Underpants Gnomes Ahead!

A few years ago I got to catch up with a friend of mine from high school who served in the initial invasion of Iraq as an Army Ranger. He told me that the term for the invasion as dubbed by the rangers he served with was Operation Underpants Gnomes. For those of you who didn’t watch South Park in the late 90’s you might have missed this particular cultural nugget. To summarize the boys from South Park meet a group on entrepreneurial gnomes with a simple business equation 1. Collect Underpants 2. ? 3. Profit/We all get rich.

What the rangers in the Iraq invasion were saying was that step 1 = Invade Iraq, step 2 = ?, step 3 = Freedom in the Middle East. Clearly 8 years later we are still in the “?” phase that the rangers had identified on the ground in very short order. From my experience though Underpants Gnomes Thinking is a danger that falls into a lot of our lives ranging from business decisions to personal matters. I see no shortage of people with a clear step 1 of “let’s set up production in China” leading to step 3 “then we get rich.” Not a lot of step thinking happens until they get on the ground and have to actually implement step 1.

I work in a highly labour intensive field and it is real tendency to watch companies in my industry look for a silver bullet. Or in underpants Gnome thinking a really good step 1. Luckily we don’t see many people trying to actually steal underwear, but we do get a lot of “If we can get one great idea,” or one great event, or be the first to be licensed to distribute such and such product. I see a lot of people believe that a strong e-mail database, a good flier, and good idea equal a must win marketing strategy. Eg instant sales through e-mail or web hits to the homepage. They miss the middle step of making phone calls and knocking on doors and spreading word of mouth. I’ve been thinking about this as I wrap up a marketing drive for an open workshop next week. I think I might have been succumbing a bit to Underpants Gnome thinking. The result is that the past couple of weeks I have been sucked into a lot of last minute hard sales and negotiations I should have already done more than a month or two ago.

Does this look like anyone you work with?

It’s worth sitting down with your team to analyze what constitutes a well formed step 2 and what qualifies as part of step 1. Ask yourself bluntly do you have a step 2 that constitutes a plan on the ground that will save stress and headaches later or our you just sending in your troops hoping for best results with sheer numbers? As the underpants Gnomes can attest having a great step 1 can only get you so far.

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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.

Fitzgerald and the Fourth Person Perspective

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

I like this quote quiet a lot. Since I don’t have much time to write this week I want to use it as a jumping off point.

A few years back I used to run a networking event in Guangzhou called Oriented. Oriented.com is or was a social site for people living in key cities abroad or in the US with an interest or background in Asian culture. In the Summer of 2005 one of my attendees dropped into my hands a copy of the Harvard Business Review with an article on Action Logic aptly titled Seven Transformations of Leadership. A year later I went to the UK to get certified by Harthill UK in the administration of the psychometric assessment that looks at how to measure those seven stages. If you would like to know more about Harthill you can check out their website here are you can go online and take their snapshot evaluation. If you feel intrigued enough to take the whole assessment you can contact me directly and I can arrange that.

To me F. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t really just talking about intelligence he is using the language he had available to him at the time to describe the ability to see a situation from a fourth person perspective. Fitzgerald is here labeling “a first rate intelligence” where what he is actually looking at in my opinion is development stage. It would make sense though given his social circle that he would also associate the traits he saw as being bright and capable with being further along on the spiral development track. If you would like to spend a bit of time looking at what spiral development is check out this presentation from a couple years back.

This all comes to mind this Monday morning after watching a few debates play out over the past couple of weeks. There is a tendency by people to think that answers are either one way or the other. Actually debate is founded on the idea that when we have two different ideas one has to be right and the other can be proven to be wrong. Some people who make it to the later stages in life might point out that there are shades of gray and that context affects most arguments so that it is hard to make sweeping statements.

What Fitzgerald is proposing and what a fourth person perspective provides is that in many cases there are no shades or grey and that it isn’t in fact a “sometimes” or “on occasion” world. In fact, things exist in a plurality rather than singular point of view. In other words what can be black can also be white. Not just in context or sometime, but always and in fact they aren’t two ideas but actually one. Fitzgerald wouldn’t be the first person to point this out either. Kierkegaard points out that we can only truly be “free” when we accept paradoxes (his specific point of view as a Christian existentialist is the paradox of death and rebirth) and in that same vein of Saint Augustine in 400 AD made similar points.

So my challenge to readers this week is to push for the paradox. Don’t accept the idea that it has to be either or this week. To use the language behind Action Logic, get post-conventional this week. Challenge yourself that there isn’t one singular point of view and try to see the other side which arguably is the same side. Then make Mr. Fitzgerald proud by continuing to function while fully embracing the paradox…

Thinking, still not as popular as you might think…

My good friend Dennis is going through a life a change. It is not the first one that he has gone through. I understand that before I met Dennis he was the Mayor of a tow in his home province. When I met him he was VP of HR at one of China’s largest manufacturers and designers of TV’s, Phones, and white goods (that’s household appliances to the rest of us.) He is an interesting guy and a real free thinker. I understand that his boss hired him to help challenge the way they do things there. I also understand that Dennis did exactly that. His boss apparently regretted the decision and moved him to VP of white goods in China’s interior and recently let him take paid time off to pursue his interest, helping parents and children grow into future leaders through a new style of pre-school/kindergarten.

Dennis’s idea is a cool one and rather revolutionary for China. What if you actually took the time to involve parents in their kids pre-school education and turn those moments into teachable leadership lessons? He is taking a rather creative step to helping solve the perceived shortage of leadership in private industry in China by getting parents involved in thinking about what their kids are doing. I sent him link to a great article from last week’s Geekdad blog that I thought he might enjoy in his pursuit. That link is here http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/03/the-importance-of-logic-critical-thinking/ for those of you interested in the source material.

I would hope that beyond the issue of leadership that he could help young parents with a shortage that is, in my opinion, a greater risk for business in China than a lack of leadership. A lack of thinking skills. Getting involved with your kids is a great time to start helping them think in critical ways and develop logic, but it also helps us to test some of our false assumptions and beliefs that limit our thinking skills. For my part our son is merrily rounding the bend at 3 and a half and full of questions. I understand that a lot of kids are into “why” at this age, but not my boy he is into “what does x eat?” or “where does x or y live?” He is busy sorting information into the filing cabinets in his head about how the world ought to be working. The challenge at this stage is to keep up with his information demands but also to get him to think about what logical connections he can make about these things. After all if airplanes and cars both drink petrol there ought to be a reason why…

A few years ago I was promoting assessments for hiring practices and at a marketing event someone asked me what I thought was the single most important factor in hiring that could be assessed. I said in all honesty, and still believe so today, that the answer is Critical Thinking Skills. Having watched people I hired and having watched countless other people in the workplace in China succeed and fail I can say with all honesty that it is more important than your personality type, EQ, or whatever idea du jour is sweeping management thinking. It is a luxury of a developed economy to say that EQ matters more than critical thinking skills, and it is a luxury honestly that is costing companies more than they realize.

A few years back I hired several recent graduates and had differing levels of success. The first hire tested on a critical thinking test at the 35th percentile, the second in the 95th percentile, and the last one at the 55th percentile. In other words I had a range from the bottom third to the middle to a top tier thinker. This was before I instituted a strict no one below the 70th percentile rule. Within the probation period I had let go of the bottom rung hire, the stories I can tell about those 90 days range from funny to sad in both reflect his inability to comprehend his job and my inability as a manager to figure out how he needed to here about his job to succeed at a basic level. The other two stayed for both more than a year with the mid-range employee staying on long after I left. The key difference between these two remaining employees was how long it took to learn information and really the ability to question what they were learning.

The top tier employee within 18 months became the top sales person and had her own group of clients that she was working with. She had changed the way our HR system worked and had also by asking tough questions made it some interesting break-throughs. In strategic HR terms we would call her a “super-keeper.” The mid-range thinker could support a host of training programs and became over the 2 and half years I worked with a reliable and consistent performer. But what colored our relationship was a discussion after she had been a part of my team for 11 months. After a workshop I reminded her that she had one month left to make her first sale. She looked at me and said, “I don’t understand what do you mean.” I reminded her that in her contract it explicitly said she had to bring in one sale valued at 30,000 RMB within her first year or her contract wouldn’t be renewed. That earned me “I had no idea sales were important.” This is despite the fact that we discussed sales figures at the beginning of every sales week. This taught me a lesson about not relying on the implied importance of something we say over and over again. A lesson my 3 year old has refreshed for me time and time again.

To be honest there are some areas of critical thinking that I find statistically are very good here. The Watson Glaser critical thinking battery (used in the USA) divides critical thinking into five areas inference, recognition of assumptions, deduction, interpretation, and evaluation of arguments. I have found using a culturally assessment that the average test taker does well with recognizing assumptions and interpretation in China with a balanced result in evaluation of arguments. In other words something here works very well in the education and parenting model in China. But what about inference and deduction what is happening here.

We can think of “Inference” in terms of Hume’s Law or best summed up in the English maxim, “you cannot get ought from is.” Any other words just because it is this way today by no means does this indicate it must be the case tomorrow. We see barriers here in the emphasis of absolutes in the Chinese education system.

What stumps many young thinkers here about deduction is the ability to go through the three stages of deduction (e.g. if x is true and y is true then z must follow) or even creating a converse negative (if x is NOT true…) but the ability to obviate personal prejudice. For whatever reason I see even the brightest and most talented young people unable to separate moral imperatives and political brain washing from the thinking process. Below is a real example of introducing deduction to participants in a training program. I should thank Freeman for creating this example a couple of years ago as I still use it today.

Me: So as we look at this slide with this lovely young lady “Ayawawa” we see her quote here, ““Anyone who is prettier than me is not as smart as me; anyone who is smarter than me is not so pretty as me.” What possible conclusion can we make according to logical deduction.

The source of much debate...

HR Manager in attendance: she is a bitch!

Me: that is possible, but let’s try using critical thinking!

Here is the good news, critical thinking skills can be taught. I would argue that you should hire for them first, but if you can’t go that route then as a leader you are stuck emphasizing thinking skills. That means putting away a tendency to solve problems for others no matter how tempting it may be. One of the first things we teach in coaching is stop solving other people’s problems. That is the same lesson I offer leaders who want subordinates to think. Secondly start facilitating instead of directing. Set-up discussions that require critical thinking and offer support on getting team members to think about things. This keeps things from getting to the 11th month and having an employee say, “you mean sales matter?” Never mind that your office or team is explicitly labeled as a sales office or team… explicit labels kill critical thinking right? So ask and challenge and don’t get frustrated.

The rewards for having a team that asks questions and can think about how to solve them are great. While you’re at it though encourage the parents in your life to get their kids thinking, it will save a lot of work for the next generation, and maybe they can worry more about hiring for EQ instead of thinking skills.