Avoiding Avoidance

Posted by jlubans on March 30, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)


In preparing for another column on “What I Would Do Differently”, I listed out a baker’s dozen of instances in my career where I could have done better. These were conflicts; those times when someone seeks to frustrate something you want to do.
Looking at that sorry list, it dawned on me that while each of those snafus was a personal failure, my saying so and explaining how I would follow up did not address a more important question.
Could any of the dozen been averted?
What in general could I have done differently before the situation became a problem?
All too often, my silence or failure to follow up, may have escalated a small problem into something larger.
Were there not ways to anticipate and nip an incipient problem in the bud?
Was there a lack of clarity in my message, then how could I have changed that?
Did I not listen to my colleagues? How could I change that?
Were my colleagues not interested in or swayed by my intentions?
Did they not understand my purpose in making a change?
When I stated my belief that simplicity was preferable to complexity, did anyone understand what I meant?
I rarely explained; rather I assumed. And, as we know, there’s an adage for that. (When you take away the U and the ME that leaves ASS and a silly one at that).
No, we cannot know all eventualities nor do we need to, but we do want the key points well understood.
You should not leave it up to the staff to figure it out for themselves.
Some were already on my wavelength so they were not confused. Others – too many - tried to understand but, without clarity from the leader, failed to do so.
This latter outcome undercut my belief in and practice of the concept of subsidiarity; that ideas and processes are always best developed and tried out at the local level, not from above.
For that philosophy to succeed the people doing the work had to understand what I was hoping for.
At the start of any new initiative I should have made questions de rigueur, expected and wanted. Not just the abrupt “Any questions?” at the end of a meeting when everyone’s heading out the door.
Since it was not self-evident for everyone, I should have done far more follow up explaining about meanings and what was to be done. .
The Red Team technique would have been one way for those involved to really get at the pros and cons of a new way of doing something.
And, even if you can’t use a Red Team for every idea, you can do something similar, like worst-case scenarios, a plus delta, or a list of plusses and minuses and the major reasons for and against.
Any of these would help avoid the seemingly inevitable misunderstandings; they’d deter that predictable cycle I observed in those dozen miserable instances referred to at the top.
Lest ye misunderstand, I am not talking about the classical business bugbear, Communication about a made decision.
Rather, I speak of my explaining more and better of what I was trying to do and seeking feedback and advice prior to the decision. I would want to engage those working with me, both direct reports and my fellow executive leaders.
Anger was a response I underused.
For example, when one of my staff displayed an uncooperative attitude, I should have been far more explicit in why her response was unacceptable.
Instead, my tacit acceptance – like the dog in the elevator - allowed her to get away with it only to worsen matters between us.
A touch of controlled anger (a remonstrative bark or growl) would have helped get her attention and then I could have explained calmly what it was I was trying to do and what I expected from her.
After all, I was the top dog, was I not?
In another instance, I should have been furious when one of my peers grabbed me by the head, admonishing me to think.
He was offended by something I had said, perhaps jocularly, but he stepped way out of bounds when he touched me.
I ignored it, naturally, but my anger was clearly called for. I should have demanded an apology at the least and then find out what prompted that behavior.
These last few decades have given us a contrast in how leaders respond to criticism and insults. The Presidents Bush and Mr. Trump represent extremes. Mr. Trump, like a pro-wrestler, when slapped, slapped back.
That made for news and probably impeded some policy objectives but his disruptive, abrasive behavior (kick ass) also probably made some good things happen (vaccine development, for example) that never would have happened with a gentle prodding of an elephantine bureaucracy.
The Bushes, father and son, never took umbrage in public at insults hurled - like shoes - their way.
I had a mentor like that. He never sank to a backstabbing level. Indeed, I favored the Bush approach – never acknowledge an insult – over Trump’s never turn the other cheek, but perhaps there is a midpoint between the two?
Anger has its place and it can add clarity. There’s no question in my mind that I could have used it more and to better effect than I did. But, it takes practice and if you never use it, when you finally lose your temper, it won’t play out well.
Seeking clarity around conflict can be more difficult in some environments than others. I found that in ecclesiastical or academic conflict I was dealing with shadows. Innuendo, the perfumed dagger variety of intrigue was the preferred course of action. Unless you were born Byzantine, many pitfalls awaited.
It’s taken many years, but I have come to realize that frankness, sincerity, candor, honesty, all have to be made manifest. These qualities cannot be left to a guessing game. Nor can any be realized in silence.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

“Well I can't stay inside talkin' Gotta get outside rockin'”

Posted by jlubans on March 18, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The vast Doce Cuarenta (12/40) coffee house* on the outskirts of Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. (Photos by author, March 2021)

My title comes from the lyrics to “Cappuccino Bar” by the rocker and musical maestro, Jonathan Richman.
Overly caffeinated, Mr. Richman is itchin’ to do something besides talkin’. He bolts from the coffee bar and sings:
“… I'm out there with my guitar
Playin bang bang rock and roll.”
This by way of introduction to an exploration of how coffee and cafes help get one creatively going!
How is that?
Well, there’s the caffeine.
Studies confirm that caffeine “suppresses unwanted and unnecessary insights and instead helps you focus on the work at hand” – in other words with caffeine you don’t day dream, you stay on task, you buckle down and “pick that bale of cotton”.
Doing so, coffee blocks “your ‘monkey brain’ which is constantly jabbering …”.
Coffee, it is claimed, helps you listen to your inner (and linear) “ox brain” and - steady as an ox - allows you to plod forward step by step to get the job done.
But, you can brew your own coffee and stay at home or in the office – no need to go out.
Does going to a café add value? Are we more creative in a café than at an office desk?
The BBC has answers.
Besides the chemical effects of caffeine, there are good reasons to step out.
Reason 1- Background noise.
It’s asserted that if you’re very slightly distracted from the task at hand by ambient stimuli, it boosts your abstract thinking ability, leading to more creative ideas. A low-to moderate ambient noise can boost your productivity.
Reason 2. Observing others working inspires one to get working.
Being around other people engaged in work or study can put you in a mood to do likewise. Like going to the gym, we see the guy next to us lifting twice as much weight as we are. We put down the 15-pound dumbbells and go with the 35 pounders. This is termed the social-facilitation effect.
Reason 3. Visual variety
Caption: Green farmer depicted at Doce Cuarenta.

Working from home (or the office) can get boring; oen we sit in the same chair and look at the same four walls, the same windows. And we do it solo, often in silence.
But, in a café, unfamiliar noises, the movement of people, the retail environment and the variety in interior design can provide enough distraction to help us be our sharpest and most creative. “Visual stimulation – how the place is decorated – has an effect on people’s creative thinking process.” Researchers call it “convergent creative thinking.”
Reason 4.
The café’s ‘air of informality.’

Caption: Featuring indoor and outdoor seating, a place for everyone. A Todos Santos author friend told me it’s where she goes to write.
Unlike the implied formality of a Zoom pixelated conference room, "there is an air of informality when meeting up at a café.” That informality hearkens back to Ray Oldenburg’s, the “third place”, that one leg of a satisfactory life’s tripod: home, job, and “other place”. It’s where the regulars welcome each other with small talk, exaggeration, good humor and kindness. Where no one remains a stranger, as long as they adapt to the norms of the place and await an invitation to join in. I wrote about one such place back in 2011.
The informality and camaraderie found over time in a cafe can lead to collaboration, can lead to friendship, can lead to good group effort.
Even if you remain solo – I, the inveterate introvert - the good vibe of a third place can foster good feelings within yourself.

*You’ll find Doce Cuarenta on a dirt road well off the La Paz highway going north from Todos Santos. It sits amidst landscaped grounds, palm trees and other greenery bordering sandy gravel parking lots.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

The Peculiar Case of “Going Forward”

Posted by jlubans on March 15, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Dilbert Cartoon by Scott Adams

Why do some clichés live on?
What is the motive power behind “going forward” - and its alias “moving forward” - remaining as one of bureaucracy’s favorite go-to phrases?
Imagine a boss challenging a team to do some “out-of-the-box thinking” to solve a corporate problem? As Dilbert confirms, she’d be jeered figuratively if not literally.
Fortunately, much of bizspeak has a short life; even the atonal recognize duds like “drill down”
“ducks in a row” and “paradigm shift”.
It takes only a bit of ridicule by the wokest workers who, while totally au courant with the moment, are among the most cliché-ridden. Still, they call the tune on corporate speak – just like the habitues of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
So, why does “going forward” linger linguistically?
Some believe it suggests a sense of action, purpose, and direction.
More likely it’s alleged vitality stems from its service to “pivot” (another bizspeak cliché).
Going forward” often follows an admission of and apology for some egregious action or unpopular policy decision. Or it may merely be “some sort of inconvenient or unpleasant reality”.
The words following Going Forward can be a promissory sop to those silenced – the politically incorrect losers - by some pressure group.
The pivot leaves the unsavory and untenable (we have now “been there and done that”) and looks ahead to a happier tomorrow in which the wrongs of yesterday will have melted away.
Actually, the pivot only serves to further disgruntle the disgruntled.
Then again, there is something magisterial, even orotund, about invoking “Going Forward”. The speaker believes himself to be endowed with an oracular insight and it is only right and just to speak glowingly about the future under his leadership. In the leader’s eyes the term is far better than admitting ignorance about the future.
The phrase is a dead giveaway for bending the truth; and it is dismissive of any hearer’s ability to “read between the lines” and to understand what really is going on.
Like one book’s character who always prefaced his lies with “Actually…” “moving forward” .
signals insincerity and that what follows cannot be held accountable. It’s why the pivot usually includes several caveats, maybes, even “God willings”!
Does the speaker/ writer really not know that the phrase is unnecessary? Leaving it out helps the meaning get across; yet they use it. Why?
Maybe it’s a dodge so the leader does not have to come clean and admit, “I don’t know.”

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

"Never again" A Fable

Posted by jlubans on March 01, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Diogenes and his lantern with canine audience by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860?)

At a Central America airport after your visa has been stamped and you’ve picked up your luggage, there’s a final stop. The alcohol control point. There you’ll find a modern version of Diogenes, and his lantern in search of an honest man.
This modern Diogenes and his airport helper query each and every arriving visitor:
“Any alcohol in your luggage?”
From all the denials, our alcohol inspector must feel something like Diogenes endlessly searching with his lantern - in the light of day - for an honest man, Are you an honest man?
Diogenes notes, while you say no, your eyes shift; and he notices a bit of a fidget in your part, a sort of standing on one leg.
He suggests maybe you should answer with “Never again”.
Apparently having to accept thousands of no’s , our modern Diogenes has become even more of a cynic than was the Diogenes of old.
Is this an anodyne for one’s guilt? Perhaps; after all, in the grand scheme, bringing in a few bottles is more peccadillo than felony.
Home free?
Not quite.
You are now asked to push a red NO button behind which sits a veritable Cerberus of an airport x-ray machine, conveyor belt and all.
If your push on the button sets of a flashing red light, (Oh, damn!) you get to have your luggage inspected and any contraband confiscated plus a monetary fine.
If the light turns green, you are free to go, guilty conscience and all. Never again.

Moral: Clutch your rabbit’s foot when pushing that red “NO” button.

*"Never again” reminds me of a recent novel, Soviet Milk, about life in “Soviet Times” in my native country of Latvia. Latvia was an occupied country from 1945 to the early 90s.
If you – a regular citizen – were suspect of harboring anti-communist views, then an official would pull you aside at work or school. A favorite question asked by the communist interrogator/enforcer was, “Do you believe in God?”
A Yes was a quick ticket to a KGB jail cell and a reservation on the next Siberia express cattle car.
In Soviet Milk, the young woman protagonist comes up with an alternative response, “I have not yet met God”.
The communist interrogator is befuddled.
Our heroine did not say yes and she did not say no, but yet she seemed to say that, at worst, she was an agnostic. As such, she’s less dangerous than an all-out Christian.
The enforcer gives her a pass.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021