What do you mean you don’t like Ketchup?

I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”

Tastes good...

From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.

That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.

On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.

Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.

I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?

I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.

In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”

To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.


What took so long or what was I afraid of?

Ego Alert! This entry is very self-centered.  You’ve been warned.


In looking over my calendar I realized today that it seems very likely that I will be booked all the way up to Christmas this year.  While I am sharing billing for a few of those programs with my friends at the German Chamber of Commerce they are entirely predicated on my getting out there and making the business happen.  It seems likely that being busy will continue into January and hopefully cap off with a trip to Uruguay in February, also for a work project.  I will in those five month generate more personal income than I earned working for someone else from 2004-2006 (to be fair I worked for peanuts in 2004) combined.  If we add up income generated from March 2010 through February of 2011 we can add 2007 to that figure.  So why on earth did I take so long to work for myself?

The first answer is the obvious one, skill set.  I made the choice that a lot of people should make early in their careers to invest in  jobs and training that help develop the skills needed to be good at a craft.  If we give room on my life’s timeline for a formal education and sometime in a journeyman system by the time I left full time employment (ie working for someone else) at the end of 2007 I had all the skills I would need to be my own production line , sales & marketing department, and R&D department.  So what happened?  Why did it take nearly two full years to stop committing the majority of my energy to other people’s tasks and focus on what mattered to me?

Rather than be direct let’s flashback to this weekend.

As I kicked off a two day workshop on leadership on Saturday I went through a traditional ritual of letting participants express their concerns and hopes for the workshop they were about to join.  Since we were conducting the workshop in Chinese I saw a fair amount of concerns about attending a two day lecture in Chinese conducted by an American.  To be fair I have a thick American accent when I speak mandarin and unless I have warmed up I am a little slow in mandarin the first morning.  So in essence what they are saying is “we have heard you talk and we aren’t sure this is going to go the way we would like it to.”  It’s easy to take that moment and feel like I am being criticized, because in that moment I am.  It is easy to take that moment and let it define your emotional state for the next two days and let it torpedo your chances of doing something great.

I would like to point out that at the end of the workshop the workshop evaluation scored me at a 4.38 out of 5.  In training terms this is a solid A, not quite an A+ but certainly better than an A-.

So why didn’t I let the moment when everyone in the group volunteered that they saw a significant chance of failure define my feelings?  In part because there is a mounting sea of evidence that my level of Chinese doesn’t change my ability to create successful training results.  In larger part because I have reframed one of my fundamental fears and concerns, the fear of criticism.

Reframing is a useful technique of actively looking for a new or different perspective.  Here is how I have reframed this fear, “people make these little critiques and express these concerns because, in some way, to them the results matter.”  So long as I continue to do things that are meaningful to people these sorts of “criticisms” are actually a sign that my work and the result it creates matters to the critic.  Once you begin to feel like what you are doing matters and is meaningful it makes taking the steps to ensure you continue working much easier to take.  It becomes a virtuous cycle of feeling engaged in your work, by being engaged creating more work, by creating more work that is meaningful staying engaged thus creating more work and so on.

So getting back to the original question… why did it take two years to get focused on my own tasks?  To be perfectly blunt there was a global economic crisis that threw a curve ball at me, but that was never really the cause.  After all we did not feel the impact of the crisis in China until October, but out the gates in 2008 I was trying to work with other people.  By March of 2009 when China was past the worst of the recession (yes it was that fast) I had already put my primary focus on working for someone and stayed focused there for another 6 months or more.

The thing about being afraid of criticism, is it is hard to hear that you are not as bright as you think you are.  After all if you fail there is an organization in place to absorb some of the worst shocks of your failure.  Unless you do something criminal odds are that failure will not result in dismissal and missing your next meal ticket.  If you carry the weight for yourself there is not an opportunity to hide from failure and criticism behind the walls of other people and an established organization.

It took a moment (two years) to get that what I was doing mattered and for that fear to supersede the fear of being criticized.  There were people out there that felt strongly enough about it to encourage or discourage my success.  I had as Seth Godin put it, found my tribe.  Once I knew my tribe was there it was a matter stepping on to the path of my choosing and accepting that people wanted to tell me that they cared about the results of my work.  The next time you find yourself distracting your self from doing what you need  to do (in my case working I kept trying to work for other people) look to see if it isn’t a fear of criticism holding you from making a full commitment to yourself and the people in your tribe who want you to succeed.

Kindergarten graduate versus Biz School graduate

Last week we had interesting program looking at creating a matrix team strategy and synergy.  Since it was a PCL program it got strong reviews, not as high as some of our recent PCL programs but well above the cut-off to measure success and failure.

We took an unconventional approach to synergy the second day by focusing on beliefs that limit individuals from working their best in any team environment.  Since finishing my NLP cert a few years ago there is a stronger presence of belief and limiting belief material in my training and facilitation material.  I like to think this sets us apart from other trainers and consultants, but truthfully there are a number of us out their who focus a lot of their intellectual power on beliefs.  One prime example of this Chris Barclay over at unboundedlife.com who prolifically covers beliefs and their impact.

We kicked off the synergy/beliefs session with one of my favorite new activities, the Marshmallow Challenge.  If you want to learn more about the Marshmallow Challenge check it out over at http://www.marshmallowchallenge.com.  To be fair Sino Associates Partner Ben Massen turned my onto this one and it has quickly become a staple of workshops.  So thanks Ben!

I decided to try something a little different with the front-load this time around.  Prior to the activity I had everyone work out some basic beliefs:

  1. Will your team succeed or fail?  Why?  How do you know this is true?
  2. Of the groups listed below which group usually performs poorly?  Why?  If this is true what else would you expect to be true?
  3. Which group usually performs well?  Why?  If this is true what else would you expect to be true?

List – Recent Business School Students Grads, Lawyers, Recent Kindergarten School Grads, CEOs, CEOs with Admin/HR Executives

For those of you who are Marshmallow Challenge purists you will notice that I left architects/engineers of the list.  Seems a little too easy on the “who will perform well” list for the sake of this thinking activity.

For those of you new to the Marshmallow Challenge I’ll give you the overview.  Teams of 4 have 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure possible with one marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, one meter of masking tape, and one meter of string.  I am a bit liberal with supplies as the US instructions are designed for 1 yard rather than meter, but no one here knows what the hell a yard is.  The Marshmallow must be on top and the structure must be standing without assistance at 18 minutes.

Sounds easy enough right?  After all the success rate is around 50% globally (anecdotally in China I have done this with now with about 300 people and the success rate is probably about 40%)  and the average height is about 20 inches (51 centimeters for you non-Americans).  So the odds of success are pretty good right?

Here is where things get tricky.  PCL is hands down one of the best operating companies I have seen in China.  Their success rate for this activity with four teams participating was only 25%  Their highest structure (I let two team make quick fixes and break their towers to manageable heights giving them a post-project success rate of 75%) about 18 inches.  So what went wrong?

Let’s back up a step and see who PCL teams thought would perform best and why.  Teams were split among three group of potential under-performers, Lawyers, CEOs, and Kindergarten Students.  CEOs were thought to be too egotistical to perform well.  Lawyers were suggested to be too verbose and wordy.  The arguments against the Kindergarten kids were a laundry list long including, poor team skills, poor focus, a tendency to play too much, and that Chinese Kindergarten students would be too passive to succeed at a western designed activity.  I can’t vouch for the difference between US and Chinese kindergarten student but all my instincts scream to me that the last argument is inherently faulty.

Among the teams that they identified as successful the Biz School Students and Kindergarten Kids got the two highest groups.  Kindergarten kids this time got high marks for creativity and low egos.  Biz school students were praised for planning style, team skills, (surely this is taught biz school right?)  and of course creative problem solving.

So what group do you think does best?

According to the official website the top performers are thankfully Architects and Engineers.  For all the right reasons, they generally have the specialized skills to make it work and understand the physics of the challenge.  After that… CEOs with their Executive Admins who are credited with smoothing over egos and having superb facilitation skills.  It’s nice to see that facilitation skills count for something.

Here, of course, it were it gets interesting.  Somehow Kindergarten student snuck into third place with an average height of nearly 30 inches!  Surprised?  Judging by the exclamations from a couple people in the workshop they were and they weren’t ready to buy-into the data I was sharing.

Who performs poorly?  Well at the bottom of the heap are the Biz School students who average a paltry 10 inches and the lawyers who come in about 15 inches.

So what is it that separates B-School grads and Kindergarten students?  If you said that it boils down to planning, or more appropriately the lack of you would be right.  On the other side if you said Kindergarten students were  better at execution you would probably also be right.

B-School graduates (and many companies in China who seek their best and brightest with B-school backgrounds) love making one masterfully crafted plan that leads to one big pay off moment.  In MC terms this is waiting until the last minute to put the Marshmallow on top and not having time fix the tower or at best knocking down half its height before time runs out and the tower breaks apart.  When it works people celebrate when it fails (and it does 60% of the time if not more) people talk about they didn’t have the skills to pull it off.

Ironically information shows us that people do have these skills but between going to work in B-school theory dominated workplaces and when they were 5 or 6 years old they forgot them.  Kindergarten students inherently prototype.  They put the marshmallow on top at 3 or 4 minutes in and  see if it works.  They then build up from bellow to get it as high as possible, continuously testing for success.

Who knew kids were so damn clever?

What struck me here was that the feedback I gave them was based on data collected.  No theory involved.  I had one person basically shout out that this simply wasn’t possible.  It isn’t and won’t be the first time that data and beliefs clash.

We went through the rest of the day exploring how our beliefs and values create rules for us to be successful or unsuccessful.  The human brain is economical and our basic beliefs keep us from being paralyzed by indecision and make sure we get through the list of tasks we have to face from day to day.

For this group the challenge is and will continue to be how their beliefs will impact their success as a team that is basically extra credit work at this point.  It will be interesting to see what they do with the tools we shared with them.  I’ll keep the results updated here periodically.

On slideshare.net! Cool…

As I started blogging yesterday I simultaneously started a slideshare.net account.  They were gracious enough to send me a message saying that my slides for Think Like a Leader from my November NLP sharing session had been posted on their home page.

There are a couple things to be said about this.  I am testing out Slide Share as a step to look at their services as a way of promoting ideas and developing a web identity with their services.  As a trainer I design a lot of slides some of which are not limited by non-disclosure agreements with clients particularly marketing and sharing session slides.

So far I have 130 hits on the slide set with only 4 hours on the front page.  I really wish I had left my contact information in those slides and will make a note to do so in the future…

The other thing to add there is the content of the slides.  The Action Logic material is clearly derived from my LDF certification in England in 2006 and represents a bit of a my spin on spiral development.  Sadly I didn’t put the transcript up for the slides and the animations don’t shine through as a result of their formatting.  There is a bit more humor to the slides that is missing as result.

Overall though it is exciting to see the additional publicity.  I would as an independent trainer recommend Slide Share with the caveat to keep your contact information that you want shared in any slide show you put on their service.