Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Parable of the Insightful Twin

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My reaction: 

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Once upon a time, hoping that they might learn about colors by playing with them, the parents of young twins gave each a coloring book, “My Day at the Zoo,” and a big box of crayons. Working separately for many hours, the twins eagerly decorated the many black-outlined animal drawings in their books.

The Operator

At the end of the day, the first twin, beaming with pride, returned her finished book to her parents. She had colored the elephants a precise elephant gray, the horses in various shades of horse-brown, and the birds in many different and very bird-appropriate pastel hues. She had colored every animal picture in her book with obvious care, accurately, smoothly, and consistently, exactly within and never outside of its printed borders.

“What color is this?” the parents asked while pointing to the perfectly colored picture of a canary perched on the branch of a tree. The first twin proudly announced “Yellow!”

“And this?” the parents asked, pointing to the imagetree’s branch. “Brown!” she replied. “And this?” they asked of the leaves on the branch. “Green!” said the child imagewith a broad grin.

To her parents’ delight, the first twin knew the proper names of every color in the crayon box, too, and even the exotic shades, like periwinkle and cerulean blue. She generalized what she had learned that day as well, correctly identifying the color of the kitchen’s new drapes as carnation pink and Dad’s necktie as puce. Her parents were very happy. As they had hoped she would, she had learned all about colors.

The Conceptualizer

A while later, the second twin returned with a scribbled-on book full of absurdly colored pictures of bright red lions and deep blue turtles. His baffled parents looked blankly at each other.

“What’s this?” asked his parents tentatively, pointing to a purple dog. “Cool huh?” replied the second twin. “I got that color by miximageing the red crayon with the blue one.”

“And this?” asked the parents, pointing to an orange giraffe. “That’s the color you get when you mix the red one and the yellow one,” he replied.

Perplexed, his parents fell silent. Sensing their confusion, the second twin explained, “There are lots of colors in the crayon box, but, here, see?” Using the blue and yellow crayons, he scribbled a few lines across a picture of a cow. “See?” he said again, pointing to the color he had just made. “You can make every different color in the whole box by mixing different amounts of just a few basic colors.” In response to another long, silent stare from his parents, he prompted “See? I made green! Isn’t that cool?”

But all his disappointed parents could see was a sloppily colored green cow. “Uh huh… that’s… cool...” they muttered through thin smiles, as they silently pondered enrolling him in a Special School.

Encouraging Forests to Hide Among Their Trees

As we travel along our separate paths to professional enlightenment, our journeys’ peripheral details tend to distract and even divert us. Not surprising, as, after all, aren’t we taught from childhood that great recognition and material reward bloom from the carefully cultivated seeds of knowing the littlest details? A young child, like our first twin, praised by her parents for having just learned and recited the names of the colors of all the crayons in the box, naturally sets about discovering and memorizing the names of all the other colors in her world, too. Eventually, after years of being praised for committing shade after shade to memory, the child, now all grown up, can “ace” a standardized test consisting of multiple-choice name-the-color questions, perhaps to be officially declared a Certified Color Expert (CCE). More recognition, promotion, and material reward ensue, all further proving the value of mastering even the tiniest details.

Yet, aren’t the roots of a deep awareness of the human experience of color, which had begun to sprout within the second twin, in the enlightened observation that each can be formed by mixing different amounts of the primary colors of red, green, and blue? Burnt umber’s Red/Green/Blue coordinates, for example, are 138, 51, and 36. Likewise, every hue can be expressed as numeric coordinates along these three basic dimensions, and even more profound truths underlie this knowledge, in the physiology of the human eye, and in the physics of light. Perched on the verge of these revelations, with a little encouragement, perhaps the second twin would uncover the few basic laws that govern all these many details? Will his parents find the wisdom to “color” him outside the lines of their own expectations and encourage his quest? Will he brave disappointing his parents and harness the power of his own curiosity to urge himself along in his unorthodox, but more deeply true, pursuit of understanding?

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Details, we must master them, but the truth calls us from beyond them. It waits, masked, behind them. To reveal it, we must risk a deeper way of thinking. And more than merely tolerate it, we must actively encourage such thinking in others.

Questions

  • We respect and reward professionals who “cross their T’s and dot their I’s,” but why settle for mastering less than 10% of the alphabet?
  • We express reverence for competency. We reward it publicly. We talk endlessly of “Core Competencies” and “Competency Models” as we build our “Centers of Excellence.” But, is competency a noble enough human goal? When is competency a trap?
  • As a leader, are you annoyed by people who rewrite plans, waste time on research, and meander through ideas that have nothing to do with what you expect of them? What do you risk losing when you express this annoyance?

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Leaders with the courage to scatter seeds of creative freedom can reap a harvest of game-changing discovery. The POInT Program can help cultivate the field.

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Parable of the Christmas Lights

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My reaction: 

A Holiday Allegory for Information Technology

Growing up, as I recall, the otherwise festive Christmas holiday season held forth the dreadful prospect of wrestling with a box full of Christmas tree lights.

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Ignoring the fact that it’s cheaper and easier to replace them each year, perhaps as a matter of honor and tradition, it had become my family’s policy that no new tree lights would be purchased until every attempt had been made to untangle and revive the old ones.

In keeping this tradition, I found myself in the same familiar mess every year as I set out to decorate our house with lights. No matter how carefully I may have coiled and packed them away at the end of the previous year, the many separate strands of lights seemed somehow to have found each other during the off-season and hopelessly entangled themselves. This made me angry, as though they’d deliberaimagetely, even spitefully, knotted themselves into a perplexing mass of bulbs, plugs, sockets, and wires.

So, as punishment every year, I dealt with them the same traditional way. I shook them vigorously, hoping somehow that the individual strings of lights would repent and separate themselves from each other. When they didn’t, I dived aggressively into the middle of the knot, pulled at it from within, stretched it, embraced its confusion and became a part of it. Eventually, one by one, each string of Christmas lights would somehow drop away from the others, until, at last, mission accomplished! But the achievement was always more by accident than design, and never without my fair share of pain.

Still, primates being what they are, even the tiniest and rarest success will strongly reinforce habitual behavior, the bad habits as well as the good. As I looked with pride at the untangled lights, each individual strand now laying on the floor vanquished and submissive (a few literally broken as well), next year’s application of the mindless “shake and hope” method, notwithstanding its obvious stupidity, had been assured.

Breaking with tradition is never comfortable, but, one year, for a change, I deliberately calmed myself down and thought about the problem first. I reasoned that, in years past, I had concentrated too hard on the problem’s most obvious in-your-face aspect, that infuriating knot of bulbs and wire. In anger, I had traditionally attacked it, literally, from the inside. This may have felt good, but it got me nowhere. After a lot of shaking and complaining, the problem eventually solved itself, but the solution always took longer, and broke a lot more light bulbs, than it needed to. Looking back, my “tradition” was really just the bad habit of injecting energy blindly into a confused situation, hoping for the best. Eventually, when a solution finally presented itself, it was only at random. A paint shaker could have done as well.

That year, a little deliberation made all the difference. Knots, I reasoned, are best untied from the outside, by first finding the parts of each string that aren’t in the knot, the ends, the terminal sockets and plugs of each separate strand. One by one, I found and threaded the ends out of the knot. Gradually, the un-knotted ends became longer and longer, as the knot ─ my problem ─ became smaller and smaller, until, eventually, it was gone.

It was tedious and a little boring pulling those ends out of the knot one at a time. Emotionally, this new approach was less satisfying than shaking and tugging at the knot until it finally learned its lesson and fell loose. Still, for achieving predictable results economically, the systematic start-with-the-ends approach beat my traditional flailing-away-at-the knot method hands-down.

Questions

  • Where does an IT communication network “begin?” Where does it “end?”
  • How can an IT specialist’s narrow technical point of view cause her to get lost in the “knot?”
  • Privately inventory some of your bad thinking habits. What are you doing to break them? Or, do they feel so good to you that you'd rather not?
  • When addressing technical issues, counterproductive emotions like anger and pride can feel like reasonable behavior. Why is this? How can we overcome it? How can organizational leadership help?

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The POInT Organizational Transformation Program helps diagnose and correct the cognitive biases that can prevent IT professionals and teams from finding and solving the root causes of technical problems. Work smart. Learn more at:

http://point-cmc.blogspot.com.

And, Happy Holidays!