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Choice: Bluetooth vs. wired

The ongoing adoption of Bluetooth wireless headsets is a discussion largely confined to tech blogs. However, we should all care. This transition matters to the environment, to consumers’ rights, and to how our international standards of cooperative technology development unfold. The last of these three have brought us huge advantages: tools and devices that perform reliably and predictably, and significantly improved our lives. It does not matter where your fridge comes from. It meets certain standards and you can go to the store and buy one with a high level of confidence. We have moved past the confusion of proprietary models to get here. We should not give up these gains. As well, we have a right to expect technology to be more environmentally and economically responsible too.

The Power of Great Design

I cannot agree with any description of the headphone as ‘primitive.’ It is anything but that. Utility is not defined by the recency of invention. If so, then the wheel–any wheel–must be an insanely primitive device and well past its usefulness. Good design obliterates the passing of time. Put any person in a timeless style of wear–a stunning little back dress, or a well-cut suit–and the timelessness of good design makes itself very evident. Good design is also characterized by simplicity—does it get any simpler than the headphone jack?

The headphone jack matters, because music is and will remain a dominant application of the phone. The jack is not just a superior enabler of utility but serves up that function for billions of people around the world.

  • A fact that is often overlooked is that the headphone jack is an environmentally superior device by miles. I have a couple of different Bluetooth earpieces, and one decent set of wireless over-the-ear cans to inform me. I have never had to unplug my wired headphones to recharge them. Add up the energy consequence across humanity, and this is an almost immeasurable advantage.
  • Sounds, and the human ear that receives them, work natively with analog signals. The wired headphone works with sound in its native form. Any school of design will tell you, once you go past the design of the device to look at its purpose, that the wired set delivers a more efficient form-function fit. Even in the physical design, the wired headphone offers greater freedom for conceptualization–with the exception of the wires.
  • When comparing for equivalent quality of sound, dewiring adds electronic weight. As phones become lighter and more powerful, the added and unnecessary weight of wireless headsets becomes more of a disadvantage. My wireless over-the-head cans become heavy after some use!
  • Wireless headsets have come down massively in price, but again, when comparing for equivalent sound, dollar for dollar, wired has the quality advantage. That holds true for both ear buds and over-the-ear cans.
  • The claimed advantage of remote control via Bluetooth is a trivial point. We have long been able to control objects remotely—on the moon, in deep outer space. TV remote controls are a fact of life. There really is no beef in this argument. If you un-tether yourself, you lose the convenience of having simple controls with you, especially with larger wired head sets that let you move farther away from your phone. You give up a very understandable (screen-based) UI for a more complicated one at the side of your head, that you work from memory (= unnecessary brain loading). We are mentally overtaxing ourselves with new approaches that are displacing millennia of acquired intelligence that is distributed among our five senses. In any event, small earbuds have the most minimal controls and require you to have the phone on you anyway. All you only give up is a few feet of very light wire.
  • From my experience that added convenience of eliminating the ‘wire tangle,’ comes with the added inconvenience of having heavier electronic devices in your ears or on your head.
  • The ‘lifespan’ of a wireless set is much shorter. They have batteries in them that die out. Forget renewing them. By comparison, I have quality wired headsets going on 10 years old. Do I smell a systemic and repeatable grab on consumers’ wallets?
  • They are not as simple to use. No doubt, Apple will work hard to make connectivity seamless, as it has done before. However, there is implicit lock-in here: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Besides, more than 80% of phone users will use another platform. So they will go shopping for 3rd party devices… and will need to pair, connect, charge and do whatever else.
  • The visual aspect is one of personal taste. I have ‘discreet’ grey wireless buds that look like hearing aids. I tolerate them; who knows what will happen to my hearing in the future? I may need to use devices like these. That aside, I also can state quite confidently, that I will never walk around in  AirPods–maybe after a major redesign but not as they are today. I recognize that some might feel the same way about having wires running from their ears today.
  • From a business standpoint, the relevant cost to produce phones with jacks is trivial, and the high-cost alternative delivers nothing better. That is a huge red-flag of which we should be very mindful. Why do you think any manufacturer chooses to go with a higher cost option? There’s gotta be big payola for them down the road.

Whose Value Is It Anyway?

Who is being fed, and with what?

The value of the headphone jack greatly outweighs the trivial negatives, and far surpasses the overall utility of wireless headsets. Still to each their* own. The attempted monopolization of choice, by corporate fiat, forcing the wireless-only option, is disturbingly anti-consumer. In Apple’s case, they may be trying to reach for the ‘keyboard-elimination’ lightning again. It is a very different issue this time, and is not going to be as successful. For other manufacturers, it may not even have that much legitimacy–just purer self interest. The very standardization of the jack is itself a massive source of consumer gain. Anyone with a great idea can join in. If we give that up for a more proprietary connection option—if Apple/Samsung makes the phone, Apple/Samsung will tell you (device partner) how to design the signal—then we will all be worse off.

As phones become more powerful and low-cost sets do even more, I not just expect but predict that a lot of users will abandon high-priced and non-jack phones. That migration will not be because of owners’ existing investment in wired headsets—even though data is skewed in favour of wireless sets because of the ‘newness’ pricing premium, and distorts the relative invested shares. The upcoming migration will be because the wired jack is, quite simply, a superior option. Radio should be looking at the forced movement toward wireless headsets with great joy. It could be a rebirth for them. Imagine: just hearing sound natively, from a box, the way your ears were designed to work! Maybe Amazon is onto something with that new Echo.

 

* Note: This article reflects gender neutral language. The terms ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ may occur in both singular and plural forms.

When Pivoting becomes pervasive and cynical, we witness a very toxic form of behaviour.

Own your biases

One of my more memorable instructors at the #Rotman School of Management shared an important piece of advice, to help us lower the hurdles in the path of advancing our leadership capabilities. “Put your biases on the table,” he intoned. I include this among the nuggets of my MBA learning and have always found the practice quite helpful. So yes, my headline expresses a heartfelt sentiment about the perceived abuse of ‘pivoting.’ Let me tell you why I believe this errant pattern of behaviour carries the potential to inflict significant long-term damage on all of us, if it continues unabated.

What is a ‘pivot’

Dictionary.com defines a pivot as, “a pin, point, or short shaft on the end of which something rests and turns, or upon and about which something rotates or oscillates.” Merriam-Webster adds, “a person or thing that is central or important to someone or something else,” for its description as a noun decryption; for a verb, it states, “the action of turning around a point.”

Considering these definitions, here are a few questions for you. What if the thing at the center, or upon which the system rests, is defective? What if that central person is flawed, and should be otherwise unacceptable, or replaced? What if the point being ‘turned around’ should never have been made, and is still invalid at its core?

‘Real’ pivots’ are typically necessary, and often helpful

In an article from April 2012, the Wall Street Journal explored the usefulness of ‘pivoting’ (their quotes) to the success of tech entrepreneurs. The article highlights the fast rate of in technology, which required companies to be nimbler, and to make necessary changes promptly, as the new MO for success.

Even then, the Journal had already clued in to the duplicitous use of the term. “Words like ‘pivot’ and the related ‘iterate’ have been used in and around Silicon Valley for several years, generally to describe failing gracefully,” it stated. Later in the article, it quotes a venture partner who states, “Pivot to me is not a four-letter word.”

That may be a fair position, if it is sincere, and when pivot implies meaningful action. After all, Facebook, Instagram, Starbucks, and even going as far back as HP, are examples of companies that started down one path and then ‘pivoted’ to another, to gain enormous success. These good pivots have brought enormous value to us all.

In sports, the pivot is essential. You cannot throw a discus well—whatever you think of the sport—or a javelin, or succeed in judo, or ever become a top-tier running back in football, without the superior body control that depends on effective pivoting. This timely and strategic ‘change of stance’ has great value to reshape, not just what you can do, but to influence how others respond.

Some pivots are routine and even essential for normal function and high performance.

This usefulness of pivoting is the very source material that the cynics abuse. A complicating factor is that the new pervasiveness in use of the term ‘pivoting’ is redefining the language of expectations, and doing so in a bad way. The observing mind defaults to an expectation that a pivot means you are wiser about the game and can take a more meaningful course of action. For the cynical players, the truth is more like being wiser about how to redirect blame, cast off responsibility, or run away.

A long-time saying is, ‘You can’t put lipstick on a pig.’ Well that may no longer be true, given our new found affection for, and proficiency in, pivoting. And herein lies the huge risk related to pivoting—more and more, the truth is beginning to matter less and less. Oddly enough, our time-obsessed and event driven media environment provides ideal type of exposure for the cynical ‘pivoters.’ It greases the path for them, instead of holding them to closer scrutiny. These are, in the truest sense, people who know how to seize the moment. Given that we now always only have a moment to spare, in that brief period of time, all they need to do is to look good, and the pivot away. The heck with substance and consequence.

The danger of ‘pivoting’ as an ‘escape’ mechanism may look artful to some. However, the more mature and discriminating observer will see the opportunist for what he or she really is: a taker. Ultimately, this is behaviour that many of us would not want backing up or buttressing the foundations on which we stand. Anything that fickle or unreliable carries far too much risk to deserve a position of trust.

When Pivots Are Bad, #1: No More ‘Bad’ Decisions

Speed is the new currency. No one wants to be seen as dithering or hesitant. We’re also into an era of prototyping: no more deliberate and long-range planning. If you’re into software development or process management, Agile, Lean, Rapid Application Development (RAD), and iterativity—that word again—are all the rage. In the financial markets, real-time data is the norm. Forward-looking projections are getting better all the time. Market response transcends time zones and is as active as the clock. In this frenzy of action, how do you tell the good yam from the flim-flam? The hustler’s snake oil can look eerily identical to the doctor’s medicine.

Ideally, the outcomes ought to be the point where we should be able to tell for sure. However, in this state of rapid and constant action, even that accountability becomes an optional consideration for some. If the results turn out to be other than what you planned, a pivot is always at hand. For the more Machiavellian among us, whatever the results, we can always ‘pivot’ to a ‘fix.’ Bad or undesirable results can be ‘turned around’ to look like ‘not bad’ outcomes. There is no further need for angst over one’s accountability for results. We now each have an unlimited supply of Teflon. In some—far too many—jobs that will save the ‘pivoters’ hide, time and time again.
The Machiavellian tendencies of cynical pivoters can be as dangerous as they are audacious.

When ‘Pivots’ Are Bad #2: The Big One – Good Decision-making Becomes an ‘Indulgence’

Think about it. If ‘bad’ decisions disappear, what on earth will happen to good decisions? In an era where we can convert bad to ‘not bad’ in an instant, who needs to labour under the burden of delivering good and well thought-out work. If we no longer bother with doing good work, what sort of catastrophe lies ahead? The Machiavellian tendencies of cynical pivoters can be as dangerous as they are audacious. This stuff will catch up with us!

Have you ever met a mountaineer who trekked up to the summit of Mount Everest by accident, or met a winning race car driver who just eased into a Formula One car as a ‘thing to do over the summer,’ or met an accomplished violinist who dabbles in her instrument as a way of relaxing after a hard day’s work as an insurance adjuster? Very likely not.

Sterling success requires deliberate and persistent action. Climbing such heights—literally or metaphorically—requires the aspirant to both admit and embrace mistakes as part of his or her development. Failure is not some bizarre and inexplicable occurrence against which you apply your magical cleansing skills. It is an informative outcome of the preceding and related actions. Real talent acknowledges, embraces, and learns from failure.

Increasingly, as we allow our world to become more whitewashed through ‘pivoting,’ substance will give way to style, emotionalism will trump reason, and expediency will become the default mode of action. This would appear to be one such example.  We will witness a steady and constant debasing of the rigor, discipline, and commitment to excellence that helped us to become an advanced global society. Against this context, deviant pivoting is an undeniable form of parasitism. That pattern of behaviour makes its adherents net ‘takers’ from society. Almost invariably, the taking is for narrow and self-serving interests.

Character is defined as how you behave when no one is watching. That moral does not even seem to vaguely resonate with cynical pivoters who behave the way they do *while* you are watching.

No Stage Too Large

I had this article in draft form and Brexit came along. Brexit was not my reason for writing this piece but the political event, cum international spectacle, just oozed of pivoting to such an extreme degree that I feel obliged to discuss it. I’m not sure if you followed the process closely so here is my synopsis.

A Prime Minister floats an idea that he did not believe in, out of pure expediency: to win an election that was slipping away from him. At the time, he could not really have expected the idea to win and claim his neck. No major western leader can be so suicidal. When elected, he is obligated to follow through on his ‘misdeed,’ er promise. A motley collection of opponents, within his party and beyond, latched on to the idea. When their first run of arguments did not evoke the response they hoped for from the general public, they ‘pivoted’ and made the referendum about something else. The new arguments included powerful and influential financial data, which they said were central to the issue. The country bought into the idea. Everything blew up.

The whole Brexit crowd—folks who said ‘Let’s do it,’ went, “duh?” They won and did not have a plan. Not a lack of a Plan B that is, but not even a Plan A. The winners ‘pivoted’ again and proceeded to disown the claims they made to gain their victory. Everybody abandoned ship: the guy who called the referendum, ‘pivoted’ out, claiming to be the wrong captain for the ship from there on. Might that have been a relevant intention for him to have stated at the time of the pre-election promise? The ones who were madly in favour of the decision also ‘pivoted’ away from the baby they had just birthed, for a variety of reasons. A woman who was never at the heart of the issue and did not believe in the idea, is now left to pick up the pieces and follow through on a monumentally significant decision that she did not support. How is that for sound decision making at the head of a major Western nation?

The 52% of Britons who voted for the decision to leave, as a valid course of action, are like most of us. We expect authenticity and accountability from those with decision-making power. Brexit provides us with a fresh and powerful case of how too many so-called leaders have ‘pivoted’ for inauthentic and self-serving reasons. What is less visible but equally pressing is the pervasiveness of the pivots going on around us.

Behaviour is an unmistakable indicator of character.

 Change. Should be Good

Like the rust that grows inward and damages even the most robust infrastructure, parochial pivoting promotes broad, systemic, and yet surreptitious atrophy. It is a persistent squandering of our collective and acquired stock of social good, across many spheres: fiscal, economic, technological, political and more.

Character is often defined as how you behave when no one is watching. That moral does not even seem to vaguely resonate with the cynical pivoters. They behave the way they do while we are watching.

Since we’re well into it now, pivoting is one instance when we can be happy about the temporary nature of fads. If this plague of ‘pivoting’ is a fad, and we should hope fervently that it is, it cannot end soon enough. It’s time to ‘pivot’ back to authentic and accountable leadership. Now there’s a pivot we need!

I listened to a talk radio program recently about new wrinkles affecting work from home programs. As someone who has engaged in lengthy WFH stints (several years each), and was both a WFH subordinate and a people manager of WFHers, I listened to the dialogue with great interest. The central question of the show was, “Would you accept a 10% reduction in pay to work from home?” The answer to that question should almost always be ‘no.’

There is very little justification for such a request other than the psychology of ‘we (the company) do for you (the employee), so you should do for us (i.e. accept less money.)’ It has an emotional tug that appeals to the innate human inclination toward reciprocity but that pitch proves to be entirely unjustified upon any further examination.

telecommuter/Home office worket at work.

Even though it is becoming more common, WFH is not a panacea. The first company which allowed me the work from home is still going strong. The multinational tech giant to which I moved is no longer around. However, its demise had nothing to do with WFH employees, even though it had one of the most extensive WFH programs. Marissa Mayer, quite publicly, curbed WFH when she took over Yahoo and the company’s condition can quite righty be seen as worse now than it was before. Curbing WFH also raised the ire of many Yahooers, who saw it as a way of life in their company.

WFH will not make or break a company. It a tool to be used for improving employees’ quality of life. As the evidence shows, the powerful derivative benefit of improved employee morale is almost always a significant and sustained bump in employee productivity. One authoritative study stated that “Indeed, it is difficult to find published materials that indicate telecommuting does not generate productivity gains, or that gains are less than 10%.”

There are certain jobs—increasingly, fewer of them—where people must always be in an office. There are also circumstances where companies need to cut costs. However, doing so should be independent of employees’ WFH status. Let us focus on an otherwise healthy company that makes a decision to move its people into a remote work arrangement.

Here is a summary take on the monetary and qualitative issues, presented in tabular form. I discuss each point later, and wrap up with an assessment of the role of pay and personality to the overall picture.

WFH Benefit Matrix-clear

Cost Factors

More time for work: The reality is that WFH employees tend to fall into an efficient ‘out of bed – coffee maker -home office’ routine. Home chores get squeezed in as ‘stretch activities.’ That serves to further lengthen the employee’s working day, since the house work is already done. As a result, WFH employees spend more time ‘at work.’

Personal time gained: This is paradoxical since most of the time saved goes right back into work. However, the employee’s lack of commute stress, and very importantly, high value gains like being able to send children off in the morning and welcome them home, plus being there for those errant days when a child is ill or forgot something, generate very high emotional satisfaction, and magnify the perception of time gained.

Improved quality of work: this is a derivative and data-substantiated benefit. The combination of more time, lower personal stress, and higher employee satisfaction, underpinned by innate appreciation for ‘having a good thing and not wanting to lose it, plus the psychology or not wanting anyone to believe you’re slacking off all combine to drive high employee conscientiousness and improved results.

Lower Real Estate costs: this is self-explanatory. Even with moteling (shared work spaces for occasional employee visits,) the business can shave considerable space. Additionally, WFH drives more offices to become paper free, and that creates less need for ancillary spaces.

Reduced cost for commuting: Hard to argue with paying less gas. This reduction in cost is only partly true for employees who are road warriors. Unless the employee has a company car, the overall wear and tear on that person’s vehicle will exceed the mileage compensation. Has anyone ever done a rigorous comparison of mileage rebates vs. vehicle maintenance cost?

Cost increase of remote space: Although the employee may receive a ‘conversion allowance’ to set up the home work space, and may also be able to claim some tax benefit, use of that space is foregone. It now, temporarily, ‘belongs’ to the company. An additional and hidden consideration is that the employee is now liable, under company rules, for company content at home. Now you can be fired for not protecting the company’s stuff in your own house. By any measure, that is a cost. (re 1)

Cost increase for technology: In most cases the move to remote work simplifies a company’s infrastructure. The dense and sophisticated network-centric offices, can be moved without too much difficulty and with almost no compromise, to the cloud. The CIA uses the cloud today; security is hardly an issue anymore. Most people already have Internet connections so the company rides that free—sometimes, an allowance for monthly fees partly compensates. Additionally, the WFH arrangements takes its toll on IT staff (reductions,) and companies are able to outsource large parts of their networking. Reduced headcount and the shift of a greater share of technology costs from delayed depreciation to a pure expense model, yields substantial cost and related tax gains. (re 2)

Qualitative Factors

Reduced ‘visibility’: A WFH employee must work harder to retain ‘top of mind’ standing within the organization. ‘Out of sight and out of mind’ is ever more true in the increasingly torrid world of business, where there is always more work than everyone can do. You are no longer able to pick up on a boss’ physical cues and jump in to help in a pinch. Now you have to ask, and do so at the right time; it may be awkward for a boss to admit the need publicly. So new skills come into play—who is helping the employee to adapt? Also, to help the boss, he or she often has to do something. You can no longer just grab the file and go. With electronic safeguards in place, more often than not, someone has to make time—even when too harried—to let you help them. Because the WFH employee has to over-deliver, consistently, in the absence of face time, to remain an elite player, the model holds significant long-term implications for promotability, career success, and life-time earning power.

Management control: Well set up programs actually promote greater autonomy and accountability, which are productivity boosters. As some companies already know, flattening the management hierarchy and moving decisions to the front line yields all sorts of company gains, such as faster work response, better customer service, higher employee satisfaction, etc. WFH programs force companies to do what’s good for them—if they implement WFH programs well!

The bigger and often unexpressed concern for companies, which clouds and distorts WFH decisions, boils down to two words: employee conscientiousness. Can the employee be trusted to deliver a fair day’s work in a remote work setting? For a not insignificant number of employees, the simple answer is no! The truth is that such employees, in all likelihood, are showing the signs even in an office setting! That is not a WFH challenge, it is a workforce quality problem. This issue affects but is independent of WFH adoption, and should always be addressed once the problem is evident. Implementing a WFH program is as good a time as any to address it. (re 3)

Talent choice: In the increasingly competitive business environment, more companies want to raise their profiles and go from local to regional, regional to national, or national to global. To achieve that they need access to the best talent. Now that it is no longer necessary to dislocate one’s self and family from a desirable and established community life, top talent stays put and the company comes to them, electronically. In the process, companies are becoming less site-centric, by default. WFH is a natural fit with the pattern that the companies are imposing on themselves. (re 4)

Bringing the office to the remote worker

Conclusion

Summarizing the gains in the table shows that in the first group of three factors, the employee time gained versus time applied to work can be considered a wash. The other three ‘yesses’ are in the company’s favour—including the employee ‘yes’ for improved productivity. Second, regarding Real estate vs. commuting costs, that too is a wash—employee and company both gain something. Even on relative terms, the company typically gains more. Third, the establishment of a remote workspace is actually more onerous on the employee than it is on the company. Overall, the cost and productivity factors work out to be in the company’s favour, and the data bears this out. As such, it is irrational, even unfair, to ask employees to accept less money, for what helps the company to gain money.

The ‘WFH as a gift’ mindset misses the point that today’s companies are more mobile and distributed by default. That shift has eroded the importance of the traditional office but it remains far from irrelevant. However, looking at ‘unused’ office space as a basis for decision making is applying an outdated and cost-obsessed mental model to the new world of work. Increasing disuse of the office does not reflect a reduction in the value of the worker but instead, quite the opposite. Why pay a worker less for operating at the expected level and being effective in the new model, as or she should be?

Save on costs and save on payroll too, haven’t we all been taught that double-dipping is not good manners.

 

Your language reflects your professionalism It’s everywhere nowadays, and I mean everywhere. It’s even worked it way back into ancient times, if you believe modern day movies. In penetrating every nook and cranny, it has gone to places that it shouldn’t. It’s the F-word, and its siblings.

I first read a sampling of Don Quixote in elementary school, and the story fascinated me. He was the imagined and self-appointed savior of the world—in effect, a lunatic. Among his knightly deeds was warring with windmills, which he imagined to be giant hostile creatures. So I think I am careful to not allow myself to lapse into anything that may be a ‘Don Quixote complex.’ Maybe I am failing on this one: I would like to stem the global avalanche of F’ing.

Leadership in the Social Age: No ‘Off’ Switch Anymore

I watched a prominent Canadian politician deliver a nationally televised speech that left me about as unimpressed as I could be. I had always been on the fence about the individual—not any more. I am a strong believer in an unfettered democracy, one that routinely accommodates even the voices that make some of us uncomfortable. Yet, as I watched, I wondered how that person’s followers felt. ‘There goes my leader… I must applaud?’

As someone who tries to practice what I preach, I spend time reflecting. Over 10 years ago, I concluded that, for me, F-ing away, under any circumstance, was entirely useless and invariably counterproductive. So, I subjected myself to a radical transformation. I decided to cut the terminology out of my usage completely. Not just in public, but in private, and even more, in mind! That prominent individual reminded me that I was right in doing so.

My decision had no religious or similar overtones. It was, quite simply, a professional development action. I grew up listening to Richard Pryor’s ground-breaking comedy and I still enjoy it, but that language belongs there. I still enjoy the exchange in Pulp Fiction, between Travolta’s (Vincent Vega) and Harvey Keitel’s (Mr. Wolf) that ends in, “so pretty please, clean up the f-ing car!”

Recently, I expressed my perception of the general uselessness of term to someone, and the response was, “But it felt good to say it, didn’t it?” Therein lies the catch. It’s a cheap verbal thrill that we believe lends a sense of authority, machismo, can-do-ness, or whatever else we perceive ourselves to gain with its use. If the F-Word helps you to relieve stress, then use it until you can find a better substitute. That should not be hard, nor take long.

You’re Always ‘Showing’

As I looked back, those situations where I planned and executed well—at home or work—never had any occasion that required F’ing. In contrast, whenever I ended up tossing a few F’s around, not only had I failed to demonstrate winning form, but also, the F-ing never produced anything useful.

I can attest to the power—the intractability, the apparent unavoidability—of the F-word. Even as I try not to even think the term, it still makes a rare escape through my lips, in moments of stress or irritability. However, that happens only in private and always under my breath. This has been quite a rewarding cleansing process but there is no room for complacency.

The immense benefit I have gained is reflected in what I ask others. “When you start F-ing, what exactly is it that you wish to achieve from talking that way?” That probing can be uncomfortable. Many have difficulty expressing what the F-word is supposed to do for them. If you spend the time to consider it, you will find that pre-empting situations of F-word usage is a very good stimulant for constructive thinking and purposeful behaviour.

I confess that I have a de Niro bias. Robert de Niro F-bombing the NYU Tisch School of the Arts 2015 graduates was, at best, right on the edge, and admittedly questionable, but it carried a serious and relevant message. Our Canadian leader’s F-bombing, not so much. I wish I could have headed that person off, after all, Canada deserves better.

gifted-learning-for-Black-youth

A TV Ontario (TVO) current affairs researcher contacted me recently, for input on an article on minorities in technology. Despite my current primary roles as an educator and business consultant, I got here from a start as a front-line network design engineer and through a progression of roles in technology. So I was quite willing to share my views.

I have always striven to keep my feet in both camps: business and technology, and continue to do so. Even as I teach business and outside of that, focus on improving organizational health, I am also adopting the latest eBook publishing format for my upcoming book revision, and volunteering as an engineer-in-residence at a community public school, where we are working on building apps.

Bright Minds Are…. Everywhere?

The volunteer effort, under the Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) sponsorship, aims to improve the presence of women and minorities in Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM). It’s a perfect confluence of my dominant personalities. So I get to spend time with a gifted class of 16 students—and there is nothing like uber-energetic minds and nonstop imagination to both inspire you and run you ragged. I feel for their teachers but they are more than up to the challenge.

To underscore the need for the program, only six of my class are female and only four, of different Asian backgrounds, are non-Caucasian. The usual missing suspects—Blacks, Hispanics and native Canadians—are missing.  The town’s demographics are certainly a factor here, but what of other locations?

Well, in the face of increasing financial strain, the City of Toronto, where the program might have its greatest impact, may be reining in its gifted learning programs. And that is on top of a systemic shift within the educational system, to an emphasis on diverse forms of special learning, as opposed to just gifted learning. That expanded view of special support is not bad at all. However, we as a country need to remain mindful of and nurture excellence in our young people. Contrary winds may be blowing but all is not lost.

Nothing In, Nothing Out

So the challenge, as I told TVO, is also one about the pipeline. As those of you who have been in sales know very well, keeping the funnel healthy is critical to meeting your sales target. In the same way, a healthy representation of women and minorities in technology requires a robust pipeline of participants at the elementary school level. That diversity of participants is not there right now, especially at the highest levels of performance.

And therein lies the issue that causes me great angst—which led to my title. The current news backdrop rains two persistent and negative themes. News stories out of the US, related to police actions against African-Americans, that seem more in line with events of the turbulent 50s and 60s. Are we moving backwards? The other theme is one of local crime and scholastic underachievement among Black youth. It’s a valid but not entirely representative story line; however, it wins the news cycle, consistently.

Change your thoughts, change your life. It works at the national level too!

Against that backdrop, the discussion I have tried to raise, of the need for more black youth awareness of and participation in gifted programs, in particular, makes me a bit of an oddball. Academic excellence and Black youth seem, in many people’s minds, to be an oxymoron. There almost seems to be a broad-based and assumptive mindset that ‘getting them over the bar’ is the most reasonable thing to which we can aspire. That leaves me frustrated, yet highly motivated. I want to change that mindset as widely as possible.

To restate the well-known line, where there is no vision, the people perish. The issue of Black excellence is a Canadian issue, and must become part of the larger Canadian vision. As the world becomes a more competitive place, we need all hands on deck. The simple truth is that whoever isn’t contributing becomes a burden for all of us, and no one wants to be a burden. So or our collective vision needs to be upgraded. We need to make the connection between helping others and helping ourselves.

Great legacies are for inspiration. Let us not waste them.

I was at an art show this past weekend, and I was inspired by what I learned about the progressiveness of the American slaves who escaped to Canada, in the early to mid-1800s. Many of them settled around London, Ontario. A reading of their desires reflected a yearning for academic, social, and economic advancement. They expressed deep appreciation for safety, stability and the rule of law. And by their actions, as entrepreneurs willing to apply any trade they had, they showed a consistent and profound desire to be full contributors to the sometimes less than hospitable place that, at least, respected and upheld their freedom, and became their home.

So I am sure that the capability is there among our youth. The latent desire is also there—it may sometimes manifest itself awkwardly. The progressive energy needs to be harnessed and focused. What we also need is broad-based support. You can help right now. Please do me a favour and send me or post your suggestions. I promise you they will find a very receptive audience.

You can read the TVO article here: http://theagenda.tvo.org/blog/agenda-blogs/how-non-profits-and-big-tech-companies-are-attempting-address-sector-s-diversity-p

On a drive to Ottawa, yesterday, in my sister’s vehicle, we made a little boo-boo that soon had my mind spinning. You see, we made a coffee stop about halfway, and in getting back into the vehicle, she forgot to code the destination into her vehicle’s GPS system before we drove off.

‘Big deal,’ you say. “Big deal!” I say. Why? Because the vehicle did not allow us to dial in the location once we were moving. She could only do that via voice prompts, even though she was in the back seat and I was the one driving. Why should you even care about this? Let’s skip to another conversation.

I did quick search and borrowed from a thread among people who seemed to know what they were talking about. Here is what someone named safetypee (likely a pilot) contributed in a discussion about Airbus landing distances. Never mind any jargon that you do not understand; what you do understand is enough:

safetypee
17th Dec 2012, 13:09

Gryphon; “Are we now looking for a different In-flight Landing distance concept (ALD) …”


The Operational Landing Distance (OLD) concept is designed to replace the previous ‘actual landing distance’ advisory tables. There is a brief explanation in http://www.multimedia-support.net/flight-safety-conference/docs/21-4-1.pdf

Airbus also refers to Factored OLD (FOLD), which appears to include a further 15% margin; this and other assumptions should be carefully checked on the chart to be used.


Even with the revised distances of OLD / FOLD, crews should still assess the landing conditions and include further factors for the accuracy of the runway condition report, higher approach speeds, threshold crossing height, and the degree of use of brakes and reverse.

Also see http://www.ukfsc.co.uk/files/Safety%20Briefings%20_%20Presentations/Airbus%20Safety%20First%20Mag%20-%20August%202010.pdf
And Safety First 12 (http://www.scribd.com/doc/62707861/Safety-First-12)

This not a discussion among pilots being anal or having too much chat time on their hands. That link above, under ‘Also see’, points to the 2010 Airbus magazine from which I grabbed and modified the cover image, and which includes the following discussion, on page 8:

A third of major accidents of large commercial transport aircraft are runway excursions. Many involve difficulties by the crew to realistically assess the available landing distance margins at time of arrival.

This is to some extent explained by three contributing factors:

> The multitude of methods and formats for assessing and reporting the runway surface condition;

> The lack of explicit regulation regarding the in-flight landing distance assessment;

> The variety of landing performance data formats published by manufacturers or operators for in-flight use.

Hmmm… there still seems to be something missing though, and here is a grab from an actual Airbus presentation. The highlight is mine.

armchair-engineering-airbus

If you look at the Airbus specifications here, you will see what appears to be one glaring absence, in light of recent events. There is no stipulated landing distance of any kind. However, there is a required 2,090 m (6,860 ft) minimum takeoff distance for the A320. Is this an oversight on the part of airline manufacturers? Would they have ever thought of allowing a pilot to try to take-off on 500m of runway? Surprising as it may seem, the attention to landing requirements appears to suffer from a lesser amount of care.

The CIA World Factbook shows total airports in the world at 41,821 (2013). We can trust them on that one. They use enough of them at night while we’re sleeping to know what they’re talking about. The listing has the following preamble, “This entry gives the total number of airports or airfields recognizable from the air. The runway(s) may be paved (concrete or asphalt surfaces) or unpaved (grass, earth, sand, or gravel surfaces) and may include closed or abandoned installations. Airports or airfields that are no longer recognizable (overgrown, no facilities, etc.) are not included. Note that not all airports have accommodations for refueling, maintenance, or air traffic control.”

Do you believe it is really that hard for airlines or their equipment manufacturers to find out how many of these are bona fide asphalt or concrete surfaces that meet the minimum required landing distance and conditions for a commercial airliner—in either normal or emergency conditions? An aircraft industry website shows a Minimum Landing Distance of 1,540m, for the A320.

How many of the 41,821 airports in the world meet the relevant landing criteria? 10%, 15%, even 25%? How hard is it to code the coordinates of about 10,000 locations into a secure and non-erasable database, with highly controlled access–after all, the plane is full of code today, and that condition already applies. Then the plane itself uses that information as a double check every time it goes into landing mode, or locks the plane out of any requested and ‘illicit’ landing location, with an immediate alarm to HQ? Heck, if it can lock the pilot out of the cockpit, programming that should not be too hard. Remember, this plane landed in the Alps, it did not crash there.

KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) and Airplane Manufacturing? Yes!

I see these extravagant ideas for ground-based control and wild scenarios about terrorist talking over ground flying centres, or hacking into and taking over the entire futuristic ground-based flight system. That makes for great TV gabbing and rampant speculation. Meanwhile, an immediately applicable and relatively costless solution seems readily at hand.

If a $35,000 Buick can call the shots and tell me, ‘keep your hands on the wheel, no touching the dial while driving,’ that is a clear indication of what is possible today. Why then can’t a $100M plane tell a suicidal pilot, ‘Dude, about your 100ft in the Alps, no can do! I need 1500 metres of asphalt to land; find me that or find me someone who knows how to fly this plane. And by the way, I’ve got Google Earth in my pocket so get me 1500 metres of legit asphalt!’

Boeing, here’s looking at you!

As I worked through the revision of my book, Workplace Essentials, I was addressing the importance of learning agility. Somehow, the discussion I was having on paper felt inconsistent with the term to which I related it, even though I have used the term frequently. Something felt incomplete. Learning Agility did not seem sufficiently instrumental. It seemed more like an enabler to ‘the thing,’ than the thing itself, more like an ingredient than a recipe. If so, what is the real recipe; what name should sit atop the list of ingredients?

Closed Minds = Empty Spaces

As I reflected on that question, I found myself drawn back a couple of seminal experiences at the start of my managerial career. In the first, I was a new appointee to a role that lifted me out from among my front-line management peers, and onto a path of preparing me to manage other managers. Within a few months of getting my bearings, filled with my new sense of command, I acted in what I believed was a rational and forward-thinking manner. I made a decision about allocating budgets that I administered. My decision may have been rational but pragmatic it was not.

Fast-forward one month and my Director had successfully hidden me in a new job, to save what little skin I had left from a rampaging higher-level manager whose wrath I had invoked. There I was, curled up in my metaphorical fetal position and lamenting to myself, “But I wuz jus’ tryin’ to the right thing!” I was a wounded and somewhat angry creature. The lesson escaped me; an education sat frozen.

From there, I moved into a staff manager role as a technical expert. Not long after, as part of a two-person sales team—Account executive and engineer—I sat with a colleague and client, for the first time. They chatted for what seemed an eternity about the client’s recent vacation. I grew increasingly impatient with the small talk and wanted the meeting to get underway. Finally, the AE introduced me more formally and put me on centre stage. Again, I came totally prepared to do the right thing, and bombed.

I delivered a technically intense presentation, intended to show concern, professionalism and understanding of the client’s need. Instead, it went a mile high over the client’s head. When I was done, with no feedback to me, the client looked at the AE with a smile and said, “You’re on the account so I’m sure that everything will be OK.” Outside, the AE hugged me by the shoulder and said in a warm and threatening voice, “If you ever scare my customer like that again, I’m gonna have you taken off this account!”

Failure: A teacher that never asks for permission

This time, the client’s reaction had prepared my mind. The AE’s warning was almost welcome: as confirmation that something had to change. So what do these two examples, one from an internal operations management interplay, and another from a customer-facing sales call, have in common? Both reflect a contributor acting in a disciplined and conscientious manner, and desirous of the best outcomes. Yet both also reflect dismal delivery. Looking back, both were devoid of contextual relevance—those extraneous considerations that can turn your hard work into an enjoyable treat or bitter medicine.

Fast forward again several months; I had to fill in for an engineer who, rather mysteriously, could not attend a meeting requested by a client. I soon found out why. As soon as I entered the client’s office, the sky of wrath fell in. This guy had been mishandled in a serial fashion and his rage was almost like visible steam coming out of his ears. I remember being annoyed with him too, and just wanting to get up and say, “Sorry, you’re not my account. I’ll let ‘X’ know to look after your problem right away.”

But apathy is not my style. In a short while, once the client had vented, a businessperson with an urgent need, emerged. Within 15 minutes, we were having an exceptionally productive meeting. I did double duty as AE and engineer, and not only laid out a complete plan to resolve the problems, to his satisfaction, but also earned his gratitude before leaving. He complimented my thoroughness and attention. Yet, I was so fixated on getting back to the office to duke it out over the ‘setup’ that I barely appreciated what I had done. To this day, it remains one of my better customer service experiences: an unintended and surprising success it seemed. But in hindsight, it was no surprise.

Experiential Learning: Always on Tap

Once my mind had moved beyond dwelling on my various ‘hurtful experiences,’ the vision of wisdom emerged during quieter moments. It was empathetic but uncompromising. The message, regarding my budgeting faux pas was, ‘welcome to political power, and the absence of that thing called building consensus.’ Similar insight applied regarding that day the AE gave me ‘the hug.’ Your customers won’t appreciate your helpfulness if you confuse them. Along the way, I had grown without even recognizing it. Soon, by translating insight to action, I had been able to step into a customer service disaster, unprepared, and effect a stunning recovery.

The truth is that mistakes stemming from a lack of consideration of context are likely to recur, in different forms and venues. At every level of growth and competence, there are new pitfalls. Sometimes we act on too little information, other times we are too busy and take shortcuts, and other times we suffer from any of the myriad of judgement distortions that plague our decision-making. Ideally, we all want to eliminate mistakes all the time. However, that world of make-believe perfection is a truly elusive thing.

What makes the difference for each of our successes is not just learning about the new pitfalls, but responding to them effectively. I dislike the way the term ‘pivoting’ is used nowadays; it carries a little too much cynicism—too often, the behaviour is inauthentic. But change course you must. How elegantly you change course matters. First and more important though, is to be able to be able to recognize a valid need for change and respond meaningfully, and almost subconsciously.

How many changes have you survived So far? What’s there to be afraid of?

Ultimately, as any knowledgeable training and development professional will tell you, we pursue the attainment of the desired behaviour. Or, as Chris Lytle states so pithily in his book, The Accidental Salesperson’, ‘To know and not do, is not to know; education without action is entertainment.”

Therefore, learning agility only matters only if it leads to useful behaviour. Ultimately, behavioural agility, I believe, is the term that we should adopt. It encompasses learning agility plus other elements like motivation, focus, pragmatism, and adaptability, which together, greatly enhance our capacities to contribute in the ever-changing world of business. That, I believe, is the real recipe.

Look at your successes and, no doubt, you will see bright markers of your own behavioral agility. Then, examine your learned and unapplied lessons. What significant new behavioral gains are lying dormant?

character-2-weakness-1Weakness #1:
(Deferential) Social Climbing & Status Seeking

The term deferential social climbing may be verbose as social climbing, by nature, is inherently deferential. Real social advancement—true growth in one’s social standing—is a different matter entirely, and quite desirable. Ditto for status seeking, status earned is what has real staying power.

In this first weakness, you are in awe of authority or crave acceptance and/or recognition by those higher up or in special circles, so you allow others to co-opt you, and sometimes, even put you on a pedestal.

Note that if you are not in charge of your life, your elevation will only be for the convenience of others. Also, remember that if others put you on a pedestal, they can take you off. As things go, their timing of your removal will likely not coincide with your desire for removal. That is assuming you ever wanted to come off at all.

You will always need others to advance in this world but you should always ask yourself whether the exchange is equitable. Are you giving something meaningful to justify what you get? If that equity is not there, then you are the transaction, the commodity. In time, like any commodity, you will be spent and rendered useless. What follows then should not come as a surprise.

This type of ‘takedown’ is has become more common as we see the use of third parties for image ‘enhancement.’ In the old days, image consultants helped to fix warts and flaws—mainly to allow the client’s true character to shine. Now the effort has shifted to wholesale image manufacturing. Who cares about inner character when we can build one and slap it on, tout suite! Hollywood was ahead in the image manufacturing game and now that has become endemic. Enter the era of the disposable celebrity or personality. Here’s a quick test: think of any three that come to mind.

How much of  ‘you’ is real?

Even predating the present and widespread use of facades as a ‘thing,’ I vividly recall a CEO who, during one of his walkabouts, came to my desk. Mostly to my dismay but to my slight pleasure, he picked on my shoes. Fortunately, for me, I had just bought my first pair of double-soled wingtips and they were well polished. I was climbing the corporate ladder and had to have the right shoes to do it. Sure enough, they won his approval and he commented, “Great shoes!”

That was our complete monologue. As he walked away from our under-90 seconds encounter, which mostly included my boss’ introduction of me, I thought, “That’s it? My CEO only cares about my shoes. What about my work?” Even the tickling of my vanity could not mask the sense of the entire exchange being all part of a script. I rationalized that he was simply on an extended speed-dating session and went back to work.

A few months later, that CEO lost his job. It was a rough time for them, during telecommunications deregulation. A couple of months after that, as I rushed out to get the train, I spotted a wet, hunched-over but vaguely familiar face passing by the building. Sure enough, it was that former CEO, who reigned supreme not too long before.

Empty bags cannot stand

I was appalled at how pathetic the man looked. I wondered if he was ill—he did not look it—but I also thought it unlikely since he chose to walk in a heavy drizzle. It was only then I noticed his height—much less than mine. I am 6’ 4”. His height never registered during the visit, even though my boss, also tall, and I stood with him during our brief tête-a-tête. Now, there before me was a man whose entire sense of self-worth appeared to have abandoned him.

For someone who had achieved what he had, I held him fully accountable for his body language and gave him an ‘F’ for behaving in a manner that was a complete disservice to himself—and dare I even say, to those around him as well. I cannot claim definitively that his state was attributable to the loss of his former title but the difference in appearance was stunning. From an energetic and authoritative executive to a sappy and pitiful man, looking as if he had aged years in just a few months. He just did not appear to be a man at peace with himself.

If you want it so badly that your entire personality is tied up in it, others will smell your desperation. In today’s business world, rife with Machiavellian types, you can be sure that someone will find use for you. Enduring success requires hard work: the capacity and dedication to create real value. When you invest in such outcomes, you will know how to trade wisely and not ‘sell yourself’ to any willing bidder.

Next: Can there be an almost opposite behaviour to this pandering approach we just discussed?

character-3-weakness-2Weakness #2:
Self-Infatuation or Hubris: Incompetence Not Necessary

In this second general type of failure, you allow an obsession with self to cloud your judgement. Who among us does not suffer from an occasional bout of hubris? Certain people though, seem unable to contain theirs. When you stand on that pedestal that says ‘love of self above all else,’ you can rest assured that others will poke, prod, and take pleasure in wielding a metaphorical sledgehammer to that pedestal under your feet.

There is a disturbing tendency for many prominent people to set themselves up in this way, even on the most visible of stages. One cast of candidates in a major national election some time ago—and this is not intended as a political statement, just observation—was unusually rich in people who did not appear to think too much about those whom they wished to represent.

A major governor wanted to alter the face of US government expenditures, drastically, but he could not remember how. Two words governor: cue cards! At least the people deserved the simple courtesy to know what you planned to do to them. Another, a former CEO with a self-professed claim to ‘fix-it-ness’ wanted control of the economy but never put forward a well-substantiated plan on what his ‘fixing’ would include or produce—and that’s leaving aside his shenanigans that fall under the next type of failure. A third candidate implicitly supported the deprogramming of gays to ‘fix’ them. If only millions of apparently ‘defective,’ albeit highly successful people, entirely comfortable in their own skins and sexuality had bothered to check, there was a fix waiting for them. Who knew? Understandably, each of these purveyors of self-determined goodness crashed and burned, and no one shed a tear for them.

The problem affects others beyond the group above. You see it across the political divide, across borders, and in a very wide swath of business leaders. Those leaders exhibit behaviours that reflect contempt for both their customers and employees. Look at the number of CEOs who did things that appear irredeemably dumb and thoughtless—think Tyco’s Kozlowski, Qwest’s Nacchio and Enron’s Lay. Read Executive Excess 2013: Bailed Out, Booted, and Busted. These are some big names.  The scarier part is the ‘mini-thems’ who function nearer to you and me.

I recall a series of community planning meetings where a municipal manager had to deal with a bunch of very irate homeowners. The thing that struck me most about the person was his obvious love for hearing himself–he always had  to have the last word. The homeowners, who had to pay mill rates among the highest in the GTA, barely got a hearing, in spite of their repeated protestations. Understandably, what was a manageable problem spun out of control, to that manager’s detriment.

In contrast to that fixation on self-elevation, we see positive examples of authenticity and selflessness that deserve celebrating. Tim Cook’s coming out is a refreshing case of fighting the trend. Being a big-time CEO does not mean having to go through the pretense of being a heterogeneous alpha male. Being true to yourself can be enough, if you do your job with integrity. And with the Ebola outbreak in Africa, we see specular acts of people who exemplify true servant leadership. Individuals without traditional trappings of power, who show by their actions that they can move mountains by putting others and the larger good first. “I feel as though it’s a responsibility,” says one of them.

So what if you do not pander or seek to be above all others, what’s left?

character-4-weakness-3Weakness #3: Moral Failure, Nowadays, A Line Crossed Much Too Easily

Third, there is the weakness of conducting yourself below the moral plane on which others expect you live. This pattern of behaviour has many faces but they all boil down to the same problem: your internal morals software is badly corrupted and in need of a major reload.

Not too long ago, a prominent golfer dominated the media for more than his playing skills. No matter how much you like him, and I for one am still a fan of his play, you have to admit that he created the conditions for his undoing.

In a free society, we have to grant a man his right to a harem, if his partners are consenting and of legal age, and if that is his appetite. However, with such an appetite should also come the awareness that it is at odds with your mega-million dollar endorsements (Weakness #2 anyone?)

Since the harem-friendly behaviour continued, the resulting fall from grace was inevitable. It carried a rich note of irony, given his craft: an enraged wife reportedly taking uncontrolled swings with a golf club. There is something to that old expression of not eating your cake and having it too.

Moral failure is a trap that into which we fall too easily, as we become a society more burdened by rampant consumerism. We are slowly redefining value and success from a balance of tangible and intangible factors toward more material, and predominantly financial, measures.

You never miss your own signals

Listen to Jordan Belfort, the real Wolf of Wall Street, reflect on the plague of incremental moral decay. Again, many of us step over the line, whether inadvertently or not, but are also able to pull back. It is not pulling back that is the bigger problem. The rationalizations become easier and, the slope, as the saying goes, only heads downhill.

To sum up, any time that feeling in your gut tries to get your attention, give it your attention. If you practice responding to it, it will serve you even better over time. Build its character-protection value by asking yourself these simple questions:

  • Am I in control or being traded here? (A more challenging question than ‘do I deserve this?’ to which your brain will respond, “yes!”)
  • Will others agree that I am considering them equitably? (which forces you outside of your own rationalizations that you are)
  • How would I explain this behaviour to my children, at a friend’s party? (Certain topics are beyond their years but can you tell them so without cringing inside?)

You should be able to answer these questions comfortably–again your gut will tell you the truth if you care to listen to it. If not, then you’re into one or more of the holes we’ve discussed.

 

So, where do we go from here?