Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Solving problems

Solving Problems

Bob Sutton is one of my favorite business thinkers, from his promotion of Rules for Building a Civilized Workplace to 17 things I believe.  I took his class while I was working towards my management certificate at Stanford and still use the practical guidance (infinitely better than Jim Collins, who’s First Who, Then What maxim devastated our engineering department).

January 2015  will probably be the most difficult and consequential month I’ve faced in over a decade.  Five business, residential, and personal questions will be decided, right or left, with permanent consequences.  By February 1, life will settle into one form or another, but different from what it’s been in the past few years.

I solve problems with analysis and energy, hard work and attention to the changing opportunities at hand.  (or, as Biz Stone,  cofounder to Twitter, summarized: Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.)

But these five feel resistant to the normal approaches: simply assembling the fact and presenting them clearly, listening to different viewpoints and accommodating dissonant voices has not worked.  Frustrated, I’ve needed to go from branch to root: thinking differently.

Tough-mindedness:  A colleague is arguing a series of hypotheticals to get their way, rather than recognize simple facts.  While their exercise is persuasive, the outcome being imposed simply doesn’t reflect reality.  I’m coming to see that some people, some situations, simply can’t be negotiated.  The caution is that taking a hard line burns future bridges: I need to be firm in non-confrontational ways.

Avoid pompous jerks whenever possible. They not only can make you feel bad about yourself, chances are that you will eventually start acting like them.

Strength:   Related to being Tough-Minded, there is an endurance to stay focused and not give up trying to find a solution.  Many times. strength is seen as the ability to hang in, to take the hardships in stride, and to be stoic and uncomplaining.  But  there is also a planning strength, keeping the optimism, momentum, and will to try.  The fundraising, the negotiations, need both sorts of strengths.  The caution is that the two people issues may require yet another: the strength to accept what won’t be changed.

You can have influence over others or you can have freedom from others, but you can't have both at the same time.

Soft skills:  Those with power can solve problems by political and economic strength, authority and intimidation.  Those without power utilize softer skills: leading by example, building coalitions, persuading by stages.  Closing my fundraising is not a matter of ticking the boxes.  I need steady patience and human insight, understanding the aspirations and motivations that lead people to invest.  The caution is that I may miss my window if I rely on unfamiliar methods.

The best test of a person's character is how he or she treats those with less power.

Trust the Experts:  The UK government has empowered a clerk to make the left-right decision of whether I stay in the UK or get escorted to the border after the 10th.  Government policy is to reduce net inward migration to ‘tens of thousands’. so the clerk is looking for reasons to say ‘No’.  My immigration advisor knows the rules and tells me what I need to secure my ILR.  The caution is in how far to trust expert advice that don’t make intuitive sense.

If you are an expert, seek-out novices or experts in other fields. If you are a novice, seek out experts.

Stay positive:  A course of action is being demanded, one that I doubt is healthy.  Confrontation results in threats; capitulation feels easier than conflict.  But I know that I will regret giving tacit support to a bad idea, and that I will be pulled into sorting the costly mess that could result.  I need to press ahead with a process that generates and supports better alternatives.  The difficulty is that I could run out of time before it can complete.

Err on the side of optimism and positive energy in all things.

Avoid cynicism:  I have not found the way to have a difficult, necessary conversation with an errant colleague.  their behavior may be thoughtless or deliberate, but it raises my blood pressure each time I encounter a new example.  I need to have a say; the fear is that the resulting rift could be permanent.

You get what you expect from people. This is especially true when it comes to selfish behavior; unvarnished self-interest is a learned social norm, not an unwavering feature of human behavior.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas gems

DSC00571 (976x1300)Half of my family lives in Boulder, CO;  my son studying at the University and my parents living coincidently nearby.  My daughter and I flew in for a few days visit between Christmas and New Years, ready with cookies to exchange and life’s stories to trade.  Everyone is doing well: it’s great to share memories and plans, get some advice and encouragement, and to share meals and events.

And some fun together!

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The Denver Art Museum is hosting Brilliant, and exhibition of Cartier’s finest bespoke works.  The French jeweler has been around since1847, and the exhibit traces its early establishment by Louis-François and its long association with royalty and celebrities.  The works are intricate and expansive: arrays of matched gemstones set into filigreed silverwork.  Necklaces, tiaras, rings and bracelets glisten in the cases; special portions cover the influences of the Far East and Middle East on related pieces.

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DSC00566 (1300x958)I liked the ‘mystery clocks’, the hands suspended without visible connection to the clockworks.

My daughter has a retail background, and aided my engineer’s eye, curious about how the tiniest of gems could be attached to the intricate pieces.  There are impossibly tiny silver baskets and prongs that anchor each individual stone, a later portion of the exhibit illustrates the design and crafting processes.

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The collection of emeralds, a portion devoted to men’s creations, rounds it out; it’s a lovely exhibit, well worth making time for.

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I breezed through a showing of colorful works by Raoul Dufy downstairs and the outside sculptures, then lunch together in the café to compare perspectives.  We topped that with Champagne brunch at the Greenbriar Inn the next morning, highly recommended regardless of the season. 

It was a wonderful visit, a reminder that family holds many of the true gems in life

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Shifting gears

DSC00338 (1300x960)Friday evening was, for all purposes, the end of the business year in Europe.  Most offices are largely closed or minimally staffed until January 5, two weeks from now.  For us, our labs are idle for deep-cleaning  and our clinical trial and testing work is paused.

But hard on that date, the second week in January will be enormously consequential for me, filled with binary events that will put my future onto one or another path. 

By February 1, life will be very good, or very different, in many ways.  So I’ve been pushing hard all week finish planning completed, brief key people, and coordinate their assignments.

Masterchef

It’s not dissimilar to the fine cooking that I devour on MasterChef. Ahead of time, they plan the dish, gather ingredients and tools, and define the timing and sequence of steps.  Then on the day and within the time allotted, prepare all of the elements,  bring them together on a single plate, and make a beautiful presentation for serving.

The winner goes through; the loser goes home.

I have five difficult problems that need to be solved, each with significant people issues to be solved alongside objective milestones.  hard and soft skilllsStill, like to think that my soft skills have improved a lot in the past two years, and they are really needed here.

Lucy Kellaway writes that Many people can master the numbers, but to be able to do that and know how to deal with the whims and mood swings of your clients and colleagues takes dedication and application – that is what sorts out those who make it to the top from those who don’t.

Or, as my research director used to counsel me, It’s 10% science.

The other necessary skill is knowing when to stop. 

DSC00452 (1300x975)It’s not easy after a week like this.  I’ve done all I can, but I wish I could have done more.  Did I do the right things, do them well enough, overlook something crucial? 

Outside, friends and colleagues have pushed back from the office, pulled out their reindeer sweaters, and bundled off to evenings with friends and celebrations with family.  Nobody will work, or will want to talk about work, for the next two weeks.

So I need to make the same mental shift.  For two weeks, set the worries aside, disconnect, and refocus on family and personal interests.

DSC00462 (1300x974)‘not always easy, but I’m worn through and its really necessary.  It feels good to close the email and step back from the phones once the decision is made. 

Instead, I’ve settled into cooking and reading, photography, writing and rambles.  I’m making cookies, shopping, joining friends for drinks, planning a visit to Colorado.

My first batch of shortbread snowflake biscuits was great!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Small differences

IMG_20141220_112251 (1300x1300)For me as an American, few experiences highlight the differences of being expatriate in the UK like shopping for potatoes.   Growing up, we were taught that brown potatoes were for baking, red for boiling.  In my own home, we gained sophistication: brown potatoes Russets, grown in Washington or Idaho, and baby golden spuds could also be boiled.

This taxonomy serves well in the Netherlands as well as the US, but not in the local Tesco.  Starch content is defining, not colour:  King Edward and Maris Piper for roasting, Charlotte for boiling, Desiree for mashing.  The British pair potatoes with food with the careful eye that we reserve for wines.

With a little study, I adapt (I’ve cooked a selection to learn the differences).  But dual ways of thinking about single things (or ideas) pop up all the time, sometimes in cultural contexts like potatoes, other times in business or relationships.  For me, they lead to philosophic reflections worthy of a Shrink and Sage during drives along the motorways.

A few recent examples:

Persuasion  / Seduction:   I was always taught to take an objective, dispassionate approach to business situations.  I operate from a base of  fact, evidence, analogy, and narrative to persuade; have believed in Bob  Sutton’s advice that Strong Opinions, Weakly Held, win the point.  But, after reading the Steve Jobs biography, I wonder whether business success truly can be achieved with dispassion?  IMG_20141220_112326Inspirational leadership is as passionate as it is insightful.  to what extent to great leaders seduce rather than persuade?  After glancing through a summary of Robert Greene’s guide to the art, I hope it isn’t (and the NYTimes warns of trying to imitate Jobs)

Hope / Faith:  I’m generally an optimist about the future, an idealist about people. But that has never translated into saying that I have hope about either.  Hope is pernicious when it becomes the last positive approach  to a situation where all prior efforts have failed.  I prefer to say that I have faith that things will work out, even when I can’t say how.  This is echoed by other writers.

Anger / Umbrage:  Life is filled with irritating incidents that annoy or irritate.  While I can feel a degree of anger when I get wet because I forgot an umbrella or I read an untrue critique of my product or project.   But if a colleague spreads an unjust comment about my performance or someone just behaves badly, is my feeling justified anger, or only umbrage at the lack of respect?  The soft skill to properly attribute anger is as important as distinguishing the type and response (and, for the latter, the Shrink and Sage reference Aristotle’s maxim to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, while Russell factor IMG_20141220_112610analyzes his way to list nearly 200 varieties of the experience of anger).

Love / In-love:  I have always used the two terms  interchangeably, to tell a partner I love you, and to say I am in love when talking about them to others.  But it’s also true that there are people I love who I am not in love with (the opposite, unrequited love, is also possible).  To say I am in love with you sounds much better than simply I love you, but it’s not the everyday expression of affection.

The minor pairs that have been good for conversations while driving the Sheffield-Poole axis include

  • Persistent / aggressive:  It’s a cultural distinction.  Americans are used to the give and take, while the British, ever indirect, are the most uncomfortable with direct questioning.  The Dutch, usually plain spoken and blunt I expressing themselves, fall nicely between.
  • Anger / Fear:  I have learned that when someone is angry, its good to pause a moment to look for defensive anxiety. A surprising percentage of my irritations are expressions of fear or umbrage.  IMG_20141221_125023I often find it when others turn confrontational, opening better ways  to solve problems.
  • Safe / Certain:  My peers are increasingly seeking security and predictability as they age.  I’m still sorting this in conversations, particularly whether safety comes from certainty, from feeling taken care of, or from stress-free confidence that life’s risks can be surmounted.

To pursue your own duals, a good reference site is Difference Between, a fount / font of similar dorm-room debate fodder.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas at Kew Gardens

DSC00411 (1300x975)Midnight strolls through public parks are always fun.  Museum Nights are held in major cities across Europe, and I still remember the flashlight exploration of Amsterdam’s Zoo, bears and lions sleepily blinking at the late visitors.

Similarly, at Christmas, Kew Gardens decorates their park with a wonderful show of seasonal lights and illuminated sculpture.  The w.wezen arranged dates and tickets: Despite bitterly cold weather, it was a lovely shared evening after a day of shopping in London, with a marshmallow roast and lots of hot tea to help to keep the chill off.

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The displays vary a lot. Simpler ones include chandeliers hung from trees and sparkling tunnels.  The more elaborate bits include Shakespearian productions and lit fountains synchronized with music and firepots.  In between  are ethereal flowers and groves constructed from neon and incandescent lights: these were among my favorites.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

A little bit of London

DSC00317 (975x1300)‘More investor meetings and visa documentation Friday,  so I needed an early trip back from accountants to immigration folks, Amsterdam to Heathrow.  Dates are now set for the review with the Home Office, fees paid and the detailed evidence in preparation.  The Activity Log alone took a day to complete: I needed to account for every coming and going from the UK for the past five years, matched to passport stamps. 

With luck, this will be the last time and I can start to settle.

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I lingered in London into the week end, a chance to get some shopping in and enjoy the displays.  London is happily unpredictable at Christmas: a street may suddenly fill with bicycling Santas’s,  or a sooted passageway can open onto a courtyard filled with lights.

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Fortnum and Mason has some of the best windows in the city, this year a cottony fantasy built around seasonal foods and drinks.  Inside, the store was absolutely packed, a lot of expats picking up take-home items alongside Brits decorating and cooking. 

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Its easy to feel the urgency settling in with less than two weeks until Christmas.