Why winning in sports might be a lousy template for business success

Sports metaphors are incredibly common in the world of business motivation. Probably even more common than military metaphors. We raise the bar, huddle, put on a full court press, try for the home run, and we use the winning sports team as a template for the winning management team.

At first glance, that makes sense. Team sports require, well, teamwork, as does business. A sports team that plays well together is much stronger than a simple sum of the individuals. That principle holds true in a corporate environment too. A team working well together is more multiplicative than additive. With that being the case, how can I say that sports metaphors are bad news? It comes down to the origin of purpose. It’s about why every one is there; what their foundational motivation is.

Success in team sports require much of the same recipe as does success in business. You need a common purpose. You need an understanding of what each teammate needs. You don’t necessarily need deep knowledge of everyone’s positions and jobs, but you need to know enough to help and understand all of them. Everyone has a place and must fill that place, and none of those places stand alone.

Everyone on a winning sports team is there for one purpose: to end the game with a higher score than the other team. Every member of the great team lives that purpose, and has for most of their life. Many of them have been handling the ball or bat since before they started school. Some as soon as they could sit up as a baby and reach out for the brightly colored round thing coming at them. By the time they reached high school, college, or the pros, they have all been living the same dream for a substantial portion of their life.

By the time a soccer player reaches high school, the serious ones are all thinking about playing college ball, perhaps even with a scholarship. In college, it’s the Olympics, the world cup, and a coveted spot on a pro team. They are all after that exact same goal, and have been since their formative years.

Those new freshman team members have all of the ingredients needed to form a winning team. A great coach can work with those ingredients because all of the individuals come into the team with the same goal. They all live, breath, eat, and sleep that goal. All they need is to have it tied together.

And right there, my friend, is where the metaphor falls flat in the business world. First, if you pick the wrong sport to anchor your story, someone’s going to think: “that’s not a real sport. My sport is the real sport.” Someone else, the clumsy nerd, is going to think: “great more glorification of the hot shot popular kids that made my life miserable back then.”

Your company doesn’t have a homogenous-thinking group of people that have held the same dream since potty training. Great sports teams do. You don’t have the same raw material. What you have is just about the opposite of what a sports coach has to work with. Different ingredients require a different formula. Look at what you’ve got:

  • At the age of six, Aaaa was dreaming of walking on the moon. But then, we stopped going to to moon, so they found a different career.
  • Bbbb mostly played in the mud a lot and drove their parents nuts with all of the laundry and ruined church clothes. Yet, in their head, they were creating giant hydroelectric dams and other massive public works.
  • Cccc wanted to be a great leader of soldiers, protecting the weak and saving the world for democracy.
  • Dddd wanted to be the next Joe Montana and win the Superbowl.
  • Eeee was lost and already starting to dabble in what would become a decade centered around creative ways to abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Ffff couldn’t think about much more than a future family with happy spouse and kids, cars, a house, and relaxing vacations.
  • At five, Gggg was trading little used toys for slightly better ones with neighbor kids. Then came lemonade stands, paper routes and odd jobs up and down the street. Never any doubt that this one would grow up to be an entrepreneur.
  • Hhhh ran track, played basketball and baseball throughout most of K-12, settling on track in college. After not quite making the Olympic team, they became a fighter pilot and finally ended up in sales because the airlines weren’t hiring at the right time.
  • Iiii just followed the formula – grade school, middle school, high school, college, an MBA, and some lifeless job.

It’s quite unlikely that any of your management team was dreaming about middleware software as a service when they were five.

Unless you’re in one of the few overtly world-changing companies, it’s quite unlikely that even half of your management team is really passionate about the products or services that the company produces and delivers.

They may be passionate about creating a great user experience, but that can be done just about anywhere, as long as there’s enough money in the budget. They may be driven by quality, but that drive can be fulfilled in a lot of different companies.

No. You don’t have that common fundamental purpose so important to the sports team as a starting point. You don’t have a group of people that are driven by the same thing, and you can’t treat them as if they do. You’ve got to find and or build a different purpose, and you’ve got to understand that you may always have a few team members that aren’t motivated by what you really need them to be motivated by.

It’s easy to say that such people should just leave and go elsewhere. Ideally they will, and you’ll replace them with better fits. But, you can’t depend on it. It’s not practical to expect everyone that isn’t spot on with your purpose to quit or be fired. The real world doesn’t work that way.

You need to create a team building strategy that accommodates some crosses of purpose and some unproductive behavior. If your team building strategy requires that everyone come around and see and live by the common vision, it will very likely not live up to your goals.

You’ve got to find commonality in what drives every member of your team. And the purpose you derive from that needs to be robust enough to deal with some level of indifference. It can’t be dependent upon 100% buy-in. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got it that easy.

Advice from the fringes

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

That may have been literal for Jobs, or it may have been metaphor. We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. By many standards, he was an unimaginable success. But… It’s not difficult to find stories of people he terrorized on his way, or huge mistakes he swept under the carpet. He stepped on people, and he left this world earlier than was necessary. He made his own path. His way of thinking fit his specific type of genius. If you don’t have his type of genius, his advice likely won’t work for you, and if you do have genius, you’ll make your own path.

I don’t really think that people like Steve Jobs are the right ones to be taking advice from, personally or professionally. Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, nor do we need to have it. That type of person isn’t in the norm. Most of us wouldn’t be happy in their shoes. Those in that select group are on the fringes of humanity. They are very rare, whatever the subject or vocation, and will have their own way of getting through life. Advice from others of their ilk isn’t what drives them, a voice inside their heads does.

If today were my last day on earth, would I be doing what I’m doing now. No. Of course not. Think carefully about your last 24 hours. Would you want to be at a job, any job? Would you care to save money? Would you put food in your refrigerator? Would you pay for the gas you just put into your car? My guess is that you’d find one person or a group of friends to be with, and one thing to do. It would be a day of very singular purpose.

What if you found that you have a week to live? Would the answer be different? With a week, you could get a lot more done and see a lot more people. You’d pay for the gas so you wouldn’t end up spending two days of that week in jail. You’d think about food a bit, and either wash or buy some clothes.

How about a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime? With three months, you might be able to live off of credit cards, but beyond that, you’d need income – a job. Each successively longer time period would allow for, and require, more long-term thinking. Some of the long-term activities would not be all that pleasant, but as a part of a whole, they enable the pleasant. Life is an accumulation, an averaging. It’s not a single event. It’s a lot of events that add up to a whole. We all have a lifetime. We just don’t know how long that lifetime will be.

Some pieces of advice, like “work hard”, or “don’t fear failure, learn from it” are more or less universal. That’s because advice doesn’t work in a vacuum. It works within a specific set of conditions. We are all surrounded by hard work and moments of failure (well, all normal people are), so “work hard” and “don’t fear failure…” work for most people. Beyond that, the real secret is in yourself.

To follow advice from Elon Musk, with the aspiration of becoming him, you’ll have to put in the massive amount of work time he does, you’ll have to get his education, take on his attitude – become him in entirety. That’s not realistic for someone that just wants a better salary, a more fulfilling job, and a more rewarding life.

If I look at the whole of my life today, and see something I don’t like, I need to change or adjust. Whether it’s big change, or a few small tweaks really depends on personality. If big change typically ends in failure, try small adjustments, and vice versa.

I don’t buy into the philosophy of live everyday as if it’s your last. To live everyday as if it’s your last is to say that you can never have a down day. It’s to say that you can never make a mistake, to never invest in the future, to never do something without short-term gain. I say live everyday as if it’s a small part of a great work of art. Today is a brush stroke – a pixel for those like like to think in digital terms. It is one part, working towards the whole.

Perspective

If we’re the only life in the universe, does that mean we’re significant, or insignificant?

Are we just a mole on the back of the universe’s foot? Or, are we the actual purpose of the universe? Are we the seed, expected to spread out and explore and conquer the universe? Are we the last sentient residents of a now ashen universe, once full of life?

It’s quite unlikely that any of those questions will be answered within the lifespan of any of us currently alive. But it’s even less likely that we will stop trying to answer those questions.

NASA, not long ago, announced the discovery of a solar system, some 40 light-years away, harboring seven “Earth-like” planets. Three are currently thought to orbit in the habitable zone – where liquid water is likely to exist – not too close, nor too far from the sun to allow water to maintain a liquid state.

All things being equal, if life had arisen on one of those planets during the same time frame as on our Earth, and followed the same pattern of evolution and advancement as ours, we would have found them and they would have found us. Or, so it seems.

The problem is time. We think of the search for extraterrestrial life in terms of vast distances. To really understand the chances of finding any (or us being found), you also need to look at the universe in terms of its staggering duration.

Even at a mere 40 light-years away, finding each other wouldn’t be a sure thing. To illustrate that, let’s look at some numbers.

Michael Faraday created a primitive electric generator in 1831. This is an important date, because, even though, his electricity was running through wires, the act of generating electricity creates radio spectrum noise. It wouldn’t have been coherent radio signals, nor would they have been powerful enough to expect that the signals could have been detected anywhere on Earth, let alone, 40 light years away, but 1831 could be called the opening of the window of opportunity for discovery.

As of this writing, that’s 186 years ago. Out of the 100,000 years of humanity and 4.5 billion years that the Earth has been around, the window of possible discovery via electromagnetic means, has been less than 200 years. We’ve been potentially discoverable for a sixth of a percent humanity’s existence, and for 4.13 * 10-6% of the existence of the planet. Those are small windows of opportunity.

It gets even smaller if you consider a reasonable likelihood of discovery. Electric generation came 186 years ago. Morse code was first transmitted wirelessly 131 years ago. That’s when we started deliberately creating coherent radio signals. The first atomic bomb detonations in 1945 created gamma rays, which, if the Earth was pointed in the right direction, would have been easily detectable 40 light-years away. Really high powered AM radio transmissions started near that time, as well.

On the receiving end, radio astronomy began in the 1930s and we started looking for gamma rays of non-terrestrial origin in 1967. We’ve been looking for radio signals from space for 85 years, and gamma ray bursts for 50 years. Assuming a similar progression on a planet 40 light years away, our 85 years of searching would need to line up with their 131 years of transmitting wireless radio.

You might say that, if they evolved and developed faster than we did, they might have been searching their skies for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Assuming no extinction level asteroid strikes, globally devastating nuclear wars, or climate destroying pollution cycles, our 131 years would need to fall into that few thousand years, out of billions of possible years, which is still pretty unlikely.

For us to have detected the signs of life (coherent radio or gamma rays) on one of these three of seven planets thought to have liquid water, the alignment of advancement would have to be incredibly convenient.

They would have to have advanced to the point of emitting those radiological signs of life, and we would have had to have been listening to the right area of space sometime within the last 85 years. 85 out of 4.5 billion.

That doesn’t help in terms of deciding if we are important, or not. But, it does help illustrate the difficulty in determining if we are alone or not.

My top ten predictions for the next decade

Not long ago, social speculators talked about how the younger generation grew up with computers, the Internet, and cell phones; that they have fully integrated this technology into their lives. I would maintain that today, it’s even more than that. We’re past the time when people integrate technology into their lives. Today, people are integrating themselves into the technology. For many in the millennial generation, their very identity has crossed over to the digital realm.

Years ago, you could tell just about everything about a person by spending some time with them. Their identity was contained within their being, and was anchored around the home, job, or school. Identity was clear, and rooted into a fixed location. Today, those roots are spread throughout the collective Internet. A good portion of a millennial’s personality is stationed out in that digital world.

The modern human doesn’t have an offline and an online personality. They have one personality that is partially stored in their physical being, and partially stored in the digital world. They are an early type of cyborg. The continuation, and acceleration, of this trend is my first prediction for the coming decade.

#1 Ten years from now, the post-millennial generation will have their personality so dispersed that it won’t be possible to know them exclusively offline. Their digital footprint will be as much an aspect of who they are as is their appearance, their voice, and their physical actions.

#2 Many people won’t even notice that #1 has happened. In the same sense that a blind person can’t see another person’s appearance, most people from prior generations simply won’t have the sensory ability to see this additional aspect of the post-millennial’s persona. The future is here and we didn’t notice.

#3 As with personality, described above, most of a person’s physical being will no longer be fixed to what we see as being “normal human.” Artificial limbs, and many internal organs, will be easily reproducible with 3D bio-mechanical personal-manufacturing.

#4 With the bio-prototyping will come body hacking. Third and fourth arms, exoskeletons, and similar modifications will be commonplace. Prosthesis, to replace missing original extremities, will have feeling and dexterity nearly as good as the original, and will come with custom fittings.

#5 The generation gap between these post-millennials and past generations will be more a canyon than a gap. It will be as though they have sight and sound, but we only have sound.

The “machine” isn’t taking over. It’s evolving us to become it

#6 Artificial humans won’t be sentient and thinking, but they will be designed such that most of them could easily pass the Turing test. They won’t be human, but if the designers want them to look it, many people won’t be able to identify them as non-human without a close examination.

#7 Tele-presence will be a big part of this too. People will be able use artificial sense and presence to essentially, be anywhere. These tele-presence bots may look conventionally human, mechanical, electronic, or not be visible at all. Spooky

#8 Uber, Air BnB, and companies like them will skyrocket for the next five years. After that, they’ll start a long slide down as the need to travel declines. With personas dispersed and intermingled online, travel will be much less of a thing. People won’t “be someplace.” They’ll be anywhere and everywhere. If they want to “physically” go someplace, instead of traveling and renting a car, they will be able to rent an artificial body wherever they want to be.

#9 Space travel will be commonplace, but not in the way we’ve traditionally thought of. With tele-presence and immersive virtual reality display devices, the experience will be almost as real as actually being out there.

#10 You can’t complain about it. We’re the people that made all this possible.

Duane Benson

The expanding universe – Food for thought

As divisive and self-important as humanity sometimes gets, the universe just keeps moving around us. Hate and fear race across the page, and yet LIGO observes gravity waves, Space-X lands rockets, and 3D printers learn to print replacement organs. We are all really very small.

The most widely accepted estimates put the age of the universe at just under 14 billion years. We’ve seen objects out to 13.3 billion light years away, in all directions. That doesn’t mean those most distant objects are 13.3 billion miles away. They were that distance away back when the light we are seeing today was emitted; 13.3 billion years ago.

The universe is expanding, so those objects are now a distance further away, the amount determined based on on the speed at which the universe is expanding. 13.3 billion years ago, the light we are now seeing started off toward us. While the light has been moving from the point of origin toward us at 186,000 miles per second, the objects have been moving away from the same point of origin, in the opposite direction.

The current school of thought on the rate of expansion puts those observed objects at 46 billion light years away, as of this writing. That means that, in the 13.3 billion years since the big-bang, some amount of matter has traveled as far as 46 billion light years. If true, this brings to mind a paradox: if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, how did those galaxies get further away from us than the speed of light would allow?

The answer is interesting, and non-intuitive. The expansion is equal in all directions and from all points of perspective that we can observe; we can see just as far in any direction. The only way this is possible is if there is not a center of the universe anywhere within the area we can observe, and if “explosion”, in the conventional sense, is really not the right term to use to describe the big bang. Think of “big bang” as a name or label, not a descriptive term.

In an explosion, everything does start in one place and expand out from that point. Heavier parts move slower, but go farther. Lighter parts initially expand out faster, but lose the momentum battle to air resistance and don’t go as far. During the active time of the explosion, it’s denser near the center, and less dense near the outside edge. Following the active time of the explosion, there is no longer any explosive material, so the center area empties out, becoming hollow, with an inside front moving outwards at a speed slower than the outside front.

That’s not what’s happening in our universe. The matter isn’t expanding away from a center point. Space, the carrier, the “fabric” of our universe, is expanding and taking the matter with it.

One way to visualize this is to take a rubber band and poke thumbtacks into it, equal distance apart, all around it. The rubber band represents the fabric of the universe, and the thumbtacks represent galaxies. You can stretch the band in any direction, and all of the tacks will move away from each other equally.

The carrier, the rubber band, is expanding, and the dots are moving with it. The same thing will happen no matter where you pull on the rubber band, so no point can be clearly identified as the center of your rubber band universe. The tacks, however, are not changing in size. In the rubber band model, the tacks are galaxies, which are bound and contained by gravity (or maybe dark matter), and thus not expanding internally with space.

The objects aren’t moving relative to a center. Space is expanding. Just as the thumb tack does not change spots on the rubber band, the distant galaxies don’t change spots in the fabric of space. The light from those galaxies, however, can still only travel at 186,000 miles per second. Any light from galaxies that were outside of our viewing range 13.8 billion years ago will never reach us. In fact, if the rate of expansion of space keeps increasing, earth bound observers will gradually be able to see a smaller and smaller portion of the universe.

Galaxies are moving relative to each other, but not as the primary method of expansion. It’s more difficult to wrap one’s head around this in three dimensions, and this example is quite simplified, but it’s about as representative as we can get without a lot of math that I don’t have in my head.

Back to your regularly scheduled negative news.

What The Millennials Think They Understand

I recently read an article on Inc. online, titled “5 Traits Older Generations Don’t Understand About Millennials (According to a Millennial)”, by Nicolas Cole. You can find it here.

It’s a good read, although, it may raise your blood pressure a bit. Read it. What I have to say may not make a lot of sense without his article as a prerequisite. Read it and cut him some slack. We were all there once.

What cracks me up the most is that this could have been written 10 years ago, 20, or 30… When I was young, we were thought to be the narcissistic self centered arrogant punks full of ourselves. The old folks thought us to be useless and lazy and wanted us to calm down and wait and see – we’d understand in a few years.

We didn’t. We rolled over that generation and changed the world. They didn’t know what hit them.

And this millennial generation didn’t invent the vision quest, the “finding myself” by traveling the world. We wanted to travel and see it all. We didn’t want to accept the status quo and settle into a single career, falling asleep until retirement. And we didn’t. The millennials have access to everything – the world at their fingertips because my generation said about life and the world: “It’s not good enough – we can make it better.” And we did.

Foregoing the American dream? The so called “American Dream” was not a white picket fence to us. The American dream for us equaled possibility. It meant that we didn’t have to settle into what we thought the old world expected. We could make the dream what we wanted it to be. And we did.

Our American dreams are the reality of the Internet, your smart phone, global connectivity, supercomputers, space probes, robots on mars – those were our American dream, and, as you can see, we didn’t forgo it, we made it happen.

Our American dream was equality and fairness. Not a dream limited to a few or to just those like us. This has been the hardest fight, yet the most important. It’s far from done, but we were not about to accept any dream that ruled people out. The house at 927 W. Drury Lane only existed for the privileged class, so we burned it down.

Oh, did we ever want – and find or make – something of our own! The on-fire startup was born in my generation. The rejection of the establishment for creations of our own was a solid theme for us. We rejected, We built our own, and we never looked back. We recreated business, media, entertainment. We wanted our own, and we made our own.

that little phone in your pocket that allows you to do so much; we made that

Tackling brand new industries… You don’t know the half of it. We destroyed old industries. Not just industries, we smashed the whole economy into bits and built our own out of the shreds.

Again, that little phone in your pocket that allows you to do so much; we made that. We ripped the cord out of the wall and remade communications. We thought it up. We made the infrastructure that enables it and we built it. Then we kept rebuilding it and making it better.

The gaming company that hired you – they’re only here for you because my generation rejected the old and created your world for you. We liked board games, but they weren’t enough for us. We liked sports and activities, but they weren’t enough for us. Not only did we create digital versions of it all, we reinvented it in the physical world too.

And, don’t think you’re special because you’ve done all of your great work in the shadow of economic demise, terrorism, and global competition. Even we didn’t invent that one. But we certainly lived it. When I was young, the American Century was over. We were getting our clock cleaned by Asia and Europe. Malaise was the watchword of the day.

The Soviet Union was putting weaponized smallpox into ICBMs to finish off anything their nukes missed. Western Europe was expecting the tanks to roll in at any moment. We grew up always 30 minutes from a fiery obliteration. Hang that over your head. It nearly happened, by accident or by design, more times than I’d like to count. I’ll take the world of now over what we had, any day.

So, you also think you’re special and different because you’re the modern-day disrupters? You d*** well better be. That self-confidence you speak of – you’d better have it and you’d better have it in quantity. If you don’t have a wanderlust, a disquiet, and need for more, that will make my generation’s version of the same look small, than you are letting us and yourselves down.

You see things different than my generation does? I hope so. You are obligated to. You owe it to us, yourself, and the generations that follow to see things differently. My generation didn’t create all of this stuff for you to rest on our laurels. We built this new world so that our children and their children can take it to places we can’t even imagine. Don’t waste what we built. There’s too much that still needs to be done.

And one final thing I ask of you; when your kids say something similar about themselves vs. your generation, as you have in this article (and they will), don’t get defensive. Tell them that it’s their job to think different and to never be satisfied with the way things are. It was my generation’s job, it’s yours now, and it will be theirs soon. Tell them to never back down.

Advice From the Fringes

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

That may have been literal for Jobs, or it may have been metaphor. We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. By many standards, he was an unimaginable success. But… It’s not difficult to find stories of people he terrorized on his way, or huge mistakes he swept under the carpet. He stepped on people, and he left this world earlier than was necessary. He made his own path. His way of thinking fit his specific type of genius. If you don’t have his type of genius, his advice likely won’t work for you, and if you do have genius, you’ll make your own path.

I don’t really think that people like Steve Jobs are the right ones to be taking advice from, personally or professionally. Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, nor do we need to have it. That type of person isn’t in the norm. Most of us wouldn’t be happy in their shoes. Those in that select group are on the fringes of humanity. They are very rare, whatever the subject or vocation, and will have their own way of getting through life. Advice from others of their ilk isn’t what drives them, a voice inside their heads does.

If today were my last day on earth, would I be doing what I’m doing now. No. Of course not. Think carefully about your last 24 hours. Would you want to be at a job, any job? Would you care to save money? Would you put food in your refrigerator? Would you pay for the gas you just put into your car? My guess is that you’d find one person or a group of friends to be with, and one thing to do. It would be a day of very singular purpose.

What if you found that you have a week to live? Would the answer be different? With a week, you could get a lot more done and see a lot more people. You’d pay for the gas so you wouldn’t end up spending two days of that week in jail. You’d think about food a bit, and either wash or buy some clothes.

How about a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime? With three months, you might be able to live off of credit cards, but beyond that, you’d need income – a job. Each successively longer time period would allow for, and require, more long-term thinking. Some of the long-term activities would not be all that pleasant, but as a part of a whole, they enable the pleasant. Life is an accumulation, an averaging. It’s not a single event. It’s a lot of events that add up to a whole. We all have a lifetime. We just don’t know how long that lifetime will be.

Some pieces of advice, like “work hard”, or “don’t fear failure, learn from it” are more or less universal. That’s because advice doesn’t work in a vacuum. It works within a specific set of conditions. We are all surrounded by hard work and moments of failure (well, all normal people are), so “work hard” and “don’t fear failure…” work for most people. Beyond that, the real secret is in yourself.

To follow advice from Elon Musk, with the aspiration of becoming him, you’ll have to put in the massive amount of work time he does, you’ll have to get his education, take on his attitude – become him in entirety. That’s not realistic for someone that just wants a better salary, a more fulfilling job, and a more rewarding life.

If I look at the whole of my life today, and see something I don’t like, I need to change or adjust. Whether it’s big change, or a few small tweaks really depends on personality. If big change typically ends in failure, try small adjustments, and vice versa.

I don’t buy into the philosophy of live everyday as if it’s your last. To live everyday as if it’s your last is to say that you can never have a down day. It’s to say that you can never make a mistake, to never invest in the future, to never do something without short-term gain. I say live everyday as if it’s a small part of a great work of art. Today is a brush stroke – a pixel for those like like to think in digital terms. It is one part, working towards the whole.

Communicating Up and Sideways

A good leader should communicate in the language of his or her subordinates. A good leader should be the one to adjust dialect and language. This is well accepted wisdom. The problem is that “should” is a rather meaningless word. “Should” doesn’t require, nor does it instruct. “Should” implies obligation, but doesn’t imply action or consequence of not taking action.

Expecting a superior or colleague to speak in your language only ensures that you “should” be able to communicate, not that you will. Relying on “should” is a lot like relying on luck. You give up control when you rely on luck or “should.” It’s fine if you don’t care, but not if you do.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that effective communication is a vital part of surviving and advancing in the business world. Without it, no one knows what you do or what your worth is to them.

In this context, “shouldn’t” is an appropriate word. The usage here is that the argument is common enough knowledge that it’s reasonable to assume that a reasonable person would agree. It doesn’t imply, nor need to imply any action or consequence.

This isn’t an article about “managing your boss. I’ve seen enough of those, and have always thought them rather presumptuous. “Managing your boss” is really more manipulation and exploitation than it is about managing, and I’m not at all a fan of manipulation. What you can do, and will benefit from, though, is to manage the communications with your boss and co-workers.

It’s great if you have a boss that knows how to communicate well. Not everyone does, and even for those that do, it can be pretty helpful to share the job of effectively communicating.

One of the easiest illustrations is in the contrast between a visual person and a numbers person. The numbers person needs to see metrics in spreadsheet or table form. The visual person needs the same information in chart and graph format. Trying to get one to accept the other often results in little or no actual communication and lots of frustration.

If your boss is a visual person, and you hand in a table with all of the data, plus rows and columns of only distantly related numbers, they will have a hard time with it. Their brain wants to be able see structures at a glance. Instead, you’ve given them a jumbled mess of indistinguishable black and white hieroglyphs.

On the other side, if you give your numbers-person boss a nice bar chart, they will see a bunch of fluffy colors that do little more than obscure the details. They need to see not only the numbers they’re interested, but also the data behind the numbers.

But shouldn’t a good leader be the one adjusting language, you ask? Again, I’ll compare the word “shouldn’t” in this context to luck.

Good leaders do adjust their language, and listen carefully. They are putting in the effort, and what you are trying to say is (presumably) important. Why would you not do as much as you can to complement their effort. Good leaders have also hired you, in part, for your communications skills. Assuming the leader will do the majority of the work is doing them a disservice and is a failure to live up to your commitment as an employee.

The same holds when dealing with colleagues you don’t report to. It may seem like you’re partly doing their job if you adjust your communication to fit their style, but if your message is important enough to give, it’s important enough to justify the extra work toward clarity for your recipient. Ideally both parties are doing it so that misses by one will be more likely to be covered by the other.

A good example would be in the use of acronyms and jargon with (or as) a new coworker. Communications problems happen quite often when one person has a background from a large, tightly structured company, and the other is from a smaller, more cowboy like, company.

Jane joins a small start-up company from a large multi-national corporation. Her former company spent a lot of time studying lean manufacturing, the Toyota Production System, and other process improvement systems. Bob at the small company doesn’t have the same language.

Jane is aghast when she suggests “Poka-yoking” a process and Bob doesn’t understand her. She drops her jaw and wonders what kind of a mess she got herself into when she took the job. She’s surrounded by bozos that don’t know the most basic of business processes.

Poka-yoke is a term used in the Toyota Production System. (Wikipedia entry here) It sounds like a rather exotic process, but it just means to make a product or system mistake proof. If a plug would damage a piece of equipment when plugged in backwards, key the plug so it can’t be plugged in backwards. Just design in some mistake proofing. It’s as simple as that.

In this scenario, it turns out that Bob is a brilliant user experience designer and considers mistake proofing to be just about the most important aspect of a design. Jane and Bob are on the same page; they both strongly believe in mistake proofing products. However, since Jane didn’t take into consideration the possibility that Bob might not have been exposed to that one specific set of business terms, she feels he must be incompetent. Both Jane and Bob would be well served to accommodate the language of the other.

I’ve found, over my career, that there are an astounding number of terminology differences between different corporate cultures. There are terms that have different meaning altogether, and there are different terms used to describe the same thing. Even the basics like “margin” can be used differently in different organizations.

Jargon and acronyms are okay, as long as you never assume that the person you’re communicating with has the same jargon dictionary in their head as you do.

How To Make Your Child Interested In STEM

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers are getting a lot of press these days. They are important for global competitiveness and the general advancement of human-kind. STEM is also one of the few job markets (especially the “engineering” component) with good salaries and a lot of opportunity. It’s natural to want your kids to head in this direction; so how do you go about doing that?

First, and most important, if your child has no interest in STEM – maybe wants to be an artist or a welder –  shut up, be a parent, and support them. We need artists and welders too. Those aren’t second rate choices. They’re just choices, like an engineering career is a choice. We need kids that will grow up to be happy adults, not puppets. You can introduce STEM, but don’t push it and don’t make them feel bad if they’re not interested. Someone who has passion and support for what they do is more likely to be happy and productive than someone pushed into something they don’t want.

Beyond that, you again need to be a parent. Listen to them carefully and look around to see what they are up against. My daughter started in the FIRST Lego robotics program in the 4th grade. Her teams were about equal proportions of boys and girls. But, by the time she left middle school for high school, she was one of two girls left in the program. Through high school, she was always a tiny minority in her science and technology classes. It’s not just girls that drop out, but it seems to be most noticeable with girls due to the numbers.

The peer and societal pressures have been described many times in many places before. It’s sufficient to say that, in many circles, being a geek is not seen as being socially acceptable; except in the context of a TV sit-com. It’s funny when the “geeks” can throw out one-liners that have been crafted by a team of professional writers. Not so much when it’s the kid in the next seat over that struggles to respond to conversations about football or beer brands. Help your child to understand that technology and knowledge are not qualifiers for the “weird club.” Make sure they also understand that labor and grease also are not qualifiers for a different kind of “weird club.”

The recent case (late September, 2015) of the 14 year old boy arrested for bringing his “homebuilt” clock to school is a good case in point. Many people fear wires. In the movies, blue, green and red wires are what you have to choose wisely between to successfully defuse a bomb. In the real life world of a 14 year old kid, with a mind thirsting for knowledge, blue, green, and red wires are signal, ground, and power.

There is quite possibly more to this story than has been published, but maybe not. Later articles talked about the fact that his clock was simply a purchased clock, taken out of it’s plastic case and hacked into a mini-suit case. Deriding him for that is a sure fire way to stifle curiosity. When I was 14, most of my “electronics projects” were of a very similar nature. Many were even less complex.

The first time you open up an electronic gadget is like opening up a grab bag. You don’t know what it is, nor what you can do with it. You see shiny metal, wires, chips, and displays. You know that whatever makes it all work is truly amazing, but you have yet to grasp the significance of any of the parts. Over time, you will. Or, you will if you manage to keep the interest up and avoid being branded a delinquent over your quest for knowledge.

If your child takes apart a clock, your obligation, as a parent, is to make sure they don’t electrocute themselves or burn the house down. After that, it’s your mission to encourage. Explain, if you can. If you can’t explain, teach them about research and self-learning. Don’t treat their interest like a disease. Treat it like what it is: the quest of an explorer for knowledge.

The Top Ten Generic Things

I’m in a bit of a ranting mood right now. That just happens sometimes. Usually it’s on a specific subject, but today, I seem to have mini-rants about a whole bunch of  things. Well, maybe ten things. So here they are, not necessarily in any particular order, ten generic things that bug me:

#4:    Not listening to customers enough. It’s nice when a company has a good idea and wants to build it, but if they don’t get outside of their own heads for a bit, we consumers end up with UI’s that don’t make any sense, features that we’ll never use or products never tested under real-world conditions (see #4).

#4:    Test cycles that are too short. “Beta test the world” or “Ship it and fix it later” may get something to market sooner, but at what cost. So many companies seem to think that since “they” do that on the web, everyone should go ahead and operate that way. But what happens when the not fully tested design has a hardware problem? Where’s your field upgrade then? Or what happens when the product is mission critical? Oops. Too late…

#4:    Listening too much to customers. What??? Yes. That’s what I said. Most customers want way more than they need for way less than you can afford to build. You need to listen to customers a lot and very carefully, but you need to translate for them. You can’t just take raw comments and try to directly put them in as product features.

so_it_has_come_to_this#4:   “Half-gallon” containers that aren’t a half gallon any more. It really annoys me to buy a Half gallon of Ice cream knowing that it’s only 3/8th of a gallon.

#4:    Not considering the whole story. This is where the law of unintended consequences comes in. Okay, we want to reduce our consumption of fossil fuel so we subsidize corn ethanol. Fine except by doing so, we tie a major food staple in developing nations to the volatile price of filling giant SUVs. People go hungry because of it.

#4:    More science and less hype. No one can really tell if global warming is man-caused or not. I’m sure the real data is floating around somewhere, but everyone talking about it has a personal agenda. There’s so much pseudo-science and political ranting thrown about that anything that an interested citizen might use to come to an informed conclusion is obscured by all of the exaggerated and faked material.

#4:   How about some electronics-targeted legislation that actually makes sense from a technical and social perspective. As with things like global warming in #4, there’s too much hype, too much cash-based lobbying and not enough actual understanding going into some of these laws that affect all of us in the electronics industry.

#4:    Allocation. It really annoys me. Related into this is the proliferation of specialized chips. There are a seriously larger number of varieties of every form of chip you might imagine. That’s great for design, You can pick the microcontroller that pretty meets your exact specifications, or just the right buck/boost controller. That’s cool, but I think it also makes forecasting and the allocation of foundry time simply crazy. That can only exacerbate the supply issues that cause parts to go into allocation mode.

#4:   Missed opportunities due to personal-agenda based hype. So many people want to replace fossil fuel so they bend reality and call the electric car the green replacement to gas cars. Then everyone is disappointed that they can’t drive 600 miles with just one or two five-minute fill-up stops. They focus on far too far into the future and make everyone dismiss as hype what is otherwise a perfectly viable technology. Market electrics as a second car. It’s not the main car for trips and the ultimate in convenience. It’s the run to get a gallon of milk car, the back and forth to Jr.College car, the “I’m going to a friend’s house” car. Market electric cars like that and they are 100% viable right now.

I’m not sure which of these things bug me more or less than any other, so they all tie at Number 4.