Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is there a leadership genome?

I was listening to the lastest Harvard Business Review podcast interview of Marcus Buckingham where he outlines an innovative way to provide leadership instruction that his company is working on.  It is similar to the algorithmic method used by systems such as Pandora and Netflix to recommend music and movies.  But instead of Pandora serving up a song based on what you have liked in the past and your current mood, this system would give you a leadership technique based on the leadership strengths you have shown in the past and the nature of the situation you find yourself in at the moment.  Your long term profile is stored in the system and you can describe your current situation in real time.  Out pops an idea that history shows usually works in similar situations by people with your leadership profile. Similar technology and software, the trick is developing a leadership "genome."

The system is still early in its development so they have no real-life evidence that it will work.  But the research team developing it seems very passionate about the idea and confident that they can implement it. They envision a smartphone under the table while a future Steve Jobs is typing in "how do I get my engineering team on board?" and the system spits out anything from a motivational speech to an incentive sharing plan. 

What do you think?  Is it possible to model leadership using an algorithm just like Pandora, Netflix, or eHarmony?  I suppose it can’t hurt to give someone a possible technique to try.  Or maybe a couple of suggestions.  But I am not sure I would want a leader to be relying on this as a crutch in a critical situation. 

Outdated Processes are a delicious low hanging fruit

The pool at my townhouse development opened up this weekend.  I went soon after it opened.  My plan was just to lie on a pool lounge chair for an hour or two with my headphones on and de-stress from a very tough first half of the year.

The procedure is to check in by writing your pool tag number on a sign-in sheet.  They don’t keep track of who comes or when because there is no limit and no benefit of coming more or less often.  They just want to make sure you have paid your pool fee for the year.  You don’t even need to write down your name.  Just the tag number.

This year they have located the lifeguard table all the way on the other side from the entrance.  So I showed the lifeguard that I had a tag, yelled the number (he was sitting right in front of the sheet), and sunk my butt on the first chair that was facing the sun.  I was half-asleep in five seconds.  But nooooo.  He had to yell over to me that I needed to walk around the pool, write the number “0079” on the page, and then walk back.  There was no reason for me to lie about the number and the tags are color-coded so he knew it was a 2012 tag.

Why am I sharing this stupid waste of time on a beautiful sunny morning on an Industrial Engineering blog?  Simple.  How many of these processes and procedures are cursing your own workplace?  They usually start out with a good purpose.  But then the world changes around them.  Technology gets implemented.  Processes get updated.  The layout gets moved around.  And pretty soon there are these wasteful processes that everyone follows either out of habit or because they are dedicated to following the rules.

Once a year, you need to do a survey of the employees and a procedure walkthrough to see how many of these relics there are and then get rid of them.  This is the very definition of low hanging fruit.  Easiest million you ever made for your company.  Make sure to document the productivity gain for the next time you are in front of the company execs doing a cost-benefit for your department.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Web 3.0 medical research

This is a great idea !!

One of the biggest challenges to curing or treating disease is that when big pharma funds it there is an inherent bias to design the studies to maximize statistical success, even if that does not maximize biological success.  Researchers with pharma funding also have a tendency to publish positive results and toss the negative ones.  This makes sense scientifically to some extent because non-statistical results often don't get accepted to journals anyway.  Why waste the time trying?

But what if we flip this on its head?  Who has the greatest stake in biological success?  The patient of course.  But patients can't afford the millions needed to fund medical research.  Well, what if we bring our Web 3.0 tools to the problem.  How about if we:
  1. Use reputation management to select the team of researchers
    • rich profiles to identify who has what skills
    • expert ratings among researchers to identify talent and ability
  2. Use crowdfunding to raise money and to provide treatment.
    • philanthropists could donate because it is the right thing to do
    • patients could invest, with the return being medical care when a treatment has been approved (using the profit margin that the patient is now the investor rather than a drug company).  The research team/patient investors would outsource the drug manufacturing to the big pharma so they would profit as well, just in a different way.
  3. Use social networks to recruit for clinical trials, with anonymous patient support group networks being a primary target.
  4. Use a wiki to consolidate all of the data - positive and negative.
What do you think?  Could it work?  Is it worth a try?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What you can learn if you just look and listen

The wisest people I know got that way by learning at least something from everything they do and see along the path of life.  I use the path analogy because they don’t just learn from the things we are “supposed” to learn from, like work and school.  They learn just as much from the random things they see around them.  This morning I was walking down the street on the way to my usual Sunday morning volunteering and I learned more than I usually do in a day of work. I thought I would share:
  • In an NPR interview, a famous journalist told a story about 3rd grade.  She said that her teacher was evaluating a story she had turned in and that she was really proud of.  The teacher's comment was "You start way too many sentences with 'then'."  She was crushed.  Another teacher who happened to overhear asked if she could read it.  This teacher gave encouraging feedback.  Her career in journalism was saved.  Lessons:
    • be careful when giving negative criticism, especially to the vulnerable.
    • a kind word can change the world.
  • There are some incredible economic indicators you can learn walking down the street:
    • What kind of trash is being tossed on the side of the road?  Generic or cheaper stuff could be negative.  Stuff that is not even used up could indicate consumer confidence.
    • How many garage/yard sales are there?  How busy are they?  If you can see the prices, that could also tell you a lot.
    • If you see waste that needs a special pickup (big hunks of steel that fell off a car) that has been there for several weeks indicates the local government is cutting back on basic maintenance.
  • In another NPR interview (on the way home now), a famous neurobiologist said that hypotheses are a dangerous thing.  Facts are even worse.  His meaning rung very true.  When you think you know something, it focuses how you design an experiment, how you collect data, and how you interpret it.  Cognitive science tells us that our unconscious is really good at manipulating all of these so that we find exactly what we hoped to find.   The scientific method is not as good as its proponents think.  Instead, or at least in addition, we need a little more creative discovery.
  • In a BookTV podcast, the authors of "The President's Club" were discussing how former US Presidents communicate, network, and mentor each other during their political afterlives.  For example, Clinton relied often and deeply on advice from Nixon during the impeachment process.  Clinton and Bush II have become close business partners.  At first, you might think I learned that political rhetoric is hypocritical.  Just because the two parties fight tooth and nail and call each other names during an election season doesn't mean they believe any of it.  But I already knew that.  What I learned is how fantastically powerful a network like that can be, even if it is kept largely under the table.  According to the authors, when a president's term ends, all of the living former presidents share the rules.  And despite having no formal reason to follow them, they all do.  Except for Carter to some extent.
And all of this just while walking down the street, looking around, and listing to podcasts.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Entrepreneurship 101

As my regular followers know, I spent several years directing a technology entrepreneurship institute, helping tech entrepreneurs (or hopeful novices) turn their ideas and innovations into clear business plans.  One of the challenges my clients faced was the broad variety of “other” things they had to do that they never signed up for when deciding to pursue entrepreneurship.  Everything from deciding on copyright and patent issues to chasing down a reluctant client who was late on their bill.  As one of the services I offered, I had a roster of trusted 3rd party providers who agreed to provide their services to the Center’s clients at a discount.  We were a not for profit and the clients were definitely pre-profit.  The vendors saw building up Florida’s entrepreneurial talent as a great cause (and maybe a source of higher margin business down the road). 

Now that I am a lone wolf entrepreneur of my own, I am facing many of these same challenges.  Just yesterday, I needed to convert video files from a proprietary format to something I could edit – and I am no tech media expert.  I also needed to make a very attractive, convincing, and technically accurate presentation – and my visual design skills are even less than my technology skills.  Just a few minutes later, I needed to change a text document in ways that were not complicated, but were very time consuming – I had no trouble doing this one myself, but it would have been a much better use of time to hire someone at minimum wage who could have done the job just as well.  And that example above of chasing down a late bill unfortunately was taken right out of my afternoon.    

I got into this gig because I really love designing engaging user experiences for companies, not-for-profits, government agencies, and anyone else who has a good story to tell.  I also love working with motivated entrepreneurs to help them develop their ideas and business plans.  But how many hours a day am I actually doing these things?  Two (out of a ten hour workday)? 

Anyone have any solutions for how to spend more time doing the fun stuff? 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Customization gone too far?

The customization craze has gone too far.   Here are two examples:

A sushi shop in Japan can laser cut patterns into the seawood wrap on its nori.  Then there is a company in Seattle that makes an espresso machine that can write messages in edible ink on top of the foam.   

OK, maybe these are cute.  But if you think about what these two companies could have developed for that same investment of time and money . .  I just think that there have to be some better opportunities out there.

What do you think?  Obviously, the proverbial "cure for cancer" would be better.  But do you think it is a no-brainer that something better could have been done in these two cases?  Or are you happy that they took the time to develop these two ideas?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thought Leaders In Action

I spent the weekend with the Executive Council of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  I am completed a three year term on the EC in October.  We spent the weekend discussing a variety of topics, but the most important ones revolved around the long term health of the discipline.  If you are not familiar with HFES, it is the professional society for practitioners, researchers, and innovators who are interested in the interaction of people, technology, and organizations.  Experts in transportation, government, retail, manufacturing, aerospace, military, education, health care, and many other domains practice the magical arts of HF/E.  

You might think that any discipline dedicated to improving the heart and soul of such important aspects of our lives would be in a great position.  But our concern is that the disciplines of HF/E doesn’t have official certification requirements like they do in law or medicine.  Even though it requires a significant amount of education and experience to do human factors well, there is no law requiring it.  So there are people with “human factors,” “user interface design,” or other buzzword on their resume who are not qualified to do what they are doing.   It is amazing how different the results are if you do a side by side comparison of a project done by a qualified HF professional compared to a poser. We half-jokingly discuss organizing smack-down competitions in the reality TV style to demonstrate these differences.   But for now, it is a constant struggle.  Personally, it is great because it keeps my consulting practice in business.  But I wouldn’t be on this Board if I was in it just for the money. The health of the discipline is just too important.

To be honest, the best parts of our Board Meetings are the fun evenings at the bar after a tough day of debating issues back and forth.  That is social networking at its best.  While Facebook and Twitter  are halfway decent as digital substitutes, they still can’t mimic sharing a Harpoon Brewery IPA, aged mozzarella on sesame crackers, and oil roasted root veggies. 

One other quick point.  If you are reading this blog, you know that I am starting to highlight the best thought leaders I can find.  So why would I include this Board in that esteemed company?  In part, it is because the challenges that we are dealing with are similar to the ones facing a variety of professional boards.  I can’t go into all of our agenda in a single post, but we have financial, professional, academic, regulatory, marketing, and many other issues to confront.  We have a Board of volunteer professionals who ran for office despite having full time jobs elsewhere and who are forced to give up what little time they have for family and friends to volunteer.  It is a tough combination, but it is the best way to recruit the best and brightest in the field.  

 So we meet a couple of times of year for just a few days at a time and try to solve the challenges of an entire profession. We have a wonderful and dedicated full time staff, but it is a barebones crew who also have to work long and intense hours.   The only way we can be even halfway successful is to have real thought leaders on the Board.  Luckily, we do!