Two Flaws in the “Fail Faster” Philosophy

There are many who advocate that the key to success, especially with innovation, is what’s known as the “fail faster” philosophy, which says that not only should we embrace new ideas and try new things without being overly concerned with failure, but, more importantly, we should effectively fail as efficiently as possible in order to expedite learning valuable lessons from our failure.

However, I have often experienced what I see as two fundamental flaws in the “fail faster” philosophy:

  1. It requires that you define failure
  2. It requires that you admit when you have failed

Most people — myself included — often fail both of these requirements.  Most people do not define failure, but instead assume that they will be successful (even though they conveniently do not define success either).  But even when people define failure, they often refuse to admit when they have failed.  In the face of failure, most people either redefine failure or extend the deadline (perhaps we should call it the fail line?) for when they will have to admit that they have failed.

We are often regaled with stories of persistence in spite of repeated failure, such as Thomas Edison’s famous remark:

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Edison also remarked that he didn’t invent one way to make a lightbulb, but instead he invented more than 1,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb.  Each of those failed prototypes for a commercially viable lightbulb was instructive and absolutely essential to his eventual success.  But what if Edison had refused to define and admit failure?  How would he have known when to abandon one prototype and try another?  How would he have been able to learn valuable lessons from his repeated failure?

Josh Linkner recently blogged about failure being the dirty little secret of so-called overnight success, citing several examples, including Rovio (makers of the Angry Birds video game), Dyson vacuum cleaners, and WD-40.

Although these are definitely inspiring success stories, my concern is that often the only failure stories we hear are about people and companies that became famous for eventually succeeding.  In other words, we often hear eventually successful stories, and we almost never hear, or simply choose to ignore, the more common, and perhaps more useful, cautionary tales of abject failure.

It seems we have become so obsessed with telling stories that we have relegated both failure and success to the genre of fiction, which I fear is preventing us from learning any fact-based, and therefore truly valuable, lessons about failure and success.


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Trust is not a checklist

This is my seventh blog post tagged Karma since I promised to discuss it directly and indirectly on my blog throughout the year after declaring KARMA my theme word for 2010 back on the first day of January, which is now almost ten months ago.


Trust and Collaboration

I was reminded of the topic of this post—trust—by this tweet by Jill Wanless sent from the recent Collaborative Culture Camp, which was a one day conference on enabling collaboration in a government context, held on October 15 in Ottawa, Ontario.

I followed the conference Twitter stream remotely and found many of the tweets interesting, especially ones about the role that trust plays in collaboration, which is one of my favorite topics in general, and one that plays well with my karma theme word.


Trust is not a checklist

The title of this blog post comes from the chapter on The Emergence of Trust in the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek, where he explained that trust is an organizational performance category that is nearly impossible to measure.

“Trust does not emerge simply because a seller makes a rational case why the customer should buy a product or service, or because an executive promises change.  Trust is not a checklist.  Fulfilling all your responsibilities does not create trust.  Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience.  We trust some people and companies even when things go wrong, and we don’t trust others even though everything might have gone exactly as it should have.  A completed checklist does not guarantee trust.  Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person or organization is driven by things other than their own self-gain.”


Trust is not transparency

This past August, Scott Berkun blogged about how “trust is always more important than authenticity and transparency.”

“The more I trust you,” Berkun explained, “the less I need to know the details of your plans or operations.  Honesty, diligence, fairness, and clarity are the hallmarks of good relationships of all kinds and lead to the magic of trust.  And it’s trust that’s hardest to earn and easiest to destroy, making it the most precious attribute of all.  Becoming more transparent is something you can do by yourself, but trust is something only someone else can give to you.  If transparency leads to trust, that’s great, but if it doesn’t you have bigger problems to solve.”


Organizational Karma

Trust and collaboration create strong cultural ties, both personally and professionally.

“A company is a culture,” Sinek explained.  “A group of people brought together around a common set of values and beliefs.  It’s not the products or services that bind a company together.  It’s not size and might that make a company strong, it’s the culture, the strong sense of beliefs and values that everyone, from the CEO to the receptionist, all share.”

Organizations looking for ways to survive and thrive in today’s highly competitive and rapidly evolving marketplace, should embrace the fact that trust and collaboration are the organizational karma of corporate culture.

Trust me on this one—good karma is good business.


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Common Change

I recently finished reading the great book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, which examines why it can be so difficult for us to make lasting changes—both professional changes and personal changes.

“For anything to change,” the Heaths explain, “someone has to start acting differently.  Ultimately, all change efforts boil down to the same mission: Can you get people to start behaving in a new way?”

Their metaphor for change of all kinds is making a Switch, which they explain requires the following three things:

  1. Directing the Rider, which is a metaphor for the rational aspect of our decisions and behavior.
  2. Motivating the Elephant, which is a metaphor for the emotional aspect of our decisions and behavior.
  3. Shaping the Path, which is a metaphor for the situational aspect of our decisions and behavior.

Despite being the most common phenomenon in the universe, change is almost universally resisted, making most of us act as if change is anything but common.  Therefore, in this blog post, I will discuss the Heaths three key concepts using some common terminology: Common Sense, Common Feeling, and Common Place—which, when working together, lead to Common Change.


Common Sense

“What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity,” the Heaths explain.  “Ambiguity is the enemy.  Change begins at the level of individual decisions and behaviors.  To spark movement in a new direction, you need to provide crystal-clear guidance.”

Unfortunately, changes are usually communicated in ways that cause confusion instead of provide clarity.  Many change efforts fail at the outset because of either ambiguous goals or a lack of specific instructions explaining exactly how to get started.

One personal change example would be: Eat Healthier.

Although the goal makes sense, what exactly should I do?  Should I eat smaller amounts of the same food, or eat different food?  Should I start eating two large meals a day while eliminating snacks, or start eating several smaller meals throughout the day?

One professional example would be: Streamline Inefficient Processes.

This goal is even more ambiguous.  Does it mean all of the existing processes are inefficient?  What does streamline really mean?  What exactly should I do?  Should I be spending less time on certain tasks, or eliminating some tasks from my daily schedule?

Ambiguity is the enemy.  For any chance of success to be possible, both the change itself and the plan for making it happen must sound like Common Sense

More specifically, the following two things must be clearly defined and effectively communicated:

  1. Long-term Goal – What exactly is the change that we are going to make—what is our destination?
  2. Short-term Critical Moves – What are the first few things we need to do—how do we begin our journey?

“What is essential,” as the Heaths explain, “is to marry your long-term goal with short-term critical moves.”

“What you don’t need to do is anticipate every turn in the road between today and the destination.  It’s not that plotting the whole journey is undesirable; it’s that it’s impossible.  When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle, because the middle is going to look different once you get there.  Just look for a strong beginning and a strong ending and get moving.”


Common Feeling

I just emphasized the critical importance of envisioning both the beginning and the end of our journey toward change.

However, what happens in the middle is the change.  So, if common sense can help us understand where we are going and how to get started, what can help keep us going during the really challenging aspects of the middle?

There’s really only one thing that can carry us through the middle—we need to get hooked on a Common Feeling.

Some people—and especially within a professional setting—will balk at discussing the role that feeling (i.e., emotion) plays in our decision making and behavior because it is commonly believed that rational analysis must protect us from irrational emotions.

However, relatively recent advancements in the fields of psychology and neuroscience have proven that good decision making requires the flexibility to know when to rely on rational analysis and when to rely on emotions—and to always consider not only how we’re thinking, but also how we’re feeling.

In their book The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, John Kotter and Dan Cohen explained that “the core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people, and behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.  In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Kotter and Cohen wrote that most people think change happens in this order: ANALYZE—THINK—CHANGE. 

However, from interviewing over 400 people across more than 130 large organizations in the United States, Europe, Australia, and South Africa, they observed that in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is: SEE—FEEL—CHANGE.

“We know there’s a difference between knowing how to act and being motivated to act,” the Heaths explain.  “But when it comes time to change the behavior of other people, our first instinct is to teach them something.”

Making only a rational argument for change without an emotional appeal results in understanding without motivation, and making only an emotional appeal for change without a rational plan results in passion without direction

Therefore, making the case for lasting change requires that you effectively combine common sense with common feeling.


Common Place

“That is NOT how we do things around here” is the most common objection to change.  This is the Oath of Change Resistance, which maintains the status quo—the current situation that is so commonplace that it seems like “these people will never change.”

But as the Heaths explain, “what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.”

Stanford psychologist Lee Ross coined the term fundamental attribution error to describe our tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior.  The error lies in our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

When we lament that “these people will never change” we have convinced ourselves that change-resistant behavior equates to a change-resistant personal character and discount the possibility that it simply could be a reflection of the current situation

The great analogy used by the Heaths is water.  When boiling in a pot on the stove, it’s a scalding-hot liquid, but when cooling in a tray in the freezer, it’s an icy-cold solid.  However, declaring either scalding-hot or icy-cold as a fundamental attribute of water and not a situational attribute of water would obviously be absurd—but we do this with people and their behavior all the time.

This doesn’t mean that people’s behavior is always a result of their situation—nor does it excuse inappropriate behavior. 

The fundamental point is that the situation that people are currently in (i.e., their environment) can always be changed, and most important, it can be tweaked in ways that influence their behavior and encourage them to change for the better.

“Tweaking the environment,” the Heaths explain, “is about making the right behaviors a little bit easier and the wrong behaviors a little bit harder.  It’s that simple.”  The status quo is sometimes described as the path of least resistance.  So consider how you could tweak the environment in order to transform the path of least resistance into the path of change.

Therefore, in order to facilitate lasting change, you must create a new Common Place where the change becomes accepted as: “That IS how we do things around here—from now on.”  This is the Oath of Change, which redefines the status quo.


Common Change

“When change happens,” the Heaths explain, “it tends to follow a pattern.”  Although it is far easier to recognize than to embrace, in order for any of the changes we need to make to be successful, “we’ve got to stop ignoring that pattern and start embracing it.”

Change begins when our behavior changes.  In order for this to happen, we have to think that the change makes common sense, we have to feel that the change evokes a common feeling, and we have to accept that the change creates a new common place

When all three of these rational, emotional, and situational forces are in complete alignment, then instead of resisting change, we will experience it as Common Change.


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The Winning Curve

Illustrated above is what I am calling The Winning Curve and it combines ideas from three books I have recently read:

The Winning Curve is applicable to any type of project or the current iteration of an ongoing program—professional or personal.



The Winning Curve starts with the Design Phase, the characteristics of which are inspired by Tim Brown (quoted in Switch.)  Brown explains how every design phase goes through “foggy periods.”  He uses a U-shaped curve called a “project mood chart” that predicts how people will feel at different stages of the design phase. 

The design phase starts with a peak of positive emotion, labeled “Hope,” and ends with a second peak of positive emotion, labeled “Confidence.”  In between these two great heights is a deep valley of negative emotion, labeled “Insight.”

The design phase, according to Brown, is “rarely a graceful leap from height to height,” and as Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, “everything can look like a failure in the middle.”

Therefore, the design phase is really exciting—at the beginning

After the reality of all the research, as well as the necessary communication and collaboration with others has a chance to set in, then the hope you started out with quickly dissipates, and insight is the last thing you would expect to find “down in the valley.”

During this stage, “it’s easy to get depressed, because insight doesn’t always strike immediately,” explains Chip and Dan Heath.  “But if the team persists through this valley of angst and doubt, it eventually emerges with a growing sense of momentum.”


“The Dip”

After The Winning Curve has finally reached the exhilarating summit of Confidence Mountain (i.e., your design is completed), you are then faced with yet another descent, since now the Development Phase is ready to begin.

Separating the start of the development phase from the delivery date is another daunting valley, otherwise known as “The Dip.”

The development phase can be downright brutal.  It is where the grand conceptual theory of your design’s insight meets the grunt work practice required by your development’s far from conceptual daily realities. 

Everything sounds easier on paper (or on a computer screen).  Although completing the design phase was definitely a challenge, completing the development phase is almost always more challenging.

However, as Seth Godin explains, “The Dip is where success happens.  Successful people don’t just ride out The Dip.  They don’t just buckle down and survive it.  No, they lean into The Dip.”

“All our successes are the same.  All our failures, too,” explains Godin in the closing remarks of The Dip.  “We succeed when we do something remarkable.  We fail when we give up too soon.”


“Real Artists Ship”

When Steve Jobs said “real artists ship,” he was calling the bluff of a recalcitrant engineer who couldn’t let go of some programming code.  In Linchpin, Seth Godin quotes poet Bruce Ario to explain that “creativity is an instinct to produce.”

Toward the end of the development phase, the Delivery Date forebodingly looms.  The delivery date is when your definition of success will be judged by others, which is why some people prefer the term Judgment Day since it seems far more appropriate.

“The only purpose of starting,” writes Godin, “is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship.”

Godin explains that the primary challenge to shipping (i.e., completing development by or before your delivery date) is thrashing.

“Thrashing is the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops.  Thrashing is essential.  The question is: when to thrash?  Professional creators thrash early.  The closer the project gets to completion, the fewer people see it and the fewer changes are permitted.”

Thrashing is mostly about the pursuit of perfection. 

We believe that if what we deliver isn’t perfect, then our efforts will be judged a failure.  Of course, we know that perfection is impossible.  However, our fear of failure is often based on our false belief that perfection was the actual expectation of others. 

Therefore, our fear of failure offers this simple and comforting advice: if you don’t deliver, then you can’t fail.

However, real artists realize that success or failure—or even worse, mediocrity—could be the judgment that they receive after they have delivered.  Success rocks and failure sucks—but only if you don’t learn from it.  That’s why real artists always ship. 


The Winning Curve

I named it “The Winning Curve” both because its shape resembles a “W” and it sounds better than calling it “The Failing Curve.” 

However, the key point is that failure often (if not always) precedes success, and in both our professional and personal lives, most (if not all) of us are pursuing one or more kinds of success—and in these pursuits, we generally view failure as the enemy.

Failure is not the enemy.  In fact, the most successful people realize failure is their greatest ally.

As Thomas Edison famously said, “I didn’t find a way to make a light bulb, I found a thousand ways how not to make one.”

“Even in failure, there is success,” explains Chip and Dan Heath.  Whenever you fail, it’s extremely rare that everything you did was a failure.  Your approach almost always creates a few small sparks in your quest to find a way to make your own light bulb. 

“These flashes of success—these bright spots—can illuminate the road map for action,” according to the Heaths, who also explain that “we will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down—but throughout, we’ll get better, and we’ll succeed in the end.”

The Winning Curve can’t guarantee success—only learning.  Unfortunately, the name “The Learning Curve” was already taken.


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Channeling My Inner Beagle: The Case for Hyperactivity


Phil Simon, who is a Bulldog’s best friend and is a good friend of mine, recently blogged Channeling My Inner Bulldog: The Case for Stubbornness, in which he described how the distracting nature of multitasking can impair our ability to solve complex problems.

Although I understood every single word he wrote, after three dog nights, I can’t help but take the time to share my joy to the world by channeling my inner beagle and making the case for hyperactivity—in other words, our need to simply become better multitaskers.

The beloved mascot of my blog post is Bailey, not only a great example of a typical Beagle, but also my brother’s family dog, who is striking a heroic pose in this picture while proudly sporting his all-time favorite Halloween costume—Underdog.

I could think of no better hero to champion my underdog of a cause:

“There’s no need to fear . . . hyperactivity!”


Please Note: Just because Phil Simon coincidentally uses “Simon Says” as the heading for all his blog conclusions, doesn’t mean Phil is Simon Bar Sinister, who coincidentally used “Simon Says” to explain his diabolical plans—that’s completely coincidental.


The Power of Less

I recently read The Power of Less, the remarkable book by Leo Babauta, which provides practical advice on simplifying both our professional and personal lives.  The book has a powerfully simple message—identify the essential, eliminate the rest.

I believe that the primary reason multitasking gets such a bad reputation is the numerous non-essential tasks typically included. 

Many daily tasks are simply “busy work” that we either don’t really need to do at all, or don’t need to do as frequently.  We have allowed ourselves to become conditioned to perform certain tasks, such as constantly checking our e-mail and voice mail. 

Additionally, whenever we do find a break in our otherwise hectic day, “nervous energy” often causes us to feel like we should be doing something with our time—and so the vicious cycle of busy work begins all over again.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing,” explained Lao Tzu

I personally find that whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by multitasking, it’s not because I am trying to distribute my time among a series of essential tasks—instead, I was really just busy doing a whole lot of nothing.  “Doing a huge number of things,” explains Babauta, “doesn’t mean you’re getting anything meaningful done.”

Meaningful accomplishment requires limiting our focus to only essential tasks.  Unlimited focus, according to Babauta, is like “taking a cup of red dye and pouring it into the ocean, and watching the color dilute into nothingness.  Limited focus is putting that same cup of dye into a gallon of water.”

Only you can decide which tasks are essential.  Look at your “to do list” and first identify the essential—then eliminate the rest.


It’s about the journey—not the destination

Once you have eliminated the non-essential tasks, your next challenge is limiting your focus to only the essential tasks. 

Perhaps the simplest way to limit your focus and avoid the temptation of multitasking altogether is to hyper-focus on only one task at a time.  So let’s use reading a non-fiction book as an example of one of the tasks you identified as essential.

Some people would read this non-fiction book as fast as they possibly can—hyper-focused and not at all distracted—as if they’re trying to win “the reading marathon” by finishing the book in the shortest time possible. 

They claim that this gives them both a sense of accomplishment and allows them to move on to their next essential task, thereby always maintaining their vigilant hyper-focus of performing only one task at a time. 

However, what did they actually accomplish other than simply completing the task of reading the book?

I find people—myself included—that voraciously read non-fiction books often struggle when attempting to explain the book, and in fact, they usually can’t tell you anything more than what you would get from simply reading the jacket cover of the book. 

Furthermore, they often can’t demonstrate any proof of having learned anything from reading the book.  Now, if they were reading fiction, I would argue that’s not a problem.  However, their “undistracted productivity” of reading a non-fiction book can easily amount to nothing more than productive entertainment. 

They didn’t mind the gap between the acquisition of new information and its timely and practical application.  Therefore, they didn’t develop valuable knowledge.  They didn’t move forward on their personal journey toward wisdom. 

All they did was productively move the hands of the clock forward—all they did was pass the time.

Although by eliminating distractions and focusing on only essential tasks, you’ll get more done and reach your destination faster, in my humble opinion, a meaningful life is not a marathon—a meaningful life is a race not to run.

It’s about the journey—not the destination.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future.  I live now.”

Hyperactivity is Simply Better Multitasking

Although I do definitely believe in the power of less, the need to eliminate non-essential tasks, and the need to focus my attention, I am far more productive when hyper-active (i.e., intermittently alternating my attention among multiple simultaneous tasks).

Hyperactively collecting small pieces of meaningful information from multiple sources, as well as from the scattered scraps of knowledge whirling around inside my head, is more challenging, and more stressful, than focusing on only one task at a time.

However, at the end of most days, I find that I have made far more meaningful progress on my essential tasks. 

Although, in all fairness, I often breakdown and organize essential tasks into smaller sub-tasks, group similar sub-tasks together, then I multitask within only one group at a time.  This lower-level multitasking minimizes what I call the plate spinning effect, where an interruption can easily cause a disastrous disruption in productivity.

Additionally, I believe that not all distractions are created equal.  Some, in fact, can be quite serendipitous.  Therefore, I usually allow myself to include one “creative distraction” in my work routine.  (Typically, I use either Twitter or some source of music.)

By eliminating non-essential tasks, grouping together related sub-tasks, and truly embracing the chaos of creative distraction, hyperactivity is simply better multitasking—and I think that in the Digital Age, this is a required skill we all must master.


The Rumble in the Dog Park

So which is better?  Stubbornness or Hyperactivity?  In the so-called Rumble in the Dog Park, who wins?  Bulldogs or Beagles? 

I know that I am a Beagle.  Phil knows he is a Bulldog.  I would be unhappy as a Bulldog.  Phil would be unhappy as a Beagle. 

And that is the most important point.

There is absolutely no better way to make yourself unhappy than by trying to live by someone else’s definition of happiness.

You should be whatever kind of dog that truly makes you happy.  In other words, if you prefer single-tasking, then be a Bulldog, and if you prefer multitasking, then be a Beagle—and obviously, Bulldogs and Beagles are not the only doggone choices.

Maybe you’re one of those people who prefers cats—that’s cool too—just be whatever kind of cool cat truly makes you happy. 

Or maybe you’re neither a dog person nor a cat person.  Maybe you’re more of a Red-Eared Slider kind of person—that’s cool too.

And who ever said that you had to choose to be only one kind of person anyway? 

Maybe some days you’re a Beagle, other days you’re a Bulldog, and on weekends and vacation days you’re a Red-Eared Slider. 

It’s all good

Just remember—no matter what—always be you.

The Balancing Act of Awareness

This is my sixth blog post tagged Karma since I promised to discuss it directly and indirectly on my blog throughout the year after declaring KARMA my theme word for 2010 back on the first day of January—surprisingly now almost six months ago.

Lately I have been contemplating the importance of awareness, and far more specifically, the constant challenge involved in maintaining the balance between our self-awareness and our awareness of others.

The three sections below are each prefaced by a chapter from Witter Bynner’s “American poetic” translation of the Tao Te Ching.  I certainly do not wish to offend anyone’s religious sensibilities—I am using these references in a philosophical and secular sense.

Since I also try to balance my philosophy between Eastern and Western influences, Lao Tzu won’t be the only “old master” cited.

Additionally, please note that the masculine language (e.g., “he” and “man”) used in the selected quotes below is a by-product of the age of the original texts (e.g., the Tao Te Ching is over 2,500 years old).  Therefore, absolutely no gender bias is intended.



“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this sentence in the closing lines of his wonderful essay on Self-Reliance, which is one of my all-time favorites even though I first read it over 25 years ago.  My favorite passage is:

“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.  This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.  It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it.  It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Emerson’s belief in the primacy of the individual was certainly not an anti-social sentiment.

Emerson believed society is best served whenever individuals possess a healthy sense of self and a well-grounded self-confidence, both of which can only be achieved if we truly come to know who we are on our own terms.

Writing more than 150 years later, and in one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey explains the importance of first achieving independence through self-mastery before successful interdependence with others is possible.  “Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make,” Covey explained.  “Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent.  They don’t have the character to do it; they don’t own enough of themselves.”

“Private victories precede public victories,” wrote Covey, explaining that the private victories of independence are the essence of our character growth, and provide the prerequisite foundation necessary for the public victories of interdependence.

Of course, the reality is that self-awareness and independence cannot be developed only during our moments of solitude.

We must interact with others even before we have achieved self-mastery.  Furthermore, self-mastery is a continuous process.  Although self-awareness is essential for effectively interacting with others, it provides no guarantee for social success.

However, as William Shakespeare taught us by way of the character Polonius in Hamlet:

“This above all—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”


Empathy, which is central to our awareness of others (i.e., other-awareness), is often confused with sympathy.

Sympathy is an agreement of feeling that we express by providing support or showing compassion for the suffering of others.  Empathy is an identification with the emotions, thoughts, or perspectives expressed by others.

The key difference is found between the words agreement and identification.

Sympathy is the ability to relate oneself to others.  Empathy is the ability to see the self in others—not your self, but the unique self within each individual.  Sympathy is about trying to comfort others.  Empathy is about trying to understand others.

“Empathy is not sympathy,” explains Covey.  “Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment.  And it is sometimes the more appropriate response.  But people often feed on sympathy.  It makes them dependent.  The essence of empathy is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.”

Although both sympathy and empathy are important, empathy is more crucial for other-awareness.

We often simply act sympathetic when in the presence of others.  Therefore, sympathy is sometimes all too easy to feign and can easily remain superficial.  Empathy is less ostentatious, but can exert a far more powerfully positive influence over others.

In the words of Roy Schafer, who emphasized the role of narrative (i.e., the interpretation of our life stories) in psychoanalysis:

“Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person.”

Balanced Awareness

Although it is easy to be aware of only our good qualities, while at the same time, only be aware of the bad qualities of others, these convenient blind spots in our awareness can also become our greatest teachers. 

Borrowing the wise words of Socrates, which thankfully were recorded for us by Plato:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Examining our awareness, and shifting its focus when appropriate between self-awareness and other-awareness truly requires a delicate balancing act. 

When we become preoccupied with self-awareness, our consideration for others suffers.  Likewise, if we become too focused on other-awareness, we can neglect our own basic needs.

Aristotle wrote about such challenges using what he called the Golden Mean, which is usually simplified into the sage advice:

“Moderation in all things.” 

Obviously, there will be times when self-awareness must be our priority, and other times when it must become other-awareness. 

I believe that there is no such thing as achieving a perfect balance, but if we remain true to our own character, then hopefully a consistency will flow freely throughout all of our behaviors, our actions, and our communication and collaboration with others.


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The Importance of Envelopes

No, this is not going to be a blog post about postal address data quality.

It is understandable, however, if that was your first impression.  An envelope is commonly associated with mailing some form of written correspondence, either of a personal nature (e.g., a greeting card) or of a business nature (e.g., a bill requesting payment).

Although the history of envelopes is somewhat interesting, and its future is somewhat uncertain in our increasingly digital world, in this post, I’m going to use envelopes—regular readers will be less than shocked—as a metaphor for effective communication.


The History of Human Communication (An Abridged Version)

Long before written language evolved, humans shared their thoughts and feelings with others using hand and facial gestures, monosyllabic and polysyllabic grunting, as well as crude drawings and other symbolism.

As spoken language evolved, it increased our ability to communicate by using words as verbal symbols for emotions and ideas.  Listening to stories, and retelling them to others, became the predominant means of education and “recording” our history.

Improved symbolism via more elaborate drawings, sculptures, and other physical and lyrical works of artistic expression, greatly enhanced our ability to not only communicate, but also leave a lasting legacy beyond the limits of our individual lives.

Written language, it could be argued, provided a quantum leap in human evolution.  Writing (and reading) greatly improved our ability to communicate, educate, record our history, and thereby pass on our knowledge and wisdom to future generations.

Of course, both before and after the evolution of written language, music played a vital role in the human experience, and without doubt will continue to powerfully communicate with us through instrumental, lyrical, and theatrical performances.

Even if nowadays we get most of our stories from television, movies, or the Internet, and less from reading books or from having in-person conversations, listening to the stories of others continues to play an integral role in human communication.

One of the best aspects of the current digital communication revolution is that it is reinvigorating the story culture of our evolutionary past, providing us with more immediate and expanded access to our collective knowledge, experience, and wisdom.


The Symbiotic Relationship of Message and Medium

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to indicate that the form of a medium embeds itself within the message, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship through which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

McLuhan believed that the medium through which you receive a message effects your understanding of it.  Going even further, he adamantly believed that how the message is delivered is more important than the information content of the message itself.

Compare that perspective with the 7%-38%-55% rule of Albert Mehrabian, which explains that when others are evaluating your in-person communication of your feelings and attitudes (e.g., whether you like or dislike something), here is how the relative importance of the factors involved are distributed:

  • 7% Verbal (i.e., the words that you speak)
  • 38% Vocal (i.e., the tone of your voice)
  • 55% Visual (i.e., your facial expressions and other gestures)

Mehrabian repeatedly emphasized that this formula is only accurate for face-to-face—and emotionally charged—discussions. 

In other words, he was not discounting the value of verbal communication in favor of non-verbal.  Mehrabian was trying to explain why, under certain circumstances, your words matter far less than you think they do—and believe they should.

Even as the digital age continues to bring us new mediums and new messages, both McLuhan and Mehrabian were emphasizing a somewhat similar and still extremely relevant point about the inherently complex nature of human communication:

Your message does matter—but how you deliver it, matters just as much.


The Importance of Envelopes


Envelopes are just as important as the message they deliver for the following three reasons:

  1. Envelopes tell your audience who you are
  2. Envelopes show you paid for the postage delivering your message
  3. Envelopes are personally addressed to the center of your attention: your audience 


Envelopes tell your audience who you are

Your envelope is your first impression—and we all know how many chances you get to make a good one of those. 

Envelopes tell your audience who you really are—and I am not talking about your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and about page.  Those things don’t tell your audience anything other than why you think you’re so damn special that they should listen to you.

Don’t make your audience hear this every time you open your mouth (or write a sentence, or interpretively dance, or whatever):

“Me, me, me, me—I am so important that you should listen to only—me, me, me, me!” 

Your envelope is about your personality, integrity, and humanity—and not about your professional and academic qualifications.  Your envelope should prove that you are a human being, first and foremost.  All of that other stuff is mostly fluff anyway.


Envelopes show you paid for the postage delivering your message

Paying for the postage on your envelope means that you performed the preparation necessary before delivering your message. 

Paying for the postage means that you have done your research.  You understand what your audience is looking for, and you have put thought and care into how to best deliver them useful information or provide them assistance with a specific problem. 

Proving you literally paid the postage on a mailed letter is obvious since the recipient would not otherwise receive your letter. 

Unfortunately, it is not that obvious with all of your messages, neither for you nor for your audience.  Oftentimes, it won’t be until after your message has been received that your audience will decide if you have effectively delivered your message. 

If you have not, then they’ll mark your message Return to Sender—because you clearly didn’t pay the postage on your envelope.


Envelopes are personally addressed to the center of your attention

Ancient Roman amphitheatres were so-named because of their shape, which resembled that of two theatres joined together, forming a central performance space surrounded by ascending seating, thus maximizing their capacity for large audiences.

Amphitheatres literally put the performance on center stage, thus making the performer the center of the audience’s attention.

When delivering your message, and regardless of the actual logistics of the venue, you are probably imagining yourself standing on center stage, with all of your audience’s eyes and ears properly focused on you, and only you, just like it should be—NOT!

Here’s the program for the actual performance:  Your audience isn’t here for you—you are here for your audience

Therefore, you must always be focused on what you are or aren’t doing for your audience.  If instead you are focused more on yourself than you are on your audience, then don’t be too surprised if you don’t have much of an audience—if any at all.

Your envelope must always be personally addressed to the center of your attention, which must always be your audience.


Effective Communication

The importance of envelopes is they remind us that the way we deliver our message is just as important as our message. 

Regardless of how we are communicating, whether it be writing, blogging, presenting, speaking, or an in-person conversation, we need to always remember the importance of envelopes—both our own envelopes as well as the envelopes of others.

Practicing effective communication requires shutting our mouth, opening our ears, and empathically listening to each other, instead of continuing to practice ineffective communication, where we merely take turns throwing word-darts at each other.


My message to you

Since earlier in this blog post, I used an illustration of an envelope, I thought it best to conclude with an illustration of a message:

Wednesday Word: June 9, 2010

Wednesday Word is an OCDQ regular segment intended to provide an occasional alternative to my Wordless Wednesday posts.  Wednesday Word provides a word (or words) of the day, including both my definition and an example of recommended usage.



Definition – As opposed to a C.O.E. (Center of Excellence), a C.O.E.R.C.E. is a Center of Enforced Reality called Excellence.

Example – “After a detailed cost-benefit analysis, executive management determined it would be a far more effective strategy to implement a C.O.E.R.C.E. and I have to say, so far it’s really working out quite well for us—seriously, I have to say that.”


Related Posts

Wednesday Word: April 28, 2010 – Antidisillusionmentarianism

Wednesday Word: April 21, 2010 – Enterpricification

Wednesday Word: April 7, 2010 – Vendor Asskisstic

Mind the Gap

Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons License) by: futureshape

For many people, the phrase “mind the gap” conjures up images of a train platform, and perhaps most notably one used by the London Underground.  I’ll even admit to buying the T-shirt during my first business trip to England more than a decade ago.

However, lately I have been thinking about this phrase in a completely different context, specifically in relation to a recurring thought that was provoked by two blog posts, one written by James Chartrand in February, the other by Scott Berkun in May.

The gap I have in mind is the need to coordinate our acquisition of new information with its timely and practical application.


Information Acquisition

The Internet, and even more so, The Great Untethering (borrowing a phrase from Mitch Joel) provided by mobile technology, has created a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, world wide whirlwind of constant information flow, where the very air we breath is literally teeming with digital data streams—continually inundating us with new information. 

Of course, until they start embedding the computer chips directly into our brains at birth (otherwise known as the top secret iBaby experiment at Apple), we always have the choice of turning off all the devices and giving our full undivided attention to a single source of new information—such as a printed book or, even better, an in-person conversation with another human being.

However, when we are confronted by information overload, its accompanying stress is often caused by the sense that we have some obligation to acquire this new information—as if we were constantly cramming for a perpetually looming pop quiz. 

Contrast this perspective with Albert Einstein, who was known for not remembering even some of the most basic equations.  He argued why would he waste time memorizing something he could just look up in a book—when he needed it

This allowed Einstein to focus on problems nobody else could solve, as well as problems nobody had even thought of before, instead of learning what everyone else already knew.  He acquired more of his new information from his thought experiments than he did from books or other sources.


Filter Failure

As Clay Shirky famously stated, “it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.”  I agree, but setting our filters is no easy task. 

Defending ourselves against information overload has become more difficult precisely because we now have greater individual responsibility for our own filters.  Not only are there more published books than ever before, but blogs, and other online sources of new information, have virtually eliminated the “built-in filter” that was provided by publishers, editors, and other gatekeepers. 

Please don’t misunderstand me—I am the complete opposite of Andrew Keen—I believe that this is a truly great thing. 

However, our time is a zero-sum game, meaning for every book, blog, or other new information source that we choose, others are excluded.  There’s no way to acquire all available information.  Additionally, cognitive load, a scientific theory that, in part, examines the limitations of our memory, explains why we often don’t remember much of the new information we do acquire.

Limiting ourselves to the few books and blogs we currently have the time to read, still requires filtering a much larger selection in order to make those choices—or we could simply choose to read only bestselling books and the blogs with the highest PageRank

However, can that approach guarantee access to the most valuable sources of new information?  Can any approach do this?


Information Application

Although acquiring new information is always potentially useful, it is when—and if—we can put it to use that makes it valuable. 

The distinction between useful and useless information is largely one of applicability.  If the gap in time between the acquisition and application of information is too great, then we would need to reacquire it, rendering the previous acquisition a wasted effort.

Perhaps the key point could be differentiating the type of potential knowledge provided by the information.  At a very high level, there are two broad categories of knowledge—explicit and tacit.


Explicit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge is relatively easily to acquire from either verbal or written information, and is often easily understood without extensive explanation.  Explicit knowledge can be based on a straightforward set of facts, or a specific set of instructions to follow, which after being repeatedly put to practical use just a few times, becomes easy to internalize and later recall when necessary. 

The information required for explicit knowledge is often best coordinated around when the knowledge gained would be used. 

One example is software training classes.  As an instructor, I always recommend minimizing the gap in time between when a training class is taken, and when the students would actually start using the software.  Additionally, an introductory class should focus on the most commonly used software features so students can master the basics before approaching advanced concepts.


Tacit Knowledge

Tacit knowledge is not only more difficult to acquire, but it is often not even easily recognizable.  Some lessons can simply not be taught, they can only be learned from experience, which is why tacit knowledge is sometimes alternatively defined as wisdom.

One of my favorite quotes about wisdom is from Marcel Proust:

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”

Thought-provoking or paradigm-shifting information is often required to get us started on our journey through the wilderness of tacit knowledge, but we can easily lose sight of the deep forest it represents because we are far more immediately concerned with the explicit knowledge provided by the trees.

Whereas explicit knowledge is often more tactical in nature, tacit knowledge is often more strategic.  In general, we tend to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategy, thereby developing a preference for explicit, and not tacit, knowledge.

With tacit knowledge, the gap in time between information acquisition and application is much wider.  You require this time to assess the information before attempting to apply it.  You also need to realize that you will fail far more often when applying this type of information—which is to be expected since failure is a natural and necessary aspect of developing tacit knowledge.


Mind the Gap

As the growing stack of unread books on my nightstand, as well as the expanding list of unread blog posts in my Google Reader, can both easily attest, neither filtering nor acquiring new information is an easy task.

I have read many books—and considerably more blog posts—containing new information, which in retrospect, I can not recall. 

Obviously, in some cases, their information was neither valuable nor applicable.  However, in many cases, their information was both valuable and applicable, but I didn’t find—or more precisely, I didn’t make—the time to either put it to an immediate use, or to use it as inspiration for my own thought experiments.

I am not trying to tell you how to manage your time, or what new information sources to read, or even when to read them.

I simply encourage you to mind the gap between your acquisition of new information and its timely and practical application.

As always, your commendable comments are one of my most valuable new information sources, so please share your thoughts.


Related Posts

Eternal September and Tacit Knowledge

Podcast: Open Your Ears

The War of Word Craft

Will people still read in the future?

The Fragility of Knowledge

Hailing Frequencies Open

Comic Relief: Dilbert on Project Management

For truly comic relief, there is perhaps no better resource than Scott Adams and the Dilbert comic strip.

Since I don’t read newspapers very often (does anyone anymore?), nowadays I get my Dilbert fix online.  However, I don’t always find the time to read the comic strip on a regular basis.  Therefore, I catch up by reading several weeks of it all at once. 

I like to find one or more recurring themes (which is very easy to do with Scott Adams) and then share some of my favorites.

Today’s blog post provides some recent Dilbert Views on the wonderful world of project management.  Enjoy!


Dilbert on Project Management

The first step in project management is proper planning, which starts by selecting a good acronym:

Dilbert by Scott Adams

The next step is to properly establish realistic estimates for the primary tasks in the project plan:

Dilbert by Scott Adams

Of course, the most important resource allocation is the project leader, so you must choose wisely:

Dilbert by Scott Adams

Finalizing the delivery date can involve some tricky math, it’s much easier to just add more resources:

Dilbert by Scott Adams

However if simply adding additional resources won’t really help, there is always an alternative approach:

Dilbert by Scott Adams 

Once it becomes impossible to meet the project’s carefully determined deadline, you know what must be done:

Dilbert by Scott Adams

But fear not, your project can be brought to a graceful conclusion following this standard best practice:

Dilbert by Scott Adams


Related Posts

Comic Relief: Dilbert to the Rescue

A Superb Lyrebird is a Superb Liar

Superb Lyrebird

The Superb Lyrebird is a small ground-dwelling Australian bird that is most notable for its superb ability to mimic almost any sound.  During an excellent special that I watched recently on the Discovery Channel, a Superb Lyrebird demonstrated this extraordinary ability by mimicking not only the sounds of many animals, which also included the human voice, but also various musical instruments, power tools such as drills and chainsaws, electronic devices such as car and fire alarms, and even some incredibly realistic sounding gunshots and explosions.

Male lyrebirds use this ability mainly during their song and dance courtship rituals.

As fascinating (well, I find it fascinating) as this information is, you are probably wondering why I am blogging about it. 

No, despite the rumors circulating the Twitterverse, I am not auditioning for my own primetime show on Animal Planet

However, I have recently been participating in the song and dance courtship ritual otherwise known as job interviews.



I have always found the very concept of a résumé (or a curriculum vitae or far more often nowadays, a LinkedIn profile) to be truly fascinating.  The idea that a well-written document (printed, electronic, or online) that provides a mixture of summarized and detailed information about your professional experience, career goals, job history, academic qualifications, and references, can somehow encapsulate what kind of employee you would make is highly specious—at least in my humble opinion.

I think that the Superb Lyrebird is an excellent metaphor for a résumé because the job seeker is essentially attempting to mimic the sounds that the employer wants to hear.  Do you have an academic degree in a discipline relevant to the job opening?  If not, did you at least graduate from a prestigious college or university?  Does your job history include professional experience relevant to the job opening?  If not, did you at least have some past jobs with either impressive descriptions or titles?  Are your career goals ambitious enough—but not so ambitious that they could be considered potentially threatening to your new direct manager?

I am not suggesting that these questions are completely irrelevant, nor am I suggesting that some level of screening can’t be effectively performed using them.  However, is it really difficult to make sure that your résumé at least sounds good?


Gaming the System

Although you can’t embellish your education, you can easily get quite creative with the rest, such as using the right keywords in your job descriptions.  A cursory review (either manual or automated) of keywords is still a very common practice performed by human resources (HR) during the preliminary screening to determine what résumés will reach the desks of hiring managers.

So it would seem that “gaming the system” is what you have to do if you want to secure gainful employment.  In fact, it could be easily argued that the system is purposely designed to be gamed.

This is akin to my university literature professor not really caring what I actually thought about Don QuixoteIf I wanted to pass the final exam, then I had to mimic the professor’s belief that Miguel de Cervantes intended his wonderful novel to be an allegory for the critical but sometimes dangerous role that an active imagination can play in the human experience.

Telling my literature professor what he wanted to hear doesn’t mean that I truly appreciated or even understood the brilliance of the novel.  Although I gained the experience of reading it, passed a course that contributed to my graduation, and can sound good at a dinner party where guests have an interest in discussing the novel with me, does that really qualify me as an expert?

I can play buzzword bingo with the best of the best.  I can quote from the books and blogs of industry thought leaders.  I can customize my résumé so its loaded with all the right keywords.  I can use my Internet prowess to wow you during a telephone interview by using Google and Wikipedia to sound like the smartest man on the planet.  I can cram for the in-person interview like I crammed for my literature final exam because if I do my research well, I will know every question you are going to ask, and I will know exactly how you want me to answer them.


A Superb Lyrebird is a Superb Liar

Just like a Superb Lyrebird convincingly mimicking a lion only makes it sound like a lion, and convincingly mimicking what my professor wants to hear only makes me sound like a great student, convincingly mimicking what you are looking for only makes me sound like a potentially great employee.  But how many “lions on paper” or “lions during the interview” have you or your organization hired only to end up with a mostly flightless bird incapable of doing anything other than sounding impressive?

The reason that this happens is incredibly simple—a Superb Lyrebird is a Superb Liar.

However, my point is not to suggest that either job seekers are deceptive or that employers are easily deceived. 

My point is I believe that the system is fundamentally broken because it actually encourages job seekers to act like lyrebirds and actually encourages employers to hire lyrebirds.

In my career, I have been on both sides of the interview desk.  I have made hiring recommendations that resulted in terrible employees, as well as disagreed with hiring decisions that resulted in excellent employees.  I have performed poorly during interviews that resulted in getting hired anyway, as well as performed brilliantly during interviews that resulted in no offer. 

I acknowledge that some truly qualified people, who would make great employees, simply do not interview well.  Some people (including so-called “professional students”) excel at interviews (and in the classroom), but at absolutely nothing else.  Also, some interviewers simply do not know how to conduct a truly effective interview (or in some cases, how to conduct a legal interview).

Therefore, I completely accept that there is no way to perfect the process (and that I am also making sweeping generalizations).


Tilting at Windmills

Recently I have been very disappointed with both the questions that I have and have not been asked during an interview. 

I have also been very disappointed to observe interviewers getting frustrated with me for telling them the truth as opposed to telling them what they wanted to hear. 

Perhaps I should just play along like a good little Superb Lyrebird?  It certainly sounds like that is what is expected of me.

After all, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha is really an allegory about deception, both self-deception and the deception imposed on us by others—and about acknowledging not only the negative, but also the positive aspects of deception.

My good friend Sancho has just arrived, meaning it’s time once again to do battle with the hulking giants and try to slay them. 

Even though I know that I am really only tilting at windmills, for whatever reason, it still always makes me feel better anyway.

Wednesday Word: April 21, 2010

Wednesday Word is an OCDQ regular segment intended to provide an occasional alternative to my Wordless Wednesday posts.  Wednesday Word provides a word (or words) of the day, including both my definition and an example of recommended usage.



Definition – whereas “enterprisification” is a slang term used to describe scaling or otherwise evolving a technology or service to the point of being able to handle enterprise-level needs, enterpricification is simply increasing the price of a non-scalable or otherwise limited technology or service to the cost usually associated with an enterprise-class solution.

Example – “In a rare moment of honesty, the CTO of Acme Software admitted today that the only distinguishing characteristic of the recently released enterprise edition of their product is enterpricification.”


Related Posts

Wednesday Word: April 7, 2010

Can Enterprise-Class Solutions Ever Deliver ROI?

The Spam Tax

Since 1955, April 15 has been “Tax Day” in the United States—the deadline for filing your state and federal income tax returns.

Therefore, it’s common for alternative taxation models to be discussed today.  For example, one such alternative is the FairTax

I would like to propose another alternative—The Spam Tax.


I Don’t Like Spam!

Although never a big fan of the “food” version of Spam, I am proposing a tax on the electronic version, as defined by Wikipedia:

“Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.  While the most widely recognized form of spam is e-mail spam, the term is applied to similar abuses in other media: instant messaging spam, Usenet newsgroup spam, Web search engine spam, spam in blogs, wiki spam, online classified ads spam, mobile phone messaging spam, Internet forum spam, junk fax transmissions, social networking spam, television advertising and file sharing network spam.”

Can you even imagine how much money could be raised if we could find a viable way to tax spam?


Even conservative estimates indicate almost 80% of all e-mail sent world-wide is spam.  A similar percentage of blog comments are spam, and spam generating bots are quite prevalent on Twitter and other microblogging and social networking services.

Of course, I have absolutely no idea how we would actually implement The Spam Tax

Even if I did, Gelatinous Glaze (aka “The Spam Lobby” in Washington, D.C.) would demand a pound of chopped shoulder meat from every member of the United States Congress known to be under their influence (aka “in the tiny tin can of Big Spam”).

If only there was a way to start a grassroots movement that could convince our political leaders that now is the time for change.

Wait a minute!  I’ve got it!  Every one of us could send our Representatives and Senators an e-mail message!

Perhaps something like the following:


I Like Spam! (the Monty Python sketch)

No respectable discussion of spam can be said to be truly complete without the obligatory inclusion of the Monty Python sketch.

If you are having trouble viewing this video, then you can watch it on YouTube by clicking on this link: Spam (Monty Python)