Lessons Abound for Businesses in the Wake of Civil Unrest

With the number of major world events happening over the last 6 months, I have to believe that people are starting to take notice and ask why. In many cases perhaps there is no reason to ask why, such as the overturn of the Tunisian government, or the similar situation in Egypt. Even as we speak the unrest in Libya is building to a crescendo, with people around the globe starting to feel the impact at the gas pump and in the stock market. Not to mention there are plenty of people, myself included, that are waiting to see the outcome, and what it means for not only the Middle East and African countries, but for all peoples and countries around the world. Business should take lessons from these situations as well, not only of the impact to them, but for what it means in the country of “YourBusinessToday”.

We often look at situations in foreign countries and think that it could never happen to us, and what we certainly don’t think about are the similarities between a country and a business. Any time you have a population of people being governed by a body who has greater and greater power and control in the eyes of those people, you really walk a fine line. It is the responsibility of those in power to take a step back, listen to their people, and ensure that not only do they understand them but are working on their behalf to make things better for them. Without people to lead, and people who want to follow you, you have no authority and can and will lose much. Whether that much is a company or a country is based on your situation, but the result is generally still the same.

In tribes such as the Trobriander and others around the world they have this concept correct. There are even companies such as Gore that get it right. You have to keep groups small, allow the people to have a voice, base authority on merit, and truly have your people’s best interest at heart because your people are you and you are your people. When you create a hierarchical system, giving greater and greater authority while separating the leaders and people from each other, you often end up playing a huge game of telephone to understand what is really going on with the people. Authority and respect needs to be earned by leaders, and voluntarily given by followers. When you try to force it, or demand it, you degrade the entire structure of trust and communication. We see this when we look at world leaders who are killing their citizens to maintain control, or taking money out of their pockets in one form or another to fill their own, or even in the case of working over their people’s heads and behind their backs on “diplomatic policies” that are really about making the leaders power and money greater (sometimes at the expense of the people they serve).

Unfortunately we fail to notice, or do anything about, the actions of business leaders that are equally egregious. We as human beings tend to view it as a greater tragedy when bad things happen to a people of a country, but accept it more when it comes from a business. While business leaders may not be mowing down their employees (and who knows, perhaps some do!) there are certainly cases where they are making deals for their own benefit, and lining their own pockets because “they earned it”. I’m sure that many of the world leaders out there being overturned and ousted believed the same thing at one time or another.

The time may not have come yet, but I believe that if current events are any indication, the time will come when people around the world will begin to become infected with the pandemic virus of “we won’t take it any more”. As this day draws near businesses better take heed and make changes, because as the global economy changes, the global environment changes, and one only knows how many governments change there will certainly be the possibility of a target being painted on the front and back of every business leader. Again, we’re not there yet, but that day may not be too far in the future.

Do you see yourself?

Although I keep intending to get much more written and posted here, I admit that my time is simply at an absolute premium and committed in large part to my new job as a federal contractor and my school work.   Not to mention spending time with my wonderful family.  With that being said, I still want to do the best that I can to add new content here as much as possible.

For a project in my Cultural Anthropology class, I conducted an ethnographic research project.  I chose to conduct my research in a suburban shopping mall and found some extremely interesting patterns and behaviors.  I’ve attached my paper to this posting, and hopefully as you look at it you will find it to be as interesting as I did, and perhaps you will even see yourself  in some of the observations recorded.

As always, I appreciate any feedback and comments and hope you enjoy.  Look for more to come soon!

Ethnographic Research Project

Transitions Are An Important Part

Again, it has been longer than I would like since my last blog entry; this is primarily due to my underestimating the amount of time that I would be committing to working on my degree.  Hopefully that will change once I complete the shortened winter semester, and get into the regular spring semester.  I will certainly be trying to get at least one entry a week here, and more if I can.  Thanks to those that continue to stop in!

One of the major school projects I just finished was an essay for my cultural anthropology class on the state of transition, or “liminality”, as shown through the comparison of burial rituals between three different cultures (I chose the Mongols, Kiribati, and Khasi).  While my paper was focused on the concept of transition as related to death and burial ceremonies, I think there are some very important conclusions that we can draw.

Overall, the concept of liminality is the transition phase just before a change.  This is true in coming of age ceremonies, weddings, birthdays, graduations, etc.  The purpose of these events is to show a definite change from what once was, to what will be.  Knowing that this happens in so many situations, I have to wonder why we don’t pay more attention to the transition phase in business.  It is a natural process that needs to happen, and can be seen around the world in many cultures and many forms, but for whatever reason when we get into business we tend to go against what is natural instead of using it to help us and our people be more successful.

The next time you are working to figure out how to motivate and engage your employees, ask yourself what natural transitions you have built-in to your processes.  Do you have levels of employment at each level to create goals and small wins, and do you celebrate those transitions?  (Both of these steps are necessary for a truly successful process.)  What lets people know that a project is at the end, or has completed?  How do you transition people from individual contributor to leader/manager?  If you have these processes, how do you celebrate these transitions?  Do you make it special and recognized?  People thrive on natural processes like this, and I truly believe that if you make these changes you will see improvements in the excitement, enthusiasm, and success of your business.

It may not be the first thing that we think of but we need to be aware of the natural tendencies of the crazy creature that is Homo sapien, and utilize those natural tendencies instead of fighting them.

The “Someone Else Will Do It” Effect

I hope that everyone had a happy holiday and, for those that celebrate it, a Merry Christmas!  Just before the holidays I posted a blog entry about the “Law of the Few” and the “Stickiness Factor”.  I also mentioned that I in my next article I would be focusing on the “Power of Context”.  As I said previously, I think this topic is so profound that it really needed to be on its own.

When Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “Power of Context” he states that “epidemics are strongly influenced…by the circumstances and conditions and particulars of the environments in which they operate.”  As usual, I immediately begin to think about the implications in the business world.  It strikes me that so many times this point is missed when we set forth to affect change in the workplace.  Things move so quickly in the world today that we often forget that we really need to take the time and ensure that the time and environment are right for initiating a change; this includes launching a new product, a new learning initiative, changing culture, or other major change.  All too often I think we begin moving forward without ensuring that we have the right time and environment, and then cross our fingers and hope that whatever we are trying to accomplish is successful.  How much time and money is wasted with tactics like this?  Taking the extra time and effort initially could increase the chance for success exponentially.

As I think back to my time with a previous organization, I remember conducting interviews and focus groups trying to gain perspective on why things that we were trying to implement weren’t working.  On many occasions, there would be information coming out that would have been crucial for us and others in the organization to know about.  When asked why this information wasn’t brought forward sooner, the most common response was “everyone already knows, and nothing’s changing, so it must not matter,” or “I figured that someone else/my manager/so-and-so said/did something about it.”  Unfortunately I think this is probably a misconception among many employees in many organizations.

The example used in “The Tipping Point” to explain the “Power of Context” is that of Kitty Genovese.  For those that may have forgotten, or never previously heard of it, this is the story of a lady, Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed on two separate occasions inside of a thirty-minute period on her own street, where supposedly 38 people heard and/or saw the incident without anyone calling the police.  The details of this story are highly contested, however I believe that this event was itself the “tipping point” for further study into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  Essentially this says that people are less likely to help someone in trouble while in a group situation, either because they believe that someone else will better know how to help or they will be embarrassed to help in front of others.  I believe that the same premise happens in our business organizations today.  As I said before, it is my experience that the people on the “front line” of our organizations who are closest to our customers, and those who are closest to the many different issues facing our organizations today, often believe that someone else must have a better solution, or that if it really is a problem or something that should be known it is already known by the right people, or they don’t want to be embarrassed by suggesting something that has already been thought of or for being seen as over-zealous.

Creating an environment that is open and encourages suggestion and communication is important, but based on examples such as this it could be even more important than first thought.  To truly change how we create change in our organizations, we must make it possible to gain real-time, first-hand information and must find some way to encourage that information transfer.

Very close to home!

As an article came up on Twitter today from @Reuters, the title struck out at me: “Jobless Americans wary of losing their edge.”  I couldn’t resist reading it, especially since I can relate.  The article, written by Kristina Cooke, is very well written and extremely familiar.  After losing my job in February 2010, I wasn’t sure what my next steps would be.  It was something that I had really never planned for and didn’t expect.  But somehow once it happened I started to think about what to do next, where was I going, how was I going to keep myself sharp and improve myself; I also had to think about how recruiters would be seeing me going forward.

In my own situation, I was fortunate to have the financial means to take a chance at starting my own business and furthering my education (thankfully my amazing wife has stood behind me through it all!).   Also, to continue to improve my knowledge and skills, I continued to read the periodicals that I receive through my membership in the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) and American Society of Training & Development (ASTD).  I also continued to read books, and write blogs, and join in on conversations around the web.  I believe that all of these things have helped me in keeping myself up-to-date and relevant.  Needless to say, I was still unsure of how much of an impact these events would have on my marketability.

I think this article really speaks to the fear that most people would never think of while they have a job, but I’m sure that going forward those of us who have experienced this event will never forget.  The idea that what you know and your experience could become irrelevant because of the amount of time you have been out of a job, or the fact that you might lose your ability to do your job effectively because of not using your skills regularly can be deeply frightening.  Even worse, finding a way to continue to stay sharp is not always as easy as it may seem either.  As a father to an almost-two-year-old, my wife and I have found that financially it doesn’t make sense for me to “just take a job.”  Neither would it be very likely that I could take a volunteer position due to the cost of child care.  With all of these factors in play, it can really become daunting to meet the expectations of recruiters and hiring managers, and to continue to catch their eyes.

It will be interesting to see what the long-term effects will be on society and the culture of both our country and corporate America.  Is this the event that changes the job market as we know it?  Is this the thing that will open senior positions and change the way we do business?  What will be the trickle down effect?  Perhaps there will be some new studies on this and more, and I for one will be reading them to make sure to keep my skills sharp, and my knowledge relevant.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…both sides of the coin?

The topic of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) is, needless to say, quite an emotionally charged and strongly opinionated one and has been since its inception.  As it is in the process of being repealed there are multiple articles on news channels, Twitter, and across the Blogosphere.  As someone who served, who is heterosexual (metro-sexual if you ask anyone that knows me, but that’s a whole other story), and who was close friends with plenty of other service members who were homosexual I tend to have my own perspective.

I believe that everyone has the right to believe what they choose, and to live in whatever fashion that they choose.  This includes sexual preference.  One of the things that the United States military defends is that very right, so it would seem nonsensical to expect that people that this right is there to support would not want to defend that right for themselves and others.  It should also be understood that sexual preference does not make you weak, and does not make you any less of a patriot.  Unfortunately, this is in many cases the same type of thought process that abounded when it came to females serving their country.  As we know, history repeats itself.  The biggest question is whether or not we learn from the past and continue to grow, develop, and move forward?

So what is the other side of the coin?  As I think back to my time in the military, I can take a look at the perspective of some of the hesitation, and potentially some of the thought process from an objective viewpoint.  There will always be those people, male and female, who will attempt to use their race, sex, age, religion, etc., et al. to benefit themselves, while asking for equality.  I experienced this as I saw females that voluntarily joined the US Navy and would demand equality while refusing to do the same work simply because they were female (yes, it really does happen), or who truly could not do the job because of physical limitations.  Of course, this was not the case across the board but was certainly evident in a minority of the population on the ship.  I have to believe that this is a potential setback for the thinking about DADT as well.

Another thing that could potentially cause some hesitation for acceptance could be due to the living situation.  I can’t necessarily speak for the Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force but in the Navy you live together in extremely close quarters and for many the thought of having someone of the same sex look at you in a sexual manner could be uncomfortable.  Most people consider their living space an area for decompressing, where they should be able to be (as much as possible) comfortable, especially in a place where you have very little comfortable, personal space.  This isn’t to imply that homosexual members of the service don’t look at heterosexual members now, but for many ignorance is perhaps bliss.  Unfortunately it would seem that there are those that have the misconception that because someone is homosexual they can’t control themselves, their attraction, and sexual urges and therefore will attack someone they find attractive like a wild cat on an injured baby gazelle.  As most of us know, this is no more true than the fact that the average heterosexual male can’t control his sexual attraction in the same manner.

From a purely logical stand point, the only thing that should ultimately change with the repeal of DADT is the open knowledge of sexual preference of those who are comfortable enough to share that information.  In my own experience, those that were comfortable in their sexuality would generally share that with those that they were close with, even with DADT in effect.  For those that are in the proverbial closet, I don’t believe that DADT being removed will necessarily change anything.  This act may make some heterosexual service members uncomfortable if perhaps they are uncomfortable confronting what was already unsaid but known, but if that is the case I’m not sure that DADT is the real issue.

How many role models does it take?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am really digging in to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, and it seems there are fantastic, fascinating, thought-provoking pieces riddled throughout the whole work.  Of course, I expected nothing less after reading “Blink!” and having my mind expanded in so many directions, and so many ideas that presented themselves, while reading that book as well.

Something that I found quite interesting is a reference to a study by Sociologist Jonathan Crane.  The study was so interesting that I was compelled to research it further myself.  It appears to be a study published in 1991 in The American Journal of Sociology.  The premise behind the study is a theory that neighborhood’s have a direct effect on the social problems associated with the neighborhood, and that  “As neighborhood quality decreases, there should be a sharp increase in the probability that an individual will develop a social problem.”  Most of us would agree that this seems plausible, and based on the analysis of the data, it seems to be supported.  According to the study, Crane analyzed the effect of the number of role models in a community on adolescent child-birth and school drop-out rates.  According to Gladwell, Crane defined role-models using the Census Bureau definition of “high status” members, including teachers, professionals, managers, etc. (I have yet to find anything that substantiates any definition of any positions as “high status” by the Census Bureau, although it is possible that at the time of the study this categorization was being used).  The study found that if a neighborhood contained between 40% and 5% of “high-status” workers, the rates for school drop-outs and pregnancy rates remained essentially the same.  When that rate dropped below 5%, the statistics exploded upward!  In a specific example given in “The Tipping Point”, when the rate dropped just 2.2% from 5.6% to 3.4%, the rates of pregnancy and drop-out either more than, or almost did, double.

These are powerful figures, and it made me think where else this kind of information could be useful.  I have to ask, would it be applicable anywhere else, and how?  My initial reaction is that it absolutely is, and the first place that comes to mind would be in companies.  Think of your own company; chances are that you and your co-workers have formed a type of community.  You have your own language, your own culture, and whether we like to admit it or not, there are almost certainly different classes.  No matter how “flat” you attempt to make an organization there will always be a certain amount of hierarchy; someone is in charge somewhere, and in many cases depending on the size of the organization, there are many someones in charge throughout.  Also in most organizations there are those positions, or perhaps just certain people, who are seen as having a “higher status” than others and they are many times viewed as being a role model to others in the organization.  Even if an organization is truly run in an equal and flat manner, there will tend to be people who take on this “high status” role in one form or another, and this is where I believe more study could be done, and where this study could be very applicable.

Ask yourself, “Do I have the right number of high-status people, in the right places?”  Also ask yourself, “Looking at my front-line employee group, do I have enough high-status members in that group to influence them in a positive manner, or do I move my high-status members to other areas as soon as they are identified?”  I would suggest that if we were to conduct the same type of study as Jonathan Crane did, but on large organizations, we would find many of these same facts to be present.  I hypothesize that particular positions and/or specific people who are viewed as the “high-status” workers have a direct effect on the success of other workers within a company, a business-unit, a division, or a team.  That is to say that having a key percentage of the overall workers falling in to this “high-status” category could potentially increase performance exponentially within the related group.  Can you imagine for a moment the implications?  This means that by simply creating, defining, developing, and implementing a specific position that is viewed as being in this “high-status” category, you could potentially increase your chances for success and decrease the chances for failure.  This would be applicable, and could have an impact, with essentially any type or level of worker.

This may even be a reason that some smaller organizations are successful while others are not.  Perhaps they have met the correct percentage of workers that fall into this “role-model”, “high-status” category and thus have increased the performance of the organization overall.  While in smaller organizations, say 1000 employees or less, the effect would be assumed to be much less, it could still be an important factor to drive the success of the business.

I think it is clearly a possibility that this concept could be real, and that it could definitely change the way that we think about business today.  Eventually, perhaps I will be able to post my own empirical data to support my hypothesis; until then, I think it is certainly worth putting the idea out there as food for thought.  As always, please feel free to leave comments, insights, perspectives, or critiques!

The long and short of it.

As I think about why I decided to start a blog, it occurs to me that at it’s simplest it comes down to one thing: I have something to say.  I have been given the opportunity to experience quite a few different things in life, and continue to search out new experiences on a regular basis.  These can be experiences in food, business, family, friends, nature, art, music…practically anything.  So what do you do with these experiences?  You share them!

Ultimately, that’s what I hope to do here is share where I’ve been, where I am, what I’m thinking, and where I’m going.  Believe me when I say that there is plenty going on now, and that has happened already, for me to share about.  Even as I am typing this, my not-quite-two-year-old son is climbing on my lap to see what I am typing, as well as climbing on everything else, my wife of just over a year is at work, I’m listening to Slacker Radio (currently Breakeven by The Script on the Alternative channel) and wondering if I’ll hear from one of the 200 jobs that I have applied to in the last 60 days (I wish that I could say that I was being facetious), while working on my new blog and getting ready to read more of “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell (which has definitely given me some ideas to post here!).

So hopefully this doesn’t scare anyone away, and hopefully you enjoy what may come!  I know I certainly will.