The Brink of Chaos

Stuck In A Box

8077128563_3659aa18a7Some years ago, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test.  This personality test tries to identify your preferences on a few different spectrums: introverted/extroverted, thinking/feeling, sensing/intuitive, perceiving/judging.  It made some observations about my type (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) that were useful in understanding myself.  This was the first test that was actually useful. All of the tests I took before the MBTI, ended up with very bizarre results. Back in Jr. High School, one of our teachers gave us a personality test about how we think.  After taking it, I ended up in two completely opposite quadrants — not only did the descriptions not help, but I also felt a bit “unique”. I took the DISC assessment once at a conference and ended up in the middle of the road on all four quadrants.  They had everyone get together with their dominate type and so I went to one of the groups but didn’t really resonate with them.

Personality tests can give us insight into ourselves that can often be difficult to find.  We need a comparison to make observations about ourselves and these categorization and grouping allow us to make interesting observations. Besides helping us understand ourselves, it can also help us understand how other people are different from us and how we can better respond to them. But even the MBTI creators make it clear that this indicator tells us only what we prefer in general, not what we are good at, nor what we can act like all the time.  It’s not for putting us or others in a box, it’s for understanding ourselves and others better.

We like boxes though.  We like the simplicity of the discrete instead of the complexity of the organic.  Creating box isn’t something only psychologists do, we all create boxes everyday with the people we meet or with the things we think about.  Much of our language and the way we reason about the world comes from the manipulation of symbols and especially in Western Culture where we seek after nouns to categorize everything.  Consider that the first words we teach our children tend to be nouns – objects which we can classify.

While the categories we create allow us to make valuable observations, they can also hide reality.  Except in the most simple of cases,  it’s an incomplete description of  the world we live in.  It’s much messier, much less boxy. We should sometimes take a moment to recognize that the categories or boxes we create are often crutches to help our own thinking and that sometimes those same crutches hinder us from being able to understand better the world around us. Sometimes we need to get out of the box.

[Related Posts: The Risks of Commoditization, How We See The World]

Photo Credit: Antti Kyllönen cc

The Imperfect Balance In Relationships

5751301741_aa8463e472Several years ago, when my friend’s wife turned 30, he invited many of their friends to play a game at their house.  Each person came dressed as a particular character and then played out their role. The premise was that we were all stuck on an island, there were a limited number of boats and we had to find a captain to chose us for their boat.  Of course there were lots of interesting dramatic twists. For example, I played a man who’s secret identity was a masked vigilantly. One goal was to figure out who the masked man was (my wife guessed correctly on the car ride over, but she kept the secret).  Anyway, I was told I had a right-hand man who was on my side as we were figuring out how to escape.  Sometime near the end of the game, as others started turning against me I found out my trusted confidant was part of the conspiracy.

Aghast, I fought him as well as other players using something akin to rock, paper, scissors. I went on a rampage killing anyone standing in my way. It helped that  I had some special ability that allowed me to win on a tie and get a second chance if I lost. This allowed me to escape (over quite a few dead bodies), but the rest of the evening I was reeling, considering the betrayal and what I might have done differently.  I didn’t feel like I “won” and to this day, whenever someone mentions the guy who betrayed me (who is otherwise a great guy, but who I rarely see), my first memory is still of his betrayal that night.

The emotion of betrayal or really any hurt dealt by our closest friends carries a lot of weight. It creates mental splinters that once we start picking at them, can make it hard to stop. We often relive the situation again, strengthening the emotion each time we dwell on it.  As a result, these wounds come to memory quickly when we think about the person skewing our judgement of who they are.

We have an emotional response to most of the people in our lives built from our good and bad experiences with them.  Our experiences each get put on a balance scale, where the hurts and wounds go into a pan on one side, and the good experiences and benefits go on the other.  Unfortunately, since we feel wounds far more strongly and relive them, they tend to stay longer and weigh more than the good things.  The good side is actually more like a funnel where we feel the goodness for the moment but over time the strength of the memory slowly dissipates.

Since no significant relationship exists without occasional wounds, left unchecked, EVERY relationship we have will eventually have more hurts than blessings. Moreover, if a significant wound is dealt, we spend time thinking about it, almost polishing it in our minds, giving it more weight.  As we do, it becomes harder and harder to let go of it. Moreover, just like a few dirty dishes in the sink collect ever increasing numbers of dirty dishes, the big wound ends up making it more difficult to remove the smaller hurts that were easy to forget back when everything was great.  Over time this can lead to such a heavy collection on one side of the balance that no amount of good can ever outweigh the pain.

We might think that we must remember the hurts because somehow it makes things even, but the reality is that it just makes us miserable, not them. We might also be tempted to think that by preserving the offense, we  can better defend ourselves against future hurts. But being defensive never improves relationships, instead it isolates us, pushing us further from the friends we need.

If we want to have healthy, life-giving relationships, we must actively invest in forgiving those wounds, actively removing them from the balance; we have the option to dwell on the hurt but instead we actively choose not it.  This requires an ongoing conscious decision to NOT regard the hurt, not think about it, not relive it, not dwell on it, not put it back in the balance against that person, truly let it go.  In other words, good acts may slowly dissipate, but hurtful ones only dissipate with deliberate and continuous action because we recognize that we too are imperfect and depend on others forgiving us. Over time, the weight of the wounds shrinks and we have healing.  In addition, when we find ourselves tempted to dwell on the negative, we would do ourselves a favor by instead cherishing and remembering the things that the person has done for us to bless us.

All of us have hurt others, usually unintentionally but sometimes in the heat of the moment with malice.  We should learn how to live at peace with others and control ourselves when we’re upset so that we can interact with our friends in a way that doesn’t hurt them.  At the same time, we should stop dwelling on the wounds and instead spend as much time as we can dwelling on the positive things others do, just as we hope they will do with us. Doing this will bless us with many, albeit imperfect, friends rather than feeling lonely, continually looking for the perfect person who will never hurt us.

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Wake Up!

Alarm ClocksWake Up! You’re going to be late for work!

But I don’t want to wake up, I was having such a good dream.  Just let me sleep a little longer.

All of us have had this experience and felt this way, especially as children.  It’s very unpleasant to wake up from a dream only to find reality is a nightmare (at least for the moment).  As we grow older, we learn to appreciate the wake up call so that we can take action to avoid worsening the consequences.  We don’t get angry at the person delivering the message instead we thank them.

At times though, this less mature response comes out when we thought everything was going well (living the dream) and someone starts to tell us it might not be so peachy keen.  We hear there are some problems or risk and we get angry with the person communicating the problems we must face.  My dad once mentioned a manager who got very angry whenever he heard bad news. Don’t wake me up, everything was going perfectly!

Living in a dream doesn’t make it real and ultimately causes us to have less ability to respond to the problems at hand.  One of my favorite managers took the opposite tack.  He awarded those who came to him with problems so that he could be aware of what was coming.  No one gets fired for the problems they saw coming.

It feels good to think we’re on top of things, but we shouldn’t become addicted to that feeling.  Likewise, we shouldn’t give into fear mongering or believe that nothing is ever going right.  At times though, someone will tell us that things are not going as we hoped. We should not get angry with the messenger, but try to figure out how we can be better prepared for what’s coming.

Photo Credit: Alex Guerra cc

The Cost Of Intervention

3566785658_b952996c4eBack many years ago, when stock brokers received orders from their customers to buy or sell stocks there was trust that the broker would work in the best interests of his client. He would find the best price in the market and sell it there. Some brokers abused this trust and used markets that had better kickbacks for them rather than what was best for their customer. Not good.  So congress stepped in to intervene and passed a law requiring each broker to find the best price for their client when selling stock.  Seems fine until some people realized that meant they could set up small orders on some exchanges as a way to get a tip that a big transaction was coming and react by beating the broker at other exchanges (by having a faster network connection or being more collocated) and as a result drive the price up (or down) so that they could skim some money off the transaction.  This doesn’t make the market better, but brokers hands were tied to prevent this as well.

Michael Lewis outlines this in his new book “Flash Boys”.  As he unfolds the mystery behind how we got into this situation, he reveals that most of this was a result of congress continuing to enact laws to protect the consumer in one way, without realizing how that might open up a new form of abuse somewhere else.  Intervening in a complex system often introduces new wrinkles that end up causing more harm than what we are trying to avoid.

Bruce Schneier, a security expert, outlined this process for evaluating a solution to some perceived security risk:

1) What problem does it solve? 
2) How well does it solve the problem? 
3) What new problems does it add? 
4) What are the economic and social costs? 
5) Given the above, is it worth the costs?

The third one is the one we often miss.  When we change a system, what new problems is it likely to create that didn’t exist before?

Even though most of us are not implementing legislation or solving security problems, this process is effective anytime we take action due to a fear or worry we might have.  We shouldn’t only think about what we are trying to avoid, we should also think about how our action to avoid the situation may create new risk. For example, after 9/11 many people drove their cars instead of flying because of their fear.  As a result, driving fatalities went up because driving was and is still more risky than flying.  By avoiding the risk that seemed the most scary, they failed to check the cost of changing to a different solution.

Something to think about when we’re thinking about the next big problem we have the perfect solution to fix. Intervening and doing something different isn’t without consequence.

Photo Credit: Now and Here cc

We’re All Famous

Amitabh.BachchanSometime ago, my wife and I were on a plane from Bangalore, India to New Delhi.  I opened up the Air India In-Flight magazine to find a picture of a man who I’d seen on a number of billboards and various advertisements. I wondered who this guy was, and now had the opportunity to find out, so I asked the Indian sitting next to me, “Who is this “? After looking at my incredulously, he responded, “You don’t know who Amitabh Bachchan is?!?! He’s a Bollywood Superstar!”

Indeed. One website lists him as the #1 Bollywood actor of all time.  The funny thing is that until then if I had sat next to him at a coffee shop, I would have not had a second thought about him.  Here’s a guy known by hundreds of millions of people around the world, and to me, he was just another human trying to make his way in the world. Fame is funny that way — no one is famous to everyone.

This applies to all famous people. The CEO may be revered within his own company, yet to those outside, he’s just another guy. He wakes up tired, has to get dressed, eat breakfast and worry about what things he needs to get done today. Famous people are just like us. Maybe that’s because all of us are famous.

While fame carries nearly universal appeal, it turns out we experience the best part of fame, being known and liked, everyday.  We have friends who look forward to seeing us.  They recognize us in the store and come say hello to us. Even the people we work with do the same.  Sure, our group of fame is smaller than Amitabh Bachhan, but we enjoy similar affection and without the cost of strangers interrupting our lunch to ask for our autograph.

[Photo Credit:]

The Adult Version Of Chicken

the-eagles-are-coming-cardWe’re all familiar with the rather silly adolescent game of chicken — A group of people stand in the middle of on-coming traffic and the last one to jump out of the way “wins”. Or in another version, two kids drive cars toward one another and the one that swerves “loses”. As adults, we look down on such ridiculous games, but then go on to play them in different forms at work.  One of the more common incarnations is affectionately called “schedule chicken”.  Instead of oncoming cars, it’s oncoming deadlines and the first one to admit they are going to be late, loses, allowing all the other team members to silently miss their deadlines without the shame of being the one who had to fess up to it. Somehow this has become an accepted modus operandi within many companies, managers rewarding those who never announce their slips even though the same ones rarely hit their deadlines.

As we’ve discussed here before, knowledge work is difficult to plan and predict. Inevitably we miss some predictions because of various uncertainties about what we know.  As a result, it’s common to introduce the concept of risk as a way of representing this uncertainty.  We believe that we can get something done in two weeks, but there is some amount of risk that it won’t happen.  We can then represent changes to the plan as either increasing or decreasing our risk of hitting the schedule.  Done well, this can help teams discuss the difficulties in a way that allows for discussions of tradeoffs.

Discussion of risk only works well though if we’re not playing chicken. If we don’t want to announce a change in the schedule or say that we can’t meet some particular deadline, when we get asked to make a change, we still discuss its impact on the risk.  At the beginning, this is meaningful but eventually we’ve taken on so much risk while still committing to the schedule, that taking on more is really not going to change the outcome – missing the deadline is inevitable.

Imagine if we found ourselves jumping out of an airplane without a parachute but with a helmet. The amount of risk that we’ve already taken is ridiculously high.  If we’re then asked to take off our helmet and shoes, while we can say it increases risk, the additional risk is negligible compared to the ground barreling down at us. At this point, the conversation of risk loses it’s meaning.  Just like Gandalf and Bilbo, we’re just waiting for the eagles to come.

When we reach this point, we’ve essentially decided to make the ultimate chicken gambit.  We will not lose, we will not jump out of the way, we will just hope that the car swerves (or that the eagles arrive). Maybe some miracle will occur and our project will be delivered on time or the other guy will admit they need more time. If it does not, at least we didn’t lose or perhaps, at least we didn’t lose alone. But we do lose. Maybe not our lives, but our integrity. Even if  by some miracle, no one notices because someone else gives in first, it doesn’t make the decision right.  At work, with critical projects on the line, having a meaningful discussion of risk needs to be maintained since it provides the ability to openly communicate both about the intent to deliver as close to on-time as possible while honestly representing why it might not happen.  It allows others to plan their actions likewise and work together toward mutual success. Having these realistic discussions should be rewarded instead of punished by management.

As adolescents driving cars, or as adults working with our teams or partners, getting into a game of chicken is not a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for getting fried.

[Photo Credit: Fantasy Flight Games from their awesome game Lord Of The Rings]

Remembering Who We Were

A couple weeks ago, I attended my high school reunion and saw several friends I haven’t seen for many years.  One of them is now a mother of four and a missionary in China. Almost immediately after exchanging initial greetings she said, “Back in High School, we got in an argument and you said that kids don’t look at your mouth when they are learning how to pronounce things and I said they do. All of my children look at my mouth as they are learning to talk, so…” I quickly conceded the point to her and wondered  why on earth would I have thought to take a stand on how children learn to speak back in High School!?!?

Later in the evening, I caught up with a friend who is now a pediatrician in Texas.  Again, almost immediately after greeting me he said, “Back in that American studies class, you and I got into an argument about whether Compact Discs or Digitial Audio Tape would win and I said CD’s”. So apparently I was the proponent of fairly ridiculous ideas back in High School.  I admitted that he was clearly right. Who must I have been in High School that many years later, the strongest memory of not one, but two different people was arguing about a very specific thing where I was clearly wrong.

I expressed this out loud at the dinner table and they all confirmed that I really liked to argue in High School.  It didn’t matter what side I was on. I have vague memories of this since I was on the debate team, but sometime in college I realized that I was often wrong and that’s okay. I’d rather just concede and be on the right side.  Moreover, I learned that arguing wasn’t very effective for conflict resolution.  It also helped that my younger brother started following my lead and argued everything when he started High School which made me think, “Wow, that’s really obnoxious.  I should stop doing that”.

I’m still completely up for a good contest of ideas when it’s not personal and often make strong arguments for an idea, not for the hope that I will be seen as right, but instead for the hope that someone will show me how I’m wrong. Ultimately, I’d like to find the best and strongest idea than have it be my idea. I’ve had to learn to temper that desire though. As a good friend told me, “If you sound like you completely know what the right answer is, it will cause others to just acquiesce and not engage in helping sharpen your idea. They will simply think that you know what you’re doing and not even try to figure out how it could be better. Sometimes your strength is a little like a bull in a china shop and that situation calls for a little more delicacy.” Indeed.

It’s hard for us to remember who we were.  We tend to think we are as we always have been. Of course, when we make a sudden shift in mindset, we remember the before and after, but most of our shifts happen gradually over years.  When that happens, we don’t really remember who we were before because the change, like aging, happens so gradually.  I’m still learning to read the situation and decide when questions would be better than making lots of statements, though I can see I’ve come a long way.

Just as old photos show us how we are aging, going back and talking to friends that haven’t seen you for years can be a great mirror for remembering who we were because rarely will we be able to do that without significant help.

The Risks and Rewards of Coaching

10540629943_292a3c7024Anyone who has had a good coach recognizes their value. From outside the relationship, it can be hard to see why. Our coaches usually don’t look like they could do what they are asking us to do, usually they can’t. Their skill set differs from our skill set — we can do but they can stand outside of ourselves and see how we can do better. They push us when we are worried.  They motivate us.  They encourage us.  They guide us.  When we have an awesome coach, we experience the amazing growth and power both within ourselves and see it in our team.

Within the work environment, we find coaches in many places. Our peers serve as informal coaches to help get us past a particular problem or give us feedback on what we need to improve.  Our friends help us deal with challenging relationships.  Our managers have the more formal role of helping us get better and removing obstacles to our success.  Every manager takes on the role to push their employees onward – to encourage them to work harder or smarter and get the job done.  The best managers do this for the benefit of their employees, just as a coach serves those they are coaching.  They desire to see us improve and grow. They want us to go on to do things they know they could never do but know we are capable of.

Up and down the management chain, managers push their employees to carry out things that the employees aren’t sure they can do. Because this is often successful, managers continue to push.  In a good working relationship, this can be a great growth opportunity for us and we all get better; however, it often degrades overtime as managers stop listening to concerns and just start believing their employees can do anything.  The managers take on greater risks and hope their employees will deliver the goods (and if not, at least be left holding the bag if things go south).  This can work while the risks are paying off even if they result in some “Hail Mary’s”, but over time breaks down the trust.  It stops being about the employees growth and starts being about the managers successes. Over time the employees sandbag their expectations so that when management pushes back, it’s still possible.  Over time this creates a dangerous game of deceit where no one wins. It’s a recipe for catastrophe.

That’s not to say that managers shouldn’t push their employees either – we can do far more than we know how to do and often we need someone to push us into the challenge. When it’s happening properly, there is a give and take.  A good manager will push their people but provide space for things not to work the first time.  They will take the blame  if they push to far instead of passing it through to their employees if things don’t go right.  They listen to the amount of stress their employees are under, just as a coach recognizes they can hurt their performer by pushing them too hard.

We all have coaches, formal or informal, who can help us improve.  We should seek out the good ones as they can have a significant positive impact on our lives. Likewise, we should be good coaches ourselves.  If we find ourselves coaching others, we should take that role seriously, listening and working to help the one we coach grow.  If we also succeed when they succeed, we should be careful of pushing too hard and instead continue to listen and develop trust.  Both finding and being a good coach can be difficult, but it’s well worth the effort.

Photo Credit: T. Fernandes cc

The Hail Mary Failure

10035076783_a6b3c0110bOur team is down by 5 points, they are on the 40 yard line, 3 seconds left to play.  Hike! Everyone scrambles for the endzone and the quarterback throws a high arching spiral that seems to hang in the air as the end of game whistle blows.  It falls down into a mass of players, all jumping to try to bring the ball down in their hands.  The pack consumes the ball into a sweaty heap and the referee slowly peels players off to find out whether it was caught.  TOUCHDOWN! High fives and exhilaration and exciting story to recall for years to come.

We love dramatic endings in life just like we do in our stories.  The hero overcomes incredible odds to slay the dragon and save the village.  We see this modeled in sports but it also often happens at work.  We find ourselves facing an insurmountable deadline and through the sacrifices of many, somehow we get it done.  Just like a Hail Mary this requires as much luck as skill to carry out and just like a Hail Mary pass, there are far more misses than successes.  Not being fond of stories with bad outcomes, we forget them.  Who tells the story about the last-ditch that failed or the project deadline that was not met even though people sacrificed to try to make it happen?  We don’t tell those stories. They’re depressing and so we forget them.

This can make us feel that a successful ending that required tremendous sacrifice and risk was a good thing rather than recognizing them as failures.  Why did we let the game get to this point that such a high risk last-ditch effort was required?  How did we not account for the risks earlier in this project to allow us to have to try to stop almost everything to get this project done?  These aren’t the questions we ask because after all, we won.  And yet, it’s important to recognize that finding ourselves in a situation where the only thing left is some crazy scheme is a failure regardless of its outcome.

Because we are wired to love heroic endings, we won’t naturally remember to focus on preventing the problems and reward those who do instead of simply focusing on the heroes that save the day.  While we should never underestimate the ingenuity of humans in distress, we should recognize that we are better off if we avoid needing to exercise that ability.

Related Post:  Remembering The Non-Event: How we corrupt our own conclusions

Photo Credit: Paul L Dineen cc

The Y2K Fallacy

bugThe end of the world as we know it.  This is how the Y2k bug was billed. Famous computer scientists staked their reputation on the gravity of the problem.  Mobilize we did, dusting off the old Cobol books and scouring our software for dates shortened to two digits instead of four.  Companies spent billions of dollars repairing their code and making it robust.  Most thought in spite of all the work, we were still doomed. But doomsday arrived, not with a bang, but barely a whimper.  Turns out it was not the end of the world as we know it. After the fact, people argued that all of our preparations were why so little happened, but even in countries where Y2K spending was limited, little happened.  How did we get ourselves into such a frenzy?

Even as the hype about the problem grew, it became somewhat obvious it was being blown out of proportion.  It started with a description of the bug, that when the year switched from 99 to 00 it would create a discontinuity that would cause programs to behave unexpectedly. Almost all computers have a clock and could have software that could be susceptible to this discontinuity. Sometimes the error would cause the program to crash.  Sometimes the crash would cause the program to not start-up again or create problems in saved data.  Sometimes that would cause the system to stop functioning or to send bad data to other systems causing them to stop functioning.  Couple this with the fact that there are embedded computers in our power plants, cell phone networks, even cars.  How will we even be able to fix those. So we have the possibility of all computer devices ceasing to function or putting out bad data,  hence, death and destruction the likes of which the world has hardly known.

But this cascade didn’t happen and it’s easy to see in retrospect why.  A small probability of a small probability of a small probability is so close to zero that it doesn’t matter any more.  Yet at each stage, our fear tells us to think, “Yeah, but what if it was that way, then…”.  We cascade down until we start seeing this as many people worded it: The Y2K bug will cause many computers to crash and never come back online.  This is the Y2K fallacy.  It’s a mix of the narrative fallacy (that we believe stories more than facts) mixed with hasty generalizations (generalizing from the small to the large without properly taking into consideration how things change).

It’s easy for us to tell ourselves similar stories about the things we are most worried about or the things we are most hopeful for — focusing in on a small thing and telling ourselves the story of the cascade, believing each stage.  When we find ourselves in this situation, step back and consider the likelihood of each stage rationally, try telling yourself the opposite story, and see the situation for what it is.  We’re probably not going to die (at least in any way that we see coming) and we probably also won’t land all three of the big whales on our horizon and become multi-billionaires — unless we’re fixing bugs for someone else’s terror. :D