Monday, January 29, 2007

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

An interesting yet ultimately unsatisfying play. The copy I read is actually my wife’s, which she obtained as part of an English class in college. She remembers nothing about it other than that she enjoyed it. That strikes me as odd since she always hates it when movies leave questions unanswered at the end and this play leaves a lot unanswered.

It is an interesting portrait of a married couple who knows each other better than anyone else, knows each other so well and are so sick of one another that all they can use that knowledge for is to play mind games and push each others' buttons, each trying to outdo the other in an ever-expanding contest of wills. That part is interesting and well crafted, but the truth of the things they fight over are obscured and remain obscured at the end. Did George kill his parents? Did Martha molest her son? Do they even have a son? I don’t know and don’t think I’m supposed to know. Is that the point? That their relationship has lost its foundation of truth and now only rests on the charade that they built to help torment one another? If so, I guess that’s even more interesting.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Dragon Complex: Strategies for Identifying and Conquering Workplace Abuse by Winnifred Taylor, Patrick C. Dorin and John Taylor

This one was on loan from my sister-in-law, and is all about how to identify, deal with or escape abusive bosses. The authors call them Dragons, those that protect them Doorkeepers, victims who are abused and stay Doormats, and victims who are abused and forced out Dragon Food. The premise for the loan was that the boss at my last job was a Dragon and I was Dragon Food and, although I think there are certainly some similarities between my situation and the situations described in the book, I’m not sure what happened to me can accurately be compared to the hypothesis that forms the basis of this book. The best stuff came from the Introduction:

Marilyn worked for a large defense contractor. She had to work long hours and take work home evenings and weekends to appease her boss, who claimed that her work was consistently below par. She eventually suffered a breakdown and was promptly replaced.

+ + + + +

Employees, management, or human resources personnel may not even be aware that the company has Dragons in its midst until the toll of low productivity, broken careers, and lost opportunities becomes overwhelming. By that time, the Dragon has usually moved on.

+ + + + +

Dragons enjoy undermining the careers of any employees who are perceived as threats and/or will not be part of inappropriate activities. Employees may be targeted because of their high knowledge levels, positive working relationships with staff, customers and clients, progressive suggestions, questioning of new or unspoken business practices, or pointing out potential problems.

+ + + + +

Abusive bosses are cunning enough to know that they can’t just fire productive people. It would make the abusive bosses look foolish. Therefore, they have a field day creating a case for dismissal under the guise that it is “good for the company.” The confused victims, blaming job stress, often accept the guilt for their perceived and/or trumped-up “failures” without question, while the abuser feels victorious.

The Dragons described in this book are really nasty. They want their victims to engage in illegal activities, unethical behavior, or sexual escapades. They’re monsters—like Hillary Clinton. Nothing like that ever happened to me at my old place of work. But I do believe my old boss did exhibit some Dragon behavior. I believe it is her and her leadership that is creating the employee turnover there, and I believe some of her actions in this regard are calculated and deliberate. The simplest way to put it is to say that she does not fire people. She makes life so difficult for them that they quit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King

Another King novel and another good one, although the first two stories were far more engaging than the final three.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Leader’s Handbook by Peter R. Scholtes

This is the book a friend gave me a while back and I thought I’d better read it before I start my new job. I pulled a few tidbits out of it that I may try to use, but it was largely something that seemed written for a different environment than the one I find myself in, or which was trying to communicate universal and important truths that I already know. Its overall message is that leaders should be managers of systems and not managers of people. It encourages the view that everything that goes wrong in an organization is a result of a broken system, not of broken people, and that as such, things like performance incentives and evaluations are outdated and counterproductive techniques. The book ends conveniently with “The 47 Habits of Pretty Good Leaders,” which is a summary of the advice the book offers to leaders. Here are the ones I’ll try to retain:

4. Leaders need to understand the organization systemically: clearly understanding the purpose of any undertaking, then understanding the interactions and interdependencies between the parts that result either in the achievement of in the failure to achieve that purpose. All output, desired or undesired, is the net result of the system and its interactions (not the people and their inadequacy).

6. Changing the system will change what people do. Changing what people do will not change the system.

7. All the teamed-up, accountable, empowered, incentivized, motivated, and paid-for-performance people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.

8. Leaders must understand variation and the difference between common cause variation and special cause variation. Leaders who do not understand variation will: (a) See trends where there are no trends; (b) Miss trends where there are trends; (c) Attribute problems to individuals who have no control; (d) Give credit to people who are simply lucky; (e) Fail to understand past performance; (f) Be unable to predict future performance; (g) Not understand their systems or how to improve them.

13. Leaders may well seek to discover what their organization’s culture is, keeping in mind that they are the people least likely to understand it.

15. Leaders must go an inch wide and a mile deep and lead the organization in this focused approach. The organization must focus its efforts so that it does a few things thoroughly rather than many things inadequately.

19. Feedback is the mother’s milk of improvement. Leaders need to establish ongoing feedback loops from the customer to the organization. Within the organization, leaders need to promote the establishment and maintenance of ongoing systems and process-based feedback loops.

28. Leaders need to lead the establishment of systems and processes for routinely collecting and analyzing critical data, the vital signs that indicate the organization’s well-being, needs and opportunities.

33. Leaders need to see themselves: (a) More as coaches and less as directors; (b) More as experimenters and less as controllers; (c) More as educators and less as advice-givers; (d) More as inquirers and less as inspectors.

41. Some of the common, and false, assumptions leaders have about workers and work are: (a) Problems, for the most part, result from individual dereliction; (b) Successful work requires holding people accountable for the achievement of measurable goals; (c) There is a reservoir of withheld effort that must be coaxed or coerced out of people; (d) The leader’s job is to motivate and control the workforce.

43. Rather than seeking control of their people, leaders must work with their people to gain control of the systems and processes. Rather than dysfunctional systems that require the heroic efforts of outstanding people, leaders should seek the creation and maintenance of outstanding systems and processes that continuously succeed with the ordinary efforts of average people.

I should email this list to my friend and discuss it with him the next time we go out to lunch. Two other ideas that are worth keeping. The first is to set personnel policies based on the premise that your employees are trustworthy, not untrustworthy. For example:

The Trustworthy Employee
Is a responsible adult
Wants to contribute and do good work
Cares about the company—wants it to succeed
Comes to work every day
Can be trusted

The Untrustworthy Employee
Given an inch, takes a mile
Does just what’s required
Feels that it’s just another job
Doesn’t really give a damn
Here today—tomorrow?
Can’t be trusted

The situational example given comes from the Falk Corporation, which revised its personnel policies based on a switch from the untrustworthy to the trustworthy premise. In the case of bereavement leave, this meant going from a page-long description of all the situations in which the untrustworthy employee could and could not take leave to the following single sentence: “If you require time off due to the death of a friend or family member, make arrangements with your supervisor.” The result? A 53% decrease in the number of bereavement days taken.

The other idea worth keeping is the following. As organizations become flatter, even fewer opportunities for hierarchical advancement will become available. The leader’s challenge will be to satisfy people’s desire to become leaders with fewer hierarchical positions into which people may advance. One way to deal with this is to provide regular ad hoc leadership opportunities in the organization. These opportunities should not be tests, but challenging experiences surrounded by support. The future leaders should be helped to succeed. The organization would define the skills needed for each opportunity, and the individuals would choose to learn the skills needed to qualify for the opportunity.

Monday, January 1, 2007

The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

It is the story of human evolution, from the present day back to the very origin of life, told in the format of The Canterbury Tales, as though humans and all our evolutionary ancestors were travelers on a pilgrimage back through time. Six million years back in time, we meet the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees, another million beyond that we meet the common ancestor we and chimpanzees share with gorillas, and another seven million beyond that we meet the common ancestor (the “concestor”) we, chimpanzees and gorillas share with orangutans. It goes back like that all the way through 39 such “rendezvous” to the common ancestor all other forms of life share with eubacteria some uncounted number of millions of years ago. Along the way different tales are told by different life forms, each illuminating a different and interesting aspect of the evolutionary story. The story is fascinating, but so is the raw chronology of it all, so much so that’s it’s worth repeating here.

Rendezvous 1 - 6 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Chimpanzees
Rendezvous 2 - 7 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Gorillas
Rendezvous 3 - 14 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Orangutans
Rendezvous 4 - 18 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Gibbons
Rendezvous 5 - 25 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Old World Monkeys
Rendezvous 6 - 40 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with New World Monkeys
Rendezvous 7 - 58 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Tarsiers
Rendezvous 8 - 63 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Lemurs
Rendezvous 9 - 70 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Shrews
Rendezvous 10 - 75 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Rodents
Rendezvous 11 - 85 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Laurasiatheres (mammals from “Laurasia”)
Rendezvous 12 - 95 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Sloths, Anteaters and Armadillos
Rendezvous 13 - 105 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Afrotheres (mammals from Africa)
Rendezvous 14 - 140 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Marsupials
Rendezvous 15 - 180 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Monotremes
Mammal-Like Reptiles
Rendezvous 16 - 310 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Reptiles and Birds
Rendezvous 17 - 340 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Amphibians
Rendezvous 18 - 417 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Lungfish
Rendezvous 19 - 425 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Coelacanths
Rendezvous 20 - 440 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Ray-Finned Fish
Rendezvous 21 - 460 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Sharks
Rendezvous 22 - 530 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Lampreys and Hagfish
Rendezvous 23 - 560 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Lancelets
Rendezvous 24 - 565 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Sea Squirts
Rendezvous 25 - 570 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Starfish
Rendezvous 26 - 590 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Protostomes (including insects)
Rendezvous 27 - 630 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Flatworms
Rendezvous 28 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Jellyfish, Anemones and Coral
Rendezvous 29 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Ctenophores
Rendezvous 30 - 780 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Placozoans
Rendezvous 31 - 800 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Sponges
Rendezvous 32 - 900 Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Choanoflagellates
Rendezvous 33 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with “DRIPs”
Rendezvous 34 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Fungi
Rendezvous 35 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Amoebozoans
Rendezvous 36 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Plants
Rendezvous 37 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Remaining Eukaryotes
Rendezvous 38 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Archaea
Rendezvous 39 - ??? Million of Years Ago - Common Ancestor with Eubacteria

What’s so fascinating about this evolutionary table? Well, several things. First, how detailed it is. Something that became apparent to me as I read this book which I would say is not part of the common man’s everyday understanding of evolution is just how much credible, scientific evidence there is for it. In this Christian Nation, one would have Joe believe that evolution is a theory full of holes. And sure, there are some holes on the chart, but look at how much of the chart is complete. Ninety-nine percent of the scientific community agree with the connections and chronology back to about 500 million years ago, and beyond that there is some disagreement about dates and the order of the connections, but virtually none about the general trend. That’s the fossil record, sure, but more and more that’s molecular data from the genomes of different species, and seeing which are similar and how similar and which are different and how different.

Next, note that it takes 70 million years to find a common ancestor with something that is not a primate and 310 million years to find one with something that is not a mammal. That’s an incredible amount of time and a testament to the true diversity of life.

Next, what’s up with the mammal-like reptiles stuck in between rendezvous 15 and 16? Well, they’re a branch of the evolutionary tree that died out completely and didn’t make it to the present day the way human did. There’s nothing alive today that shares a common ancestor with us from this branch, but the branch was once there and for hundreds of millions of years those life forms were just as real as we are. How many other evolutionary branches are like that? Don’t they say that over 90% of the species that have ever been have gone extinct and aren’t around today? You think 850 different species of cartilaginous fish is amazing? What about the 7,650 species that have gone extinct.

Just how big is this tree of life anyway? And exactly when did “we” branch off from plants, and what were “we” when we did this. Look at the rendezvous on either side. Amoebas and Eukaryotes. Simple, single-celled creatures today and however many millions of years ago the rendezvous took place. That’s what “we” and “plants” were both then, but today we are both infinitely more complicated, infinitely more diverse, and infinitely different from one another. Like compounding interest, it really shows you what evolution can do if you give it a few billion years.

And that’s what a friend of mine has grown fond of saying after reading this book. When you think of the six million years that have passed since our common ancestor with chimpanzees, or the 60 million years that have passed since our common ancestor with lemurs, or the 600 million years that have passed since our common ancestor with flatworms, you begin to realize that the differences that we think of as separating us today are infinitesimal specks of flotsam on the currents of time.