What is your next career, fortysomethings? – IV

APM Rover and APM Hexacopter

APM Rover and APM Hexacopter

In the previous three installments, I talked a lot about some of the qualities that will be important in a world where career change is the rule.  In this world, the ability to learn new skills, particularly technical skills, will be necessary occupational currency.  And by the way, I am not talking about learning how to master spreadsheets or presentation software.  Think more like picking up calculus as your ticket to your next job.

Hey, don’t run away screaming, okay?  It’s not quite that bad. 🙂  The point is that the old model was to master a single skill set and then put learning on cruise control, only passively absorbing incremental new details.  This is small learning.  The new model is big learning, on a continuous basis, over several career phases, by employees who are always looking for the next challenging skill to master.

For me, the next challenge has been electronics, coding, remote digital control systems, motor control, and open source software development.  These have been the gateway skills for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Unmanned Ground Vehicle projects currently taking shape on my workbench.  But it’s also been drum lessons, blogging, screenwriting, acting, scuba diving, photography, etc., etc.  In the past, this type of “unfocused” experimentation has been written of as mid-life crises, a juvenile attempt to re-capture impractical youthful dreams and aspirations. So what if it is, I say?  In the old world, there wasn’t much of a market for forty-somethings with newly acquired gateway skills.  In the new world, it will be absolutely essential to you prove you can jump sideways into a new field and be competitive.

So go out and pick something.  Doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it challenges you, motivates you, inspires you, and educates you.  This is really important or you simply won’t make the time for it.  Don’t be surprised when you run into frequent obstacles, and don’t quit or be discouraged when they come along.  Working through them is the learning, not the stuff that comes easy.

A buddy of mine just posted an article talking about how Amazon is planning to use UAVs to deliver packages.  Maybe I’ll go write a program for mine to meet it at the door and fly it up to my office.

Go learn something hard!


What is your next career, fortysomethings? – III

The third of my completely uninformed and subjective keys to survival as an employee in the world my children now own: creative content generation.

There are volumes of material on this subject and I don’t intend to rehash it.  In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya (as penned by William Goldman): “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

Creativity is making something better, not always something new.

Creativity is innate, not just in a few individuals, but in all of us.

Creativity is a skill.  Our individual differences in natural ability are rapidly surpassed by differences in experience and practice.

Creativity is more often the ability to mass produce and brilliantly down-select, than it is to brilliantly produce.

Creativity happens when it happens, so you have to be paying attention and capture it when it does.  If an idea comes at an inopportune moment, write it down now, work it later.

Why does any of this matter?  Because contributing to the synergy of ideas is central to being valued on a creative team, and creative teams are central to successful business in the world of my millennial kids.  In almost every setting, teams produce more ideas than individuals, iterate through them more quickly than individuals, and produce more innovative results than individuals.  We need to get comfortable with idea generation, contribution, and down-selection, using all the skills I’ve talked about in parts I and II.

Next time: The fun way I’ve decided to try and bring it all together.

What is your next career, fortysomethings? – II

The second key to survival as an employee in the world my children now own: collaboration.

More new ideas are being generated by more people more collectively than ever before.  This has probably been the biggest adjustment for me in thinking about what the next career will look like.  When I was growing up, great contributions appeared to be made by the breakthrough discoveries of a few brilliant individuals.

Now I suspect that probably wasn’t universally true.  The entire industrial age has been the product of collaboration.  Great ideas building upon each other over time, contributed by multiple individuals.  Yet the contributions were made very serially, with comparatively small groups adding their contributions over relatively long periods of time.

Then comes the internet, and what seems to be a largely sequential process of collaboration becomes first parallel (several teams working in tandem), then distributive (mass networks of collaborators working towards loosely constrained objectives, from which rapid self-organization emerges).  Networks of computers enabled networks of thinkers, which caused the collaborative unit of time to shift in a very fundamental way.  I think of movies, which are probably being made over roughly the same time period as they were twenty years ago.  Yet take a moment and think about how the volume of credits have changed as you wait for the latest Marvel easter-egg.

The point you ask?  Just this:  The would-be collaborator who was not steeped in this new environment as a child must learn two skills.  First, the ability to let go of complete understanding of the whole, while still grasping enough to get the details right on their part.  Second, the ever-valued sandbox skill of sharing.  Be it influence, credit, responsibility, or (perhaps most importantly) vision, bridging to the next career will require finding a good fit among others, in virtual communities as well as in-person.  As a child raised in world still enamored of individual achievement and recognition, this has been a tough one for me.

Next time:  Creative content generation, and finally the fun way I’ve decided to try and bring it all together.

What is your next career, fortysomethings?

Facts and conclusions.

I am likely to live well into my eighties or nineties.  As long as I keep my weight under control, my health in those years is almost guaranteed to be substantially better than the generation ahead of me.  I don’t see retirement as ever being an option, either financially or psychologically, but what I will actually be doing is a huge open question.  I simply can’t imagine doing the same thing I’m doing now for twenty more years.  I really can’t imagine doing the next thing I’ll be doing for the twenty years after that!

I was born in 1967, in that demilitarized zone between the boomers and Gen X.  But there are days where I feel I have more in common with my millennial children than with my peers, even those only 5 or 10 years ahead of me.  Which means I kind of like the notion of hanging around in my kids’ world for as much or more time as I will have spent in “my own”.  But if I do, how will I stay relevant and how can I make myself valuable to them and their peers, my future employers?  Not just for a next career, but probably for one or two more.  This has to happen if I am to remain a sane working adult for as long as I think I will need to.

I think there are a couple of keys to successfully camping out in the millennial world, and whatever comes after.  The first has to be technological competency.  One of the great miscalculations of my teen life was to look at the developing world of technology (which I thought I was quite suited for at the time) as a niche occupation with an uncertain future.  Okay so I got that one thoroughly, totally, mindbogglingly wrong.  Technical creativity is excellent currency today, and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future.  This is true not only for incoming freshmen (who by all accounts are not going to completely close the gaps) but for anyone with the aptitude who is contemplating relevant, meaningful, and secure employment.

Next time:  Collaboration and distributed development, then creative content generation, and finally a fun way to bring it all together.

Great small theater show if you are in the Seattle area!

For those of you that follow my theater life, we are in the final stretch to opening night this Friday, and I love this show! Sure, tried and true classics are a safe bet, but sometimes you just have to try something new. If this means you, I totally recommend this alternately hilarious and thoughtful original play about a family’s struggles when they all, parents included, have to start growing up.  “Making God Laugh”

Credit where credit is due

Been taking a little break in the run-up to the holidays, so my apologies to those of you dying to hear the next installment in my mason jar performance evaluation series…all three of you.  🙂

In the meantime, I wanted to share something I almost did really wrong today.  I was handed my first impossible mission for next year.  You know, one of those things where you’ve spent months on a business case, one of the few where the factors are clear and there really is a compelling course of action.  You might even have taken that compelling strategy all the way to completion, then been told we are going to go back and completely reverse that approach, that we are being driven by less tangible considerations into a strategy that does not have the business case as it’s central driver.  So please come up with a justification for going back to the way we used to do it.

Anyway, not the point.  One of my staff came by as I was roughing out my strategy for tackling this project next year.  She is not directly involved in the staffing model I was about to deconstruct, but was interested in what I was working on, so we chatted about the dilemma.  In one of my proposed models, she mentioned a way it might fill a need in another area where we didn’t currently have enough labor allocated.  It was a brilliant and elegant fix that could make the whole thing a huge win.

I didn’t intentionally rethink this as my idea.  It’s just that the comment was so off-hand, and I was still so in the mode of teaching her about the issue, that I didn’t realize she was making a suggestion for a solution.  After she left, I sat down to process what we had talked about and one of the things she had said triggered something that felt a lot more like my own idea.  It took a real deliberate effort to stop myself and wonder if that wasn’t the suggestion she meant all along.  There was literally a moment where my brain was stuck between telling my boss what a great idea I had, and going to my employee and asking her if “my” fix was what she had in mind when she made her comment.

Who and what we are as managers and leaders is nothing more or less than the sum total of what happens in these split second moments.  Happily, today I got it right.

The exquisite art of being present-MJPE #8

Quality performance feedback

Strip #8:  “You gave me your full attention in our meetings; I appreciated the feeling of being heard.”

Okay, confession time.  This can be SO hard for me.  My brain loves field trips, and heads off on it’s own at the drop of a hat.  Virtual meetings are the worst, especially if there is anything in it that is a weekly recurring topic.  My brain takes one look at the agenda and goes “Right…boring.  Later.”  Off it goes to play among the email and IM apps, while simultaneously tripling the amount of open browser tabs I’ve got going.

In-person meetings tend to keep us more honest, but it’s still all too easy to be somewhere else.  You can’t let it happen there, and you absolutely cannot let it happen one-on-one.  Yes, I know there are a few people out there who are completely oblivious to your inattention.  You almost certainly have some working for you, they are almost certainly in the minority, and you’ve almost certainly misidentified them.  Don’t risk it.

Besides, this is another one of those things where people seem to have really good radar no matter how good an actor you think you are.  They may not be able to pin down exactly why talking to you isn’t a positive experience, but don’t be fooled.  In their daily subconscious mental calculus, their brains will tend to progressively diminish the value of bringing things to you.

This is an easily avoided death-spiral that will choke off the vital supply of what I’ve come to think of as “lagniappe” communication.  A lagniappe is a term, mostly associated with Louisiana in the U.S., that refers to a little extra given beyond what is owed in a business transaction.  I’ve never met a successful leader who wasn’t bringing in loads of this daily, and who wasn’t working extremely hard to protect it.

Bottom line: People always notice, at one level or another, when you are not engaged in listening.  You’re not fooling them.  Don’t fool yourself.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation-#7

Quality performance feedback

Strip #7:  “Thank you for the ALWAYS full candy bowl”

This is just one way of delivering on today’s bit of advice: Figure out a small thing that is really appreciated by the team, and provide it regularly. I kept a bowl of chocolate candies on the conference desk in my office.  I tried really hard to keep the good stuff in there (well, the nice Costco truffles anyway), although I must admit it occasionally held leftover Easter or Halloween candy.  The point is, when a day is getting out of hand, a small luxury can be the only high point.  It brought people to my office for something besides business, helped me spot who had drawn the short straw for pressure that day, and it probably didn’t hurt to create at least one positive association about being in my office, right?

Today’s bonus insight is perhaps a bit obvious but here it is anyway:  NEVER shrink from stealing someone else’s good idea.  I had watched someone on a previous team provide this same creature comfort to fellow employees.  I watched the ebb and flow of traffic around that office week after week.  Badness flowed into it and goodness flowed out.  Of course, I shamelessly stole the idea.

Look, these people are working hard for you and for the business.  They come in each day with the hope of being able to do a decent job, keep the business out of trouble, find problems before they get out of hand, and leave their mark on some achievement.  You can say “I appreciate that” every minute of every day, without saying anything.  Hell, without even being there.  How hard is that?

And if they are not coming in each day with all those hopes, let alone delivering on them?  Do it anyway.  This is step one of the trust cycle and you have to come out from behind your hill first.  Treat them as if they are pulling for you one hundred percent and make life a little nicer.  You can differentiate performance in lots of other ways.  Just pick something you can live with and use that one thing to treat everyone like a highly valued contributor.

Bottom line: There are lots of different kinds of carrots, but all sticks are pretty much the same.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation-#6

Quality performance feedback

Strip #6:  “You do what you say you will do…keep it up!”

I’ve talked about this in a couple previous posts, so I am not going to spend too much time on it.   “Promises made, promises kept” seems to be making the circuit these days as the catchphrase for this concept, but I’ve found leaders often have blind spots here.  It’s all too easy to  subconsciously hedge, even if just momentarily, on whether a promise was ever made.  This is really risky behavior.  I could sacrifice almost any other leadership principle and survive, but never this one.

It is so easy to miss that a seemingly trivial request, something I gave just half a nod to yesterday, is the most important thing a team member is waiting on today.  You have to listen deliberately and answer every question with conscious commitment.  You have to be continuously aware in every exchange.  Not so much about whether you are making a promise, but about whether you are generating new expectations.  Your mental accountant has to be completely on point.  If 10 expectations get created, 10 answers are due, and part of you can’t rest until 10 are delivered.  You can be right on this a hundred times but if you get it wrong once, you’re back underwater again.

Bottom line: You really, really want this feedback.  From every employee.  On every team.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #5

Quality performance feedback

Strip #5:  “Your optimism has been a source of encouragement to keep the team working to improve…”

Hmmm…lots of subtext here, none of it comfortable.  There were some very hard times in this group in the year or two leading up to my joining them.  There were plenty of hard times after.  It would be easy to focus on the “optimism” and “encouragement” in this feedback, and not pay attention to the “…keep the team working to improve” bit.

There was desperate need for improvement, and no margin left to take our time achieving it.  We had to set a pretty relentless pace for change in the first several months, something I try very hard not to do in the first weeks of a new job.  The recent troubles had bred default  conservatism, risk aversion and widespread resistance to anything new, particularly if it involved judgement calls.  There were two things that had to be done immediately.

First, we had to set a completely different tone and expectation for the consequence of failures.  We established that our organization would become so good at achieving and maintaining quality, that other groups would want to model us.  We would develop recognized best practices for monitoring data, identifying abnormal patterns, troubleshooting the causes, and implementing fixes.  To this end, we expected everyone to redefine failure as an opportunity to learn how to be this organization.  Most importantly, I committed to a firm rule that the last person to touch a problem would never be offered up as the cause.

Second, I had to completely deliver on these promises.  Hence came the optimism.  Understand, I am a true believer in the systems approach to root cause analysis.  Not the 1950s “who is the root cause” kind of analysis, nor the 1980s “what is the root cause” kind, but the 21st century “why does our system allow errors to propagate into the failure we observed” kind.  I love this analysis.  It’s complex, it’s interesting, and it identifies all kinds of fixes that will actually work.  Huge possible wins here.  But you have to get the personalities and the personal blame out of it, or you will never get the defensiveness out of it, and the defensiveness will ensure no change lasts in your absence.

Every time we had a failure, I was the happiest guy in the room.  I was happy for the skills that had identified it.  I was happy for the courage demonstrated in reporting it.  I was happy for the work that was done to contain the problem.  I was happy for the fix ideas that were already being worked on.  At the risk of stating the obvious, this happiness does not simply refer to my inner emotional state.  It was what I was broadcasting all over the room, in every meeting, in every sidebar, in every email.  You have to win the messaging war on this one, and you do it by using every message to reward the behavior you want.

But never, ever forget: You will kill all of this forever the first time you point the finger at the last person who touched the failure.  Absent gross negligence, this kind of lazy management should always be off limits.

-Bottom line: Believe in what you think the team can be, make sure that belief is genuine, make sure they hear that belief in every way you communicate, and create a safe environment for failure.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-