is universally overblown.
  • We learn – erroneously – that we can’t trust as much as we thought. Multiple bad calls forge patterns in our emotions. This can get dangerously generalized to the point that we view all the world as hostile. That blossoms into operational and even clinical paranoia. The trick here is to isolate the bad call, see it in situational and relational context. If there is a pattern, identify all the patterns, not just the ones that dealt us a bad hand. And big point – see the hand of God as always for us, even when we are disappointed. God’s goal is our redemption. Always. Thus, God can be trusted. Always.
  • We fail to move on. There will be another game, another day, a different and fair umpire. Adopting futility will do nothing but take us down a dark hole. Different than trust issues, this takes us into depression – seeing things worse than they really are. People still love us. We’re still talented, desirable and valuable. A bad call, or a bad ump can’t change any of that.

Like many reading this, for me there is a flip side. I have also been an umpire. Who made bad calls. Often there’s nothing I can do to fix the error; either the people are gone or just won’t talk about it. To be sure, I made good calls that weren’t accepted either. No one is perfect, and the place where our imperfections hurt the most are when we are leaders.

Grace, humility, mercy and forgiveness are what get me through the day and through life. Because the umpires calling my game get it wrong. Many times. Humility calls me to remember when they got it right too. And honesty says that is most of the time.

Let’s go Red Sox!

Dr. Freireich

I remember growing up and hearing about childhood leukemia as a death sentence. The disease was so horrible that collections like the Jimmy Fund in Boston were founded to fight it (and other childhood cancers). I don’t remember when things changed, but over the years it has gone from being nearly 100% deadly to a very serious yet treatable disease.

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath book. Though it cites the biblical story – and there are those who really should know that story – its focus is on debunking and countering well-founded associations people have formed between environmental factors and outcomes. It’s not just fascinating, it’s seminal reading. As an example, Gladwell tells the story that follows.

DrFreireich

Emil J. (Jay) Freireich (also called Emil Frei III) was a kid who grew up in St. Louis. His father passed away when he was very young. He entered Colgate college with $25 in his pocket. He worked hard and earned his medical degree from Yale. He was not an agreeable person, with arguably horrible bedside manner and even worse relational skills with coworkers. But he was relentless.

When he began work at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston, leukemia-ridden children would typically bleed to death. There was no stopping it; their blood was so diseased. Freireich studied the problem and started transfusing massively to restore platelets. Problem solved, bug fixed.

Treatment for the underlying condition was the choice of three drugs. Success rate was low. Against biting criticism and open opposition, Freireich experimented with combinations of all three. Then he found a fourth and added it also. The kids he treated would die differently but would die nonetheless. And quickly. But he kept on, until he got the combination right. Kids starting surviving, and then the cancer started going into remission.

Because of his persistent effort, childhood leukemia is treatable 90% of the time today.

Not too shabby, Dr. Freireich.

And a lesson to those who are holding back because of criticism and opposition – which are actually fear and envy. Push through. We all need you to.

And yeah, I pray for people like Jay Freireich.  Because I don’t care whose hands are used to heal people.

The lure and peril of quick-fix

I recently was called into a meeting to review an alternate approach to a technical problem I knew very well. The presenters smiled a lot, joked incessantly with one another (though not with their audience) and showed how their approach would deliver a solution faster than another other way. As I spoke with my management friends afterward, I didn’t even have to prompt their reactions. “It won’t work, not at scale” and “I don’t see this working” came from those who are not paid to be technically savvy.

Those reactions were right. And though the work is only beginning, the approach is not sound and is destined to known dysfunction and hand-waving, compromised workmanship. I don’t say that from an envious heart of “not invented here” but from the perspective of one who’s seen too much and too many fail for the same reasons.

QuickFixEgg

The deep lure of the quick-fix has repeatedly astounded me. In the corporate world, it happens when those in power don’t understand the work it takes to produce goods and services and develop suspicion based upon reports of others who don’t understand the work. They come to the conclusion that they are over-paying and over-indulging their most productive workers.

But quick-fix can happen any time that impatience is adopted. Any group or leader can fall prey. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign was wildly successful because it attacked procrastination. What other footwear would you buy to attack your complacency? But projecting complacency, inefficiency and practical waste onto those who work hard and with integrity is misinformed.

Despite all the spin and Teflon-coating on those responsible yet not accountable, a quick-fix is very often disastrous.

This is not to say it’s easy to fight. Those prone to it want to be process heroes. And there is legitimate process evolution to be done. But it’s also the job of those who know quick-fix when they see it and are called to speak up. Here are some alternatives to offer:

  1. Planning and design. Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless but planning is everything” – meaning that contingencies can’t possibly be known beforehand but they can all be considered beforehand. An obvious and usually required phase of any project, but overlooked or partially done for quick-fix, the need to to brainstorm, write down and bat around the details of how the desired goals will be met is indispensable. The battle for doing planning/design is a hill to die on, truly.
  2. Do it right – quickly. Are there ways to correctly accomplish the task that get you and those waiting for you to the goal faster than traditional means. Nine women can’t have a baby in a month, but they can have nine babies in nine months. And that’s just citing parallel labor (intentional pun). A solid antidote to quick-fix is innovative process. Tools and technique, all that.
  3. Do it right – in phases. Software, even that in the Cloud, has the notion of releases or versions. For sure there is a bare minimum of what is viable – call that Release 1, which is never very useful. So you do need something that is standing, even on crutches, which meets impatient demands. But after that, amendments and replacements are less noticed but vital. You can even correct go-faster mistakes. Caveat – this does require buy-in from the powers that be who will be tempted to declare “all done” and move you on to other things before you are really “all done” – to their own discredit and at their own cost.
  4. Patience. When people cite their goals in their field of endeavor there is an implicit time line. And there is inherent impatience with the project not meeting the time goals. Therefore, impatience is highly valued trait in leadership. Now, the time aspect is not imagined – it’s very real. Whether I am working with people, machines or markets, there are such a things as “late”, “very late” and “too late”. That said, the virtue of “early”, “under budget” or even “on time” is often overblown. It is the folly of quick-fix leaders to blow that trumpet only and never consider – or be called to account – for the long-term effects of what they have produced. It’s a ploy, and one that sacrifices value for appearance. So, a balance needs to be struck here and doing a job right needs to be tempered by doing it quickly.

This is not a call for sloth or unionized slowdowns or overarching process. And sometimes quick-fix is the way to go; it’s important to be real about that.

But the time to oppose and suggest alternatives to a quick-fix approach is earlier than later. Citing the past and asking hard questions.

It’s a good fight to have.

The grief police

Reeling from the triple bombings in Brussels yesterday, some of my friends have projected the colors of the Belgian flag or written pleas for prayers for Belgium. Others have taken it upon themselves to judge those expressions of shock and grief by saying that they are biased and thus, flawed. Citing the multiple loci of international terror, they search articles, the meme-o-sphere and blogosphere for graphics and pointed prose that aims to correct the presupposed racial and cultural bias.

Police

The trouble is, the presupposition is both erroneous and proud. And as such, it will be ignored or have the opposite effect than what was intended, because it will only annoy people.

Here’s why:

  1. Identification. If people see themselves as closer related to Belgians than Turks, Arabs or Africans, it’s because they are closer related. This is not bias, it’s ethnicity. And cultural affinity. If the pictures of the bloodied women in the Brussels subway connect to westerners more than those of women wearing hajibs or African women, it’s because that scene and those people look and dress like us. That will always be true. Turks, however, will naturally connect more with suffering people who look and dress like them. It’s not bias, it’s cultural and ethnic relationship.
  2. Historical affinity. The allies, America, Britain, Canada and others, fought and defeated the Nazis 72 years ago in Belgium. Belgium was a founding member of NATO. That matters, because the spirit of that alliance was that an attack on any of its members was an attack on them all. Turkey joined later which constitutes no second-class membership, but the link between the West and Turkey has never been like that among the European NATO members. No bias but affinity.
  3. Proximity. “If it can happen there, it can happen here” – said by Europeans or Americans – is more true referring to Belgium than to Africa or Turkey or other Middle Eastern states. Part of this is the nature of bordering nations in each case, part of it is form of governance another part is patterns of people movement. It may be inconvenient that the demographics of those practicing terror are Muslim and from Arab lands. And is tragic to use those demographics too loosely and ban all people whom they describe. Furthermore, I’m making no assumption that a terror incident in a nation that has lots of people who fit those traits is somehow less tragic or traumatic. But it is the case that terror done to nations further away has muffled implications compared to those closer. So, the outpouring is less. And those who would ban people movement to keep the problem away gain fuel. But for those who mourn, again, no bias, just proximity.

Matthew 5:4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus spoke these words during his introduction – the beatitudes – to the Sermon on the Mount. The mourning is not only the common sorrow of loss but a deeper grief over the state of humankind. That kind of mourning cannot be practiced with bias, because it starts with my own sin and depravity. And really, I’m the only one I can let God work on. And I must surrender the conviction of wrongdoing to the Holy Spirit, who is VERY good at it. I mean that I make a lousy Holy Spirit.

When we project bias or any presumed internal attitude or disposition on others, we are attempting to do a job we don’t have the equipment to do.

Let people mourn. Deeply. As they will. It’s actually a very constructive practice in the end.

 

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

Cancelled

The business world is unpredictable. I have learned over many iterations and through the depths of devastation NOT to cement my hopes to promises of management and plan my future according to their word. When I do, I will almost invariably find myself awash in the emotional muck of betrayal, futility and just fatigue.

The problem is that I want to be passionate about my work. It has to matter to me to do it right, with excellence and diligence. I want to finish the job. And I’m good at what I do. That’s not a boast; it’s the testimony of those who regularly review and evaluate my “performance”.

So it happened again.

Cancelled.

canceled

The cycle goes like this:

  1. A project starts up, designs happen, maybe a prototype.
  2. Preliminary results roll in and they are somewhere between auspicious and stellar.
  3. The meat of the project gets underway. People work hard, together and intermediate results are produced.
  4. Management reviews the project or there is a business event or shift.
  5. The project is cancelled.

Now, I’ve been on projects that are canceled earlier than point e). And this most recent cancellation was after point b).

And most painful were those project canceled who had lasted 2-5 years before point d).

I had someone once tell me to “just get over it” and that stung almost as much as the cancellation. You don’t just turn your passion off like a switch.

They say it’s not failure; that 70% of all projects never finish. You can imagine how much that helps.

Now it is a business fact that management loses confidence if a deliverable is not produced in months and not years. They are not paid to be patient or risk-tolerant.

In engineering it’s supposed to be adult and well-adjusted to just produce. Anything. For any amount of time. Dispassionately. Without attachments or emotions.

I can’t do that. Or I won’t. And I don’t really care which it is. It’s not me.

So where do I go when this happens? I go to loving people; it’s all that keeps going.

  • There will be a new team with people I can love, encourage and do stuff with. I don’t know how long it will last but the people are what matter, not the work. No matter what management says.
  • I will love management. Those people live in fear and under constant criticism. They don’t need more from me. It’s not that I won’t speak my mind – they also need to know they don’t manage robots.
  • I will love my wife, my family, my friends and my church. They are always there for me and .. they are a big reason I go to work in the first place.
  • I will love my work. Picking up the pieces, assessing what I’ve learned, I will dare to try again. In smaller places. Even unapproved ones. Because that’s where I’m a genius.

Canceled. It’s not the end of the world. Just another disappointment.