Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cultural barriers, hot spots, and being a good host

I got somewhat interested on the topic of meeting metrics and dug up an academic paper with some very interesting conclusions. The paper is titled "Spotting 'Hot Spots' in Meetings: Human Judgments and Prosodic Cues".

If you muscle your way past the word "Prosodic" in the subtitle, you will read about an experiment where listeners were asked to rate the "involvement" of meeting participants along the lines of amusement or disagreement. The ratings were fairly consistent amongst listeners, with one exception, described in this excerpt:
However, differences in performance between native and nonnative raters indicate that judgments on involvement are also influenced by the native language of the listener.
The authors found evidence that there was less consistency in the perception of meeting "hot spots" by people who were non-native speakers. In other words, the non-native speakers didn't perceive the meeting dynamics in the same way the native speakers did. They made a point of not ascribing the observation to cultural or language aspects, because they were not after that particular aspect during the experiment and also due to the small population size.

Having attended a fair share of meetings where I was the sole cultural minority, I have certainly experienced first-hand the difficulty in understanding contextual jokes, such as a remark about a TV show I have never watched. Conversely, I have hosted many meetings where I am part of the cultural majority, witnessing embarrassed guests completely lost amidst laughter or tension during the meeting.

Some lessons learned:

The least-common denominator language wins: Mastering a foreign language takes years of practice. Speaking someone else's native language is a sign of individual achievement, not of cultural inferiority. If that least-common denominator language happens to be English, you will have to learn it. Get over it, but put it in perspective: In terms of human history, English is fairly new as a universal language, and not for long if this trend continues. And this leads to the next lesson learned:

Avoid side-conversations in your own language if it is not shared by all participants: Unless someone specifically asked to hear an exotic sample of your own language, just don't. If someone simply does not speak the language, announce the need to translate the conversations to other participants. Cumbersome beats being rude.

Share context before telling a story: Sharing stories with the team is a great way of establishing healthy bonds, but many good stories need some background to be fully understood. The ability to share stories more quickly by building upon other stories is powerful, so that this is not only about cultural and language minorities. If you are about to tell a funny story involving that former old boss, take a couple of moments to share the context with people who didn't know him at the time.

Share context before a meeting: The lesson above also goes for introducing a contentious technical subject. For instance, educating a new colleague on which faction favors one aspect of a solution versus another may spare the rookie from being too forceful or too subtle during the meeting. It is just embarrassing to see a colleague dispensing a 5-minute speech on a person who is already known (by everybody else) to share that point of view. You may want to share the context in private and certainly without labeling either side, even if you disagree with one of them.

Accommodate the contextual majority: This comes from someone who has grown up watching Formula 1 and now lives in NASCAR country. NASCAR fans are a "contextual" majority, not a "cultural" majority. If your new team likes to talk about it, it is not your minority right to ask for a change of subject. You can choose to absorb the context and join in on the conversation. It takes time until you are accepted as a knowledgeable source on the subject and can start poking fun at it. In accommodating the contextual majority, it is also important to set limits to preserve your own integrity, such as steering clear from "American Idol" or "Lost" (as context for people who don't live in the USA, these are very popular TV shows for reasons that are completely lost on me.)

Learn about the other culture: Just the other day I was on an 11PM call with a team in Japan when a (Western nationality omitted here to protect the offender) participant asked the sunny side of the call: "Why did you use this component instead of the approved ones?" That comment would have rolled over the back of anyone here in RTP, but for those familiar with the Japanese culture, it was worse than watching someone slamming the lid of their laptops on their fingers. I cringed in anticipation and, as expected, our Japanese counterparts were considerably quieter until the meeting was over, restricting themselves to answering direct questions.

I have recently developed a sense of dignity in avoiding asking "what do you think?" questions at the end of any given posting; the lack of comments was too painful. But please feel free to share your own lessons here.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Smartest/Nuttiest Futurist on Earth

Fortune Magazine brings an interview with Ray Kurzweil, titled "The Smartest/Nuttiest Futurist on Earth". He asserts that the exponential development of computing power can be extended to other fields, such as medicine and climate forecasting, as long as their most fundamental aspects can be mapped into bits and bytes.

An interesting quote, paralleling a previous posting titled "DNA Hardware and the Final Frontier":
By 2027, he predicts, computers will surpass humans in intelligence; by 2045 or so, we will reach the Singularity, a moment when technology is advancing so rapidly that "strictly biological" humans will be unable to comprehend it.
Kurzweil may be right about his theories of exponential technological development in some areas; he has been right about other forecasts. Human sciences don't evolve exponentially though.

Along the same theme, this edited version of the "Shift happens" slide-show, by Karl Fisch, shares similar predictions about technology against a backdrop of startling world-wide changes in the areas of education, labor, and economy.

I trust the judgment of our future scientists, but scientists are not a fixture in the circles of politics. Whether we will live in a time of liberating enlightenment or unprecedented exclusion remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Directions from the past and e-mails to the future

I was listening to an interview with Sarah Susanka on NPR the other day. Sarah is the author of the best-selling series "The Not So Big House" and was promoting her newest book: "The Not So Big Life: Making Room for What Really Matters".

In the interview, she mentioned a ritual repeated every year between the weeks of Christmas and New Year's Eve: writing down the things she expected to accomplish in life. She continued on to describe how after a few months a large part of those goals were met without her conscious action.

Years ago, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, shared a similar experience in "The Dilbert Principle" - a book more serious than one would assume. His approach followed the same principle, but was far more intense, consisting of writing down his goals on little cards everyday. According to Scott, he used that technique to realize his most notable achievement: becoming the world's most famous cartoonist.

Scott went further, cautioning the reader about setting goals that depended on individual effort, rather than wishing for divine providence on something like winning the lottery.

Written goals

Granted, both Sarah Susanka and Scott Adams were already renowned authors when they shared their recipes for success; one could argue that these are focused individuals that would have reached their goals whether they put their thoughts on paper or not. However, there are several merits to their advice.

A vision: Firstly, writing down your goals implies that you know what they are, which is obviously very important if you want to achieve them.

A clear vision: Secondly, anyone who has ever sat in front of blank page, pen or keyboard in hands, knows the pressure of organizing thought in a form that can be understood in a clear manner. It follows that written goals tend to be clearer than unstated ones.

Even for people with an innate sense of purpose, there is always a point in life where that general sense of purpose is fulfilled and clearer direction is required to sustain progress. Just imagine the stories of children who always wanted to be doctors. It is unusual to hear stories about children who wanted to be the best doctor in the world.

A vision reminder: A third positive aspect of written goals is that they become constant reminders of the decisions to be made in the future. It is like having your past self constantly looking over your shoulder and advising you to make decisions consistent with those goals on each crossroad. That past self of yours lack your new experiences, but he has clearer view of what is important in your life.


The sense of purpose built while writing goals will weaken after awhile. Your past self needs you to keep those goals close at hand to guide your decisions and actions. Scott Adams' method of writing down your major goal in life everyday is certainly labor intensive; as a computer geek, I like using a desktop background and the default page on the web browser.

The other day I came across a web site called, which allows one to send an e-mail to the future. If their infrastructure doesn't disappear in the meantime, my future self will be receiving some reminder notes.

Collective goals

In a large company, writing down organizational goals seems equally necessary, but not so much of a common practice. Of course, you don't want them to look like something coming out of Dilbert's Mission Statement Generator; goals should be a clear target against a metric.

For the leaders ultimately responsible for the attainment of collective goals... active... Once you get those goals written down, there is the question of how to make them present on people's routines. Forcing people to write them down everyday is a reminiscent from classrooms best left in the past. Slapping them to screens on a system or to walls on facilities that people use everyday is a sure way of suppressing people's awareness and involvement.

...but be subtle... a more subtle way of bringing it up now and then seems in order. Some examples would be the addition of goals to e-mail signatures or periodically adding them to a slide or two during presentations. Subtlety being the operative word, as the Baby-Boomers and GenX'ers comprising the bulk of the workforce today do not react well to any kind of intensive pestering.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Red cars, greener grass

Frong peeking from behind a green leafWhile reading the news of Ferrari being nominated Europe's best place to work, I couldn't resist but pay a visit to the "Great Place to Work Institute web site. They are the ones behind the lists of "100 Best Companies To Work Fort" you see every year on Fortune Magazine.

There is an interesting correlation between the market performance of companies in the "100 Best..." list versus the industry average.

I know what you are itching to do, so here is the link to the search page from where you can query the performance of your favorite company.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Marxist Corporations (2/2) : Being Thankful and the Reputation Capital

Man thanking another manHaving read one too many stories about office dwellers robbed of their credit or about the rapid ascension of seemingly incompetent colleagues, I now realize that most of the self-anointed victims somehow failed to understand the notion of reputation as capital.

This is a long post so you may want to skip to the list of tips at the end. If you stick around, let us start with the classic notion of capitalism and apply it to the reputation built during our daily routine in a large corporation. From Wikipedia:
“…the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit, and in which investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are determined through the operation of a market where all decisions regarding transfer of money, goods (including capital goods), and services are voluntary rather than by government…”
What makes reputation a capital? Complex products. The modern worker may still toil in dark engine rooms, but the production cycles have certainly become longer. A typical car may take 3 years to leave the drawing board and reach the assembly line, traditional software development cycles take anywhere between 1 and 2 years, software as a service iterates in a matter of weeks or months (though vaporware takes longer).

Labor output cannot be measured precisely in an environment where hundreds, or even thousands, of people contribute to the final result. Often people move to different assignments long before their contribution can be assessed. Ever more often, several layers of management insulate the reputation creditors from the people earning the reputation. It is in that lack of precision that reputation ceases to be an individual attribute to become a capital that can be traded in a market.

As you already learned through the years; goods in the reputation market can be traded for promotions, bonuses, or just permanence in the job during trying periods of organizational shuffling. This entry is not about how to raise that kind of capital; too many people write about it everyday, it is about the mechanics of that market.

...the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.
When you join any organization, you immediately have two bosses: the ethereal entity embodied by the management chain and your flesh-and-bone supervisor. Anyone who lands tasks on your desk and helps your boss assess your performance is your supervisor. Before you finish the snide rhetorical question about CEO’s, I’ll quip that CEOs have nor bosses nor the time to read blogs.

The supervisory chain is an alternative market where reputation is the currency. Complete an assignment on time and you earn some reputation; miss a deadline and you give back some of that reputation.

Senior employees responsible for the junior employees executing work under their supervision mechanically capitalize on that credit, holding some of it for them. No mischief, it just comes their way because, ultimately, they are responsible for the outcome of that work. So does reputation debit, a poor euphemism for blame.

Just like in a regular capital-based market, one can earn capital faster than others, by exploiting the labor of those who are willing to trade it for compensation below the actual value of their work. It should follow that a smart employee can accumulate reputation capital faster than his peers by taking credit for someone else’s work or capitalizing on a share of the reputation from individuals in the team. However unethical and questionable, and I do not endorse it, these are means to the end of building up reputation.

To the untrained eye, the above logic is a parking-lot-broken-antenna-badly-keyed-paint-job short of irrefutable, but the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.

It will make you feel better too.

I once received advice on leading a happier life: be thankful for something, however irrelevant, at end of the day. Whether your toddler ate his meals without a fuss or your favorite music played on the radio on your way to work, close your eyes before you go to bed and be thankful for it.

Should such profound advice also be valid in our professional lives? Virtually nothing can be accomplished individually nowadays. The difficulties in our work should not be so overwhelming as to numb our senses to the contributions from those around us. However simple those contributions may seem - the coworker who lent you an ear after an elusive problem swallowed your whole morning and shared your enthusiasm after you found the solution - these are contributions.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization.
Marx anticipated communism as a natural evolution of mature capitalism. Unhindered by our karmic attachment to capital, universal sharing of the reputation capital is the natural evolution of the mature work environment.

Granted, human nature influences the way we share our credit with others. People fulfill their needs at different stages in life and it is not until they achieve the stage of growth needs that altruistic behavior takes root. At least not naturally, and that is why this entry should interest you as a leader: these values can be fostered. Share all of your credit in front of your superiors and team. Praise those who do the same. When someone completes a nice piece of work, ask them who they would thank the most for it.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization. Whether the motivation is an ill-conceived attempt to improve ones standing or a self-defense move against an oblivious management chain, the team spirit suffers.

None of the above means that you should selflessly forgo whatever credit you may receive, the point is acknowledging contributions.

Maximizing your reputation capital

Some lessons learned across the years:
  • Be regular. Make a point of praising at least one person in your team to your supervisor or manager every day. If possible, have the person present.
  • Be specific. Highlight how the contribution helped you complete your work.
  • Be fair. Even someone in your bad list may eventually contribute something. Acknowledging a contribution from someone doesn't make you wrong or concede whatever other grievances you may have with the contributor (you should try and avoid those anyway) .
  • Spread a thankful culture: Always ask the presenter of an interesting piece of work about the contributors. A true team-player will not skip a beat before answering.

  • Beware of the heroes: No matter how indispensable someone might seem, they received help to get there. A hero is only worth praise when carried on the shoulders of his coworkers and not dragging a chain of unappreciated people on their wake. Refer back to "spread a thankful culture".
  • Acknowledge the intangible: Thank or compliment people for small improvements, like a well-written meeting agenda. You may want to be casual about it too.
  • Now this is important, be sincere. If you are sharing credit or paying compliments just to look good in front of others, you are doing it wrong. And it shows.
  • If you are accepting an award or a promotion, make a list of individual acknowledgments tailored to the time you will have to accept it. Save a time slice for general acknowledgments. If you are not ready to be sincere, thank people anyway at least out of professionalism; you are not awarded or promoted everyday and there is no point in looking like a jerk until the next opportunity comes (and keep working on not being a jerk afterwards) .

Barring the above advice, I can suggest staring at this wall poster every other day. If the poster does not work either, you can only hope life to be kind enoigh to land you for six months on a pathologically dysfunctional team.

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