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American Education? February 28, 2012

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Seth Godin has just posted what he calls a “30,000 word manifesto” on public education.  I’m sure that it applies to similar systems anywhere, but it is especially pertinent to us Americans.  The problems that he describes are all the more striking when compared with our experiences here in Australia.

With a daughter in high school here, we observe every day the different attitudes toward school, work, university education, and standardized testing.  All of us are the products of an educational system that was founded to produce productive citizens.  But this comes at a price.

I encourage you to take a look at Seth’s short piece, and think about what we expect of our educational system (and, by extension, many of our other American institutions).  He encourages you to comment and discuss this very important issue.  We owe it to ourselves.

A direct link to the PDF version is here.

Appropriate Rules December 21, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I play a lot of games with my kids.  Every game, naturally, has its rules.  But each also has other, intangible goals.  Some teach strategy, some teamwork.  Quick thinking, observation, and word skills are also important.  Games teach us, even when it doesn’t feel like learning.

So when I play with them, I will often adjust the rules to fit their personalities and ages.  My 8 year old son will not have fun playing the same way that my older daughters will.  The important point is that we don’t just ignore the rules to make the game easier; we think about the goals of the game, and adjust the process to attain them in the manner most appropriate to the players on that particular day.

Some people are hard-wired to follow each and every rule the way that it is written.  Someone sat down and designed the game the way that it is, and that’s the way it will be played.  But remember that people can’t foresee every circumstance that the players will encounter.  Game designers also assume a certain level of general experience, but can’t be expected to know each individual’s abilities.

Or perhaps there is tradition to consider.  We rarely change the rules of chess, for example.  That’s a case where, like a language, if you want someone else to understand you, you have to agree on a common set of rules.

This adjustment of the rules extends to other parts of life as well (and indeed, along with learning strategy, is an important life skill that comes from games).  Anyone that works for a living knows there are countless rules that govern daily actions.  Policies, procedures, paperwork, informal networks, etiquette, and culture all set up constraints to the work we do.

The important point is that if you are all working toward the same goal, it is okay to adjust the rules to fit the players.  This particular form is onerous and not adding value?  Stop filling it out.  That department isn’t allowed to request supplies directly from the vendor (even though it is cheaper and more expedient)?  Make an exception.

Games (and work) are not necessarily about everyone playing by every single rule.  They are about having fun and reaching an end goal that everyone can agree on.  Leading an organization means knowing which rules are negotiable, to what degree, and to whom any changes should apply.  Following the rules for their own sake means not understanding the true goals in the first place.

Humor as Wisdom October 21, 2011

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Humor can be a powerful – or devastating – force in any relationship.  Tell the wrong joke, misinterpret the context, execute a cultural faux pas, or generally offend the other party and you can doom a conversation – or a career.

How many politicians have recently been vilified for saying something they thought was witty, only to find out it was a racial slur or otherwise offensive comment?  Obviously, one could avoid the situation by never trying a joke or humor.

But that’s boring.  No one like a humorless speaker either.  Why?

A sense of humor, timing, context, and propriety all work together to make comedy what it is.  But these things also provide cues to the listener and even work to build trust.  In short, being effectively humorous and being able to tell a good joke mean that you have an understanding of the listeners and know where their boundaries lie.  It allows them to be more forthcoming with their own words and for you to therefore learn even more about them.

This isn’t about cynicism, harsh sarcasm, or spiteful speech.  It’s about connecting with others through a basic human need to laugh.

Practical Wisdom January 5, 2011

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Doctors, teachers, judges, and lawyers.  Police officers, pilots, engineers, and parents.  Infinite dependence on their collective wisdom, experience, judgment, and virtue.  Ethics, responsibility, authority, and – most of all – a human relationship with those whom they serve.

All for nothing.

Society demands justice when things go wrong.  Rules and regulations, policies, penalties, and incentives are put up as hurdles to future “malpractice” – whether intentional or not.

But these rules come with a price.  As much as we desire to achieve some utopia of perfect human existence in which no one is immoral or makes mistakes, our tolerance – or rather lack of it – dehumanizes us.  As business consultant Alan Weiss once said, “A zero-tolerance policy is another way of saying ‘we don’t trust you to use your judgment.'”  But yet, this is where we find ourselves.

I strongly urge you to take twenty-three minutes out of your busy schedule to contemplate what it means when we deny our human need to provide meaningful work and service to others.  Not necessarily altruism, but a recognition that we serve other people, not just economic incentives.  Those twenty-three minutes might be spent in any manner you desire, but I highly recommend that you try listening to Mr. Barry Schwartz describe how our rules contribute as much, if not more, to our collective moral decline than any one person or group could on their own.

Wisdom, empathy, and human connections form the basis for any meaningful work that we might undertake.  Without them, we are truly merely part of an inhuman machine, and it doesn’t have to be that way.