Essay

Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

I’ve always liked coloring. When I was a kid someone got me the box with “64 Different Brilliant Colors” and the built-in sharpener. I could color anything. But mostly my sisters and I colored in coloring books. My older sister was considered the artist. She always picked the best colors, and was extremely careful about keeping the colors inside the lines. Her “artwork” was definitely “fridge-worthy” and often occupied a central spot on Grandma’s old Frigidaire.

My younger sister didn’t have the patience to stay inside the lines, nor did she really care if the colors made sense on the picture. “I like purple,” she’d say. So what if the drawing was of a dog? Her artwork usually found its way somewhere other than the fridge.

I tried to be like my older sister, but I would lose interest in the exactness required to comply with the lines given to me. I was restless, and wanted more action than was on the page. I would deviate from the prescribed pattern, and draw in new things that weren’t there originally. It made the drawing more interesting to me, and way less mundane. It also failed to make the fridge most of the time.

Later it dawned on me that anyone who colored it the way they were supposed to could replicate real art. Get the right paint-by-numbers kit and you, too, could paint the Mona Lisa. But you were never actually going to be an artist that way. You see, artists create things. Coloring books and paint-by-numbers are ways of replicating what someone creative already did.

I wanted to create. The lines, to me, were more of a suggestion, so they were optional.

In the grown-up world, the coloring book lines we have to color inside are the rules, policies, and procedures our organizations hand down to us. We are expected to make fridge-worthy art by complying with the pre-set procedure outlined in some regulation or handbook somewhere, carefully crafted by a committee.

Our education system and most of our workforce training programs love the color-inside-the-lines approach. Do it just so, and it will always be right. Be compliant. Obey the lines and the process, and you will produce quality. Of course, this pre-supposes that the person (or, more likely, committee) who put the lines there originally was actually an artist. Ever seen art done by a committee?

There is certainly a time and place to strictly comply with the process, to color inside the lines. Pre-flight checks for my aircraft crew? Yes, please follow that checklist carefully. Reassembling the break line on my car? Now is not a good time to be creative.

Putting safety aside, there are so many times where our bureaucratic procedures are followed as if they are sacred. As if we won’t get our picture on the fridge if we deviate even a little. This is ok if you are trying to replicate greatness, but most bureaucratic processes are established in an attempt to eliminate risk, not produce anything great. (Here is a shock: our bureaucracy was not designed by Leonardo da Vinci).

So what happens if we color outside the lines, just a little? Well, it might not look right. It might make people think you’re amateurish and you’ll never get your stuff on the fridge.

Or you may find that it works better.

You might have made what PBS art show host Bob Ross calls, “a happy mistake” that gives you an opportunity to move things in a different, possibly better direction. The question is, if you don’t stray outside the lines now and then, how are you going to improve what you’re doing?

Which begs the question, of course, “Who put the lines there in the first place?” and “what assumptions were they working under when the lines went in?” “Have conditions changed to the point that those assumptions are no longer valid?” By dogmatically coloring exclusively inside the boundaries handed to you, you have conceded that the person who put those lines there knows more than you do about this specific circumstance.

I think the world needs a few more artists with a healthy suspicion of pre-drawn lines. If the rules, processes, or procedures are holding us back from achieving our purpose, they need to be crossed. If the picture looks better after you crossed them, maybe we should move the lines so others can produce the same, higher quality drawing. Or maybe, in some cases, we need to give our creative people the occasional blank canvas to work with. Who knows what kind of art they will produce?

When a process is going to lead you to a bad decision, stop. Consider coloring outside the lines. When a procedure leads us to waste time or money with no return on that investment, maybe consider that the line is in the wrong spot… go ahead and color over there where it makes sense.

If we don’t color outside the lines now and then, we are never going to know what our picture might have turned out like. There are so many possibilities if we don’t constrain ourselves with lines that are ill-considered or outdated. Challenge them. Cross them. And be bold!

 

Recommended Reading

The 32 Best Books I Read in 2018

With millions of titles to choose from, figuring out what to read can be a challenge. With only so many hours in the day there is a limit on how much one can consume. In 2018 I read over 40 books and hundreds of articles. Most of them were worth reading. When do I find the time to read? Well, I cheat.  I have a 30-40 minute work commute each way, and I listen to audio books. I take notes with a hands-free voice recognition feature on Evernote. Books I actually read are typically on Kindle, and I rarely sit still for 5 minutes without reading something. Planes, airports, doctor’s office waiting rooms… never pass up an opportunity to expand your mind.

I try to vary what I read. While I prefer nonfiction, especially books about how to understand the world, each other, or myself a little better, I feel it’s important to also read fiction and classics. There is much to learn from these as well, and changing things up keeps the brain tissue limber.

While I would recommend all of the 32 books on this list, I highly recommend Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (a wonderfully written book about how your mind doesn’t always function the way you think it does), Lois Zachary’s Starting Strong (a great guide for mentoring), and Lazlo Bock’s Work Rules! (an insightful set of guidelines that could revolutionize your organization). These books can challenge the way you think, which is the highest praise I can give an author.

Happy Reading!

History

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein by Brian Greene

The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat by Giles Milton

Secrets Revealed by Willis Bullard

Fiction

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks

The Book of Lost Things: A Novel by John Connolly

Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict by Max Brooks et al

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

How We Think

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz

The Art Of Thinking In Systems: Improve Your Logic, Think More Critically, And Use Proven Systems To Solve Your Problems – Strategic Planning For Everyday Life by Steven Schuster

Think In Systems: The Theory and Practice of Strategic Planning, Problem Solving, and Creating Lasting Results – Complexity Made Simple by Zoe McKey

Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp by John Medina

The Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel C. Florman

The Systems Thinker: Essential Thinking Skills For Solving Problems, Managing Chaos, and Creating Lasting Solutions in a Complex World by Albert Rutherford

Systems Thinking Strategy: The New Way to Understand Your Business and Drive Performance by Jimmy Brown PhD

Leadership and Management

Starting Strong: A Mentoring Fable by Lois J. Zachary

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William Thorndike

Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord

Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs by John Doerr

The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired: (Performance-based Hiring Series) by Lou Adler

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute

Strategic Learning: How to Be Smarter Than Your Competition and Turn Key Insights into Competitive Advantage by Willie Pietersen

Don’t Reply All: 18 Email Tactics That Help You Write Better Emails and Improve Communication with Your Team by Hassan Osman

Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons from a Corporate Director by Betsy Atkins

 

I can’t turn down a good book sale, especially when they are free on Kindle, so I’ve already collected quite a few books for next year. Here’s a preview.

Currently On the Shelf for 2019

The Mathematical Corporation: Where Machine Intelligence and Human Ingenuity Achieve the Impossible By Josh Sullivan

A Philosopher’s Notes – On Optimal Living, Creating an Authentically Awesome Life and Other Such Goodness by Brian Johnson

Philosophy on Tap: Pint-Sized Puzzles for the Pub Philosopher by Matt Lawrence

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader by Fred I. Greenstein

The Divine Comedy: Dante Inferno Purgatorio Paradiso by Dante Alighieri

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky

The Science of Self-Learning: How to Teach Yourself Anything, Learn More in Less Time, and Direct Your Own Education by Peter Hollins

A History of the Corruptions of Christianity by Joseph Priestley

 

I hope you have a chance to read some or all of the titles above. If you do, I would love to hear from you, whether you enjoyed or hated the book.

Have a wonderful 2019!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essay

Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.

According to my vast research (20 minutes on Google and Youtube) the phrase really connotes betrayal by a friend or colleague, especially in a public way. I suppose it’s because it is easiest to push someone under a bus if you’re walking alongside them and surprise them at the optimum moment.

But why? Why is criticism or even disagreeing, especially in public, so egregious as to be compared to violent homicide? Why do people feel betrayed or victimized simply because a friend or colleague doesn’t support every idea they have? Perhaps we are being a bit too sensitive here.

It may be because it is rare for people to give truly candid feedback to each other. When you aren’t used to hearing criticism, it can be startling, and it’s easy to become defensive.

Of course it matters how it is delivered. If the feedback is delivered in a mean-spirited way then, sure, it can feel like you’re being run over. But that’s not usually how it’s meant, especially between teammates. If everyone is vested in the success of the organization and pointed in the same direction, critical, candid feedback should be welcome.

I think we waste a lot of time being sensitive about how people might take our disagreement.

This is a characteristic of the corporate culture of your organization: whether people value candid feedback, or whether every disagreement feels like attempted manslaughter.

And this doesn’t just happen in the conference room. This lack of candidness often exists between managers and employees. Many managers are unwilling to give their employees the tough feedback they need to improve. When leaders fail to deal with employee shortfalls in a straightforward manner they put undue pressure on themselves and their teams to cover that shortfall. And, just as bad, they cheat the employee out of the chance to improve.

Making up for an underperforming employee is exhausting, and unfair. But without candid feedback they are unlikely to change. Sugercoating things does your employee and their teammates a disservice.

Of course, delivery matters. Employee feedback needs to be focused on behavior, not characteristics, and project critiques need to focus on specific aspects that need improvement, not on the team members’ personal shortfalls.

But creating a corporate culture that values candid feedback isn’t easy. Cries of motor-coach homicide will abound as soon as you start trying to provide people with pointed, useful feedback. Here are a few pointers that may help:

  1. Model Honesty. The first thing leaders need to do to shape that culture is to model honesty. Leaders must be candid with each other publicly, and must give their subordinates extremely honest feedback.
  2. Acknowledge feedback. Sometimes you have to realize that your idea isn’t always the best one, even if you are the highest paid person in the room. You have to encourage people to candidly disagree with you, and must acknowledge when someone has provided useful feedback, even if you don’t like it. Model that and it will become contagious. Never kill the messenger (with or without a bus). The first time you respond poorly to criticism is the last time you’ll get honest feedback.
  3. Don’t over-referee office friction. When someone complains about an employee, ask them, “What did she say when you told her that?”

    So many times, they will respond, “oh I couldn’t say that to her!”

    Why not? If you want behavior to change you must be honest about it.

  1. Work on delivery. It’s easy to sound rude when you are being candidly critical (this is one of my weaknesses… ask anyone who has worked with me or been on a team I’ve coached). Figure out a way to be candid without crushing people.
  2. Know when to keep candid feedback private. We should feel free to criticize ideas publicly, but if criticizing someone’s behavior, keep that behind closed doors. There is a big difference between being pointedly candid and embarrassing people.

Too often we waste tremendous energy and resources doing the wrong things or doing things the wrong way simply because we lack the intestinal fortitude to be candid with each other. We too often don’t want to be accused of “throwing people under the bus” so we refrain from saying what needs to be said.

Healthy corporate cultures, like good relationships, thrive on trust. Trust comes from honesty.

Leaders are responsible for their organization’s culture. If you have a benignly polite culture and want to get better results, try modeling candidness. Don’t accept that being honest with people is akin to vehicular manslaughter. Being honest with each other doesn’t create victims, it creates trust, and trust builds stronger organizations.

Articles, Guest Blogger

Stop Screening Candidates: What Recruiters Can Learn from Designers

Or, “the 1970s called and it wants its recruiting process back!”

One of the key components of leading a successful organization is finding, hiring, and developing the highest quality people. If you have an average hiring process, you are going to hire average people. That means that sometimes you are going to get a rock star, sometimes you are going to get a dud, but most of the time you are going to get middle-of-the-road performers. It is hard to become a World Class organization that way.

While researching ways to recruit and hire better in the 21st Century, I came across Vervoe, a blog that is dedicated to helping companies hire better talent through the use of Artificial Intelligence. By using AI-powered skill testing to identify top performers, Vervoe has changed the way many companies identify talent.

When I think about how most organizations (including mine) screen candidates, I feel like we haven’t progressed much in the last century or so. Guest Blogger, Omar Molad, explains how one company is using modern tools to solve a widespread problem.

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Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

Hire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading

Essay

Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

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Stories

Following Superman: Doing it all yourself doesn’t actually help

A few years ago I succeeded Superman in a job. As you can imagine following the Man of Steel was really hard.

I took over as the chief of staff for an engineer unit, and my predecessor had done an amazing job at running the unit. He knew everything about the maintenance, logistics, personnel, and administrative systems, and he knew how to leverage those systems to keep the organization going. It was, frankly, intimidating thinking about how much I had to learn.

Fortunately, I have a staff around me that will help me figure it all out, right?

Well, sort of… there were people assigned as staff officers with responsibility for those areas. That’s not the same thing as having a fully functional staff.

One of the first meetings I got to attend in my new position was the budget meeting at our higher headquarters. I called in the budget officer and asked him to bring me the books so we could review them before the meeting.

The budget officer told me he’d be happy to come over but that he didn’t have the books. “They’re in your office. Your predecessor did the budget himself.”

Hmmmm….

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