The Terminal Velocity Of Change – Organizational

[This blog builds on the previous one regarding the terminal velocity of change in our Rubberband ballown lives]

When I start working at a new company, there are many things that jump out as being great and a few things that jump out at as needing improvement.  Typically, as I start to understand more of the culture, things I thought were wrong turn out to be just different but nevertheless effective.  Other things though, I want to change.

Whenever we go into a new situation we have an outside perspective that can allow us to see things that those who have been a part of the organization can’t see because they’ve grown accustom to them. It’s tempting to try to mention all the various things we think need to be fixed forgetting that organizations just like people can’t change on a dime.  Plus others may not even agree that a change is necessary.

Most of us can recognize our own limitations to change, but forget them when it comes to others; often because the change seems so obvious, but what might be obvious to us is not obvious to others.  Moreover, just like us, organizations and those in them also have limits on how quickly they can make change:  organizations also have a terminal velocity of change. Influencing change in others requires even more finesse than it does to change ourselves.

Just as with ourselves, we have to pick the right thing and then keep focusing on that — we can never fix everything. As much as we can, we shouldn’t depend only on others to make the change but try to figure out how to make the change ourselves.  This is because others tend to be overwhelmed with the improvements they are already trying to make.  It’s much easier to change something that we’ve identified ourselves than it is to get excited about a change someone else has identified. Finally, we should learn to read people’s situation.  We shouldn’t keep giving people a hard time about something when they are totally stressed about a more pressing problem.  Doing so just offends them and reduces not only the ability to work together toward a solution, but also risks losing the friendship. Instead during those times encourage what is going right and pitch in.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering these challenges and difficulties.  Nothing here is earth shattering, but these are the things I have to remind myself of because I can easily fall into being completely ineffective and even offensive.  As I’ve come to understand more about how quickly change can be made, I remind myself of these principles to try and find the right path. We must seek improvement, but we can only do so with wisdom and grace.

[Photo Credit: Tom Magliery]

Posted in Ambiguity | 1 Comment

The Terminal Velocity Of Change – Ourselves

AFF Jump 1: Free & ClearAll of us have things we wish were different in our lives, so we start initiating action to change ourselves. We’d of course like the change to be instantaneous and we’d like to change all the things we wish were different at the same time, but alas we encounter limits in our ability to change.

Our own rate of change is like our air speed after jumping from a plane. Initially we accelerate toward our end point moving faster and faster. Eventually however, we reach terminal velocity: we are still moving quickly in the direction we intended, we just aren’t moving any faster. The resistance of the air is pushing back on us just as hard as the earth is pulling us toward itself.

Similarly, our ability to change has a terminal velocity.  Often we start a change in our lives and just when things are moving in the right direction, the earth doesn’t look like it’s getting any closer nor do we feel like we are moving any faster.  Instead of staying the course, we pull the rip cord and start drifting somewhere else. But it’s not only when we get bored that we end up floating in a different direction, it also happens when we get distracted.

Recently, I was trying to feed a newborn baby.  The bottle was in her mouth but she wasn’t sucking, she was instead wriggling and moving her hands and feet all over the place. So many new sensations that she couldn’t actually do the most vital — eating.  Everything was set to satisfy her hunger, but she was too distracted. We swaddled her arms and legs so they were held tight and almost right away she realized there was a bottle in her mouth and started eating.

We can be the same way and think we can change 100 things all at once, but just as we can’t change more quickly than our terminal velocity, similarly we can’t change many things at once. Sometimes in order to focus on changing the right thing, we need to free ourselves from the distractions, even good ones, that keep us from the most vital things.

Improvement only occurs with consistent effort applied over a long period of time.

Let’s not get frustrated when we wish it was happening faster but stay the course.  Similarly, let’s not try to fix everything but fix and improve the most important things first.  Just like free fall, we have a terminal velocity to how quickly we can change.

Photo Credit: Andy Ciordia

Posted in Ambiguity | 1 Comment

Asking Permission vs. Getting It Done

But won’t your manager be mad that you’re doing something that isn’t your job?
- A good friend after I told him about a project I was working on that would help the organization but was never explicitly requested.

What job description did you get hired into? – Two different people when I told them I accepted a job

What’s funny about these questions is not that I didn’t have an answer once they were asked, though both surprised me. It’s that it never crossed my mind to even ask them of myself.

Like when my friend sprained his ankle playing basketball and I asked him what happened, how he fell, how he landed.  Really getting a feel for the nature of his injury. When I got home, I shared news of the sprain with my wife and her first question was: “Who was he playing basketball with?” – that never even crossed my mind.

We aren’t wired to asked the same questions others might ask, but our questions reveal a lot about our mindset.  The questions my colleagues asked represent a common mentality in large corporations and illustrate a particular perspective of how we see our jobs.

There are two ways to define a set of laws: positive law and negative law.  Positive law states all the things we are allowed to do, everything else is prohibited.  Negative law forbids a set of actions and everything else is permitted.  As a result, negative law provides more freedom of action because it allows far more things.

This same distinction carries over to how we see our job. A “positive” job description describes the entire extent of what we do.  We don’t do anything else.  A negative job description says we avoid tasks that we’re explicitly prohibited from doing, but otherwise we do whatever needs to be done to help everyone succeed (not just the things we were asked to do).  We find new problems that maybe no one has seen and start working on solutions even though no one asked us to.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to be just a cog in the machine and do that, and only that, which has been explicitly demanded.  In a world filled with ambiguity and challenges, where employees are found all over the world, being a cog is not enough to be valued. Those above us in the organization are inundated with decisions and problems. They won’t see the things that we see.  We must look for the things that need to be done but that no one has asked us to do.  One of my favorite authors, Seth Godin, wrote a book called Linchpin that had this same message.  We must be the one that others count on to get the job done even if it’s beyond what’s explicitly asked of us.

No job description is explicitly negative (do everything EXCEPT this), but many people see their job description as a positive one (do this and only this) even though they don’t need to. I don’t define myself by the job description I was given nor do I limit myself to helping in only those ways.  Neither should you. We should look beyond just the work we’re supposed to do and figure out how we help make the whole organization work better together.  It’s far more rewarding and far more freeing.

Posted in Ambiguity, Leadership | 1 Comment

Laughing At Failure

OoopsWhile visiting a friend who has a great espresso machine, I went to go grind some coffee in preparation of pulling an awesome shot of espresso.  When the coffee grinder was under the cabinets, it looked like it had an open top so I took a handful of coffee and dropped it into the hopper only to hear coffee beans bounce all over the counter top.

Laughing and realizing that I didn’t see the clear lid, I started picking up the various beans that had scattered about the kitchen counter top.

This morning my friend send me a picture (left) where he had done the same thing.  He said this is now known as pulling a “Matthew” at their house which made me laugh.

I fail all the time as I’ve said several times on this blog.  I don’t like failing, but I accept it as a part of life and instead focus on how I can recover from it and what I can learn from it.  I don’t try to actively avoid failure and don’t feel bad saying I failed at some thing.

I’m surprised though when other people are shocked when I say “I failed at such and such”.  Somehow failing has taken on this sense of catastrophe. They try to get me to reword it, “You didn’t fail, you…”

My good friend David Delp, writes on his blog “Yea! I failed” and teaches this as part of his life management program.  He’s actively trying to get people to stop having such a negative attitude toward failing. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed failing but instead view it as something that happens when I’m growing.  When I work out, if I can do 10 reps of an exercise 6 times without my body ever giving up, I know those muscles aren’t going to grow. I have to push harder to make them fail so that they will become stronger. Similarly, if I only do things in life that are easy and protect me from ever failing, I won’t grow.

At work, I’ve pointed out that our throughput in engineering is the amount of time we spend thinking plus the amount of time it takes the software to crank on our experiment plus the amount of time we wait until we are working again and able to look at the output (the software might finish in the middle of the night).  Then we iterate.  I’ve shortened this to: (Think + Run + Wait) * Iterate.  This provides a mechanism for us to start thinking through how to improve our overall throughput.

Some people like to spend A LOT of time thinking, really trying to perfect the experiment. Others spend almost no time thinking.  Both lead to suboptimal results.  Thinking too much wastes time because there are many unknown factors we simply can’t consider until after running and waiting.  Thinking too little creates busy work where we avoid the hard work to find a new approach and instead keep iterating on the same old thing.

I’m a fan of thinking some but not too much and then letting it run.  If it’s a failure, then learn from it and iterate.  Instead of trying to devise the perfect experiment, I try to iterate quickly. How can I compress the amount of time that it takes to go through the whole loop?

We’ve heard it before: if we’re not failing, we’re not trying hard enough. I would reword this to if we’re not failing, we’re not growing enough.  Growth in our bodies or in our minds, requires venturing out into the unknown and failing.  This doesn’t mean we’re happy when it happens, but we can laugh knowing that we’re right were we are supposed to be.

Posted in Ambiguity | Leave a comment

Technological Stockholm Syndrome

kipnapped: still ] a hostageJust the other day, I had lunch with a friend who just started working as an engineer. I asked him whether he was enjoying his job. He said that it’s a bit different than he expected and that he’s spending a lot of time banging his head against the wall just to figure out how all the pieces work.  But now that he’s coming up to speed he said he thinks he’s starting to enjoy it and then added or maybe it’s just Stockholm Syndrome (wikipedia) which made me laugh.

What a great description for how we often feel while using technology that is more archaic than well designed.  At first, it abuses us and makes us feel stupid.  ”Of course you need to type Meta-Cntrl-A F5 M to get it to do that function! Why wouldn’t you type that?!?”.  Then as we become more proficient in its arcane ways, we start feeling good about our ability to manipulate the tech to do what we want. That in turn makes us feel like we are wielding a really powerful piece of technology.  We start defending it, even thought it’s still not designed right because we suffer from something not altogether different than Stockholm Syndrome.

Recently, in a meeting I suggested changing a particular way that our tools were organized to make it easier for new people to come up to speed on how to use all of them.  This would make it much easier for new people, but require all those experienced to change their ways (slightly).  One engineer joked that this would disrupt the tradition of all the experienced people who have already learned the old way with much effort. I called this new engineer hazing — “It doesn’t have to be painful, but we all experienced the pain, so new engineer should too.  It builds solidarity”

We don’t need to be grateful that our technology doesn’t abuse us.  We don’t need to haze new engineers because it was hard for us.  We should each be working to simplify our tools and technology so that more people can use them successfully and give us a better foundation for building what’s next.

Picture Credit:  pedro veneroso

Posted in Ambiguity, Leadership | 2 Comments

Be Salty At Work

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” – Matthew 5:13 NKJV

Ann and I enjoy watching Chopped, a cooking show where the chefs have a limited amount of time to create a dish that incorporates several mystery ingredients in a limited amount of time. The judges give their feedback on each of this dishes and a common complaint is that the meat was not seasoned properly or that a little salt would have brought the dish together.

No dish tries to accentuate the salt. No one ever says I really like how the salt in this dish comes out. Salt is never the star. But as anyone who has ever eaten a dish that needed salt knows, when it’s lacking there is something missing from the dish. There may be some good flavors but they are dull and lack vibrancy without salt.

Just as good dishes need salt, so do organizations.

Every member of an organization or team brings their own unique flavor to the pot. All of us want our flavor to be noticed and appreciated as special, but it’s more important that we figure out how to make the entire organization work well together. Each of us can bring a good unique flavor, we should also be looking at how we can add salt to the organization. How can we help emphasize the flavor of those that we work around? How can we make them look good?

Even though being salty rarely gets noticed in any public way, it transforms the way organizations work. And while the recognition may not come directly from management for the salt we add, those peers who benefited from our behind the scenes coaching will be thankful for the seasoning we add.

When we have this focus it transforms the vibrancy of the organization. Not only is it more enjoyable for everyone else, it’s more enjoyable for us.

How are you being salty to those around you?

Posted in Leadership | Leave a comment

Why Are There So Many Coincidences?

Random1 Random2

Imagine these graphs show the location of those living with a fatal disease.  There are clearly some places that don’t have the disease and other places that seem more prone to it.  I even circled a clump to illustrate that something is clearly wrong with that area and we should do more research, or should we?

Let’s say we mark a dot every time we have a good or bad day.  The whole year might look like this:


Looks like our stars weren’t aligned during a few months?

In both cases, we may be tempted to start trying to figure out why there is grouping, generating all kinds of reasons.  We would probably even convince ourselves that our reasons are correct and start taking action based on them.

But we would be doing so in vain.  The people living in the areas above did not pick some toxic swamp, neither did our year have misaligned stairs.  This is just how things look when something happens randomly.

All of the above images show pure randomness — any and all clumps are entirely meaningless. This is not what we expect randomness to look like.  We tend to think that randomness looks like this:


Sure there is a little variation, but things are evenly spread out. It feels right, it feels fair, and it may be, but it’s not random. This  type of distribution requires a great deal of control to create.

Ever have a string of bad events and wonder why you’re having to suffer such a week, searching for a reason so we can make them stop?

Clumps don’t just happen graphically – clumps of occurrences happen all the time.  We hunger for meaning so we notice the clumps and try to figure out why.  With a plot, our eyes create gestalt groupings. In life, our brain does the same thing to coincidences. We want to assign meaning even when it’s most likely a random distribution.  Part of it is that we don’t notice the long stretches when things don’t happen because we don’t remember the non-event – just like our eyes don’t immediately go to the open areas in the plots above.

Statistically, we can find ways to tease out the random noise from the valuable information, but it’s not trivial and requires a lot of data. Most of us are not statisticians, yet we have all assigned a reason to a set of coincidences.  How often do we start making decisions based on stories we created because we couldn’t recognize what random actually looks like?

When we see things that seem coincidental to us and our minds tempt us to start assigning meaning, we should be cautious and probably not believe our own reasons.  We aren’t wired to properly recognize randomness and our world is full of random events.

Related Posts: Where Superstitions Come From?

The plots were generated using some Javascript code.  If you’d like to see more examples of what randomness actually looks like, you can just click here to try running it yourself (no programming experience required). Just change the values for size and number of points and click run. Let me know what you think?

Posted in Ambiguity | 1 Comment

Emotional Intensity At The Finish

“長跑 Long Run (Marathon)” / 香港體育 Hong Kong Sports / SML.20130502.6D.03782.BWWhen we need a pit stop during a road-trip, have you ever noticed how the urgency seems to increase just as we finally decide to pull off the freeway. By the time we arrive at the gas station, we feel like we are going to explode. Many times we assume that it’s because we just really had to go, but it’s more that our feelings intensify in anticipation of relief.

Another example: we were at an airport and a boy was crying for his mother. He was crying pretty solidly for several minutes with his father attempting to console him many times.  Eventually, his father gave in and put him down so he could run to his mother. Never was his cry so intense as the final walk over to his mom.

Whether it’s tiredness right as we get to the final stretch of a hike, or hunger as we are waiting for our food after ordering it, or almost any other strongly felt desire, as we near the attainment the emotion strengthens.  Sometimes this can make the last part even more difficult to endure, but if we recognize it, we can tell ourselves a different story about our situation, sometimes the opposite of reality, as a way of quelling the urgency of the desire.   This can help as we near an important deadline to keep pushing or when there is no gas station in sight.

Our emotions don’t rise and fall according to some rational objective standard.  As a result, often we need to face our emotions and recognize that even though the desire is strong, we can push through.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons License See-ming Lee

Posted in Attention | Leave a comment


Joe Heller – by Kurt Vonnegut  

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.

I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22′
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”

There is a buffet restaurant down in Denver called Cinzettis. Each dish has several chefs that watch over it, so every dish tastes as though you ordered it off a menu. It’s good food with lots of selection. The first time I went there, I ate too much and regretted it — sick to my stomach for the entire evening. This is a lesson that eating teaches you, we go from hungry to satisfied to too full.

Many desires we have in life teach us not to overdo it. We can be parched, drink some water and feel satisfied. If we keep drinking water, we feel sick. Even television can be relaxing for a bit, but too much and we feel bad (though unfortunately we don’t always attribute that to watching TV). Even drugs or alcohol have their negative after effects with indulgence.

Unfortunately, many desires don’t have a quick feedback cycle when we over-indulge. For example, the quest for money has the opposite feedback loop. The more people quest for it, the more it consumes them and it’s all they can think about. Never sated, the more they have, the more they want.  In the process, it crowds out other desires that would be more fulfilling if satisfied.  The poem above reminded me of this proverb:

There is one alone, without companion: He has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, Nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks,“ For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?” This also is vanity and a grave misfortune. - Ecclesiastes 4:8 (NKJV)

Consider our daily pursuits.  For what purpose are we striving and when will we know we have enough. For those things that we desire, consider what overindulgence looks like and beware if there is no obvious sign that we’ve gone to far.

Posted in Ambiguity | 1 Comment

Why Doctors Have Weird Names

Doctor?Ever noticed that many doctors have funny, sometimes ironic names — names like: Dr. Bayer (asprin anyone?), Dr. Killam (yikes), Dr. Mooney (something he sees a lot of), and Dr. Strong.  We’ve all heard people express surprise at the name of many doctors and wonder how they could have gone into medicine. My parents dentist was named Dr. Mangle.

I started wondering whether it’s the last names that cause people to go into medicine or if instead, because we love to find meaning, that any random sample of names would generate funny meanings when the word Dr. is added to the front.

The four names above were generated as part of a thought experiment.  They come from the 16 last names currently on Saturday Night Live cast.

Try it yourself. Take a random sample of last names, add Dr. to the front, and you’ll find similar surprising meanings. Not all things that we find significant are so.

[Photo Credit:  Nikki McLeod]

Posted in Ambiguity | Leave a comment