On Context Blindness

September 21, 2010

I am sure most of us have had this happen; you run into someone familiar and then stand there drawing a blank.

You are completely lost for words.

You know that you recognize this individual, but you  just can’t place from where.

Then the light bulb clicks on! the familiar face is a child’s teacher, the owner of your local dry cleaner, or the gas bar jockey you see twice a week.

This disconnect when we see people that we are familiar with, but outside of the context that we usually see them, well – it can throw us for a loop. Our mental circuitry seems to have difficulty in making that association without that associations familiar context.

Let me relate a story, and then ask how this type of context blindness may be affecting us as leaders and managers in our businesses.

A Tech Guys Context Blindness (mine)

It started simply enough, about two years ago we bought a new, fairly high end refrigerator. Over the past couple of months we have been getting frustrated as this new machine has been acting up. The first service call had the technician basically tell us that nothing was wrong. (lets not get into service call ‘sometime between 9 and 5’ here)

But the issues persisted, so we called for service again.

I gave the service technician the outline of what the symptoms were, and the technician instantly replied;

I know this area, you have lots of power surges out here….

Before he finished the above phrase – it smacked me like a punch in the stomach.

Because?

#1 I have been in technology for 20 years, and I know rule number one!  And that rule states that if there is a computer style circuit board anywhere in a device, put it on an electrical surge suppressor to protect it from power spikes.

#2 Logically I knew that the refrigerator had a computer circuit board, simply because all of its controls for the temperature settings,  automatic defrost etc. are all digital!

The Blindness

Simply put – my mental context of protecting computer circuit boards with electrical surge protectors, failed to connect the mental dots between what I know about protecting electronic devices, and what I know about this refrigerator.

And yes – the problem with my refrigerator? that circuit board had blown, usually caused by power spikes.

And Our Business?

Do you have a context specific form of tunnel vision? where you know A and you know B, but is there a piece missing that could turn out to be a new product or service?

Have you mechanized your thinking too the point where you cannot notice the pain point that could be crying out for a solution?

Have you been desperately searching for some way to purchase innovation, when managing this missing context is right before your eyes?

The SMB Takeaway

I am entering this week determined to take a new look at everything that I know within the context of our business. Because who knows if another piece of context blindness is lurking around.

PS, I purchased a new computer grade surge suppressor for my refrigerator.

Too many business technology staff have a disease. Maybe you have seen it?

This shoot first and ask questions later is only a significant symptom, but let me back up first.

All business has a value chain. This value chain is the set of activities in your organization that produce the product or service that is actually delivered to your customers.

If you prefer to think in the concept of Open Systems, we can state that your business does not operate in a vacuum. Inputs, manipulation and outputs are required to physically get your product or service delivered.

And in many businesses, there is one common link that can help tie together each of those inputs and outputs;

Technology

Technology support in your business is not just data entry. In many cases creative knowledge workers can utilize technology based processes to reduce the friction that slows communication between the pieces of your value chain. By reducing friction, I mean reducing the gaps and time lost between individual steps.

As an example? a graphic artist creates material that has to go to print, but the individual that has to give the final approval forgets, so while the work is done, it is stuck in a crack, or gap of your internal value chain. These gaps are the common area where your IT can help streamline your internal processes.

That Technology Value Chain

I am going to break a rule here and temporarily extract your IT function out of your business – just like a schematic diagram.

If you could view your IT service in this way, you would see all the points where your IT  touches and connects to the various business processes you operate.

So let me argue that IT is a type of internal value chain for your organization – any change to those touch points that connect other points  will affect others. It will affect them through change, or it will affect them when they can’t get their job done because something is not working.

This Chain?

Technologists in the SME space must understand that IT does not exist in a vacuum. Nothing is discrete, you cannot just separate it like this simple schematic.

Everything that is done will positively or negatively impact the daily life and performance of somebody else. (And usually many someone else’s.)

And that is the problem

This shoot first,ask questions later in SME IT is a disease. Too many technologists never think of the impact that their decisions will have on others.

You can recognize the symptoms of this disease in many ways.

On symptom of this disease I call  pop-a-clickaitis. Which is the tendency to think that if you click enough times, in enough places, stopping  this or starting that, add in reboot as much as possible, that things will magically work out better. It won’t. At most people have been kicked out of whatever work they were in.

Another significant symptom of the shoot first disease?

An attitude in technologists – that says; “hey do it anyway , if something breaks, we will fix it afterward”

So what we have hear is ‘who cares about peoples work!

The SMB Takeaway

This shoot first tendency in many technologists is a self inflicted wound.

Ensure that it is eradicated in your shop

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OK, an obvious riff on the Rolling Stones We Can’t Always Get What We Want!

But here is a true story.

Lets wander back a few decades to when I was in the property management business.

First! We are going old school here, the Internet was still in prep school (the technorati talked SLIP, Telnet, Gopher), and the masses talked via BBS (Bulletin Board Systems – remember Mustang?) or CompuServe. E-mail? nope. Computing was an AS-400 and green screen terminals.

but I digress!

At one of our tenant companies, two individuals repeatedly complained to the commercial property supervisor that they were either too hot, or too cold in their work places.

Feeling that they were not getting an adequate response after several complaints, these two employees escalated the issue to their business Vice President, who then raised hell with our commercial property Vice President.

As crap usually flows down hill, the commercial property supervisor was hauled onto the carpet for a tongue lashing about not being responsive to the complaints.

During this event the commercial property supervisor demanded a meeting in the tenants offices with both the tenants VP, and our VP. After some argument – this was arranged.

So! its meeting day, the property supervisor takes both VP’s to one of the complaining individuals and asks about the temperature; Too cold was given as a complaint.

The trio then visit the second complainant who states; too hot!

Our property supervisor says; there you go, what the hell do you want me to do?

You see?

Those two individuals that were complaining?

They had their office desks fitted side by side!

In other words, there were sitting about 3 feet apart! So there was absolutely no hope that both could be satisfied.

And the lessons learned?

The first, and most obvious lesson; the commercial property supervisor would have bypassed all of this if he had simply picked up the phone and explained that there was nothing that he could do about the situation after he received the very first complaint.

But more importantly, we need to understand that we cannot satisfy everybody, every time. We can solicit input, we can try for consensus. But sometimes we need to agree to disagree.

We need to make the decision and move to the next step. We need to appreciate their input, but state that the decision is no longer on the table for discussion.

Photo Credit by jmc_sjsu via flickr

Here is an article from Baseline Magazine quoting statistics on banning social media from the workplace;

Do social networking sites serve as useful tools for connecting within the business world, or are they simply time-wasters? More than half of enterprise IT leaders lean toward the latter perspective, according to a new survey conducted amongst 1,400 CIOs by the employment experts at Robert Half Technology

I have to say that I completely and utterly disagree with that perspective.

First, although I don’t like the term social media, that concept of listening to our customers is here to say. Not only is it critical that we listen, but as Nabil Harfoush CIO, SVP Corporate Development at HelpCaster Technologies Inc. states, we need to be willing to act;

True conversations require not only active listening but also a readiness to change your position based on the conversation.

And there certainly is no way to act, if there is no way to listen!

And second, the primary argument used for banning social media is simply fear.

As Baseline wrote, the fear that someone will be wasting their time.

Generalizations?

I have a big problem with that generalization.

It is called management people!

If one person in your organization is consistently late; Rather than deal directly with that infraction, management edicts chain everybody at a desk for exact sets of hours.

Or perhaps one individual takes a much to liberal interpretation of the dress code, so again, forget dealing with the infraction, punish everyone though more management edicts.

This is simply poor leadership – it is a failure to deal with the immediate issue. As Margaret Heffernan at FastCompany writes in Ten Habits of Incompetent Managers;

“I know she’s always late, but if I raise the subject, she’ll be hurt.”

Ahh, poor you. Ban or punish using generalization instead of dealing with what is a leadership and staff issue.

Now, feel free to debate creating a Social Networking policy, perhaps you can use an existing acceptable use one. Or maybe, as Michael Hyatt writes, you prefer none at all.

But at the end of the day, if an individual is abusing Facebook at work, deal with it.

Deal with it as an individual infraction.

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I want to call out an excellent post by Mike Myatt at N2Growth titled; CEOs; Feared or Respected?

Mr. Myatt sums up that topic brilliantly;

Fear based motivations don’t instill loyalty, create trust, build morale, inspire creativity, attract talent, or drive innovation.

In this post I want to take a look at just one of those words: Respect

As a ‘C’ level executive, Mr. Myatt’s post is targeted at chief executive officers, but the lesson on fear vs. respect contained within the content of that post is important for any leader.

As a Team Leader, Supervisor, Manager, right  through to the executive manager, we need to create a culture that has mutual respect. And in that concept of respect,  I believe this addition to Mr. Myatts’s topic will also apply to leaders of all levels.

Respect is a soft word. If we look at a definition, it can simply be: re·spect, High or special regard. Respect can be hard to measure objectively, and it often falls into the know it when you see it category.

I know that personally I have worked with individuals that I was not overly fond of on a personal level, yet had the utmost respect for their input, knowledge, and / or skills.

And on the flip side, wonderful people individually, whom I held very little respect for on those same characteristics.

Respect, And Disrespect

Pop culture and our kids have made the ‘Dis’ famous. Let us call that disrespect the very obvious and visible assault on ourselves as individuals through insults or actions.

But lets look at the more insidious disrespect that can affect our business.

When There Is Nothing Left

When you as a leader have consistently demonstrated through your words, (or lack of) and your actions (again, or lack of) that you cannot be trusted or relied upon for any form of guidance, coaching or direction. What do you have left?

All you have left is a group of people warming their chairs with no motivation, loyalty or desire. They have zero respect for their leadership, as that leadership has shown zero respect for them.

While a leader who uses fear to rule (figuratively) beats these traits out of their employees, lack of trust and respect in you as a leader will suck those traits out like a vampire. There just won’t be large explosive fireworks as it happens.

In line with Mr. Myatts 5 items to identify if you rule by fear, here are 4 items to identify if you are sucking the life out of your organization by creating an environment where you cannot be respected in your leadership role.

1) A Dysfunctional Team: Passive aggressive behaviors, back stabbing office politics and petty quarrels are the norm. Your lack of demonstrating and benchmarking standards of behavior, plus your dithering or outright ignoring the issues required to deal with these behavioral issues shows your team that you really could not care less.

2) Your Team Shuts Up: Water cooler chat is only about the weather. Your team knows that mentioning anything about that issue or project is waste of time. Your vague platitudes or promises are never acted upon or delivered. If that issue is fixed, or that project is successful, it will be in spite of you, not because of you.

3) Lack of Commitment: Projects or deliverables are either late, or non existent. Your team already knows it will blow over, they know that you will either arbitrarily change the date next week, or that you will just forget about it entirely.

4) Lack of Interaction: (one of Mr. Myatt’s titles too) Vague mumbles of OK, fine, and Sure greet every directive. because every meeting, document, or report is going to be fluff, the bare minimum; because your teams know that no matter what they do, or how much effort they take, you won’t read or view the result anyway.  It will just disappear. You won’t provide feedback, you won’t clarify better outcomes or resources.

The Leadership Takeaway

Mutual respect builds bridges. And it starts with you.

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Sense and Respond

April 9, 2008

I just finished a book by Marianne Broadbent, Ellen Kitzis (ISBN 1-59139-577-1) called the The New CIO Leader. the book is already a few years old, copyright 2005 by Gartner. (I missed it somehow when it was first published!)

In the text, the authors use the term “Sense and Respond” in my post here I called it “learn to Dance” the context is the same, the future is unknown (and unknowable) so it makes sense to take small steps in strategic direction, sense the environment and its changes, then respond.

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