Diversity in a pasta dish and in the workplace

This illustration may seem mundane and simplistic but it speaks to an important issue.

One of my favorite meals is pasta night at Byron’s Restaurant (see picture). You select your type of pasta (bowtie, spaghetti, penne), sauce (marinara or Alfredo), and your choice of 20 different ingredients (sausage, chicken, shrimp, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, green peas, artichokes, mushrooms, etc.). I usually choose all available options so my dish is an amalgamation of multiple flavors, textures, and aromas.

What I love about the dish is that although it is a mixture of many varied ingredients, the unique integrity of each is maintained. I taste the crunchiness of the green peas, the briny taste of the shrimp, the umami taste of the sun-dried tomatoes, the earthiness of mushrooms, etc.

Now, let me use this culinary observation to illustrate an important leadership principle.

Leaders, a critical part of creating an effective team is choosing diverse members. Choose people of different:

  • Age
  • Personality
  • Gender
  • Ethnic background
  • Skills and experience
  • Ideology
  • Passions

Once you’ve selected a diverse group, allow each team member to maintain and express their individuality—don’t homogenize them.

We often do compile a diverse team (because we embrace the benefit of doing so, or (sadly) because it’s the politically correct thing to do) but then we gradually discourage and discount each person’s uniqueness, often in pursuit of a faux sense of oneness and unanimity. Instead, continually encourage and affirm each person’s unique contribution.

Do aim for consensus and harmony around common vision and plans – you don’t want to end up with fractured and dissonant pursuits – but don’t compromise people’s unique contributions to get there.

Back to the pasta dish. It is a terrific meal. The varied ingredients maintain their individual flavors and textures and combine to create a gastronomical delight.

Your team is also capable of producing delightful outcomes, if you’ll let them.

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Thought provoking questions that prompt interesting conversations

Work on crafting a personal response to the following questions. Answering them may open up a new space in your mind. They can also provoke interesting conversation; the next time you’re having dinner with friends, pose a question and ask everyone to respond. My response to each issue is in brackets.

  • Suppose that every night you tuck a child in bed and speak some phrases before he or she goes to sleep. Compose a phrase or series of phrases that you would want to say to the child every night. [You are safe; you are loved; I will take care of you.]
  • What are some things you want to do every year for the rest of your life? [Be on the Queen Mary 2 on its mid-December seven-day transatlantic cruise from London to New York.]
  • What is your favorite emotion? [Accomplishment.]
  • What have you changed your mind about lately? [I want to live in a small house, not a large one.]
  • What harsh truth do you prefer to ignore? [A family member struggles with addiction.]
  • To be happy in life we need at least three things: someone to love, something to look forward to, and something meaningful to do. What is your response to these three areas? [I love my family; I look forward to planting a vineyard and building a small house; my work is very meaningful to me.]
  • Is it better for a person to have a broad knowledge base or a deep knowledge base? [I like Thomas Huxley’s statement: “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”]
  • Why are humans so confident in beliefs that can’t be proven? [We desperately long for answers to difficult questions.]
  • What do you think about the organic food movement? [It’s often misrepresented and overvalued.]
  • What word do you usually misspell? [awkward]
  • What is the proudest moment of your life? [I can’t narrow it down to one moment.]
  • What four words would you hope that people would use to describe you? [rational, kind, capable, consistent]

Question: Please share your response to some of these questions. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Be careful how you offer advice and critique

I recently attended a professional conference that was planned and hosted by a friend. Halfway through the conference, I saw him in the hallway and he asked me how I thought the conference was going. I said I was enjoying it, but then I added, “I do wish the sessions would start on time; and, it would be helpful to have a center aisle in the main meeting area.”

While both comments were true, they were unnecessary and inappropriate. I was 94% pleased with the conference but my friend probably walked away from our conversation remembering my negative comments. It wasn’t my place to micro-critique; his team would do that at the right time. I regret speaking those words.

Most unsolicited advice and critique is unappreciated and unproductive. Even when it is requested we need to be careful as to when and how we speak. To some degree, we’re all thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism and review.

Consider:

  • In any given situation, is it your responsibility or right to offer advice and critique? Just having an opinion is no justification for expressing it.
  • When you do have the right to offer advice and critique, consider the proper timing. For example, suppose your child just played a violin recital and the family has just gotten in the car. Is this the right time and place to say, “You played out of tune; you should have been better prepared”? (This example comes from personal experience, I’m ashamed to say.)
  • Following all events, schedule a debriefing meeting at which time the event will be analyzed. (“Our workshop is this Saturday. Let’s meet next Tuesday morning to analyze and critique the event.”) Both observers of the event and those who actually performed can anticipate having a fair, thorough, and productive examination of what took place.

I am a huge advocate of analyzing everything; all products, services, events…everything. Just be sensitive to when and how you do it.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Between expectations and reality—challenge and progress and discouragement and frustration

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

For years, I had unrealistic expectations regarding a close friend. I was continually frustrated and he was constantly discouraged because of the unrealistic gap between expectations and reality. It was my faulty judgment that was causing the strain and friction in our relationship. When, in my mind, I “lowered the bar” closer to reality, my frustration subsided and the relationship improved.

I have another close relationship in which I have erred in the opposite way: my expectations have been too low and the person has stalled in her growth and development. I need to raise the bar and encourage her to start climbing.

This is a complex topic. Psychologists, leaders, parents, and others have wrestled with this issue and the questions it begets, such as:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having high expectations of people?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having low expectations of people?
  3. How can expectations be set such that the disadvantages are minimized and the advantages maximized?
  4. When is it acceptable to have expectations of people and when is it none of my business?
  5. How does this expectations/reality syndrome apply to the organizations and businesses I relate to? (Are my expectations of my cell phone provider too high or too low? How about local restaurants? The schools my children attend?)

Think of a current relationship in which you are continually frustrated. Do you need to recalibrate your expectations? Identify one of your relationships in which increased expectations would be beneficial. What would be a good, first step?

Leaders, here are some additional thoughts about setting expectations in your organization.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

Talent Is Overrated – What Really Separates World-class Performers from Everybody Else – Geoff Colvin, 2008. You’ll be surprised to learn how people like Mozart, Tiger Woods and Warren Buffet became exemplary, and how we “normal” people can also excel. Click here for more information from Amazon.

Sometimes, think like an anthropologist

Observe and study experiences as an anthropologist would observe and study a ritualistic dance of a tribe in the Amazon.

Anthropologists have an insatiable curiosity about life and possess the requisite skills to study and understand their subjects. They are non-judgmental and they don’t interfere with, or try to change, the subject they are studying. Their sole intent is to observe and learn.

For instance, Margaret Mead (one of America’s first and best anthropologist) is known for her studies of the non-literate peoples of Oceania, especially with regard to various aspects of psychology and culture—the cultural conditioning of sexual behavior, natural character, and culture change. She spent 30 years observing and studying young adolescent girls on the island of Samoa. She was not there to judge, interfere, or change.

Sometimes, it’s beneficial to think like an anthropologist.

For instance, I recently attended the annual Airports Going Green Conference. For three days environmentalists from around the world met to discuss environmental issues and opportunities that airports deal with. I had no responsibilities at the conference and the topic was far outside my bailiwick so I donned my anthropologist persona and for three days simply studied the people who attended and the issues that brought them together.

Thinking like an anthropologist affected my approach; I was a silent, detached observer. This perspective made me more aware of motivations, historical perspectives, roles people played, and possible future outcomes.

Adopting the mindset of an anthropologist heightens our desire to listen and to understand; it lessens our tendency to voice our opinion and perspective. It minimizes our proneness to criticize and reduces our penchant to try to change things. It may even make us more agreeable and easier to get along with, but that’s another topic for another post.

I titled this post “Sometimes, think like an anthropologist” because we needn’t think like one all the time. Most of the time we need to think critically and aggressively address issues.

But occasionally it is beneficial to change persona, take out your notebook and magnifying glass, and simply observe.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

“Yes, but on the other hand…” (the value of dialectic thinking)

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 5 of 12

In my high school debate class we were taught to develop a sound argument for and against each proposition. Prior to a debate we didn’t know which side of the proposition we would be asked to defend so we had to be prepared to support either side. It taught us good debating technique and a good life skill.

There are always two sides (or three, or four…) to every situation. We are usually predisposed to one particular view so it takes concerted effort to think of other perspectives. We usually don’t make that effort; it’s easier to embrace our default position and avoid the intellectual rigor that dialectic thinking requires.

A friend of mine whom I’ll call Chris (because that’s his name) told me that his favorite teacher in high school had a wonderful technique for developing dialectic thinking in his students. If a student made a declaratory statement the teacher would respond with the phrase, “Yes, but on the other hand…” But—here’s the nice twist—the teacher wouldn’t fill in the blank, he required the student to do so.

So, a discussion might sound like this:
Student: “I think it’s wrong for governments to control whether or not chlorine is added to our drinking water.”
Teacher: “Yes, but on the other hand, tell me why it’s a good idea for governments to control that issue.”

One of the keys to thinking well is not so much what you think but how you think, and an important aspect of how you think is to discipline yourself to pursue the multiple perspectives that surround all issues.

At a recent weekly family dinner (my favorite, reoccurring experience) we explored dialectic thinking by staging a debate. I proposed this proposition: We should only bathe once a week. [I had recently read a report in which a group of dermatologist recommended this practice.] Lauren and Jonathan were teamed together against Mary and me. We randomly assigned which team was for the proposition and which team was against it. Then the debate began. It produced a fun and intellectually stimulating exercise that also forced us to consider the issue from multiple perspectives.

I didn’t bathe for three days.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 5 of 12

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die – Heath and Heath, 2007. Lean six traits that make ideas durable. A must read for those to want to communicate, well. Click here for more information from Amazon.

Leaders: if you plan well, major projects can be accomplished quickly

I recently sailed across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City on the Queen Mary 2. It is the largest and finest ocean liner in the world. The ship is the length of four football fields, and it holds 3,064 passengers and 1,253 crew.

Her maiden voyage was January 12, 2004. Twelve years later, in 2016, she had sailed 1,791,058 nautical miles, the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back more than four times.

After all that travel, she needed to be remastered and totally refurbished. She was dry docked and the work commenced.

The remastering cost $132 million and included:

  • exhaust gas cleaning systems installed on all four diesel engines
  • four upgraded propulsion motors
  • a new ballast water treatment system
  • a new reverse osmosis water production plant
  • the entire ship repainted
  • all staterooms and public areas were remodeled (including adding 50 new staterooms)

Five thousand workers and contractors worked three shifts a day, 24/7.

Here’s the amazing fact: the entire project was completed in 25 days.

How was that possible? 25 days. Remodeling my master bathroom took longer than that.

Here’s the key: if you plan well, major projects can be accomplished quickly.

It took two years to plan the Queen Mary 2 refit. Architectural plans were drawn, parts and supplies ordered, workers hired, schedules written—then she was dry docked and the work commenced. Because of good planning, everyone knew exactly what to do and had the tools and supplies to get it done.

Leaders, I challenge you to duplicate this scenario in your organization. Visualize an important project, plan well, and then make it happen quickly.

At Stonebriar Community Church, we have an incredible children’s and youth choir program. Their recent Christmas program involved 450 children and students performing an intricate, well-choreographed 80-minute concert. All the various parts came together at one Saturday morning rehearsal; the concert was the following day.

Though on a smaller scale, the good planning and execution that went into this concert reminded me of the remastering of the QM2. Well done, Sandi and Misty.

To accomplish a large task quickly: visualize every detail, plan meticulously, and execute well.

You can do this.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Three techniques for better conversations: “ding, dong, later”

Here are three “rules of engagement” that will enhance your conversations. Talk about them with those whom you frequently converse with and incorporate them in your dialogues. They can become “verbal shorthand” to improve communication.

Ding

Sometimes a conversation grows stale because we’ve talked too long about one topic.There’s a limit to how long we need to talk about yesterday’s ballgame or the bill the Senate is voting on next week. A conversation often begins to stall but no one takes the initiative to change topics and there’s no mechanism to subtly do so.

Here’s a solution: In our conversations, let’s adopt the term “ding” to indicate a change of topic. It’s reminiscent of clinking the side of a water glass with a spoon; just say, “ding” to let people know you intend to introduce a new topic. If the current conversation is not finished, someone can simply say, “Before we ‘ding’ let me say one more thing…”

Dong

Sometimes, in a conversation, I may sense that someone is sharing a strong, heartfelt opinion or thought—there’s a strong emotional element to what he is expressing.

If I immediately counter his thoughts or start to share my perspective, he may feel that I’m not listening and that I’m dismissing his thoughts. So the proper response is for me to be quiet and simply listen.

But if the conversation ends and I’ve not had the opportunity to share my thoughts, he may think I agree with his position and conclusions. (I can imagine him saying at a later time, “You didn’t say anything so I just assumed you agreed with what I said.”)

So, let’s use the term “dong” when we’re having a conversation in which one person is sharing strong convictions and the other person will be passive and not say much. But that doesn’t mean the quiet one agrees with what is being said.

Either person can “dong” the conversation. At the beginning of the conversation, the person who has something strong to express may say “dong” as if to say, “I need to express my thoughts; please hear me out; if you don’t voice your thoughts about the issue I won’t assume you agree with me.”

Or the person who is listening may plead the “dong-rule” during or at the end of the conversation as if to say, “I want to (or did) listen carefully to what you’re saying; I’m not going to share my thoughts about this topic at this time, but don’t assume my silence indicates my agreement.”

Later

Use this cue to suggest that the topic of conversation be postponed to a later time. The topic does need to be discussed but not here and now.

When the “later” gesture is used, it might be helpful to immediately agree on when the delayed conversation will take place. This is particularly helpful if one person repeatedly defers conversations.

In my family we consider these three expressions to be “terms of engagement”; they are useful conversational tools.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.