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Committing to Change September 24, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I recently revisited “Your Brain and Business” by Srinivasan Pillay, in which the author describes many behaviors and habits studied by psychologists, sociologists, and economists in terms of recent fMRI research.  Even though it’s a fairly new field of study and its implications are not completely clear, we can still learn much from studies of emotion, decisions, and creativity and the connection between brain physiology and real-world behavior.

For example, most of us are familiar with visualizing a task or goal as a key step in achieving it – especially when behavioral change is necessary.  We might be trying to decide about a new job, resolve a conflict at home, or even simply lose weight.  Trainers and coaches advise that you should picture yourself in whatever “end state” you aim to reach.  You would visualize yourself in your ideal job, with your happy spouse, 20 pounds thinner – or whatever your goals might be.  Some might call it psychobabble, but fMRI demonstrates there are important changes in our brains when we visualize this way compared with not.

Example fMRI results

For many reasons, we are wired to set ourselves into habits.  It saves energy, protects our egos, reduces fear and anxiety, and feeds our feelings of reward when we accomplish things that are within our abilities.  Moving out of these habits then takes away all of these ‘good’ feelings and replaces them with brain chemicals that drive our fight or flight reflexes.

The fMRI studies show that when we visualize, we are literally training our minds to be more accustomed to our desired end state.  By reducing the novelty through mentally simulating our achievements, our brains are less likely to perceive these as fear-inducing unfamiliar situations.  This makes it easier to create further commitment to our goals, as each small step becomes an achievement (releasing reward chemicals) rather than a seemingly insurmountable task.

Sun, Sand, and Glass September 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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What will be the next technological revolution?

It’s hard to identify particular divisions of human technology until well after the fact – the Bronze Age, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age.  Until we can see what comes “next” we don’t have a boundary across which we can observe distinct advances.

Nonetheless, we’re always interested in what the ‘next big thing’ will be.  I’ve told my kids that they will be seeing new energy sources and manufacturing techniques – the former driven by our need to shift away from carbon- and combustion-based energy, and the latter taking advantage of recent developments in what is commonly called ‘3-D printing’.

Of course, we can’t know what we’ll have in 30 or 50 years’ time, but here is a taste of a technology that blends the two potential revolutions into one: solar-powered manufacturing using desert sand.  Short of using the ocean as a future fresh water source, this technology just may be one of the ways that developing countries can compete with the rest of the world.  Take a look at this video and see for yourself.  Also visit the Markus Kayser’s website for more info.

P.S. – this video is in desperate need of a soundtrack.  Whether or not you understand German, I found this one goes quite nicely.

Managing the Next Step September 8, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I’ve written before about some of the differences between technical and managerial skills – a condition that shouldn’t come as any surprise to someone who works with technical teams.  All too often, project manager roles are filled by people who happened to be very good engineers or designers, but who lack the additional skills required to motivate the team.

So it is with consulting, illustrated quite well by this article by Wayne McKinnon.  His number one statement stands out, as it describes perfectly some of the mental blocks that engineers deal with, especially when moving into managerial or other influence roles.  He says,

In school, technical specialists are taught that there is one best answer, not degrees of better. Buyers like options, and technical people are often too focused on the theoretical “right way” versus achieving objectives to varying degrees.

This has been my experience as well.  A good project manager will often absorb the changes in scope or deliverables and pass them along to the engineers who must then ‘simply execute’ them to the best of their abilities.  If that is the limit of the engineer’s involvement however, he misses the compromises and trade-offs that led to the change in the first place – exactly the personal interactions and business decisions required to be able to become a manager or consultant later in his career.

So, McKinnon’s advice to technical folks applies to their managers as well – make sure to expose your technical team to the decision making processes.  It will pay dividends in both of your careers.