Friday, November 2, 2012

Leadership and *thinking*

WyckaneerMy Cambridge thesis explored how companies could profit from failed R&D: what was the optimal timing and structure for creating corporate spinouts.  My academic advisor, Peter Hiscocks, told me that to solve the problem, I needed to spend at least half my time *thinking* (drawn out and emphasized, as Cambridge does).   Go down to the river, sit on the banks, shut the computer and books, and just breath the problem.

Most leaders spend far too little time deeply contemplating their business vision and purpose, but when they do, they are doing the very creative work that makes their companies form, grow, innovate, and transform.  -- Chilcote 2002

My startup is deep into the hard phase of commercializing it’s first product.  We have our challenges: we’ll get through them.  But the process requires *thinking*, which paradoxically raises organizational doubts along with operational insights.  Is *thinking* incompatible with leadership?

An example:  We will create a coating that reduces the rate of hospital acquired infections. In execution, we make left-right choices constantly and every decision has long-term consequences.  Is colonization or infection, by e.Coli or p.Mirabilis, more important?  Alternatives are backed by data, 90% decrement in the number of live bacterial on the surface after 3 days, but every element of data is open to interpretation.  Are the experimental conditions controlled, measurement technique relevant, investigator reliable?

And, all too quickly, decisions that need to be made crisply, cleanly, correctly, seem mired in uncertainty.

Leadership is about choosing, organizing, and executing.   But deciding is about *thinking*.  This week, solving this problem, the two feel incompatible.

Thinking takes time.  If there’s an issue on the table, I’d like an hour or two to focus on understanding it, enumerating alternatives, weighing evidence, and getting comfortable with the choice.

Thinking  involves discussion.  I want to closet with people who know a lot about the subject and swat interpretation and hypotheses back and forth.  Inductive solutions come from open debate, having ideas enter from different viewpoint and experiences.

Thinking is critical.  I want to challenge the data and idea so that the outcomes are robust.  Constructive skepticism and alternative hypotheses pick out the unknowns and weaknesses that need to be resolved.

But leading by these principles leads to delays and confusion.  The next step is on hold while we collect data.  Experiments, especially in medicine and biology, carry risks.  How will we react if the difference is less than expected?  Criticism spawns fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  What do we know if we don’t even know that?

All businesses have to live with uncertainty; successful ones  translate myriad options to specific actions without becoming doubtful and lost.  The best leaders achieve this by building confident and effective organizations that can coolly execute through stress and ambiguity. 

Leaders and their organizations have to be able to think critically about their choices and strategies.  But how to transition successfully out of the process?

By establishing balance: divergent discussion and fact-finding followed by consolidation and consensus.  It’s the poldermodel once again: not ending meetings with closure,  but closing the process with agreement and engagement.

There are two elements to this consolidation:

Leaders have to renew their understanding of the purpose and integrity of the project in the face of new information or changed circumstances.  How do the issues resolve personally in a way that is real and honest, consistent and compelling?

Leaders transfer engagement, ownership and accountability across the team.  They communicate purpose and confidence, clear in both direction and attitude.

In our case, two weeks work have cleared some uncertainty.  We understand the problem, the gaps, what we do and don’t know.  The experiments are clear: follow-on scenarios in the event of success or failure seem straightforward.   The open discussion and delay has sapped confidence, but I think that has to be accepted as side-effect of honest *thinking*.   But it can’t linger: as with finally leaving the river to write the thesis, it’s time to bring everyone together around a course of action, understanding of risks, and delegation of roles.

The future will belong to companies whose senior leaders remain calm, carefully assess their options, and nurture the flexibility, awareness, and resiliency needed to deal with whatever the world throws at them.  -- Bryan 2008

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

…And a few Sunny-day ones

Of course,w hen the autumn weather turns nice in the Lakes District, as it did the next day, the results are spectacular.


Monday, October 29, 2012

Taking Rainy-day pictures

The autumn leaves were gorgeous as the weekend approached, warm and glowing across the city.  Imagine what they would look like in the rolling hills and reflective waters of the Lakes District?  A bit of planning and the visit was set.

To coincide with a day of torrential downpour.

It’s easy to take great pictures on sunny days, early and late sunlight, contrasting blue skies and orange leaves.  Mist and rain change light: they dim the intensity, soften the contrasts, eliminate shadows, and absorbing long-wavelength reds.  This creates a lot of variations of grey, not well captured by the camera, and dull dark colors even in autumn photos.

As well as water on the lens.

What to do (in addition to keeping the camera dry)?  A soggy day offered an opportunity to take the challenge.

First, the water itself can be an interesting subject, close in puddles, embedded in landscapes, or misting the hills.


Second, the deeper shadows create scenes with planes of light and dark tunnels.  Light balance is hard, though, and I have to be careful not to aim into sunlight unless I want stark black/white pictures (making tree trunks into clawed feet).


Third, wet objects do have more color than dry ones.  The trick is finding scenes with partial natural illumination.  Using a flash on landscapes is not effective, and post-processing is artificial.


Finally, mist adds areal perspective, depth and distance, and textures skies as they curl over mountaintops.


There are photography sites (and here) with further suggestions, but what’s been your experience and tips?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weekend recommendations

A few sites worth mining on a cold, wet fall weekend.

The Browser:  Billed as “Writing worth reading”, this site offers links to articles, ebooks, and interviews organized into wide-ranging topics.  I’ve found lots to enjoy, from Freeman Dyson’s discussion of how philosophers lost touch with modern audiences to Dieter Bohn’s explanation of how Google is designing predictive search and Wells Tower on being a barista at a Dutch coffee shop (with a C): It's like working at a Starbucks where the customers are cranky zombies, and a latte costs fifty bucks.  The fun is in finding short articles that you’d have never come across otherwise while waiting on line to see Skyfall.

HSBC Expat Survey:  The 2012 results are in, the Netherlands is number 26, and there’s lots of interesting statistics and perspectives in the improved Explorer.  Transport and healthcare fared well; making friends and setting up utilities were predictably difficult.  I miss the old .pdf format, but I like browsing through the comments and comparing countries.

The Sinica Podcast:  Kaiser Kou broadcasts a weekly podcast from the PopUp studies in Beijing, featuring expats and journalists discussing news and perspectives on China.  I first heard of Kaiser though a This American Life episode, and I’ve listened to about a dozen back shows.  Discussion ranges across issues that are broadly interesting to expatriates: How do you decode local media, How do foreign countries interpret US new broadcasts, How are expat blogging communities evolving?  It’s been interesting to translate the commentary over to my own experiences in the Netherlands.

Quizlet:  With my language exam fast approaching, it’s been key to turn my vocabulary sheets into some sort of drill that I can work on.  Quizlet is a free site that has lots of Dutch language flashcard sets and a reasonable interface for flipping through them: I’ve been able to move some of my sets in as well.  The quality and depth of the decks varies, but it’s a broad resource to tap into.