Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Loving Your Work

I like what I do for a living. Most people don't. A 2015 Gallup poll discovered only 31% of American workers enjoy their work, feel invested in what they are doing, and find meaning in it. I suspect an even smaller percentage, probably a tiny percentage, would keep working at what they are presently doing if they didn't have to. Most people trade time for dollars in order to pay their bills.

I find this terribly tragic, and I intend to do something about it. (More on that in future blog posts.) 

Here's an even bigger problem. A lot of people start out passionate about their career, but do not maintain their passion. When you're in your 20s the world is your oyster. High school and college commencement speeches inspire the younger generation to get out there and change the world, but it doesn't take very long for reality to set in.

The real go-getters climb the corporate ladder only to find themselves trapped by the money. Their passion is gone, but the bills are bigger, so they have to keep on working. Americans are bad at saving money. Most of us have nothing put aside to allow us the freedom to continue pursuing our passion should an opportunity arise. In fact, it is worse than bad.

According to an NBC News article, the USA savings rate went NEGATIVE in 2005 for the first time since the Great Depression. That was before the economic collapse in 2008. There is no cushion for a soft landing when you find yourself in a macroeconomic free fall and zero (or negative!) savings. And it gets worse.

A root cause of corporate fraud, corruption, and fiscal malfeasance is formerly passionate individuals who were seeking a better life or desirous of "changing the world," but who got caught up in personal greed and selfishness once they lost their passion for making a difference. They lost their way with a win-at-all-costs mindset on their rise to the top. Sadly, they were willing to do whatever it took to make the quarterly earnings reports look good for Wall Street, even if that required unethical, immoral, and even illegal behavior.

A former CEO of the company where I currently work appears to have taken this path. Sanjay Kumar immigrated to the USA in 1976 to escape civil unrest in his native Sri Lanka, but ended up going to prison for orchestrating a massive fraud. How does this happen?

As a software technology professional, I make great money, but over the years fear and uncertainty has frequently chased away my passion too. I’ve been through five different merger and acquisition experiences as well as a failed technology startup in 2008. Worries over not being able to support my family would lead me into anxiety and depression. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. (Have you seen Groundhog Day?)

It was only by the grace of God that I didn't fall into the same trap as Mr. Kumar. Fear can easily flip to greed, and without a strong moral compass, a motivated and talented person can quickly become a felon. It happened at my place of employment, and the cycle is almost a cliché.

How does our society overcome this problem? I think it is relatively simple, but not easy. And I think I have the secret sauce. If you want to know more before I get to the future promised blog posts, join my new Facebook group here:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Reframing No...But to Yes...And

by David Wilk, Frank Ford, and David Ahearn

As improv comedians, the same philosophy and principles that work so well for us on stage also work very well when we apply them to our business. Here are four ways you can apply improv techniques to help you succeed at work.

1. Become an active listener 

Everyone thinks that to be an improviser that you have to be super quick. We hear that comment after every show: “You guys are so quick.” We always smile and take the compliment, but it’s not really the truth.

The truth is that we listen very well. And we don’t just listen; we actively listen.

You have to be present, you have to be in the moment, and you have to be non-judgmental. You just have to go with an idea. And the way you do that is to listen and then build on that thought.

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we’ve learned that being a better listener actually makes you a better communicator. You’ve heard everyone out so you’re able to make decisions without overlooking things. You’re not thinking of the thing you were going to say next; you’re paying attention to what’s happening now.

In the improv world, we don’t know where we’re going; we only know where we’ve been. So it’s paramount that we all retain that information because it’s influencing our decisions, much like in the business world.

A lot of people pride themselves on multitasking. But basically all multitasking is is doing a lot of things in an average way.

When people are actively listening, they’re retaining anywhere from 90 to 95% of the pertinent information. When they’re multitasking, they may be retaining 40%. If you’re at work running around only retaining 40% of the information, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and you’re certainly doing everyone around you a disservice.

2. Practice “yes, and . . .”

 The number one rule that we have is to strike the word “no” and replace it with the two magic words “yes, and . . .” It’s a philosophy, not a statement.

It means that you don’t judge an idea. You agree with it by saying “yes,” and then you add your 2 cents so that it becomes a collective idea and both people have buy in to its success.

People are often “no, but . . .” There’s a lot of negativity. People will always find the problem or the reason for not doing something.

But they aren’t mistakes in our world; there are only disruptions from the routine. Improv forces you to solve scenarios on the fly. We’re all about finding a work around and moving forward.

Becoming a “yes, and . . .” person is like going to the gym. You have to practice it everyday and reframe your brain to not go to “no” first. If it has to be a “no,” so be it, but make it a considerate “no.”

 3. Embrace all ideas 

One of the rules that we live by is that there are no wrong or bad ideas, and nobody’s ideas are any better or worse than anyone else’s. There are just high- and low-percentage choices.

The creativity comes when you can recognize that every idea has merit. What we’ve found is that sometimes those low-percentage choices end up being wonderfully creative ideas that we would have never come up with because we would have dismissed them early as wrong. These ideas get the ball rolling.

When you do that within your business, you develop a culture where people realize they’re going to be heard and that they’re not going to be judged or shot down.

Imagine how creative you would be if whatever you brought to the table, your team would build upon. There’s no fear involved. The freedom to create is endless.

4. Empower your team 

If you practice these techniques, you’re honoring and empowering those around you, and they in turn will honor and empower you.

For instance, we noticed that a lot of people were on their phones before and during our show. From our perspective as the performers on the stage, we thought it was rude. But then our technical director, who sits behind the audience and runs the lights and sound, told us that he was seeing people give us five-star reviews and tweet about the show.

He suggested that instead of being angry, we should incorporate phones into the show. Now, we have people upload funny photos on our Facebook page, and we improvise from the photos. As a happy accident to this, our social media numbers are through the roof.

When people think about the corporate ladder, they think that the way to get ahead is to step on whomever you need to step on. But that’s not how we advance. The way we ascend is by making each other look good. We pull each other up.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

We Are Weak But He Is Strong

Karl Barth is widely considered the most profound and influential Protestant theologian of the entire twentieth century, and maybe even in all of modern Christianity. Pope Pius XII called him the most important Christian theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. Karl Barth was to twentieth century theology what Billy Graham was to evangelism and more. Both made the cover of Time Magazine due to the extraordinary impact of their Christian faith on mainstream culture.

A couple of decades ago a pastor friend of mine found out I was reading Barth when I started pelting him with questions at our regular breakfast meet ups. Barth's theology is not only profound, but quite complex. It can make your head hurt, and I wanted this pastor, who had the benefit of formal seminary training, to help me understand the complexities of Karl Barth.

He asked me if I knew Karl Barth's most profound truth about God. I got a little excited because I thought I was about to be enlightened with some amazing new truth that would open my mind to the vistas of God's grandeur. This pastor friend was a bit of a jokester, and I sat on the edge of my seat in anticipation of some new nugget of truth as he started singing in a quiet voice...

"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tell me so..."

I was so disappointed. I may have even accused him of lying because at that point in my life I was considering going to seminary. I was so hungry for the deep truths of God that I was upset about hearing the great Karl Barth's most profound truth was in the child's song "Jesus Loves Me." I didn't believe him, but this apocryphal story is all over the place. It might actually be true, but it doesn't really matter. Even if the great Karl Barth didn't say this, the fact remains that the most profound truth about God is the love of God.

I turned 49 yesterday, and I still don't think I understand the love of God. Jesus told us all of God's laws can be summed up in two commands that both involve love. (1) Love God, and (2) love other people. If all of us got that right the world would be a very different and better place. I'm still working on that simple but surprisingly deep truth. I don't fully grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge as the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 3, and lately I'm realizing this child's song has even more theological depth further along in the first stanza. The next two lines are mind blowing too.

"Little ones to him belong, they are weak but He is strong..."

One of the most read articles on this blog is The Paradox Principle. "We are weak, but He is strong" is yet another paradox to add to the list. When you're a little kid, you don't have any power. Everyone is bigger and stronger, and you have no say. Everyone else tells you what to do, but as we grow up we get more power. Those of us of the male persuasion are particularly proud about our accomplishments and achievements because we are no longer weak. Now we are strong.

I go to the gym to get strong. The meat heads at my gym prance around in their testosterone induced states showing their strength. I used to watch a lot of UFC fights and go to an MMA gym because I enjoyed watching displays of strength, and I too wanted to be invincible. The modern American male myth is the independent, indestructible, self-reliant rugged individual. And it is a myth. Real men are like Jesus.

Real men love, and real men are weak. If you pay attention, the verse doesn't say Jesus makes me strong. Jesus is the strong one. I could try to impress you with my Bible knowledge of how Paul taught this paradoxical truth in 2 Corinthians 12, but I'm no Karl Barth. Even then, if someone had asked Karl about the second most profound truth about God, I think he might have just kept on singing "Jesus Loves Me."

Saturday, September 03, 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name

My spiritual journey has been a bit circuitous. I was raised in a Christian home, but left the faith during my young adult years. It wasn't an intentional or unusual apostasy. Lots of kids who grow up in fundamentalist Christian homes leave the faith during their young adult years. Many of them never return. I've blogged elsewhere about that (here and here) including my return to Christianity as a young parent seeking answers on what I should teach my sons about God.

Earlier this year, my wife and I entered a new life stage. We're empty nesters now, and my spiritual journey has entered a new stage as well. During the years I raised my boys, I leaned pretty hard toward a Calvinist view of God. Sadly, this led to parenting behaviors and unintended consequences I greatly regret. I was pretty much a "command and control" dad, and I believe a lot of that was a result of my view of God being "command and control" too. I was reflecting what I now believe to be an errant view of the Father. This is a good example of how an errant view of God has personal consequences in the lives and relationships of people who love one another. I was pursuing God sincerely, but I was wrong. Good theology matters.

I believe deeply that the God of the Bible is a loving father who enters into relationships with his children. He is not unaffected by our choices. In theological terms, God is not impassible. And at the risk of my Calvinist friends accusing me of heresy, I also doubt God is immutable in the strict Calvinist sense. As the petals of the Calvinist TULIP started to fall away in my theology, starting with Limited Atonement, my heart longed to understand God theologically the way God interacts with me personally and experientially. At just the right time, I re-discovered Greg Boyd and Open Theism.

I say re-discovered, because I first learned of Greg Boyd a number of years ago when I was reading The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day, but I had other interests at that time and was not open to Open Theism. Back in April, I gave a copy of Vox's book to an atheist friend who shortly thereafter posted some irrational comments during a friendly but spirited Facebook discussion. When it became clear he never read the book, I pulled out my copy of Vox and gave him the references. I saw Vox's references to Greg Boyd again which reminded me how I never really dug into the open view of the future, known as Open Theism.

There is more to the backstory including a couple of dreams I've had recently about the nature of time and God's foreknowledge. These bizarre dreams included experiences in the Star Trek holodeck, and I woke up somewhat obsessed in solving some open questions in my mind regarding the nature of time. Reading Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos before going to bed may have had something to do with that. Another part of the backstory is a new Facebook friendship with a formerly atheist astrophysicist turned Christian whose blog I love.

These serendipitous events have left me deeply engrossed in exploring Open Theism. I'm sure some of my "fundie" Christian friends of the Calvinist stripe will think I'm a heretic. Greg Boyd had to deal with a lot of blowback back in the early 1990s when he popularized it, including John Piper trying to ruin his life. (And I say that as a big John Piper fan.) I greatly respect William Lane Craig (WLC), and he disagrees with Boyd too. I've spent a lot of time looking into WLC's Molinist view of middle knowledge, and when my brain doesn't cramp up thinking about it, his view makes some rational sense to me, but Open Theism just smells right to me. I'm still on the journey, but this time I'm going to take my time and smell the roses before I come to any hard conclusions.

The Calvinists have their TULIP, but I'm starting to reject that in favor of the ROSE of Open Theism.

The ROSE Acronym

R - Responsibility (Libertarian Freewill) -- God has granted free agents significant freedom and responsibility to make moral choices for which they are culpable and upon which at least part of the future hangs. The choices of free agents effect others, the future, and God.

O - Openness --God knows all of reality as it is. In the scriptural 'Motif of Future Openness,' God speaks of and knows the possible, future choices of free agents as possibilities. God allows the future to remain open to the extent God chooses. Therefore, the future is partly open.

S - Sovereignty -- God knows all of reality as it is. In the scriptural 'Motif of Future Determinism,' God speaks of and knows the certainties that God will carry out in God's own power as certainties. God determines the future to the extent God chooses. Therefore, the future is partly composed of certainties.

E - Emotion -- God is Love. God is affected by the choices of free agents. God responds to free agents. God changes God's mind and plans in response to free agents. God is the most moved mover. It is God's desire to extend the intense love that God has always shared in the Trinity to the creatures God created forever. Christ is the perfect revelation of who God is, even in his emotions.

The ROSE Acronym (© 2007 T. C. Moore)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: Flash Boys

Flash Boys is the amazing true story about High Frequency Trading (HFT) which came about when stock trading switched from an activity done between people to an activity done between computers. What most people think about when you mention Wall Street stock trading are guys in a pit wearing colored jackets yelling at one another as they trade stock. That is fiction. The reality is it is all automated, and this has created a new class of players who can take advantage of the system by being very fast and very smart.

Michael Lewis weaves together a very readable story reminiscent of his great storytelling in books like Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, and The New New Thing which are all books I've enjoyed and recommend. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and Lewis is a master craftsman in telling stories about how what we believe to be true isn’t the whole truth and maybe not even the truth at all. 

Reality is not what you think it is. I learned this as a physics student back in the late 1980s. I thought I was smart, but it all came crashing down when trying to wrap my mind around Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. I’ll never forget the day it happened. Kip Matthews and I were meeting with Dr. Wolfgang Rindler on a field trip to University of Texas at Dallas. Our physics professor from Austin College had set up the meeting because we were using Rindler’s text for our senior level class. It was an “advanced topics” class, and it was a chance to meet the guy who wrote our text book. 

On that day with Dr. Rindler, it became very clear to me that there were people in the room who really understood what we were talking about, but I was not among them. Reality was far more complex and weird than I ever expected, and my prideful desire to “know it all” had reached its end. I did not understand, and I wasn’t going to. My brain had reached its upper bound. Kip went on to graduate studies at University of Chicago in Medical Physics, and he is quite possibly one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. I realized my dream of pursuing theoretical or high energy PhD level physics was a pipe dream. 

I ended up pursuing a career in software technology, and reading Flash Boys once again taught me I’m not as smart as I think I am. There are computer technologists out there who are far smarter (and faster!) than I am even though I’ve spent 25 years in the computer software industry and have a basic grasp of high speed networking including the underlying physics. Flash Boys showed me yet again that reality is not what I think it is. 

If you invest in the stock market, and particularly if you’re a professional money manager, I’d suggest this is a must read book. If you think you are smarter and faster and can consistently beat the market, you’re fooling yourself. Reality is not what you think it is either, and you’d be wise to consider carefully the risks and hidden tax from HFT and the Flash Boys.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Course Corrections vs. Adjustments

Professionally, I'm a software technologist who specializes in software development methods and practices. For the last few years, I've been focused on helping big companies with many small teams become more "agile" in the way they work. In doing this, I've noticed amazing similarities between the software development teams I interact with professionally, and the small communities of people I interact with personally outside of work, particularly discipleship groups of guys whom I meet with from time to time to pursue truth and do life together.

The small software development teams I coach professionally are very much like discipleship groups because they do life together too. We spend more waking hours at work than any other activity, so I want to be sure these teams are not just existing or merely tolerating their work lives as drudgery. I want them to thrive and have fun and be successful, the same things I want for my family and friends and whatever discipleship group I happen to be doing life with at any given time. One thing I've learned from both contexts is this: What we say to one another matters.

One of my favorite phrases is "words matter." How we speak and the words we choose can often convey unintended messages, and I was reminded of this by Mike Cohn who is the highly respected instructor I intentionally selected for my Certified Scrum Product Owner training. I'm on Mike's "tips" email list where he sends out weekly wisdom, and this morning the subject was "Stop Making Course Corrections." I read Mike's weekly tips because his wisdom often applies not only to my work life, but life in general. Mike's email today started out like this:
Hi Dennis,
I listened to a podcast this morning that mentioned the need to do course corrections. Then I read an article in Harvard Business Review, and it mentioned the importance of course corrections. Enough! We need to stop making course corrections.
No, I’m not saying we need to get it right the first time and know exactly what we’re building. In fact, I’m saying exactly the opposite. When someone says they are making a course correction that implies they are now on the correct course. It implies there IS a correct course. There isn’t. At least not one that is knowable in advance.
Instead of course corrections we make course adjustments. A subtle nudge to product direction here. A minor shift to the product strategy there. And here’s the key: We never know if those nudges and shifts are going to make the product better. Each is an educated guess. An adjustment rather than a correction.    ...
For about a year, I was in a very command and control oriented discipleship program led by a guy who is very talented at establishing vision and finding followers. It was mostly experimental, and I chaffed a lot under the leadership of this well intentioned guy who was leading it. But, I couldn't figure out why we locked horns until I got free from the heavy handed methods employed in his program. This guy liked to use the phrase "this is just a minor course correction" every time he was trying to get me to change behavior. The implicit message this sent, whether intended or not, was "My way is correct. Your way is incorrect. Do what I tell you, or this program is not for you."

Some of the younger guys in this group cowered under this leadership, and were frightened about being kicked out. The leader would talk about the guys who had not made it, and how they lost their once in a lifetime opportunity. I think this was a genuine effort to make us feel good about being in an elite, high-performing team, but the encouragement created fear similar to what my son in the US Air Force felt about being "recycled" if he failed a part of his bootcamp. But in this case, "recycling" wasn't an option. It was do or die, and "course corrections" meant, "It is my way or the highway."

Ultimately, after about a year, we decided this program was not for me, and I moved into another discipleship context that was a better fit for me at this life stage. We parted ways amicably, and what I learned is I do not thrive in command and control organizations. I prefer agile teams who share responsibility, hold one another accountable, and pursue a shared vision through respect and mutual accountability. A year after the start of this program, I saw one of the guys who left the group during the first few weeks. He's thriving and even leading people in another context.

I know from my corporate life that high performing teams cannot thrive long term under heavy handed command and control leadership from the top down unless you're in a culture like the military, and even the military is starting to learn about agile methods of leadership. True leaders don't try to control. They lead by seeking first to understand before being understood, and follow all those other Seven Habits too.

Mike Cohn's advice is to encourage people through course adjustments, and the word choice matters. Adjustments lead to a mutually discovered path toward freedom and creativity, and it also shows humility in listening to someone who might have different ideas about what adjustments are necessary. Only a prideful leader believes their way is the only way or absolute best way. So, I would join in with Mike by encouraging leaders to seek input and help the people under your leadership to engage in conversation around how to adjust course without coming at them with correction.

And if you do have a case when empirical evidence proves you correct and they are incorrect to the point of being in danger, admonishment should not be in the context of "a minor course correction" because in that case the word choice is weak and indirect. If someone is in danger, such as in a military firefight and about to be blown up, then give them a direct command, but don't tell them to make "a minor course correction." Choose your words carefully, because words matter.