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Correction “for the record”: A little righteous indignation goes a long way March 18, 2014

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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For you non-aviators out there, a flying-specific piece is probably not helpful in your everyday work.  However, AOPA – the general aviation advocacy and lobbying organization of which I am a member – has acted in a way that I think many business leaders could learn from.

The Malaysian airline accident, along with virtually every other airplane crash, gives news outlets endless fodder – some factual, some not so much – for dramatic stories and interviews.  Just within the U.S., several fatal crashes have rightfully become newsworthy and ABC in particular took the opportunity to highlight some of the danger.

Even as a casual pilot, I note a few inaccuracies in ABC’s characterization of pilot training and the connection (if any) to accidents.  AOPA, as might be expected, worked itself into a froth over the issue.  Blog posts, video responses, letters – all worthy forums for discussing the issues.  In my opinion, however, they’re missing the point.

As a pilot myself, I suffer the “curse of expertise” as much as the next guy.  It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a novice or layperson, but I believe this step is critical to making the right move when faced with some bad press.  And my initial guess is that unless a non-pilot actually lives near a general aviation airport, specifically one of those affected by a crash,

They  do  not  care.

They don’t care that there were 444 rather than 475 fatalities.  They don’t care what the general aviation flight training syllabus contains or how many hours a private pilot has spent with an instructor.  They don’t care that there are more or fewer pilots than before.

AOPA on the other hand feels that these statistics will sway the general public.  Righteous indignation that a news outlet has presented a mostly true, though perhaps factually inaccurate portrayal of their industry (is there an industry that has not experienced this?) has blinded the discussion to what it means to engage with the public.  Rather than explain how the news is all wrong (and by extension, the very people you would like to persuade otherwise), it might be better to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that allow these news stories to exist in the first place.

Like cars, motorcycles, and boats, aircraft come with their own share of risks and rewards.  In fact, the NTSB keeps track of this sort of thing:


In addition, the annual Nall Report breaks down aviation accidents and discusses causes and solutions.  In particular, we can see from the 2010 report that fixed-wing accidents are on a slight downward trend.

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

But I would not consider it fair reporting to claim that such a trend is evidence that pilots and instructors are doing everything right, any more than it would be fair to claim that 200 fatal crashes a year means you – YOU! – could be next.  Not that AOPA is quite saying it this way, but one could imagine that if a news outlet held up this chart to tout improved safety, AOPA would probably not make a peep.

Rather, this chart illustrates to me (besides an inexplicable vertical scale) that all other things being equal, we can expect to experience about 1,300 crashes a year, about 3 or 4 every day.

Our challenge as pilots is to keep things from being equal from year to year.

At worst, the ABC piece might discourage a few people who might otherwise consider flight training.  It might give more ammunition to folks who would like to close their local airfield for fear of another crash.  It might lead the NTSB and FAA to implement stricter training requirements, as was done after the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

All of these are valid concerns for pilots and other users of general aviation.  But the solution is not to explain why someone’s fears should be dismissed because the facts weren’t quite right.  No amount of good press will erase a person’s memory as witness or victim of an aircraft accident.  And for the rest of the population, aviation’s righteous indignation that a news outlet would dare publish a piece like this only further alienates the outsiders we would very much like to bring in.

Two, Writing August 28, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management, Writing.
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Abstract communication grows from your resourcefulness.

 

First, there was Vonnegut’s Rules of Writing.  Then, I found these “economic” stories.  But, I write about project management.  How could Vonnegut apply to me?  Condensing that much – is it possible?  Conveying abstract concepts takes some effort.  Like six-word stories, two ‘writers’ contribute.  Sentences clipped, your brain fills in.  Not haiku, but certainly an equivalent.

 

I don’t think I could write that way for long.  It’s no six-word story, but a string of six-word sentences is a bit hard to read.  It doesn’t flow well, but once you know what to look for, it becomes easier.  But of course that’s not the point.

 

If you had to convey a complex thought in only six words, could you do it?  We often become lazy with our words, stringing them together without much concern for the linguistic violence we visit on our readers or listeners.  Economizing to six words forces you to think carefully and choose wisely.  It’s a good exercise when struggling with how to communicate.  Less is quite often much more.

 

Even if you only read and write non-fiction, there are some great tips in many fictional works and from great authors who never heard of project management.

No Truth to This May 21, 2012

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Seth once again drives to the root of the problem. We crave truth, demand it, reward it. But it is still not what we think it is.

A True Story

Cultivating Spreadsheets May 9, 2012

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I’ll note right off that this is a somewhat dubious reference.  The review isn’t exactly begging for you to go out and grab the book, and the author’s credentials seem, shall we say, less than shining.  Nonetheless, the brief mention that it gets contains a great nugget of wisdom.  And even if the author did plead guilty to fraud, there is something to learn from even the most glorious failures.

In this case, the wisdom applies not just to entrepreneurial startups but to any business or academic environment in which there is a risk of not paying attention to the “real world”.

The reference points out that entrepreneurs need “hunters” rather than “farmers” to go forth and seek success rather than wait for it to grow at their feet.  There is a clear parallel to anyone who spends hours on analysis, spreadsheets, and powerpoint decks – if you spend too long in your chair, secluded from the rest of the organization, your farming will not yield the success you may intend.

Sure, you’ll have the shiniest, most elegant excel charts.  Your powerpoint will be the envy of Bill Gates himself.  Your presentation would awe even the TED conference.

For nothing.

Or, at least, not providing the value in proportion to the effort that you spent to perfect that last 20%.  Success is more about “good enough”.  And if you let the cobwebs grow around your feet as you while away the day at your computer, the world is passing you by and people are getting things done without your help.

Like any good computational tool, the excel world provides you with a nice, tidy box for each piece of data.  It’s gratifying to turn those faceless numbers into a picture  that explains your case and persuades your audience.  But if you don’t know your audience – if you haven’t connected with them in real life – it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to produce the ideal supporting chart.  Hunt down success in the form of meetings and face-to-face communication.  Farming is only good if you’re growing food.

Meetings and Play-Dates January 24, 2012

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Curious about “collaboration” as a buzzword, I Googled the phrase “collaboration without”.

The first four suggestions were:

You can also collaborate without email, limits, headaches, chaos, costs, co-location, and even – inexplicably – head shaving.  To our credit, we cannot apparently have collaboration without communication nor common values.  Seems logical enough.

This got me thinking; is it possible to have collaboration without meetings?  Of course, collaboration is defined by two or more people working together toward a common goal.  One would naturally assume that at least one “meeting” would be required somewhere in the process.

But if a meeting is defined as a formal session with a clear start and end, along with other niceties, I think it is perfectly reasonable to do without them.  What would this look like, and why is it important?

I’ve observed many people, sheltered in their cubicles, who believe that any human interaction during their workday is taking them away from the “real work”.  Any commitment outside their box must be received and accepted via Outlook.  Sad to say, but this attitude is probably causing them more grief than they are trying to avoid in the first place – not to mention bringing down overall productivity.

By demanding (whether from the employee’s or employer’s perspective) formal meeting agendas and set time commitments, the organization is forced to have such things as “pre-pre-meeting meetings”.  This is getting out of hand.  I know of no organization that can function without regular human interactions – formal or not.  It seems, rather, that many organizations have become groups of individuals who must have their entire days scheduled as if they were play-dates.

The problem is that collaboration, design, science, and even basic conversation is messy.  It does not conform to schedules, timetables, and clear agendas.  Don’t get me wrong – agendas have their place; the bigger the meeting, the more important they are.  But for daily interactions, sometimes you just have to go down the hall, pick up the phone, or (dare I say, as a last resort) send the email – no pre-meeting agenda required.

This means that those recurring meetings may not be required if no one has anything to share.  And they may not if, during the week, they have informally sat down together as groups of two or three to work out a resolution or a plan.  If your job requires synthesizing, analyzing, recommending, or planning based around some set of information, you don’t have to wait for the meeting to get it.

Are You Expecting? December 10, 2011

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Every human interaction has several common attributes. Communication is one of the most overt. It is obvious – at least that it is occurring, though there is almost always a hidden message. More subtle are our personal motivations that drive us to persuade, entreat, favor, or reject another’s ideas. These attributes come together whenever you expect something from someone, or someone expects something from you.

We have all had shattered expectations. We thought we could depend on someone, we trusted, we delegated responsibility – only to face disappointment, frustration, and what becomes regarded as substandard performance. Naturally, this happens in both personal and business situations. But in business, we have a much more structured concept of expectations and a line of authority that provides fundamental motivation (to keep your job!) if not actual leadership.

Nonetheless, whenever you expect something of someone else, you have an obligation as well. It is rarely enough to simply assign a task – big or small – and expect that it will be done without some degree of follow-up. At the most fundamental level, the task must be understood and the proper resources must be available. But beyond that, the delegator must ensure that the task is properly prioritized and fits into the schedule. Time, as always, has the final say.

Gripped by Fear November 22, 2011

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One of my favorite movie dialogues is from Men In Black.  Even after all these years (1997!), it holds a great deal of truth – and indeed the movie itself touches on a fair number of human philosophies and beliefs.

J (Will Smith): People are smart.  They can handle it.

K (Tommy Lee Jones): A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

The clear distinction between individuals and groups is important, not just if you are trying to protect citizens from the fear of alien invasion, but even if trying to manage more mundane matters.  Any organization of any size must deal with the realities of psychology(of the individual) and sociology (of groups) to move forward and effect change.

Human fear is the most powerful emotion we have, and it can quite literally shut down our mental processes to the point that we become paralyzed.  Fear can take on many forms, but one of the most common is the stress that we experience when facing real or potential change.

Fear of the unknown, of a lost job, or of coming to harm all conspire to keep us in our comfort zones.  Our individual ability to reason and foresee longer term consequences and benefits is all that separates us from living solitary, completely risk-averse lives.  It may be indeed the stuff of our very civilization.

But while it is possible to reason with individuals, this reasoning depends on understanding each individual’s personal motivations and fears.  Groups do not have motivations as such.  But that doesn’t keep the individuals in a group from displaying behavior they would not otherwise.  Groupthink, biases, and a desire to not be contrarian can mask personal motivations and even make one deviate from their personal values.

Only by understanding fear – and acknowledging that it will always be part of any decision process – can we learn to work around it and minimize its damaging effects.

Speak To The Next Slide September 22, 2010

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Here’s a simple tip to remember for any presentation:

As you present (or prepare the talk), think of the transition to the next slide and speak to its points before you click over.

That’s it.  Simple, right?

But think about what this requires.  First, you obviously need to know your material and the slide content.  You’re not using the slides as your notes.  You’re using them as supporting material for the points that your active speech and body movements should already be communicating to your audience.

If you’re not doing this, your audience is reading the slides rather than listening to your words.  If this is happening, you can sit down and everyone can just read silently.  Or maybe you don’t need to be there at all…

Premature Elaboration July 25, 2010

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I wish I could take credit for this phrase. Not only can’t I, but I can’t even credit the right person, since I don’t remember where I saw it. Nonetheless, it provides a great visual reminder that you have countless opportunities to spoil a good relationship whenever you open your mouth to your client. Don’t be the one who vomits your company’s benefits and expertise all over the recipient’s shoes.

Whether it’s a formal presentation to a director or a five minute conversation with a staff member, it pays to keep this in mind. And make no mistake, forgetting your audience for the briefest of moments can and has eroded trust and confidence in your abilities. You may only get one “first impression” but you have to reinforce that impression with consistency and tact with every communication.

It Speaks For Itself July 13, 2010

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Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that “the data speaks for itself?”  Most in the engineering, architecture, or even accounting fields likely have. In these and other technically oriented environments, we become accustomed to spreadsheets, graphs, and equations. They provide an easily accessible alternative dimension to problems and can aid in visualizing solutions.

But they aren’t for everyone.

A professional who regularly deals with data can lose sight of the fact that charts and graphs are only part of the story. After spending weeks compiling mathematical support for an argument or solution, it can be quite frustrating to present it to a client or the public who must then be led by the hand from the beginning to arrive at the same conclusions.

But lead them you must. The data almost never speak for themselves. They require a story, an analogy, anything that can connect the abstract to your audience’s experiences. Without this, any persuasion you hope to muster will be strongly counteracted by everyone else’s natural dislike of numbers and squiggly lines. Without it, you will be just another Powerpoint statistic.