Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mario Batali: learning the importance of a job done completely

From an interview of chef Mario Batali in Adam Bryant's Corner Office column:

My dad was a heat treatment engineer for Boeing, and there was a process and a directive that you needed to repeat every day. His job was to go in and find out if there were any flaws in surface metal. His understanding of the necessity of that kind of careful process was a big part of us growing up.

I'll never forget the time I was over at a friend's house and he'd call and say, "Mario, come home." I said, "Why, Dad? Is everything all right?" "Yeah, come home," he said. So I would come home, and in the drain there were still chunks of stuff. It had been my turn to do the dishes, and the dishes were done. The kitchen was clean, but the job had yet to be completely finished. And I said, "That's ridiculous." But understanding the importance of a job being completely done stuck in my mind.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A reminder that failures can really hurt

Over at the HBR Blog Network, Dan Pallotta has published an anguished story about the failure of his business 10 years ago. The tone of regret, sadness and bitterness illustrates why failures can be so devastating. Even the lessons learned (example: "I have a less sophomoric approach to trust. Don't offer it freely, unless you're prepared for the consequences") reflect a deep and lingering pain.

Living with The Mistake Bank for five years now has taught me that letting go of anger and bitterness can greatly help to learn from failures and move forward positively. However, it's good to have a reminder that failures leave a deep imprint, and are difficult to separate from personal feelings of injury and injustice, even 10 years on.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Zakaria plagiarism time-management lesson: "Other things will have to go away"

From a New York Times report on the plagiarism charges against Time & CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria ("A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson"):

Mr. Zakaria’s career suffered an abrupt setback recently after bloggers discovered that his column of Aug. 20 for Time magazine had passages lifted almost entirely from an article by the historian Jill Lepore that appeared in The New Yorker in April.

Mr. Zakaria quickly apologized. But within minutes, Time had suspended him for a month and CNN, which had posted parts of the column on its Web site, removed the article and suspended him until further notice. Both began investigations of his work, as did The Post.

On Thursday afternoon, Time and CNN said they had completed their reviews, found no evidence of plagiarism and restored Mr. Zakaria to his demanding schedule. Just as quickly as his employers had questioned his credibility, they rallied around him....

In an interview on Friday in his CNN office, Mr. Zakaria again apologized for what he had called “a terrible mistake.”

“This week has been very important because it has made me realize what is at the core of what I want to do,” Mr. Zakaria said. He said he wanted to “help people to think about this fast-moving world and do this through my work on TV and writing.”

He added: “Other things will have to go away. There’s got to be some stripping down.”

There's a section in the Mistake Bank book (currently in development) about the tendency of time pressure to create mistakes. The temptation for Zakaria to "make hay while the sun shines" needs to be measured against the cost of a significant mistake such as this one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How people react to robot mistakes

From "Us & Them," in National Geographic's August 2011 issue, about a new breed of service robots. Interesting how adding some social skills allows us to feel more comfortable, even forgiving, with robots:

Humans can draw on a vast unconscious vocabulary of movements—we know how to politely move around someone in our path, how to sense when we're invading someone's personal space. Studies at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere have shown that people expect social robots to follow the same rules. We get uncomfortable when they don't or when they make stupid mistakes. Snackbot, another mobile robot under development at Carnegie Mellon, takes orders and delivers snacks to people at the School of Computer Science. Sometimes it annoyingly brings the wrong snack or gives the wrong change. People are more forgiving if the robot warns them first that it might make errors or apologizes when it screws up.

More on Carnegie Mellon's robot project, HERB, can be found here. HERB is pictured above.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Nothing is a mistake"

Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only make.

#6 in "Some Rules for Students & Teachers," from Sister Corita Kent, via @brainpicker.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It takes two to tango, also for feedback

There are lots of ways to learn from mistakes - through a precipitating event, through finding patterns, through unpacking a failure. One of the quickest and cheapest ways to learn from mistakes is to get and use the feedback of colleagues, customers and friends.

Yet, it's a tool that's rarely used. Why? There are two reasons.

One is that people don't like to give feedback. It's personally risky: You don't know if it will be welcomed. You don't know if it will be understood, and you don't know if it will be used. Plus, it's extra work. Today, I was at a grocery store near the lake house where we're vacationing. I had to maneuver the cart through 8 or 10 product displays that narrowed the aisles to the point where they were barely wider than the shopping cart. I thought that the manager should know that the store was hard to get through, and that this was an annoyance to customers. But did I seek her out and tell her? No.

With people you know and will see again, giving feedback can be explosive - and can backfire. People can view negative feedback as a judgment on their performance (sometimes it is), or as a distraction ("I know what I'm doing!" which is something I say on occasion to people helping me - sorry Maura!). The motives of the feedback-giver can be questioned ("is that person out to get me?").

So giving feedback is not only extra work, it's thankless and even dangerous work. And why is that? Because of reason number two:

People don't like to receive feedback. Negative feedback, if we're not ready for it, attacks what we like to keep hidden. It challenges our vision of ourselves. It's like listening to a tape recording of our own speech ("Is that what I really sound like?").

But think of this: if you can get feedback on an idea, a project, or your management style, you have valuable information you can put to use. For free!

And if you get feedback from a diverse group of people, it will be easier to recognize things that require fixes (as compared to trivial issues or matters of perspective).

Compare that to the cost of failure, or the cost of making the same mistakes over again till you realize it yourself.

If you want more feedback, you have to make yourself open to it, solicit it, appreciate it, and put it to use when you get it. That will give the signal to others that giving you feedback is safe and effective. Then, like magic, you will get more.

Another personal story: a few years ago, I was struggling to manage a new group that had been assigned to me. I sensed that I wasn't connecting with them. At the end of the year, when I was already doing my own self-assessment, I asked the group to individually think about my own performance and come up with one or two recommendations that would help me improve. I promised to listen to the recommendations and not argue about them.

I met with each team member individually, and they "laid it on me." It couldn't have been easy for them. And it wasn't easy for me. It was quite difficult to listen to all that feedback.

But I learned two things I was doing which really bugged my team members.* And they were easy to fix. I was so happy with the outcome of this exercise, and I believe it helped my team and me become a stronger workgroup. I remember the whole process vividly, nearly 10 years later.

I can also say that I haven't done it since then, even though I realize that it was valuable.

In conclusion: Inviting and using feedback is difficult. But it's very useful. Try it, and try it again. Make it a habit. It will pay off hugely for you.

* Here are the two things I learned from my team's feedback:

1. "You often curse in the office and that makes us uncomfortable" - that really bothered several people on the team. I worked on that; it was easier than I thought it'd be.

2. "When I come into your office for a meeting, you don't pay complete attention to me." - this was true; it was easy to get distracted by the Blackberry or email. So I started moving away from my computer and putting my phone aside when I had a meeting.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Learning leadership is "not all about you"

This story is from Laurel Richie, president of the WNBA, as told to Adam Bryant of the New York Times:

I had just been made a vice president at Ogilvy & Mather and I was running an account that was incredibly successful. I went on vacation thinking I deserved a break. I came back and my entire team had gone to H.R. and said: "We can't do it anymore. It's a great account, but we don't like working for Laurel because working for her it feels like it's all about her and not about us. So we want to work on another piece of business."

Q. Welcome back from vacation.

A. Exactly. I remember feeling shocked, and defensive at first. But then I really stepped back and listened to what they were saying. I really thought I was a terrific leader because if you looked at all the metrics, we were successful. But I learned very profoundly in that moment that if there is not shared ownership of the work, both our successes and our failures, people aren't going to have a satisfying experience.

Q. So what did you do?

A. I redefined my job as a leader to create an environment where good things happen, and where people feel good about their role on the team, and they feel acknowledged, they feel empowered, and they feel visible. I thought that in many ways I was protecting them from bad things, and they were saying, in effect: "No, actually we want to see those bad things. We won't grow unless we experience them."I went back to the team, and we all went in a room and I said: "I got the feedback. Thank you for doing that. I had no idea. Can I have another chance and can we work together on this?" And we all came together.

I learned this lesson as well. In my first vice-president role, I was worried about delivering results to my superiors, and so focused on that first, second and third. Only later did I realize the cost of that on my team. Eventually, they told me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Web site offers scientists access to lessons from failed experiments

The New York Times Bits blog profiled the website ResearchGate, which gathers lessons from failed scientific experiments and makes them available to other researchers:

“Science is very inefficient,” says Ijad Madisch, founder of a Web site called ResearchGate. “You try an experiment, fail, try again, fail, try again, it works. And what works is what you publish. All the data about failure is wasted.”

Begun in 2008, ResearchGate claims to have 11,000 research and educational institutions among its users. It aims to be a place where people can share what they learned in the failed experiments. Some of this is documented, but a great deal more takes place across chat rooms where scientists informally exchange information.

The ResearchGate site also includes a user post asking for a database of data from failed experiments, a proposal I've seen before (but can't recall where). It's a great idea:

I think developing a database for the storage of failed experiments makes sense for experiments that lost the chance to be shown in published articles. Everyone could upload their experimental results which they find unsatisfactory, including the experiment method, experiment data, and the experiment purpose.

This experimental data can give a good experience and lessons to the researchers who want to perform similar experiments. They can improve their experiment based on the failing example. Someone might also give a different opinion for the unreasonable experimental data, and then test their idea. Maybe a novel theory can be developed from these failed experiments. Or, like the Post It, the unsuccessful experiment data could be used to solve other problems.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On holiday the next 2 weeks...and a book is in the works

Hi, all,

Posting will be spotty the next 2 weeks as I'll be on holiday.

And... I'll be working on the Mistake Bank book. Chapter 1 is done and I'm paging thru the archives and pulling stories/ideas for Chapter 2. Here's a rough chapter outline if you're intrigued:

Chapter 1, Bouncing Back
Chapter 2, How to Learn, Really Learn, from Mistakes
Chapter 3, Creating the Mistake-Tolerant Culture
Chapter 4, Managing the Consequences
Chapter 5, Mistakes Take You to New Places
Chapter 6, The Lessons of Time

I like the way it's going so far and we're working on some ideas to make it look unlike any business-oriented book you've ever read before. Stay tuned!

If you've found a particular story here that resonates with you more than others, let me know in the comments.