May 26, 2009
Hits as CredibilityI went to a Seattle Storm pre-season game recently, and the national anthem was sung by The EriAm Sisters (whose website proclaims, "The EriAm Sisters have begun to soar and are destined to bling", the first time I have seen "bling" used as a verb). What amused me was how they were introduced. The announcer will say something to establish the credibility of the performer, so we give them the benefit of the doubt and don't start throwing tomatoes until they can't hit the "rockets' red glare" notes (for the record, the Sisters belted out a spirited if slightly overwrought performance, and no airborne vegetables were deserved nor delivered). Normally the introduction will mention having performed here or recorded there, but for the EriAm Sisters, his comment was "they have recorded over a million hits on YouTube!"
May 25, 2009
The Times They Are A-Changing, Sort OfThese are the instructions for sending a letter to the South Whidbey Record, a newspaper on Whidbey Island (the southern part, as I understand it):
"The South Whidbey Record welcomes letters from its readers. Letters should be typewritten and not exceed 300 words. They must be signed and include a daytime phone. Send to editor [at symbol] southwhidbeyrecord.com."
The reason I was reading the SWR is because they had an article about Last Exit, a play my son is in. It's performing in Langley, which is a bit of a hike to get to from the mainland, but the play is well worth it.
May 24, 2009
PassingWhen I was a kid, my sister and I would go trick-or-treating on Halloween. This wasn't wimpy run-through-the-halls-of-Microsoft-grabbing-giant-chocolate-bars-from-inattentive-engineers trick-or-treating like my kids enjoy today; this was incorporate-a-coat-into-your-costume-and-trudge-from-house-to-house-for-a-single-caramel trick-or-treating. Despite the difficulty of acquiring the sugar, I could not resist snarfing it down in a few days. Unlike my sister, who hoarded hers for who knows how long (there's probably still some left in the closet of her old room).
I was thinking of this when I read the New Yorker article Don't! by Jonah Lehrer. It's a Gladwellian piece about children who are presented with a choice: eat one marshmallow right now, or wait a few minutes (with the marshmallow near at hand) and get two marshmallows. Many children can't delay their gratification and eat the marshmallow right away. The article goes on to explain that the researchers noticed that the "low delayers", who ate the marshmallow right away, didn't do as well in school, and ultimately in life. Typical sentence: "The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds."
I am sure that I would have eaten the marshmallow right away. I'm also sure that nobody scored 210 points higher on the SAT than I did, I'm pretty sure that I didn't have behavioral problems in school, and I'm reasonably sure that I've been successful in life (ignore the part about blogging).
Actually I think I'm a pretty good delayer, I just like candy. There's one situation in particular where I can recall delaying a lot; in elementary school, when the teacher would ask "Does anybody know the answer?", I generally would, but lots of times I wouldn't raise my hand. The reason I didn't do this was because other kids would get annoyed at me for answering too often; I do recall being frustrated at having to wait while they botched the answers, but I was able to keep my hand down.
So, what does this all have to do with itself? Well, it turns out that business coaches will tell you that one of the key was you can get better at working with people is getting feedback from others. And one of the key ways you can get feedback from others is by waiting to hear from them, rather then offering them an opinion for them to agree/disagree with. For example, rather than ask "Do you think this presentation is good or should we change it so it starts with the charts, or should we just do a one-page handout?", you should just ask "What do you think of this presentation?" I have a tendency to do this (offer a choice of solutions instead of just asking for feedback), and I realize that it is because I want to demonstrate that I have thought through some of the choices--I want to get "credit" for that. I thought that keeping quiet in school was just playing dumb, and I suppose in that context it is, but it's good preparation for a world where problems don't have a single right answer.
What I am basically doing is going for the immediate one marshmallow of showing off my skillz, as opposed to waiting for the two marshmallows of more useful feedback that I will receive if I can just delay for a while. So, now the relationship between delay skills and success makes more sense. The people who can't delay turn into the stereotypical loner geniuses who can't tolerate anybody they view as less intelligent than them; as a result they rarely benefit from the wisdom of others. Did those kids raise their hands all the time in school? I bet they did...and we won't even talk about what they did to their Halloween candy. Meanwhile if you can improve your delaying skills you'll get more marshmallows, you Halloween candy will last longer, you won't annoy your classmates, and the answers to all your problems will be delivered to you by others.
May 18, 2009
The SME Influence CrutchFor various reasons I've recently been in three different classes dealing with "Influence" in different forms. Influence is a key skill that Microsoft is trying to develop in its employees, in particular that variety known as Influence Without Authority, which has become such a catchphrase that it deserves its own acronym: IWOA.
(The extra "O" in IWOA is to distinguish it from its cousin Influence With Authority, or IWA. It turns out that IWA has more in common with IWOA than you might think. IWOA is about motivating people to do things even though they could be doing something else. If you manage somebody you can IWA by just telling them to do something, but if you overuse that technique they will quickly become disgruntled and unmotivated. So, IWOA is very useful for managers also.)
Anyway, I was in one of these classes and the instructor asked people to list skills that were needed for IWOA. This is the typical list (find out what they like, explain the benefits if they do something, mitigate any concerns they have about their ability to do the work, etc--there are hundreds of books on this topic). But then somebody said that a way to influence people was to become a Subject-Matter Expert (that phrase, and its acronym SME, are in common use at Microsoft). That is, you influence somebody by knowing so much about the subject that you impress them with your awesomeness and they want to follow you.
Now, it's not that being a SME is a bad thing; most people at Microsoft are experts at something. And I predict that what I write next is going to annoy a certain someone with the initials MB (or MC), who will think I am claiming that "A good manager can manage anything" and all that. Nonetheless, the problem with using SMEness for IWOA, besides the fact that it is hard to type that with a straight face, is that becoming a SME takes too long. Sure you can learn just a bit about the area so you don't sound like an idiot, but you likely already have that if you are working with somebody. If you *are* an expert in the area you want to influence somebody, then great; but if you're not, then you very likely don't have time to become an expert in time to move the IWOAmeter by any measurable amount. And if you need to influence different people, you almost certainly can't become an expert in everything they are. In Microsoft parlance, SME IWOA doesn't "scale".
So I thought it was a bit lame when the instructor allowed the SME comment to be added unchallenged to our list of IWOA behaviors. I think influence through SMEness appeals to the dream of a Microsoft as a geekocracy, and it also has the advantage that you can do it without having to, you know, actually talk to anybody (the IWOA fantasy is that people will be so awed by your brilliance that they will bow down before you are obey your wishes before you even state them out loud). Unfortunately this just isn't the way the world works. There are a variety of techniques you can use when called upon to IWOA on short notice, but subject-matter expertise is not one of them.