Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Strengths in Excess

Building and managing teams is equal parts challenging, rewarding and frustrating. It does get better with time and practice, and if you work at the skill, which it surely is, your maturity and depth will increase. A great book I have found to help me improve is, "FYI: For Your Improvement". The practical advice in this book has helped me navigate new situations as a people manager.

One of the keys to managing and motivating a large team of people is tailoring your approach based on an individual's strengths and weaknesses. As a team, we just completed "The Strengths Finder" assessment, and it was eye-opening for me to see that my strengths had morphed since I last did a self-assessment. It was also instructive to see the spread of strengths across our team; I am reading the accompanying book again to identify strategies to collaborate with my team. Speaking of strengths, one series of questions in the assessment honed in on my perspective on "strengths" and "weaknesses". The questions used words like, "maximize", "capitalize", "leverage" for strengths, and "explore", "improve upon", "fixate on", "overcome" for weaknesses. I figured this out eventually; the questions were trying to ascertain whether I was someone who maximized my strengths or worked on my weaknesses. Given the headspace in which I was residing at the time of the assessment, my responses colored me as a person who, "works on his weaknesses".

The reality is a lot more nuanced. I tend to capitalize on my strengths while being aware of my weaknesses. This balanced approach ensures that I delegate tasks that I know are not best suited for me to someone on my team who can hit them out of the park. I add training courses, reading materials and the like to my "individual development plan" so that I can overcome my weaknesses over time. Career coaches, pointing to a growing body of psychological research, are advising their clients to do the same. The mantra they are proposing, as I understand it is, "Use your strengths; work your weaknesses".

This great piece on QZ starts with the notion of, "Too much of a good thing":
This concept is referred to as strengths in excess. I see this same pattern in people at all levels, no matter their rank, industry, gender, or role. A doctor who excels at staying calm and even-keeled in high-pressure situations may also struggle to express emotion with patients who crave empathy. A landscape architect who’s highly detail-oriented will excel at her job, but may sometimes veer into counterproductive perfectionism. A marketing assistant who’s a loyal team player is admirable—but not if he puts so much value on trying to fit in that he has no boundaries, and lets other people push him around.
Hmm. Sounds like trouble to me...
Strengths in excess can lead to inflexibility. If left unchecked, we become susceptible to overconfidence or arrogance...
This can be remedied by taking the middle path between maximizing strengths and overcoming weaknesses. Self-awareness, is key:
The solution is not to fixate obsessively on our weaknesses—according to research, overly harsh self-criticism undermines motivation and can lead to procrastination. Instead, what we need to do is change our understanding of our strengths. As author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham explains in his book Now, Discover Your Strengths, “Strengths are not activities you’re good at, they’re activities that strengthen you … after you’ve done it, it seems to fulfill a need of yours.”

Put simply, it’s rewarding to do things that we find difficult. In psychology, this is called self-efficacy— and it’s the foundation of confidence.
Read more about overdoing strengths at HBR.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Serenity through stoicism and acceptance

God, give me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to understand the difference

Today's US edition of Quartz has been spectacular. I happened upon this article on how to find peace given everything going on around us: Happiness through an understanding of what you can control.

The author, a practitioner of Stoicism, writes this as his mantra (Epictetus's promise):
If you truly understand the difference between what is and what is not under your control, and act accordingly, you will become psychologically invincible, impervious to the ups and downs of fortune.
I lost my mom earlier this year, and the wound is still very fresh in my heart. I speak to my heartbroken dad and brother every week, and some days are harder than others. I hear the anguish and sadness in their voices, as hard as they might try to mask their inner feelings, and it cuts me to the core. A loss of this magnitude, with or without notice, is a hard one to rationalize, and I have struggled to rediscover the locus of my existence. I blame myself sometimes, and sometimes I bemoan the actions of those around her when she first fell sick; but mostly, I am numb and powerless.

This philosophy, dogma, approach to life, call it whatever, provides me with a groundswell of hope. Called, "The Stoic Dichotomy of Control", it shows me the path forward.
... the dichotomy of control has countless applications to everyday life, and all of them have to do with one crucial move: shifting your goals from external outcomes to internal achievements.
I did everything I could have but her disease and subsequent events were entirely out of my control. I need to act accordingly -> honor her memory, live to be the person she raised me to be, control my actions, and be nimble when things out of my control go awry. My mom used to say that I worry too much about things out of my realm; she was so wise.
... it is the mark of a wise person to realize that things don’t always go the way we wish. If they don’t, the best counsel is to pick up the pieces, and move on.

If you succeed in shifting your goals internally, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and you won’t have a single rival, because what other people do is largely beyond your control and therefore not something to get worked up about. The result will be an attitude of equanimity toward life’s ups and downs, leading to a more serene life.
This advice reminds me of a theme in the Bhagavad Gita: Dharma (and Heroism). The Lord Krishna tells his disciple Arjun to focus on his place and mission in life, because that is under his control. The Universe has its own plan, and he is but a piece of a bigger puzzle. My mom taught me this when I was struggling at the start of my career. She was wise, wiser than I gave her credit for.

Thanks, mom. I will always love you. Yes, that's under my control.

Trump uses cowardly management tactics, among other things

In the aftermath of James Comey, ex-FBI Director, a number of things are becoming clear about the management style of Donald Trump. We now have evidence, in sworn testimony, that confirms traits the press has been uncovering since the man became POTUS: manipulative, conniving, cowardly. I need to add another to this list: shrewd. This man uses the power of suggestion and "presuasion" to make his subordinates do his bidding. Read this excerpt from analysis over at QZ.com:
But no matter what happens to Trump, the exchange pulls back the curtains on a tactic much beloved by manipulative managers across industries. “Ambiguous language, like telling someone you hope, or suggest they do something, is the secret weapon of leaders who put covering their ass ahead of uncovering the solution,” says Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist and author of The Impulse Factor: An Innovative Approach to Decision Making. “It’s a brilliant way to let accountability roll down hill.” Put simply, some managers will use “hope-speak” and other vague language to influence their subordinates while maintaining plausible deniability if things don’t work out the way they hope.
If the man were to have any ethics at all, he would recognize that his actions belie the essence of the office he holds (emphasis, mine):
“As a manager, it’s your job to clearly communicate how your team can accomplish your goals ethically,” says Davey. “If you continue to exert pressure without giving your team an option for how to succeed, you set them up to behave unethically. That is your failing as much as it is theirs.”
Our feudal lord of a President is quickly taking us back to the dark ages. Strap yourselves in for a bumpy ride... 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Apple HomePod: Likely DoA

Update: The Verge did a great comparison of the "Smart" speaker marketplace earlier today. Here's what they found.

Apple announced its Siri-based, smart, home speaker today. Dubbed the HomePod, the speaker is supposedly a marvel of engineering - acoustic prowess, AI chops and home automation - in a sleek package. This was supposed to a shot across the bow of Google Home and Amazon Echo. Alas, it is going to be Dead on Arrival (DoA) for four big reasons:

  1. Price: $349 is a ridiculously high price point for a speaker that is yet to prove itself in a market in which speakers of the same size aren’t more than $200 (and have strong pedigree, compatibility with numerous online services) such as the Sonos Play 1.
  2. Siri: There are critically acclaimed home assistants that double as speakers (Amazon Echo, Google Home) which defined the market and are arguably better assistants than Siri.
  3. From (1) and (2) it should be clear that there is a lack of differentiation from market offerings.
  4. Availability: Launch in December gives the competition a chance to catch up on the cool "speaker" features.

I recently invested in a pair of Sonos Play 1 speakers because Apple Stores featured them as best of breed. Apparently, the HomePod is going to be better because it has been designed with music in mind. It has 7-tweeters, can automatically adjust its acoustic response based on the room in which it is placed, and will connect to another HomePod automatically (if you have another $349 burning a hole in your wallet). Great. So can the Sonos Play 1. Siri can get me scores for my favorite teams and the current weather. Great. So can Alexa or Google's assistant. All for a fraction of the price.

Almost all the electronic equipment in my home office and in my bedrooms is Apple branded: MacBook Pro, iMac, AppleTV, Airport Extreme, iPads and iPhones. On balance, even I won’t buy a HomePod.

I wonder why anyone else will…