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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Unleashing Potential

Have you ever witnessed the hidden potential suddenly unleashed inside of someone? It can be life transforming, as exemplified in this true story.

As a committee board member for People’s Light and Theatre Company, I was invited to attend a play that was being performed by neurologically challenged kids at a local school. The theatre director had been working with these children for several weeks preparing for the “big show”. One boy, with the most severe autism, sat non-participative through every practice and rehearsal, never uttering a single word.

As the parents, teachers, and board members sat watching the play unfold, smiles abound as the costumed children did their best to remember lines, manipulate the hand-made props, and sing little songs about the planets in the solar system. Of course, the autistic boy sat off to the side watching it all unfold around him.

The play had intended to reach its climax with all the children from each act singing, in unison, a piece about the Earth being the most important planet. And just as this “final act” was about to start, the autistic boy shocked us all.

He stood up and walked to center stage.

No one knew what to expect, and the entire audience as well as all the other children fell completely silent. It wasn’t just an “awkward silence” where we were waiting to see what would happen; it was more of a “concerned silence” along the lines of “is this boy OK?”

After about five or six seconds, this boy, standing alone on center stage, lifted his eyes from the floor to the audience, and began singing. And not just mumbling words, but true, choral singing! Something immediately stirred in the other children, and they joined this boy and began singing along with him. Goosebumps ran down everyone’s spine, and of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the school. It couldn’t have been scripted any more dramatically, yet this was real life.

Something had been awakened in this little boy, however momentarily, that enabled him to reach that achievement. Yet how many of us allow potential and passion to remain locked away deep within us? And what can we do to tap into that hidden reservoir?

In my next posting, I’ll share what I’ve learned over a few decades of cultivating talent and unleashing potential, including topics such as:

  • Personal development plans (based on unique personality traits and skills)
  • Self-awareness and the role of a healthy ego
  • Personal advisory boards (and other components of encouragement and compliance)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Has social networking reduced our "degrees of separation"?

I’m curious as to how much more accessible everyone is from everyone else in our modern day Web 2.0 age.

Stanley Milgram conducted the first such experiment in the 1960s, which came to be known as the “small world hypothesis”. In the experiment, he sent letters to 160 randomly selected people in Nebraska and Kansas. In the letter was the name and both the home and work address of a stockbroker in Massachusetts. The 160 people were asked to forward their letter such that it eventually reached the stockbroker, either at his home or office. The caveat: send the letter to someone you know on a first-name basis who you think would be more likely to know the stockbroker (or know someone who may know the stockbroker) than you yourself. Each person along the “chain” was asked to add their name prior to forwarding the letter. And, it turned out that the letters reached the stockbroker in an average of six steps, hence the “six degrees of separation” concept. Actually, the term seems to be shared by both Milgram and Fringyes Karinthy, who in 1929, postulated that the world was growing “smaller” due to the amount of networking and social connections such that there were probably at most 5 connections between any two individuals.

Other experiments have since been done tracing emails between randomly selected subjects and a “destination contact”, which also seem to support the six degrees theory. In all the email experiments I’ve come across, the participants are only “allowed” to forward the email to someone they know … no “cold calling” or web searching allowed. So, in a sense, this isn’t much different than the Milgram experiment, so it doesn’t surprise me that the six degrees still holds.

Another interesting concept suggested by Malcolm Gladwell, in his fantastic book The Tipping Point, is that not all degrees of separation are equal because there are some people who are extremely well connected, a term Gladwell calls “connectors”. As a matter of fact, over half of the letters in the Milgram experiment reached their destination through the same three individuals. Gladwell’s conclusion: “A very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.”

However, if we take into account the social fabric that has been weaved together over the past few years with the rise of Web 2.0, perhaps the number of connection points between any two people has dropped. Perhaps the “need” for these super connectors is no longer required to get from any person to another. Of course, I’m certainly raising the specter of doubt over the definition of “know”. In an earlier post, I speculated that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think. How well can we really know someone else, particularly those people we’ve never met in person but only know online? Furthermore, can one argue that a username or avatar is the equivalent of first name / last name?

Interesting thoughts to be sure. So, what I’d like to propose is a new type of experiment that measures the connectedness of our current world as well as the “requirement” for super connectors to draw us together. Perhaps a “starter experiment” would be to see what the average degree of separation is between any two randomly selected people on Facebook or MySpace. In other words, if person S (sample) has n-number of friends registered on Facebook and person D (destination) has m-number of friends (that presumably differ from S’s friends) registered on Facebook, how many “connections” or “degrees” do you need to traverse between S and D? Do this for a large enough sample size and average out the number. I’m sure these sites have the internal information (and technical infrastructure) already in place to perform this experiment. So, two key questions to answer: 1)is it still six degrees?, and 2)is there still a need for “super connectors” to pull us all together?

What are your thoughts?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How well do we really know ourselves?

Probably not as well as we think. And yet, truly understanding oneself is perhaps one of the most significant differentiators of great leaders from merely good or even poor leaders. This is the realm of emotional intelligence (EI or EQ), a term popularized by Daniel Goleman in his published books from the late 1990s.

Components of EI include empathy, organizational awareness, inspirational leadership, influence, developing others, collaboration, conflict management, optimism, and the like. However, at the core, and perhaps most fundamental to EI is self-awareness. Being truly in touch with ourselves, our emotions, and how we process information is not a simple task. As Aristotle once said, “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But, to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.”

When I first started my professional career, I quickly learned that the skills possessed by the most successful employees were not purely intelligence-based (everyone was very smart in the field I worked – electrical engineering), but rather what I called “soft skills”. The people who were full of passion, energy, and enthusiasm … the ones who worked very well in teams, had good personalities, and had a great sense of humor (whether overt or not) – these were the people who did very well. These people rarely, if ever, lost their temper and were able to easily resonate with others.

To this day, when I interview people for a role in my company, I am much more concerned with their soft-skills than their IQ, grades, or particular degree. Of course raw intelligence matters, but only to a degree … it’s the soft skills that really tip the scale.

But, in order to really hone those soft skills (which, by the way, can be learned and developed to a large degree), one needs to first understand their current baseline. And, the best way I’ve found to establish such a baseline is to “get a 360”. Getting a 360 is the process by which feedback is obtained from your peers, your bosses, your subordinates, and even your clients/customers (a 360 degree view of your world).

Best if the feedback:

  • Is solicited from a broad range of individuals (not your best friends)
  • Asks the right set of questions to derive the essential characteristics
  • Is collected by a 3rd party organization that can effectively process all the data and “anonymize” the results

I’ve had great success with both the Clark-Wilson types of surveys and most recently with the Telios Leadership Institute in Philadelphia, for which the managing director is Annie McKee, co-author of Resonant Leadership. But a word of caution is in order: the first time you see your processed 360 results, you may have a negatively defensive reaction. We tend to be unaware of many of our developmental opportunities (a term I much prefer to “weaknesses”), at least consciously. But, working with an experienced coach who can help build and monitor a personalized development plan is a huge step toward leadership greatness.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cultural biases and our unconscious proclivities

I’ve written on this topic before and recently revisited the Project Implicit study at Harvard. They’ve built a virtual laboratory where “visitors can examine their own hidden biases.” The web tests measure which direction we subconsciously lean when it comes to certain “pairs” of traits. For instance, some of the pairings include fat-thin, native-American white, light-dark skin, and many more.

A lot of people probably want to believe they don’t have a strong bias one way or the other. Unfortunately, the facts reveal otherwise. Now that nearly 5 million people have taken the test, here are some sad “truths”: over 80% of the experimenters subconsciously demonstrate negativity toward the elderly versus younger people. The same statistics apply for black skin to white skin. And, not surprisingly, most of the people who took the tests were initially unaware of their biases.

So what is it about so many people’s thoughts and feelings that cause such disparities? Our heritage and upbringing? The media? And perhaps an even more significant question is, “How can we narrow the gap?”

The deeply contemplative Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: "Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind."

Do you have any ideas on how we as a global society and massively interconnected populace can improve this state? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Nature of Learning (and Remembering)

For the past several months, I’ve been serving as an Algebra tutor for my friend’s child. This kid is very gifted intellectually, but he suffers from pretty severe ADHD, and unfortunately Algebra is his last class of the day, right about the time when his lack of attentiveness and patience reach their peak. Couple that with an Algebra teacher who will be retiring at the end of the school year without much “student cultivation” interest left in him, and you have a recipe for failure … literally.

What makes Algebra such a perfect study in learning is that you have the two fundamental brain concepts required for knowledge attainment – memorization and reasoning. The first getting the right bits of data stored in the brain, the second creating the logical (neural) connections between them. It’s fairly easy to remember (memorize) the equations such as the quadratic formula, but how you derive it and apply it is another matter entirely. And while I’ve long held that most education systems (the ones I’m familiar with) teach kids how to memorize and not really how to learn, I’ve never spent much time thinking about how to more effectively teach learning.

The other day I was reading Josh Kopelman’s wonderful blog
and I came across a Wired Magazine article entitled “Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm”. The article discusses the SuperMemo (super memory) program and its creator Piotr Wozniak (no connection noted to the Apple Computer co-founder). The concept is based on the scientific theory called The Spacing Effect that the essentially says that the ideal time to practice what you’ve learned is right at the time you are about to forget it. Any earlier than that is essentially a waste of time and energy, and any later is too late and you’ll be starting over. How to know when is the right time – that’s the engine behind SuperMemo. Supposedly by following SuperMemo’s techniques, you’ll retain information astoundingly better than by any other means. And there are plenty of people (both users and scientists) who are proponents of this technique.

As for my tutoring sessions, the spacing effect is built in by default. It’s whenever I have time to meet with the kid since he doesn’t do any studying or practicing of Algebra between our sessions, and as noted earlier, there is no way he is paying attention in class. The question is, is it the right amount of spacing? I meet with him the night before every test and quiz, and any other times in between when I am available. The coefficients for the spacing effect are different for each person, and probably unique for each bit of information. But, so far, I’m happy to report that my student has aced every test since we’ve started. The big question is how much is being learned versus appropriately regurgitated during test time.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

SOA as a Business Strategy

Below is the beginning of an article Jim Irwin and myself wrote for SOA World on how the “real” play with SOA is business agility. Although you may not have heard of Jim Irwin, he is one of the brightest minds in the SOA world … quietly behind the scenes helping my team develop some amazing solutions.

If you had to pick a single business benefit that service-oriented architecture (SOA) can provide, it is the ability to respond to change. Change occurs continually in a multitude of places that affect the enterprise: the market, the supply chain, strategic processes, regulations, and so forth. SOA can enable the creation of an agile environment that creates stability in the face of change because it restructures automated functions into reusable pieces that can be quickly reconfigured into new or modified processes.

… for the rest of the article, check out

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

$1,000,000,000 acquisition

Sun's purchase of MySQL for a cool $1 billion is all the buzz today and rightfully so. I think this news goes to show the power, visibility and growth in adoption of open source. And in this particular case MySQL.

As enterprises continually seek competitive advantages they find their way to open source solutions. Sun has certainly recognized this with Jonathan Schwartz at the helm, but today's news takes another step towards ensuring they are going to be a major player in offering such solutions. It will be interesting to see how this purchase affects Sun as the inherent value proposition of MySQL is that it is an open, potentially low cost alternative to Oracle. The other potential hitch is that companies want best-of-breed solutions for their needs and Sun just might be becoming a monolithic vendor offering one set of solutions.

I am thrilled to see the increased adoption of open source and the excitement of my friends over at MySQL, but also see this news as an opportunity for system integrators (SI's). With IT spending and acquisitions on the rise, it furthers the need for technology agnostic SI's (Unisys, Cap Gemini, Accenture and others) in this space to play significant roles in customer IT implementations. Companies are looking for the best independent solution for their needs, not for one monolithic vendor to lock them into an IT environment of their choosing. The OSA’s common-customer view reference architecture, as one example, demonstrates interoperability across multiple vendor products to achieve best-of-breed functionality.

Another piece of big news today (other than the continued economic impact in the Financial Services sector as a result of the sub-prime lending fallout) is Oracle’s purported acquisition of BEA
. Obviously this would further position Oracle against IBM in the middleware space and further Oracle's goal to dominate that market. But this also creates another “integrated stack” that possibly precludes clients from choosing best of breed product, hence furthering the need for large Systems Integrators to help fulfill that gap.