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Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Biker’s View of The Straight and Narrow Road

If you have a map handy or Google Earth, take a look at how many roads are perfectly straight, or at least appear to be. I thought I had found an abundance of straight roads on a motorcycle ride down to Key West when my friend Mark and I toured the heart of Florida only to find ranches and cows, then sugar, then landscaping nurseries between us and Key Largo. The exhilaration of those four or five standard, flat curves between us and South Florida was underwhelming to say the least.

A straight road is the shortest path between two points and it is often a goal to be efficient in navigating any course from where you are to your destination. Very few of us can reflect on our lives and see many straight roads on the path to who and where we are today. Life, much like the terrain of the earth, requires an occasional twist and turn in order to get to a destination. Maybe God knew what he was doing when he required us to have to turn our heads from time to time in a different direction in order to remind us to pay attention to the journey along the way.

Bikers often migrate to US 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina on the road called “The Tail of the Dragon”. "The Dragon" is a scant 11 miles of road with 318 curves. It is one of the most twisty, and dangerous road in America if you fail to understand the laws of physics and speed. Bikers are killed every year on the Dragon, from failing to understand the limits of their abilities. Some terminally cease breathing from over-doing the sheer adrenaline rush of pushing life to the edge with their knees or bike parts dragging the pavement from the extreme leans required of such tight turns. Moderation and preparation keeps you off the edge of the pavement where the rail and cliff is, or too close to the middle of the road where other vehicles are.

Narrow roads usually have one obvious characteristic – they aren’t used as much as wide ones. The narrowest roads are usually the hardest to build, and go to places most people don’t usually go to. When you have to cut a road through a forest, or into a mountain, it makes a lot of sense to avoid making it bigger than it needs to be. Narrow roads cry out to those who don’t mind a little challenge in the journey, and who seek to go to more quiet and private places few get to see. You have to be equipped and experienced to take the narrow road, and it requires extra discipline and higher level of vigilance than the wide roads to avoid driving off the side, into someone else, or getting stuck. For some narrow roads cut into rock and dirt, you even need special equipment to make the journey. That actually requires you to think about the road ahead and to prepare for it.

The destination is simply part of the journey. Some people get it, some don’t. Some thrive on the speed and the thrill of getting there first; others thrive on slowing down and taking in the scenery along the way. During a spring ride up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mark and I were winding our way back up the mountains and going at the pace you’d expect from two old farts on cruisers. We had just gone through a series of winding turns that broke out into one of the most panoramic and breathtaking views I have ever seen and it caused me to break out in spontaneous laughter and pure joy. It also reminded me that God sometimes gives us a lot of crooked and narrow roads to go down in order to learn to see the good stuff and appreciate life more.

So take a lesson from all your biker friends. Don’t get too caught up in straight and wide roads that are easy. You may get there faster but you are likely to miss the surprises in each mile of a magnificent journey on the less beaten path. Even if you slip and fall, or get bruised and banged up, there is learning, redemption and another chance to ride the narrow and twisty road of life.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Corn Patch Politics

When I look around Washington these days, watching political gridlock, games with numbers, posturing not for the long term good of the nation but for the next election, I harken back to what I learned in Mom's corn patch. Mom's corn patch was about 1/4 acre of the sweetest yellow corn that ever melted in your mouth. Every year around harvest time she would pick what she wanted to can, and then allow the rest of the neighbors to come on down and have their share of the harvest for the picking.

Now Mom did not have a lot of spare help planting, weeding, watering, and nurturing the crops. She did most of the work with help from her knuckle head kids from time to time. Those who came for the surplus were not usually around sweating, digging and working to get the goods. As she got older, the help moved out and on with their lives, and the garden got smaller. Yet the folks who had grown accustomed to the yellow nectar from the Most High found only in Mom's garden still made the journey to collect, even though there was less to pick from. Then one year, Mom went out to the corn patch, only to find that there was little to no corn to harvest. It was all gone, taken by those who counted on her abundance to lighten their dinner table and enjoy something they had grown accustomed to.

Mom finally got to the point where she could no longer plant a large garden. But the needs and expectations of those who counted on her to produce did not diminish so quickly. It never does. Once people get used to something for nothing, taking it away causes discontent, unhappiness, and a sense of loss. If Mom had been an elected gardener, she would have gotten fired for failing to bring home the corn. One option would be to have those who partake of the yellow nectar from the Most High, to invest their time, money, and energy into plowing, weeding, watering, and canning. If everybody pitched in, it would be OK. But nobody wants to be the one doing all the work, and getting shorted on the goods. So how does one go about convincing all the corn starved locals that if they would all pitch in and feel a little of the pain, that they would all be better off in the end? The natural law of "I ain't goin' first if I'm gonna be by myself" kicks in and everyone stands around bitching at each other about the miserable state they are in without corn, demanding that it be provided, while watching their food supply shrink away.

We the people actually elect politicians and send them to DC with the expectation that they will take nothing from us, keep giving us what we got, and hopefully get some more in the form of lower taxes or handout programs. Economic stimulus and deficit reduction do not coexist very well. The Federal Government can only stimulate the economy by three ways: (1) spend more, (2) tax less, or (3) reduce interest rates. In a recession, reducing spending and/or increasing taxes will slow the economy down further. The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates down to practically zero and there is really no place left to go on the Federal front to correct a sluggish economy. What America needs is a grass roots economic recovery plan that says something like: (1) stop funding services for people who break the law and enter the country illegally, (2) accept a one-time reduction in all Federal entitlements, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps with a five year freeze on any further increases, (3) tax people for bad behavior that results in consequences that drain state and Federal budgets, (4) draw down the U.S. military from the decade long war on terror, (5) get rid of government organizations that try to do what the private sector does better, and so on. The more power, control, and funding we send to Washington and government bureaucracies, the further it is away from the people who know what the local problem is, and what to do about it.

So let's all take a little ownership of our intransigence and desire to have the government corn served our way, sitting around blaming each other for the sad state of affairs after the supply has dried up, and refusing to exert the pain needed to get the corn up on the stalk again. We will all have to make sacrifices to get the yellow nectar back on the pot. That's not something politicians can do for us, we have to do it for ourselves. So who's going to be first to volunteer to feel some pain? If you decided it would not be you, since somebody else would have lobbied to get your contribution on their plate before your sweat hit the ground, you now understand the gravity of the mess we are in.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Groupthink, Groupstink, and Hindsight

We all make bad decisions sometimes with consequences that vary from insignificant to catastrophic loss of life and property. Good decisions are relative. Relative to time, political context and who's judging. The outcome is what usually matters, however some argue that the principle behind the decision is what matters most. This week our team reviewed the old Groupthink video that uses the Challenger disaster as a case study in how to avoid making bad decisions. When dealing with systems with two million parts that are assembled by humans, or when dealing with humans in an endless sea of imperfect information, risk is ever present and success is never guaranteed.

Groupthink is a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis and occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of "mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment". Groupstink is a term I came up with that describes a situation when people line up behind a meaningless pile of crap and tout its goodness to the masses. Groupstink is usually purely political or personality driven when facts are sparse or hidden, and spin doctors are in control of the situation and message. Hindsight is the ability to understand, after something has happened, what should have been done or what caused the event. Even hindsight sometimes needs bifocals and is not 20/20 all the time.

Groups don't really make decisions. Individuals make their own decisions either by acting or not. Groups can only appear to make decisions when there is nobody providing leadership or with authority to actually make a decision. Groups contribute to decisions but in the end, somebody actually pushes the launch button. Decisions trees, risk analysis, metrics, information, knowledge, modeling, simulation, experience and instinct all factor into decision making. Some input provided by members of the group to a decision maker is good, and sometimes it is bad. Hindsight is useful in assessing what happened and why, and working to improve for the next big one. Hindsight has the benefit of time and additional data, but even that doesn’t prevent people from getting the past wrong.

"Mental efficiency", like all efficiency is a function of the volume and quality of the output relative to input. The output (outcome) is a function of the track record of the individual making the decision. The input is a function of the team and staff around the decision maker. "Reality testing" is a function of the circumstances and participants in a moment and time and that changes with time and perspective. About the only part of decision making that should be consistent is the "moral judgment" of the individual making the call. If there exists a moral center and record of doing what he or she believes is morally right regardless of the political and contextual whims of the moment, that is the last checkpoint in the process. Being right the previous 100 times will not guarantee success nor save you from being wrong on the 101st decision.

If faced with the same situational context and data as NASA leaders had prior to the Challenger launch, I doubt that I would have made a different call on proceeding with the launch. To quote one of the former Shuttle Launch Directors, “When you do it right time after time, odds are really good you’ll be right the next time and that contributes to a lack of vigilance.” We work hard to build trust, and sometimes that trust erodes our vigilance in challenging information, actions and decisions. Zero risk is not an option in business or life. On the really serious decisions, seek wise independent counsel, challenge the data and information you are given, don’t let your trust in your staff turn into a lack of vigilance, and trust your experience and moral foundations to steer the course. But most of all, remain aware that shit happens and you just have to deal with it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Grandpa's Lesson on Accountability

My Grandpa was a rough and tumble, rustic fellow who was always entertained by his Grandkids. He always wore overalls and drove a '46 flatbed pickup as long as I knew him. When I was big enough, in my early teens, Grandpa took me out to cut fire wood with him. It was just the two of us out in the woods on this particular day.
I was sitting on the back of his old truck that we affectionately referred to as "Ol' Hanner" swinging my legs and watching him drop tree after tree in very precise areas. I was very impressed with his precision and when he finished dropping about five large trees in rapid succession, I asked him how he did it. His answer was simple, "If ya do it wrong you die, kill someone, or break stuff you did not mean to break." Then he took a good long look at me and said, "Boy, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who cut wood and those who don't. And the people who don't cut it depend on the people who do. So what kind of man are you going to be?" He then handed me the chainsaw, and said "Don't kill yourself or cut anything off you pee with" and laid down on the truck bed for a short nap.

Well, being one who liked to pee I was very careful and learned some valuable lessons that day. The most important had to do with being accountable for your crap. When it's just you and instruments of death and destruction, if you screw up the accountability chain is clear. Look for the guy holding the chainsaw. The more people that get involved in an action, the less likely you can find anyone who will be accountable. I like to imagine how tree cutting would be with oversight committees, quality assurance people running around with checklists, three layers of on-site management to argue every decision.  The forest would be divided into imaginary boundaries for each organization in the woods to fight over before any wood got cut. Tree after tree would crush, maim, fall on the wrong side, and then we'd  have the lawyers running in to sort out who to blame and see about getting some windfall cash settlement. Others would see that game and every tree that fell would be subject to litigation. Then the insurance guys would run in and start selling insurance to the tree cutters to make sure they could afford to continue cutting the trees and the lawyers. Eventually, the tree cutters would get tired of all the cost, bullshit and just quit or go to war with each other.

As we look around our great country today, accountability is scarce. Fat is a disease. Addictions are diseases. Gambling is a disease. Psycho killers, rapists, and violent criminals have a mental illness. Deficit spending is somebody else's problem to fund when the bills come due. Welfare is a necessity and not a choice. Unemployment is often more profitable than work. Kids need drugs to calm them down, and not good parenting. Schools level standards and are incentivized to move kids on through regardless of performance.

Last time I looked, if you eat more and move less your butt expands. If you take drugs or drink too much, you get wasted. If you bet a $1 with a 5% chance of winning, on average, you walk out with a nickel. If you do harm to someone, it takes a choice to act. If you spend more than you take in, you are guaranteed to run out of money. And on and on and on. People do this stuff and somehow bad decisions get washed in labels and conditions that somehow make the actions of an individual of less consequence since they are part of a larger, screwed up group.

Truth is the great equalizer but in the information age, it is increasingly hard to find it. I challenge us all to take a few moments each day and find ways to take back what is ours. Our individual accountability for our thoughts, actions and words. You'll never get people who don't cut wood to understand until they cut wood. The things we do to our nation by taking accountability away from individuals and placing it in the hands of government, politicians, lawyers and bureaucracies will continue to take away our freedom. Freedom is never free. It requires accountability. Plant a tree for my Grandpa, and if you have never cut wood, be thankful for those who do.

Friday, March 5, 2010

95th Percentile Male Change Management

I have to share a story with all of you women out there.  Two of my former colleagues that were featured in the book came up with one of the most innovative change management tools ever.  Story goes like this.

There once was a group of males who comprised an "executive" forum.  The only women in the room were there for administrative support and had no decision making authority.  This particular group of men were having a very difficult time ever reaching a consensus decision on anything.  The room was always filled with testosterone laden, political posturing and gamesmanship, and real decisions affecting the workforce were put off for months and months. 

The lady in the room, and one of the males around the table (a Navy Commander) were colleagues of mine at the time.  The lady, with an acute sense of the obvious, told my male colleague who had a seat at "the holy table of manhood" that she believed decisions might actually get made if the guys would just simply get out a ruler and start measuring their manhood.   Being the consummate guy, he went to the machine shop and asked the artisans to make a small trophy based on a ruler.  And the ruler needed to be 13 inches long (to appeal to those with inflated images of themselves). The artisans in the machine shop never let us down and they came up with a chrome 13 inch ruler with a wood pedestal that had an engraving on it that said "Executive Decision Making Tool".  Since we were in a military organization, we dubbed it the EDMT to ensure nothing went without an acronym and to give it a weapon system sounding name.

During the next meeting of the esteemed, the process went the way it always did.  At the apex of the posturing, the good Commander pulls out the EDMT and places it loudly on the table and says "OK, whoever has the biggest one wins and we can move on to the next decision".  The room went silent for a long minute, then was filled with laughter once the guys all realized nobody would likely make it half way up the ruler and did not want to go there.  The point was made and the dynamic went back to something more akin to collaborative decision making.  Sometimes it takes a lady to translate guy speak. It never ceases to amaze me at how much real leadership can come from any person at any level in any corner of any room.

Dad's Rules for Living

Over the course of my youth, I picked up on a series of life altering nuggets from my beloved Dad that are worth sharing with the world. 

1.  Don't shoot a critter unless it's trying to eat you or you need to eat it.
2.  Don't spend what you don't have.
3.  Don't love stuff that doesn't love you back.
4.  You've got to be a friend to have a friend.
5.  Take care of your vehicles and they'll take care of you.
6.  If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well.
7.  Sleep where you drink and drink where you sleep, we're all safer that way.
8.  Take care of your own; don't expect someone else to do it.
9.  You don't have to say much to say a lot.
10.  Respect the military and Jesus, they're the ones who have always committed to die for you.

And my favorite that came almost daily in so many situations there has to be something to it: "Don't be a dumbass".   I'm still working on that one and miss having Dad around to remind me that education is a process and not a destination.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Every day that I live, I am increasingly appreciative of the founding fathers, and men and women who gave us this great nation.  We'd all do well to go back and read the works of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Lincoln to name a few.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We're all free to live our lives, without undue restriction and control from the federal Government or private interests, and to actively pursue a state or condition of happiness.  Nothing that laid the seeds of our nation made a guarantee that we would find happiness, but we are all free to pursue it.  But under what conditions?

Tax Freedom Day will arrive on April 13 this year, according to the Tax Foundation's annual calculation using the latest government data on income and taxes.  That's 103 of 365 days we work to feed the federal government beast before we effectively clear the bar and start working for our individual pursuit of happiness.

Pursuit usually means an action on the part of the pursuer.  It means to chase or go after something.  Some people chase federal bailout money and federal handouts because that makes them happy.  They don't have to work for minimum wage, pay for day care and end up making less money and exert more effort for less quality of life.  That's good thinking and just makes sense to pursue that kind of happiness - if that's the standard for happiness.  It's more like the standard of the lowest acceptable misery or decreasing a level of unhappiness to a tolerable level.   I guess that's still a pursuit, but I'm struck by the parable of the money in trust or the talents.

That parable is best summarized in that "if we are given X and cause it to multiply, that is goodness.  If we are given X and waste it until the next X is offered that is not goodness."   The latter behavior is asserted to cause one to go into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  

In economics there is a concept called the velocity of money. Basically, this is the average frequency with which a unit of money is spent. Let’s assume a very small economy of just you and me, which has a money supply of $10. I have the $10 and spend it to buy $10 worth of potatoes from you. You in turn spend the $10 to buy clothes from me. We have created $20 of our “gross domestic product” from a money supply of just $10. If we do that transaction every month, in a year we would have $240 of “GDP” from our $10 monetary base.

When the Government hands out money to pay people who end up paying the Government back or who pay people who write off the losses to offset taxes has a net negative impact on the velocity of money and economic growth.  At a minimum, it's the worst form of stimulus with the lowest economic multiplier effect of any form of Government spending.  That is not a pursuit of happiness I want to finance as a taxpayer, and infringes on my liberty to pursue my own happiness somewhere between 1 January and 13 April as we finance the federal Government's silliness.       

And what about those who pursue the bailouts and handouts?  Should we just leave them on the curb and worry about velocity of money and GDP growth?  No.  But we should not enslave them to a vicious circle of dependency on big Government to live their lives while crippling the economy.  I don't remember John F. Kennedy saying "ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you" as the rallying call for a generation.  

Parenting and governing without limits and boundaries is not good for anyone's life, liberty or puruit of happiness in the long haul.  Hard love is hard, otherwise it would be called easy love.  And easy love isn't real love anyway.  It feels good for a while but after a time, it's just empty and full of lost hope, disappointment and broken promises.