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A Surprising MBA Lesson

7 Mar

The most important lesson I’ve learned is a pretty simple one.  It’s applicable to everyone – even those not in business management.  I wish I had learned it years ago. But I’m not sure it is worth $120,000 (although maybe when paired with the diploma and Boston’s inflation, it is?)  My diploma had better be etched in thin gold foil or something.

The lesson is simple.

Failure and fault are not inseparable.

There is a pervasive belief in business that failures must be blamed on someone.  And if you speak up about the failure, well, it’s a good guess that you’ll be pegged with the blame.

We all know there is some truth to this, right?

The issue is that failings go unreported for much longer (costing the company money and wasting time and resources) because people are worried about blame.

No one wants to be at fault.

Executives say 70-90% of failings are treated as blameworthy.  When in fact, they estimate 2-3% deserve to be treated as such.

Sure, some things are blameworthy.  If you failed (at your job, at a test project, at a class assignment, a marriage, etc.) because of deviance (violating laws or prescribed practices – unethical behavior, cheating, lying) then you are at fault.  You may be alone in deserving blame, it may be shared.  If someone inadvertently deviates from prescribed practices, are they to be blamed?  Probably sometimes yes, sometimes no.

What if the person doesn’t have the skills, knowledge or training to execute a job?  Is it really their fault when they fail?  What if a competent person follows a prescribed practice that is faulty or incomplete?  What if the task required of the individual is too much for any one person to handle consistently?  Is the individual at fault?  Should a boss or manager deserve some of the blame?

And what about when future unanticipated events (weather, stock markets, trends and wants/desires) change abruptly?  And when a hypothesis proves false?  Or an experiment conducted leads to a possibility that was undesired or unexpected?  We learn a lot from those failings.  Sometimes they produce successes (you may not have created the drug you were supposed to for diabetes, but you may have invented one that helps with kidney functioning).  None of these failures are the fault of someone.

Failure is inevitable.  Some of the time.  (I’m not trying to tell you that everything you do will fail.  Just that if you never fail in life, you’re either 1) sitting on your couch doing nothing, and I would call that a failure or 2) disillusioned or 3) outright lying.)

I’m puzzling through this right now in regards to my running injury.  Today I ran 3.5 miles.  But the IT band pain is back. I am not yet healed.  Getting stronger, balancing better, building all kinds of muscle (my armpits hurt today) but I can’t run long distances pain free.  Was it my fault that I got injured?  Maybe.  Have I learned a lot about how to prevent that in future?  Yes.  Is getting stronger and learning how to be confident around 100 lb weights and TRX equipment and Bosu balls and gaining a new appreciation for the fact that our bodies have limits all failure?  No, I don’t think it is.  When a failure leads to knowledge and change and future success, it’s a good thing.

Running success – you can arrive anytime now!  Preferably by April 1st….

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“Give Me a Challenge, and I’ll Meet it with Joy”

22 Feb

Yesterday while doing some research at work for the space program, I found myself quoting the speech.  We all have one.  I was not alive to hear Martin Luther King Jr’s speech but it still stirs me.  There’s possibly nothing quite as moving as the Gettysburg Address.  But there is another speech, one I was alive for (if not old enough to fully appreciate), that has become a personal favorite.

Probably because it involves a president I love (Ronald Reagan).  A person my parents taught me about (Christa McAuliffe).  A speechwriter I find compelling (Peggy Noonan).  A program my current job is closely linked with (NASA).  And, as I learned yesterday, it is ranked as one of the ten best American political speeches of the 20th century. So at least I have good average taste.

Instead of a state of the Union address, Ronald Reagan has to speak about the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger.  Talk about a change in topic.

And I found myself quoting it yesterday. Not the ending, my favorite bit, where the poetry emerges: slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.

But the bit where Reagan said “they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy….the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave…”

Yesterday, there were plenty of challenges – giving up the thought of running a marathon in March (can’t say I met that one with joy), receiving some nastymail from a particularly insensitive manager (joy? What’s that?), being told one thing and then another thing and then yelled at for not doing a third thing, having to pose for some photographs in our Media department.  Even my daily challenges – PT exercises and foam rolling and being gracious with incessant work questions – were not particularly met with joy.  And instead of being brave, I was irritated and sad.  I cried while biking home from the gym which, let’s be honest, is not at all as cleansing and wonderful as women swear it is and is also a potentially hazardous activity during rush-hour Boston traffic.

But I remember the newbie engineer from yesterday.  “I’m not sure how to do this” he said.  “Well, you’re going to need to ask your manager some questions.  Maybe find a mentor.  Make a doable plan.”  “It’s going to be challenging” he said.  “Yes, which is exactly what you need.  You aren’t in college anymore, it’s time to stretch yourself.  You’re being gifted with a challenge rather than another mundane routine task and you need to meet it with joy.  The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. You’re going to be fine.”

Routing for the new college grad while simultaneously meeting my own challenges with apathy and dread and bitterness.  Not such a great role model.  Today I am going to shut up and take my own advice.

Challenges, meet joy. Joy will be working alongside me today to assist you.  So be prepared – we are going to win.

Winning is everything.

(I mean, it’s not.  That’s the truth. But sometimes, it kinda is.)


People Are Not Leaky Faucets

25 Jan

“Figure out what’s broken and fix it. That’s the way we naturally think. But that attitude reduces us to things like faucets that sometimes break and fail to function properly…we are relational, not mechanical.”
– Dr. Larry Crabb

I like to figure out what’s broken and fix it.  If I can’t, it goes on the To Fix list until I find someone else capable of fixing it.  I know I’m not alone in this desire to see everything function properly.  Ask any engineer.

But people cannot be fixed by other people. (At least not by me.) A friend of mine passed away the night before his brother’s wedding.  I could not fix that.  A friend of mine chose to stay in a verbally abusive relationship. I could not change her behavior.  And trust me when I say that I’ve tried, to the point where I was so stressed that I stopped sleeping at night.  A friend of mine suffers from epilepsy.  There’s no tool for me to fix that.  Another friend suffers from depression.  I cannot change his attitude.

And the engineer a few years ago, who graciously told me to lose weight so I could run faster (thinking he was being incredibly helpful) did not fix me.  I still weigh about the same (actually, more. But I swear it’s all muscle.  And I’m happy about that.) I was treated like a leaky faucet.  But I’m a person.  With complex un-faucet-like emotions and needs and desires and choices and consequences and behaviors.  Learned and unlearned, natured and nurtured, and complex and simple.  A faucet is just a faucet.

But people cannot be fixed by other people.  We are not in control of other people’s reactions or decisions.  There are times when, in love, we have to tell people uncomfortable truth.  But it’s not our responsibility to fix their mistakes, change their attitudes or force their behavior to change.  Ask anyone who has attempted that and they can tell you how often it backfires.

If you think otherwise, that you can change people,  please explain to me how often you’ve been successful.  How many marriages have you stopped from ending in divorce when people tried to change each other rather than accepting and supporting who the other person truly was?  How often have your desires to mold someone else, like PlayDoh, ended in them looking exactly how you planned?  What parent has ever given birth to a robot?  Please.  Enlighten me.

Until then, I am going to treat myself like a newly landed alien from outer space.  You know, the kind that walks around with flashcards: This is a leaky faucet.  This is a human being.  These two items are not the same.

Leaky faucets are to be fixed.  And then used for faucet-needs.  Flawed people (aren’t we all?) are to be loved.  And then encouraged and propped up and loved some more as they make their own choices and behavior changes and attitude adjustments.  The best we can do is to be there for them.  Viewing them as a person.  Not a project.  Maybe even holding their hand.  Definitely handing over a Kleenex when they get leaky.  Rather than frantically searching for a wrench.

Democracy Meets Foam Rolling

22 Dec

Ballerinas have pointe shoes.  Bikers have spandex.  Runners have foam rollers.  The point is, we all have something that helps us do our job or enjoy our sport which doubles as a torture device.

Foam rollers are the worst. Insidious and fun-looking, they scream “anyone can do this!” but the fine print says “Easy do-it-yourself torture device, no training necessary, all can attempt and all will cry.  No exceptions.”

I have to fortify myself with beer or ibuprofen or reward myself with a magazine while icing afterwards in order to use the foam roller.  It used to be “try to do it 3-5x a week, kinda like flossing” and I felt  very virtuous afterwards.  This past week, it has become an urgent “do it 2-3x a day so hopefully my IT band recovers and I can run again” task.  I know I have to do it but I’d rather take a 3 hour exam.

So today, while at the gym, using their foam roller instead of the one at home, I read snippets of my latest Time Magazine.  In particular, I read a portion of their article on the Year of Protesters.

Globalization and going viral have been the catchphrases of the networked 21st century.  But until now the former has mainly referred to a fluid worldwide economy managed by important people, and the latter has mostly meant cute-animal videos and songs by nobodies. This year, do-it-yourself democratic policies became globalized, and real live protest went massively viral. But as they’ve rejuvenated and enlarged the idea of democracy, the protesters, and the rest of us, are discovering that democracy is difficult and sometimes a little scary.  Because deciding what you don’t want is a lot easier than deciding and implementing what you do want, and once everybody has a say, everybody has a say.”

Everybody has a say.  We get excited about that statement. As we should. Until we think about the implications of everyone having a say. And everyone potentially drowning out my say. And my say not necessarily being in the majority.  Or even the well-respected minority.  And the fact that everyone can be manipulated by others and coaxed by the media and that even I am not unswayed by the opinions and thoughts of others.

And what about difficult and scary?  No one likes difficult and scary.  And the number of men and women who are willing to do difficult and scary is rapidly decreasing.

But the part that made me laugh, is the part that is relevant to foam rolling.  Deciding what I don’t want – to not be able to run my marathon in March – is a lot easier than deciding and implementing what I do want – muscles that are not tight and balanced and can put up with a lot of heavy pounding.  And I foam roller out of fear of letting go of my dream.  Out of fear that I can’t do something I want to do.

A lot of people know what they don’t want.  And they will voice what they don’t want.  The entire Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated this in a powerful way – it was a movement against things they didn’t like, not in support of something in particular.  Disliking things is a lot easier than supporting something.  Tearing down someone else’s goal is a lot easier than creating and striving to attain our own goal.  Disliking democracy because everybody gets a say keeps up from discovering the beauty in the statement everybody gets a say.  A statement that only a privileged few, living in a democratic nation, understand.

I think I dread the foam roller.  Even though it is a painful tool towards a better future.

But what I really dread is the disappearance of democracy.
Even these campaigns and debates and elections can be a painful tool towards a better future.
Can be.  That is, if we could move past deciding who we don’t want in office, what laws we don’t want passed, what reforms and tax codes and budgets we want to disappear and could actually focus on deciding and implementing positive change.

Like finding me a foam roller that doesn’t cause me to invent new swear words under my breath.

Adultery Sunday

14 Nov

When I first moved to England, I got given a list of jobs to own.

One of them was helping with the children’s work on Sundays.  The lessons had already been chosen for the first few months.  We were studying the Ten Commandments.  Which sounds nice (one commandment per week, easy peasy).  Until I saw the roster.

I had been given “Adultery Sunday” (as I affectionately refer to it).  Or Adultery Sunday School (also known as ASS) by some of my coworkers.

Has anyone attempted to teach “Thou shalt not commit adultery” to 4 and 5 year olds?  Does anyone even think there is any value in teaching that particular lesson to 4 to 5 year olds?

My coworkers had a lot of fun with my assignment. I’ve never been given so much help (note the sarcasm) before. They came up with all kinds of “adultery” games we could play.  And “adultery” crafts.  I’m a little relieved no one had an idea for an adultery snack.

In fact, Adultery Sunday was a huge success (unfortunately?).  We talked about making “forever promises” and how promising to do something “to be a good kid” or “to clean my room” doesn’t just happen automatically, it involves hard work and sometimes sacrificing other things you want to do.  So maybe I didn’t fully explain the concept but I’m pretty sure no parents minded.

Sometimes, you have to take what you’ve been given as a task and change it to fit the situation.  You’re asked to present on something that you’re not quite passionate about so you tweak the topic to satisfy both requirements. You have to write a school paper so you find a thesis that allows you to research something you’re already fascinated by.  Your kid doesn’t like reading.  So you get them hooked on comic books (better than nothing!).

Everyone has their Adultery Sunday – a task  you immediately assume will be a complete flop  but ends up being a great success.  You just didn’t know it was called an Adultery Sunday.

When Ideas Fail

30 Oct

If you hear my idea and don’t believe it, that’s not your fault, it’s mine.  -Seth Godin

Part of leadership is presenting a vision, something that your followers can get behind.  Bad leaders think they have bad followers when their idea flops.

It’s a possibility.  There is definitely such a thing as a bad follower.

But why point the finger at someone else before you examine yourself?  (I know, it’s human nature to blame it elsewhere…)

Failed ideas doesn’t necessarily make you a bad leader. That’s not the way it works. Every President, no matter whether you think they were a good or a bad leader, has had failed ideas. But if you consistently show up with ideas that others don’t support, you need to check yourself.

Is the idea sound? Is the idea practical and useful and possible?
If so, are you communicating it wrongly? Are you presenting it incorrectly? Are you failing to paint a picture that encompasses the vision – where the idea gets your followers, why the idea will help your followers, when the idea will become mainstream?

I often find myself repackaging my ideas.  The idea may not change from person to person: why you should learn to ride a bike (to two 5-year-olds) and how you should train to run a 5K (to a few friends) but every person has different abilities, different desires, different agendas.  The idea may not change but your delivery of it may need to.

It takes guts to point the finger at yourself but not indulge in excuses, pity or guilt.  Point the finger, sound out the idea, repackage as necessary, try again.  The important part is to keep trying.  We’ve seen Steve Jobs’ ideas fail, and we saw them succeed.  That part of his story isn’t unique.

When ideas fail, it doesn’t make you a failure.  Unless you never try again.

A Failure-Averse Society: R U Bot or Not?

26 May

“You can try new things as long as you don’t fail.”
“It’s not that we are risk-averse. We’re just failure-averse.”
“You’re allowed to try new things as long as you succeed.”

These are all statements overheard by management in the past year.  Both in my company and others that I work closely with.  No wonder my younger engineers are growing frustrated.

What happened to the legacy of Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison where failures were seen as another step towards success?  When you were applauded for  “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” rather than being punished for daring to trip or fall?  Where calculated-planned-for risks were expected? 

A failure-averse culture does not jive with the American Dream of entrepreneurship and the commitment to the pursuit of happiness.  Risk can be good.  And it can be bad. But suppressing all risks stifles creativity and passion and innovation – the bedrocks of our society and integral human skills.

If we continue to tell people: “Don’t leap. Don’t dream. Don’t attempt great things” we may as well build a nation of robots. Throw out the Mavericks and Macgyvers and Michelangelos.  Even the Mozarts.  Welcome the bots.  They won’t take risks, they won’t fail, they won’t think.

R U Bot or Not?