Archive for the ‘Negativity’ Category

Complaining isn’t a strategy.

It’s easy to complain about how things are going, especially when they’re not going well. But even with the best intentions, complaining doesn’t move the organization in a new direction.  Sometimes people complain to attract attention to an important issue. Sometimes it’s out of frustration, sometimes out of sadness and sometimes out of fear, but it’s never the best mechanism.

If the intention is to convey importance, why not convey the importance by explaining why it’s important? Why not strip the issue of its charge and use an approach and language that help people understand why it’s important? It’s a simple shift from complaining to explaining, but it can make all the difference. Where complaining distracts, explaining brings people together. And if it’s truly important, why not take the time to have a give-and-take conversation and listen to what others have to say? Instead of listening to respond, why not listen to understand?

If you’re not willing to understand someone else’s position it’s not a conversation.

And if you’re on the receiving end of a complaint, how can you learn to see it as a sign of importance and not as an attack? As the receiver, why not strip it of its charge and ask questions of clarification? Why not deescalate and move things from complaint to conversation? Understanding is not agreeing, but it still a step forward for everyone.

When two sides are divided, complaining doesn’t help, even if it’s well-intentioned. When two sides are divided and there’s strong emotion, the first step is to take responsibility to deescalate. And once emotions are calmed, the next step is to take responsibility to understand the other side.  At this stage, there is no requirement to agree, but there can be no hint of disagreement as it will elevate emotions and set progress back to zero.  It’s a slow process, but when the issues are highly charged, it’s the fastest way to come together.

If you’re dissatisfied with the negativity, demonstrate positivity. If you want to come together, take the first step toward the middle. If you want to generate the trust needed to move things forward, take action that builds trust.

If you want things to be different, look inside.

Image credit – Ireen2005

The Cycle of Success

coccoon-now-transparentThere’s a huge amount of energy required to help an organization do new work.

At every turn the antibodies of the organization reject new ideas.  And it’s no surprise.  The organization was created to do more of what it did last time.  Once there’s success the organization forms structures to make sure it happens again.  Resources migrate to the successful work and walls form around them to prevent doing yet-to-be-successful work. This all makes sense while the top line is growing faster than the artificially set growth goal.  More resources applied to the successful leads to a steeper growth rate.  Plenty of work and plenty of profit.  No need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy.

When growth rate of the successful company slows below arbitrary goal, the organization is slow to recognize it and slower to acknowledge it and even slower to assign true root cause.  Instead, the organization doubles down on what it knows.  More resources are applied, efficiency improvements are put in place, and clearer metrics are put in place to improve accountability.  Everyone works harder and works more hours and the growth rate increases a bit.  Success.  Except the success was too costly.  Though total success increased (growth), success per dollar actually decreased.  Still no need for new ideas.  Everyone’s happy, but more tired.

And then growth turns to contraction. With no more resources move to the successful work, accountability measures increase to unreasonable levels and people work beyond their level of effectiveness. But this time growth doesn’t come.  And because people are too focused on doing more of what used to work, new ideas are rejected.  When a new idea is proposed, it goes something like this “We don’t need new ideas, we need growth.  Now, get out of my way.  I’m too busy for your heretical ideas.”  There’s no growth and no tolerance for new ideas.  No one is happy.

And then a new idea that had been flying under the radar generates a little growth.  Not a lot, but enough to get noticed.  And when the old antibodies recognize the new ideas and try to reject it, they cannot.  It’s too late.  The new idea has developed a protective layer of growth and has become a resistant strain.  One new idea has been tolerated. Most are unhappy because there’s only one small pocket of growth and a few are happy because there’s one small pocket of growth.

It’s difficult to get the first new idea to become successful, but it’s worth the effort.  Successful new ideas help each other and multiply.  The first one breaks trail for the second one and the second one bolsters the third.  And as these new ideas become more successful something special happens.  Where they were resistant to the antibodies they become stronger than the antibodies and eat them.

Growth starts to grow and success builds on success.  And the cycle begins again.

Image credit – johnmccombs

Put Yourself Out There

Its all goodPut yourself out there. Let it hang out. Give it a try. Just do it. The reality is few do it, and fewer do it often. But why?

In a word, fear. But it cuts much deeper than a word. Here’s a top down progression:

What will they think of your idea? If you summon the courage to say it out loud, your fear is they won’t like it, or they’ll think it’s stupid. But it goes deeper.

What with they think of you? If they think your idea is stupid, your fear is they’ll think you’re stupid. But so what?

How will it conflict with what you think of you? If they think you’re stupid, your fear is it will conflict with what you think of you. Now we’re on to it – full circle.

What do you think of you? It all comes down to your self-image – what you think is it and how you think it will stand up against the outside forces trying to pull it apart. The key is “what you think” and “how you think”. Like all cases, perception is reality; and when it comes to judging ourselves, we judge far too harshly. Our severe self-criticism deflates us far below the waterline of reality, and we see ourselves far shallower than our actions decree.

You’re stronger and more capable than you let yourself think. But no words can help with that; for that, only action will do. Summon the courage to act and take action. Just do it. And to calm yourself before you jump, hold onto this one fact – others’ criticism has never killed anyone. Stung, yes. Killed, no. Plain and simple, you won’t die if you put yourself out there. And even the worst bee stings subside with a little ice.

I’m not sure why we’re so willing to abdicate responsibility for what we think of ourselves, but we do. So where you may have abdicated responsibility in the past, in the now it’s time to take responsibility. It’s time to take responsibility and act on your own behalf.

Fear is real, and you should acknowledge it. But also acknowledge you give fear its power. Feel the fear, be afraid. But don’t succumb to the power you give it.

Put yourself out there. Do it tomorrow. You won’t die. And I bet you’ll surprise others.

But I’m sure you’ll surprise yourself more.

Positivity – The Endangered Species


There’s a lot of negativity around us. But it’s not upfront, unadulterated negativity; it’s behind-the-scenes, hunkering, almost translucent negativity. And it’s divisive.

This type of negativity is so pervasive it’s almost invisible. It’s everywhere; we have processes built around it; have organizations dedicated to it; and we use it daily to drive action.

Take continuous improvement for example. It has been a standard toolset and philosophy for making things better. Yet it’s founded on negativity. It’s not anti-people, anti-culture negativity. (In fact lean and Six Sigma go on their way to emphasize positive culture as a key foundation.) It’s subtle negativity that slowly grinds. Look at the language: reduce defects, eliminate waste, corrective action, tight feedback loops, and eliminate failure modes. There is a negative tint. It’s not in your face, but it’s there.

I’m an advocate of lean and I have advocated for Six Sigma, both of which have moved the needle. But there’s a minimization thread running through them. Both are about eliminating and reducing what is. Sure they have their place, but enough is enough. We need more of creating what isn’t, and bringing to life things that aren’t. We need more maximization.

Negativity has become natural, and positivity has become an endangered species. When there’s a crisis we all come together instinctively to eliminate the bad thing. Yet it’s fourth or fifth nature to come together spontaneously when things go well. Yes, sometimes we celebrate, but it’s the exception. And it’s certainly not our first instinct. (Actually, I don’t think we have a word for spontaneous amplification of positivity. Celebration is the closest word I know, but it’s not the right one.)

Negative feedback is good for processes and positive feedback is good for people. Processes like when their flaws are eliminated, and people like when their strengths are amplified. It’s negativity for processes, and positivity for people.

There should be a rebalancing of negativity and positivity. For every graph of defect reduction over time, there should be a sister plot of the number of good things that happened over time. For every failure mode and effects analysis there should be a fishbone of chart of strengths and the associated actions to amplify them.

It’s natural for us to count bad things and make them go away, and not so natural to count good things and multiply them. Take at the meeting agendas. My bet is there’s far more minimization than maximization.

I usually end my posts with some specific call to action or recommendation. But for this one I don’t have anything all that meaty. But I will tell you how I’m going to move forward. When I see good work, I’m going to publicly acknowledge it and send emails of praise to the manager of the folks who did the good stuff. I’m going to track the number of emails I send and each week increase the number by one. I’m going to schedule regular meetings where I can publicly praise people that display passion. And I’m going to create a control chart of the number of times I amplify positivity.

And most of all I will try to keep in front of me that everything we do is all about people, and with people positivity is powerful.

Own The Behavior

The system is big and complex and its output is outside your control. Trying to control these outputs is a depressing proposition, yet we’re routinely judged (and judge ourselves) on outputs.  I think it’s better to focus on system inputs, specifically your inputs to the system.

When the system responds with outputs different than desired, don’t get upset. It’s nothing personal. The system is just doing its job. It digests a smorgasbord of inputs from many agents just like you and does what it does. Certainly it’s alive, but it doesn’t know you. And certainly it doesn’t respond differently because you’re the one providing input. The system doesn’t take its output personally, and neither should you.

When the system’s output is not helpful, instead of feeling badly about yourself, shift your focus from system output to the input you provide it. (Remember, that’s all you have control over.) Did you do what you said you’d do? Were you generous? We’re you thoughtful? We’re you insightful? Did you give it your all or did you hold back? If you’re happy with the answers you should feel happy with yourself. Your input, your behavior, was just as it was supposed to be.  Now is a good time to fall back on the insightful grade school mantra, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

If your input was not what you wanted, then it’s time to look inside and ask yourself why. At times like these it’s easy to blame others and outside factors for our behavior. But at times like these  we must own the input, we must own the behavior. Now, owning the behavior doesn’t mean we’ll behave the same way going forward, it just means we own it. In order to improve our future inputs we’ve got to understand why we behaved as we did, and the first step to better future inputs is owning our past behavior.

Now, replace “system” with “person”, and the argument is the same. You are responsible for your input to the person, and they are responsible for their output (their response). When someone’s output is nonlinear and offensive, you’re not responsible for it, they are. Were you kind? Thoughtful? Insightful? If yes, you get what you get, and you don’t get upset. But what if you weren’t? Shouldn’t you feel responsible for their response? In a word, no. You should feel badly about your input – your behavior – and you should apologize. But their output is about them. They, like the system, responded the way they chose. If you want to be critical, be critical of your behavior. Look deeply at why you behaved as you did, and decide how you want to change it. Taking responsibility for their response gets in the way of taking responsibility for your behavior.

With complex systems, by definition it’s impossible to predict their output. (That’s why they’re called complex.) And the only way to understand them is to perturb them with your input and look for patterns in their responses. What that means is your inputs are well intended and ill informed. This is an especially challenging situation for those of us that have been conditioned (or born with the condition) to mis-take responsibility for system outputs. Taking responsibility for unpredictable system outputs is guaranteed frustration and loss of self-esteem. And it’s guaranteed to reduce the quality of your input over time.

When working with new systems in new ways, it’s especially important to take responsibility for your inputs at the expense of taking responsibility for unknowable system outputs. With innovation, we must spend a little and learn a lot. We must figure out how to perturb the system with our inputs and intelligently sift its outputs for patterns of understanding. The only way to do it is to fearlessly take responsibility for our inputs and fearless let the system take responsibility for its output.

We must courageously engineer and own our behavioral plan of attack, and modify it as we learn. And we must learn to let the system be responsible for its own behavior.

Choose to Choose

There will always be more work than time – no choice there. But, you can choose your mindset. You can choose to be overwhelmed; you can complain; and you can feel bad for yourself. You can also choose to invert it – you only work on vital projects because less important ones aren’t worth your time. Inverted, work is prioritized to make best use of your valuable time. When there’s too much work you can whine and complain, or you can value yourself – your choice

Most of us don’t choose what we work on, and sometimes it’s work we’ve done before. You can choose to look at as mind numbing tedium, or you can flip it. You can look at it as an opportunity to do your work a better way; to try a more effective approach; to invent something new. With repeat work you can dull it down or try to shine – your choice.

Sometimes we’re asked to do new and challenging work. You can choose to be afraid; you can make excuses; and you can call in sick for the next month. Or you can twist it to your advantage and see it as an opportunity to stretch. With challenging work you can stunt yourself or grow – your choice.

Negativity repels and positivity attracts – it’s time for you to choose.

A Fraternity of Team Players

It’s easy to get caught up in what others think. (I fall into that trap myself.) And it’s often unclear when it happens. But what is clear: it’s not good for anyone.

It’s hard to be authentic, especially with the Fraternity of Team Players running the show, because, as you know, to become a member their bylaws demand you take their secret oath:

I [state your name] do solemnly swear to agree with everyone, even if I think differently. And in the name of groupthink, I will bury my original ideas so we can all get along. And when stupid decisions are made, I will do my best to overlook fundamentals and go along for the ride. And if I cannot hold my tongue, I pledge to l leave the meeting lest I utter something that makes sense. And above all, in order to preserve our founding fathers’ externally-validated sense of self, I will feign ignorance and salute consensus.

It’s not okay that the fraternity requires you check your self at the door. We need to redefine what it means to be a team player. We need to rewrite the bylaws.

I want to propose a new oath:

I [state your name] do solemnly swear to think for myself at all costs. And I swear to respect the thoughts and feelings of others, and learn through disagreement. I pledge to explain myself clearly, and back up my thoughts with data. I pledge to stand up to the loudest voice and quiet it with rational, thoughtful discussion. I vow to bring my whole self to all that I do, and to give my unique perspective so we can better see things as they are. And above all, I vow to be true to myself.

Before you’re true to your company, be true to yourself. It’s best for you, and them.

Separation of church and state, yes; separation of team player and self, no.

The Dark Art of Uncertainty

Engineers hate uncertainty. (More precisely, it scares us to death.) And our role in the company is to snuff it out at every turn, or so we think.

To shield ourselves from uncertainty, we take refuge in our analyses. We create intricate computer wizardry to calm our soles. We tell ourselves our analytic powers can stand toe-to-toe with uncertainty. Though too afraid to admit, at the deepest level we know the magic of our analytics can’t dispatch uncertainty. Like He-Who-Should-Not-Should-Be-Named, uncertainty is ever-present and all-powerful. And he last thing we want is to call it by name.

Our best feint is to kill uncertainty before it festers. As soon as uncertainty is birthed, we try slay it with our guttural chant “It won’t work, it won’t work, it won’t work”. Like Dementors, we drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around a new idea. We suck out every good feeling and reduce it to something like itself, but soulless. We feed on it until we’re left with nothing but the worst of the idea.1

Insidiously, we conjure premonitions of mythical problems and predict off-axis maladies. And then we cast hexes on innovators when they don’t have answers to our irrelevant quandaries.

But our unnatural bias against uncertainty is misplaced. Without uncertainty there is no learning. Luckily, there are contrivances to battle the dark art of uncertainty.

When the engineering warlocks start their magic, ask them to be specific about their premonitions. Demand they define the problem narrowly – between two elements of the best embodiment; demand they describe the physical mechanisms behind the problem (warlocks are no match for physics); demand they define the problem narrowly in time – when the system spools up, when it slows down, just before it gets hot, right after it cools down. What the warlocks quickly learn is the problem is not the uncertainty around the new idea; the problem is the uncertainty of their knowledge. After several clashes with the talisman of physics, they take off their funny pointy hats, put away their wands, and start contributing in a constructive way. They’re now in the right frame of mind to obsolete their best work

Uncertainty is not bad. Denying it exists is bad, and pretending we can eliminate it is bad. It’s time to demonstrate Potter-like behavior and name what others dare not name.

Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty.

 1 Remus Lupin


Things aren’t impossible on their own, our thinking makes them so.

Impossible is not about the thing itself, it’s a statement about our state of mind.

When we say impossible, we really say we lack confidence to try.

When we say impossible, we really say we are too afraid to try.

The mission of impossible is to shut down all possibility of possibility.

To soften it, we say almost impossible, but it’s the same thing.

When we say impossible, we make a big judgment – but not about the thing – about ourselves.

What comes first, the procedure or the behavior?

It’s the chicken-and-egg syndrome of the business world.  Does procedure drive behavior or does behavior drive procedure?

Procedures are good for documenting a repetitive activity:

  1. Pick up that part.
  2. Grab that wrench.
  3. Tighten that nut.
  4. Repeat, as required.

This type of procedure has value – do the activity in the prescribed way and the outcome is a high quality product.  But what if the activity is new? What if judgment and thinking govern the major steps?  What if you don’t know the steps?  What if there is no right answer? What does that procedure look like?

Try to modify an existing procedure to fit an activity your company has not yet done.  Better yet, try to write a new one.  It’s easy to write a procedure after-the-fact.  Just look back at what you did and make a flow chart.  But what about a procedure for an activity that does not exist? For an old activity done in a future new way?  Does the old procedure tell you the new way? Just the opposite. The old procedure tells you cannot do anything differently. (That’s why it’s called a procedure). Do what you did last time, or fail the audit.  Be compliant.  Standardize on the old way, but expect new and better results.

Here is a draft of a procedure for new activities:

  1. Call a meeting with your best people.
  2. Ask them to figure out a new way.
  3. Give them what they ask for.
  4. Get out of the way, as required.

When they succeed, lather on the praise and positivity. It will feel good to everyone. Create a procedure after-the-fact if you wish.  But, no worries, your best people won’t limit themselves by the procedure.  In fact, the best ones won’t even read it.

A Parallel Universe of Positivity

That behavior was not appropriate; you did not finish that project on time; you made a mistake; you did not do it right; you did not build consensus; you did not do enough. Create an improvement plan, eliminate the shortfall, make up lost ground, re-attain the schedule. All negative, all day. I could scream.

We dissect people, identify areas for improvement, and put together plans to  improve weaknesses. How depressing. How demoralizing. How de-energizing. We demand folks become more of what they aren’t at the expense of what they are. And, to top it off, it takes a lot of our energy to manage this systematized negativity. We spend all our time on the folks who didn’t, can’t, or won’t. This is crazy.

Now, imagine a parallel universe of positivity. All positive, all day. Say nothing negative is the mantra. Ignore the negative and let it wither. Strengthen strengths. Help folks be more of what they are. Focus on the best performers. Ignore the can’ts, don’ts, and won’ts. This is a respectful universe, a supportive universe, a happy universe, but also a highly profitable and productive one. A good place to work and a great place to make money. Is this crazy?

It may be crazy. But do an experiment and see for yourself. Next time you feel the urge to snuff out bad behavior, ignore it. And instead, stoke the blaze of fabulous behavior. Throw diesel on it, throw gas on it, do all you can to make it spread. Send the fire trucks to draw a crowd. Roast marshmallows. You’ll have fun and it’ll feel good. I guarantee you’ll get more fabulous behavior. And the bad behavior? Who cares.  Let it wither.

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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