Perspective Archive

Working the Right Problem

Finding and working the right problem is often a problem.

Solving problems is like painting. Prepping is ninety percent. That means ensuring we’re solving the right problem. It’s a common problem.

As example, a call center supported software for sales people. The sales people were giving them poor reviews. Supervisors listened to calls. Support representatives answered questions well. Supervisors were puzzled. However, representatives were answering the right questions to the wrong problems. They weren’t qualifying sales people’s questions to ensure they were asking the right questions.

Writing down the problem helps to find the right one. In “Are You Solving the Right Problem?” (Harvard Business Review, September 2012 edition) Dwayne Spradlin outlines steps suitable for large teams and complex problems. Step 4 is “Write the Problem Statement.” He also gives three examples of “The Power of Defining the Problem.”

Trimming Spradlin’s approach to fit small teams and individuals, it’s similar to planning’s benefits. It’s the process not the outcome that helps us. In finding the right problem, it’s important to:

Surrounding these are our biases. They encourage us to view problems in ways comfortable to us. We make them fit our experience, expertise, budgets, schedules, understanding and many others.

There are eight generalized biases influencing our perspectives too. They encourage us to view problems in ways we can easily understand, accept and resolve. As a result, we’ll end up tackling the easy but wrong problem.

Problems are also like crime scenes. They need enough scope to contain the information and give the perspective we need. Our need for security often as certainty, clarity and simplicity will emotionally trigger us to overemphasize statistics. Expanding our scope means searching and analyzing different types of information, not just the quantifiable.

Details help here. A glass filled with sand looks full. Diving deeper, gaps appear among the sand particles, more spaces to fill. Analogously, they are the gaps hard data leaves to intangible factors. It also means challenging definitions, demanding more specificity and applicability.

Yes, this is work and difficulty, naturally deterring us. This can’t deter us from the right problem though. If it does, paint will peel, and we’ll soon be painting again.

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We easily think of our personalities as being a uniform whole. The idea of aspects of our personalities hiding, even for decades and more, isn’t considered. Yet, a change of personality is really a change of perspective.

Very often, how we see ourselves – our self-view – is based on what others say about us or what we’re told to do. Pavlov’s classical conditioning theories apply to humans as well as dogs. Habitual, unthinking actions come to represent our behaviors and us. In actuality, they were formed by following rules and leaders, and by following the prompts of family and friends. In effect, thinking for ourselves and discovering ourselves can be challenging.

Illustratively, looking at the top half of the schematic below, we see one dot brighter than its surroundings, another darker and one blended in. In reality, as the bottom half shows, all three dots are the same. The left dot could illustrate that we come across brighter and happier than those around us, the right darker and moodier. Thus, the personalities and culture around us will shape our self-view especially if they prompt us as in “you’re always so happy.”

Change of Personality or Change of Perspective

Just as we can alter the appearance of photographs by changing frames, changing the frameworks of people lives can give the appearance of personality change.

If the dots now represent an aspect of our personality, the center dot hides for long periods if circumstances or culture don’t change. When something changes, that particular aspect is brought out, as shown by either left or right dot. Tremendous challenges and crises often bring out dormant personality aspects. Introverted celebrities are quite different on stage. Yet, we claim “events changed them.”

We easily change photographs’ appearances by changing frames. Highlighting different colors for example changes perspective. Photographs don’t change though. Similarly, changing the framework of people’s lives will give the appearance personalities have changed.


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Danger of Humbleness

By Mike Lehr
Wisdom Sun

The Sun doesn’t know how bright it is.

Michelle Held (Twitter), an entrepreneur who helps businesses develop corporate pro-social presences and mentors nonprofit start-ups, prompted this post. She requested elaboration on how people misinterpret others not telling the truth as lying after reading, “Why Employees Lie Even When the Truth is Better.”

The truth is not necessarily clear. It often varies depending upon perspective and talent, thus making it vague and unbelievable many times. Yet, when it’s clear to us and not others, it’s easy for us to view them negatively.

Much of this stems from what I call the downside or danger of humbleness. It’s when we discount our talents so much that we believe it’s easy for others to do, think, understand, see, remember and feel what we do. For instance, Michelle noted that she “once read that people with exceptional memories tend to think others lie” because they don’t understand how others could forget.

Culturally, we’re taught humbleness is a virtue, bragging and showing off frowned upon. As a result, it’s easy to believe our talents commonplace. It just boils down to hard work, nothing special. It becomes easy to say when people can’t:

  • Do what we do, they’re lazy
  • Think what we think, they’re not concentrating
  • Understand what we understand, they’re being obstinate
  • See what we see, they’re dismissing us
  • Remember what we remember, they’re lying
  • Feel what we feel, they’re being mean

I often use the analogy, “the sun doesn’t know how bright it is.” Darkness doesn’t exist for it. All it sees is its own brightness. Thinking our talents commonplace prejudices our assessments of others by forcing them to live in our light, producing exactly what humbleness should avoid: gross exaggeration of our self-view.

They’re not lying. They’re just unable to see truth as we see it.


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Our Twitter exchange regarding a quote of mine encouraged Dr. Julie Rasmussen to suggest that I incorporate it into a post. She found applicability to her experiences with healthcare workers:

Laws make people immoral because they believe if their action isn’t against the law it must be okay.

We’re taught to obey the law, it’s very ingrained. We often set our moral compasses (or aspects of them) to it. We like laws and morality to align. Otherwise, cognitive dissonance (more) arises. Which do we follow? Rosa Parks resolved it by upholding the morality of equality. Rasmussen’s healthcare workers resolved it by working around rules, a milder form of law, to provide care and by feeling badly about it.

So now, consider Jesse Willms (“The Dark Lord of the Internet”, The Atlantic, January/February 2014 edition). He “has been sued by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Microsoft, Oprah Winfrey . . . But he has never been charged with a crime.” Willms runs spam campaigns. He usually buries lucrative provisions in seemingly very normal, innocuous purchase disclosures. He knows people rarely read them. Some include charging credit cards extraneous monthly membership fees. The stated procedures to halt this (if people ever catch these relative small amounts on their statements) are often difficult to find and onerous to execute. His defense is that people should have read everything. He hasn’t broken any law warranting his arrest despite many consumer complaints and civil suits.

Consider finally the financial crisis. It’s perfectly legal to make all the money we want at the expense of our homeland’s and fellow citizens’ financial security. Is it moral, ethical and patriotic?

Thus, in reality, the law isn’t about what’s right, it’s about what’s legal. If this sounds strange, the law might be giving us a false sense of morality.


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Problem SolvingOnce we detail our problem using the five introductory steps from my prior post or some other method, questioning these details begins. Again, we can visualize zooming to take a closer picture or using binoculars to get a closer look. Just as these illuminate details creating a different perspective, this process does the same. Seeing things from a different perspective is critical to problem solving.

Here are questions we can apply to our definitions, factors and processes. The steps mentioned in them reference my prior post outlining five steps detailing a problem:

  • What difficulties were there in documenting the problem; how can you overcome them if you haven’t already?
  • What aspects of the problem don’t seem to be problems or aren’t included in the problem you documented?
  • If the problem suddenly went away, how would you know; what would cause it to do so?
  • How can you improve the definitions in Step #2 to make the problem easier to understand or better defined?
  • Why do the factors in Step #3 influence the problem or the conditions, schedules, resources and people connected to it; how can you influence them positively?
  • Why are the conditions, schedules, resources and people in Step #3 important to the problem or to the business (i.e. what if they weren’t there)?
  • What process improvements, deletions or additions can you make in Step #4 regardless of whether you think they would solve the problem?

Of course, many other questions exist. This list though can stimulate others. While this process might seem onerous, so does starting any exercise program. With practice it becomes easier and virtually automatic. Moreover, in our haste to meet time constraints, we make decisions that only compound our problems and steal our time later.

So, when is your brain’s exercise program beginning?


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This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Why Problems Occur

People prefer big to smallFocusing on the big rather than small, is another alert I heed as a problem identifier. This occurs when people apply overarching solutions rather than surgically specific ones, declaring the forest a problem rather than specific trees.

Even though focusing on the forest is often easier, it differs from the Easy-Difficult Alert in that much of the Big-Small Alert is a function of personality; some don’t have the mindset or temperament to dive into the specifics of a situation. Just as various cameras varying ranges of resolutions, people see problems – and life – through varying resolutions. Also, politically, the big might become important to show decisive, sweeping actions. Reorganizations are a frequent example.

Here are some examples of over focus on the big causing problems in the right circumstances:

In simple terms, we often experience the Big-Small Alert when we don’t explore and incorporate details well. So, when we find ourselves thinking, “Devil’s in the details,” problems are often lurking.


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Writer's Block BreakthroughAs with the common cold, writer’s block infects many, attacking writers of every ilk, from creative to business to technical. Fear and comfortableness are the two overarching causes. All writing has a creative component, otherwise it’s plagiarism. Fear intimidates creativity and comfort sedates it. “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” [~Picasso].Thus, creativity is an aggressor altering our status quo. Writer’s block is imprisonment in our fortress.

As my first technique, I recommend examining the mix of people with whom we associate. Creativity needs disruptive people, people who challenge our status quo. Too often, we associate with people similar to us, who think and emote as we do. They reinforce our perspectives, not challenge them. It’s not important that they change our perspective; it’s important that they cause us to ponder more deeply. In this way, we develop our perspective with a new angle.

My second technique is a bit longer term. Just as ignoring people damages relationships, ignoring creativity makes us more susceptible to writer’s block. Therefore, when you have a creative idea, jot it down . . . anywhere . . . on your computer, phone, scrap paper, napkins or in small notebooks. At first, it doesn’t matter what the idea is. You need to let your creative self know his or her work is important to you even if it might not be its best work. Within a year, you will experience noticeable improvement not to mention have a wealth of ideas on your various lists.

Often writer’s block is nothing more than becoming comfortable with a certain line of thought or approach. This is when we must challenge the definitions and processes in our lives and acknowledge the ideas we do have.

How do you plan to destabilize your life?


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This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Sun Tzu Top 7

1982 Reprint
Oxford University Press 1963

At number six in my list of top seven Sun Tzu quotes from The Art of War, I have:

Therefore, a skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates.

One aspect of Sun Tzu that I find frequently ignored is his integrated perspective of events. Many factors influence them, yet we often behave as though life is only a stage upon which humans play. In reality, life is an organism, meaning that in our analogy that stage is alive and constantly moving.

Putting this in a practical business perspective, I often find that managers feel as though they are actually doing something when they say something as, “I told them they had to get this done.” Such orders do not help subordinates deal with the situation, and thus, violates Sun Tzu’s quote number seven.

Yet, this is the danger those who strongly believe in free will and in our control over events pose. They can reach a point at which Pollyannaism takes over, and they believe will alone is enough to solve problems. In reality, this quote of Sun Tzu emphasizes the need to do real problem solving (victory) by looking at the situation. Otherwise, we arrive at situations similar to the one in the movie Gallipoli where force the fastest man in the world to charge a machine gun nest over open land and expect . . . or at minimum demand . . . success.

In effect, Sun Tzu is saying that the solution to squeezing water from a rock is not demanding employees to do so. He requires leaders and managers to apply real problem-solving skills.


Note: Versions of this quote usually appear in the 21st paragraph of the fifth chapter, Energy.


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This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Change Management Strategy

Change Management Strategy 02As we acquire knowledge and experience, we tend to become wedded to the status quo. Tenure compounds this effect as Xueming Luo, Vamsi Kanuri, and Michelle Andrews report in their article, “Long CEO Tenure Can Hurt Performance” (Harvard Business Review, March 2013 edition). While they focus on CEO’s, their reasoning applies to other jobs within the organization. In short, some of the employees most resistant to change will be those who have been in their jobs for a long time.

Thus, a change management strategy could entail moving people to other parts of the organization. This could dovetail nicely into the firm’s leadership development program and into consolidating the 5% supporting change. These authors found that long CEO tenure yielded:

  • Less risk taking
  • Less adaptability to change
  • Increased reliance on existing networks and ideas
  • Less exposure to new contacts with new ideas
  • Less attunement to the marketplace
  • Increased preference for avoiding losses over pursuing gains
  • Increased personal stake in the success of existing strategies and projects even if they aren’t effective

The authors did find that long CEO tenure tended to yield stronger management-employee relationships. Yet, this could have the negative effect of unifying employees around failing strategies, thus making change even more difficult for successors. Again, while the authors focused on CEO’s, these tendencies hold true for executives and managers of all ranks.

Of course, we could easily abuse this strategy by removing older talent, but we should not underestimate how much a change in perspective influences people’s decisions and behaviors. Moreover, since the above tendencies are predictable, we can plan for them by altering incentives and managerial oversight (coaching) to avoid them.

Yes, changing jobs can be refreshing for managers and improve long-term standings of both companies and managers.


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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Inspirational

One upon a time a service rep for a financial firm shared her story about having to deliver some bad news to an elderly client. The news was that she had discovered that a unrelated professional to the financial firm was skimming money from her accounts. The client was extremely upset and hurt to learn she had misplaced her trust with a long-term relation. The service rep wondered how she could have better delivered the news.

I drew a straight line on the flipchart as said, “We often like and strive for this: a calm, peaceful, steady event. However, does anyone also know what this also represents?” There was no answer from the group, so I drew another line (Figure 1). I asked, “Does anyone know what this represents?”

Several did answer, “Heartbeats.”

Figure 1: Like a Heartbeat

Figure 1: Like Heartbeats

“Okay, if this represents ‘heartbeats,’ what does this straight line represent?” Again, there was silence, so I answered, “It represents a flat EKG!” Pausing to let this sink in, I then continued, “Now, if we look at the entire cycle of a resting heartbeat (B), we will find that close to 85% of it (C) is calm and very flat. However, this part doesn’t keep us alive. It’s the remaining 15% (A) that does.”

“So now, let’s return to your story. Every day you must have many aspects of your job that are fairly routine, that you can do almost without much thought. I also have to believe that events such as you had with this client are rare?” The service rep nodded her agreement.

“However, what really gives your job life, what really makes your talents valuable, is what happens in this part of your job (A) not in this part (C). Without this (A), your job is lifeless, boring. So, what I’m suggesting is that these parts of your job (A) are only a natural occurrence in the performance of your job (B).

I would also extend this to life in general: life is like a heartbeat. What keeps it going, what keeps life lively is the 15% not the 85%. So, my question to you is this: Do you want your life to be like this (the flat line) or this (Figure 1)?”


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Musical Notes on Water

Musical Notes on Water

A while back I read “Why Music?” (The Economist, December 18, 2008 edition) and the first sentence of the concluding paragraph hit me:

The truth, of course, is that nobody yet knows why people respond to music.

It’s mysterious how something so prevalent can be so unknown. Yet, while today it remains true, people like Daniel Levitin are increasingly showing how we respond to music. Adam Gopnik explores his work in “Music to Your Ears” (The New Yorker, January 28, 2013 edition) and writes about one way:

Expressiveness is error. . . . Levitin could show what really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace. (Too much imperfection and it sounds like a madman playing; too little, and it sounds like a robot.)

Levitin discovered this by comparing human piano playing to that of a computer. When a computer perfectly played each note, we liked it much less than the human who didn’t. Now, if the error is too great, more and more of us will decide the artist is just banging.

A great example of this tension is Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock. From a robotic perspective, Hendrix’s is playing it very wrong; however, from a humanistic one it’s expressiveness, the same expressiveness we apply to our clothes and even our jobs. To some it’s just noise. To others it’s tearful beauty.

Expectations play a role though. If we expected a more traditional rendition, then Hendrix’s would likely disturb us. So, in effect, if imperfect music is perfect music, then since music reflects our personalities, the imperfect human is the perfect human. Therefore, what we interpret as imperfections in others is really expressiveness.

Yes, I know, quite a leap for the workplace.


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Hell Image Text [IMG-0124]Businesses strive for predictability. Standardization helps them achieve that. Still, many employees like their jobs for their variability, “It’s something different every day.” Herein is a paradox.

On one hand, we have predictability containing expenses by minimizing surprises. On the other hand, work’s variability gives us pleasure. Could predictability make us wealthy but miserable too? Walter Kirn touches on this paradox in his article “Knowledge of the Future Is Messing With the Present” (The Atlantic, July/August edition) by asking:

Has making life more explicable actually made it any more pleasurable?

Perhaps by understanding predictability better, we could appreciate change better and strip its fearsomeness. The The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” can help.

The main character, Rocky, is a petty thief who dies. A divine guide finds him to deliver the news and show him to his new “home.” At first, Rocky can’t believe his luck for in this place he gets whatever he wants. In poker, all the cards go his way. With women, none deny him. Despite his long list of sins, Rocky figures God granted him heaven.

However, after a while, he becomes bored with the predictability of succeeding at whatever he attempts, poker, slots, women, robberies, billiards etc. Finally, he approaches his divine host and says, “If I gotta stay here another day, I’m gonna go nuts! Look, look, I don’t belong in Heaven, see? I want to go to the other place.”

The divinity rebuts, “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This IS the other place!”

By imagining extremes, we alter our perspectives, permitting a more realistic assessment of our conditions. Not only do these perspectives influence our emotions (i.e. reducing fear of change) but also they improve our problem-solving skills.



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This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Creative Innovation

One of the points Giovanni Gavetti makes in “The New Psychology of Strategic Leadership” (Harvard Business Review, July-August 2011 edition) about associative thinking but holds true for all aspects of creative innovation and decision making are our own biases. As a result of “the human mind’s confirmatory nature,” “Strategists often look selectively for evidence that supports the analogy” they’ve formed in associative thinking.

In other words, when doing our research we are more inclined to focus on evidence, or types of evidence, supporting our points rather than contradicting them. For instance, we might value statistical evidence over anecdotal or empirical evidence. We might value evidence produced by the scientific method rather than an alternative process such as trial and err. Yet, in both cases, accepting different types of evidence or evidence produced by different processes, stimulates creativity. Moreover, by holding the team to these things, such as requiring quantification, not only do we restrict creativity but we reinforce the status quo, inertia.

However, it’s difficult for people to come out from under their own biases. This means it becomes incumbent for the managers of these teams to be prepared and have the talent to lead the change that innovation brings. One thing that truly distinguishes leadership from management is the degree to which each must promote change. That includes change in evidence and processes the team will consider in evaluating options.

Thus, while diversity in our creative innovation teams is important, diversity in our approaches and processes to tackle problems and to make decisions are too. We can look at an organization’s policies and processes as a form of “group bias” that can impose itself on our teams and drastically negate their inherent advantages.

Beware of not only individual biases but institutional ones too.

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This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Creative Innovation

We often forget that innovation is born from people. Thus, since children are often like their parents and most innovations cause disruptions, innovation is likely to be born of disruptive people. Even though research supports the role of dissenters in improving businesses, integrating disruptors with other talent requires a higher quality manager.

For example, consider what Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, told David Kushner for his article, “Machine Politics,” (The New Yorker, May 7, 2012 edition) about the notorious hacker, George Holtz, arguably the best of our time:

I understand the mind-set of a person who wants to [hack], and I don’t think of people like that as criminals. In fact, I think that misbehavior is very strongly correlated with and responsible for creative thought.

Buttressing the analogy we have the popular idea of disruptive innovation (aka disruptive technologies) originally asserted by Clayton Christensen of Harvard University (see Larissa MacFarquhar’s article “When Giants Fail” [The New Yorker, May 14, 2012 edition]). Yet, I’m sure disruptive innovation is far more popular in business than disruptive personalities are.

In business we tend to favor those who view their glass half-full rather than half-empty even though the latter is more likely to go and get more water. Consider that it often takes crises to trigger change: Who’s more likely to see a crisis – the “half-full” or “half-empty” person? Also, we often grow weary of the person who bucks rules and questions conventions; yet, attacking such things is important in innovation.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish disruptive from destructive. The line isn’t always clear, and only reinforces the need for better management. This could likely be a more sensitive manager, a manager adaptive to a broader array of personalities and aware that disruptive employees might be the most creative.


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This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Feelings, Emotions, Intuition - Difference

A commenter (Roger) to my post on the difference between emotional intelligence and intuition wanted more elaboration, especially between emotions and feelings:

It’s also not clear what the difference between Emotion and Feelings are in your article and also in reality, these are often used interchangeably.

Using a food analogy, feelings are ingredients, emotions are foods and intuition is what the food tells us about the meal, event or us. Thus, feelings form emotions, and emotions move us (e-motion) to think, do or say something that gives us insights into things, events, people and ourselves.

For example, yeast, salt, water and flour make bread. These four ingredients are feelings and the bread an emotion. How the bread is made and used can tell us much about what’s going on. A large loaf might mean many people; a loaf with a soft crust might mean sandwiches.

Foods tell us much about the meal, the event and the people. Whether it’s junk food, comfort food or breakfast food, or a formal meal, an ethnic meal or a vegetarian one, we learn something. Intuition works the same; it helps us learn what our emotions are saying. For example, if I’m sad (feeling), I might want to buy something (emotion). What I buy says something (intuition) about my state or even myself.

Any event can produce many feelings in us, sometimes conflicting. For instance, a friend’s good fortune might produce feelings of happiness and envy. Together they produce an emotion that might move us to arrange a celebration for the friend (happiness) but it’s more subdued than we could have done (jealousy). Then, intuition helps us learn what our emotions are saying about our relationship with our friend.

Thus, to understand the differences among these words, think food!


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