Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Business of Change

            As I believe I’ve mentioned before Ava has a particular interest in things related to Walt Disney World. Her family made numerous trips down to Orlando during her teenage years and in the process of figuring out the best ways to do everything, they learned a tremendous amount about the operations and logistics of all the resorts and theme parks encompassed within the Disney World territory. Over the last twenty-five years, she has watched rides, hotels, and parks come and go. She has read travel guides and insider accounts. She can see all the trends and management decisions both good and bad written into the materiality of the resort. For her Disney World is less a playground than a grand cultural text whose dynamics reflect the mood of our times.
            In this spirit we both read with interest an article from the May issue of Fast Company about the creation and implementation of a new organizing technology within the Disney World resort. Called the Next Generation Experience (NGE) in the text, this revolution in how visitors experienced the parks and hotels of Disney World was supposed to be built around an electronic wristband that would serve as a catch-all tool for everything one might want to do. It would open hotel room doors, generate FastPass times, purchase merchandise, order food, and more. It would also enable Disney to track park attendees and manage crowds more effectively, thus improving visitor experiences and boosting the numbers of people each theme park could reasonably handle. It was going to be the thing that brought the Disney World experience into the twenty-first century.
            What comes out of the Fast Company article is that the NGE project underwent a fairly ordinary trajectory wherein a huge, innovative idea gets watered down to a rather pedestrian set of final results. The article touches on some of the numerous conflicts that emerged between different groups during the company’s attempts to imagine what was possible and ultimately assemble what was needed to bring those ideas to fruition. While the article doesn’t claim that the project was doomed from the beginning, there is a sense throughout the piece that this kind of whittling away at the concept as a whole was kind of inevitable. It’s what happens when big companies try to fundamentally change the way they do things. There’s lots of tension and lots of trouble, and the final result never lives up to its original hype.
            What I found interesting in this piece and the reason I wanted to write about it is that it seems to be that there was one fundamental flaw in the whole re-invention process. In 2008 a team of five executives was given the charge of outlining what NGE was going to be. It was to be their responsibility to “reinvent the vacation experience” at Disney World. This charge was given in strict secrecy and much of the conceptual brainstorming appears to have taken place in conjunction with consultants outside of Disney. But, as the author wryly notes later in the article, “It’s impossible, of course, for such a big project to remain secret.” When the word got out, the pushback came fast and furious. People were fighting to protect their creative visions. People were fighting to protect their jobs. There was constant conflict between outside contractors and internal departments. There was bickering back and forth over who should get what monies and which groups should control various aspects of the new plan. A classic tussle broke out between entrenched interests and new ideas, insiders and outsiders, the winners and the losers in the process of change.
            But it didn’t have to be that way. Or at the very least there was something that could have been done at the very beginning to head off a great deal of the pushback: get rid of the secrecy. People get upset when they feel as if the rug is getting pulled out from under them. People fight back when they don’t feel like they are part of the process. People resist change if they feel like it’s happening without their input. The biggest mistake the executives at Disney made in trying to re-invent the way they run the Disney World resort was to try and keep that goal a secret from the very people who knew the resort the best: their own employees.
            For an example of how Disney executives (and any other organization looking to undertake a significant change) might have better pursued this kind of revolutionary change in their business practice, they would not have had to look very far. In his book Creativity, Inc. about his experiences as the president of Pixar Animation – now a division of Disney itself, Ed Catmull discussed a situation in which the company needed to significantly rework its operating processes in order to meet certain budget requirements. After some deliberation, the executive team decided that instead of mandating cuts in various departments they would take the problem itself to the company as a whole. They organized what came to be called Notes Day where all the company’s employees came together to brainstorm and discuss various ideas for enhancing efficiency and smoothing out the different operational systems within the company. This effort required a tremendous amount of organizational dedication in order to sift through the various ideas, gather them into different groups, put people together to talk through them and come up with a list of legitimate possibilities and priorities to pursue. However, in Catmull’s opinion this investment was incalculably useful. Not only did it produce numerous ideas that the executive team had not considered, it enhanced personal contacts across the company and gave the employees an intellectual stake in the future of their workplace. It also gave the company’s leaders a better sense of what things mattered most to their employees and how they might work with those values as they sought to achieve the necessary budgetary alignments. All of this reduced the amount and vehemence of pushback against the changes that were to come and made people better aware of the issues involved in the difficult choices that had to be made.
            I wonder what would have happened if Disney had done the same.


            As a parent I think there are at least two big messages in the contrast between these approaches to large-scale change. The first is the concept of leadership. People often view a leader as the person who tells everyone else what to do. Our cultural image of a leader is someone who has a vision and organizes others to bring that vision to life. This general-on-the-battlefield version of leadership is how the executives at Disney saw their role in developing the NGE. But what Catmull and the folks at Pixar showed is that really good leadership, the kind necessary to successfully make dramatic change happen, is a matter of tapping into the breadth of knowledge around you and giving people an intellectual stake in projects that will affect them. The leader’s role is to facilitate these interactions and provide the necessary direction to turn the ideas they produce into material results. The difference is subtle but one worth remembering whether we’re talking about big companies or small families.

            The second message is about investment in people. Investing in people is hard, time-consuming, and difficult to quantify. There’s no graph you can make to show a specific correlation between the amount of resources invested in a person and the output one receives from that investment. Instead it has to be taken as an article of faith. But that investment matters. I think about this constantly as Ava and I work with Polly and Pip. So much of what they are capable of doing now – their reading and math skills, their respect for others, their work ethic, their sensitivity to the feelings of those around them, their kindness, their responsiveness to our instructions – are the result of years of patient guidance and training. This time invested in them also means that we all have good understandings of what to expect from each other and what things matter to each other. The kids know we will listen to them and take their thoughts into account and that we expect them to do the same for us. This means we know how to approach a problem when something has to change, and there is less pushback when something doesn’t go their way. It seems to me that this is what Pixar managed to do well and something at which the executives at Disney, despite all their claims to a collaborative work environment, failed miserably.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Fallibility of Words

            Words are funny things. They purport to clarity, to providing us with a better sense of understanding. They allow us to formulate complicated thoughts, feelings, ideas, and transfer those to another person. Of all the things that make humans a distinct group in the animal world – the creation and use of tools, the control of fire, strategic planning on extended time scales – the ability to use words to communicate complex and nuanced thoughts is probably the most essential.
            And yet words fail us all the time. This is in part because they are in no way perfect. Words are variable and shaded with all kinds of meanings. Communication requires both the speaker and the audience to have an overlapping understanding of what is being said. At a simple level this requires them to speak the same language. Because I don’t know Mandarin, words spoken in that language communicate nothing to me and are not distinctly different than the various chirps and pops of dolphins. But even within the same language and the same dialect, the meanings of the words we use and the thoughts they are supposed to transfer from one to another are never as clear as we generally assume. Maybe the intonation doesn’t match or maybe one person doesn’t understand the full implications of what another is saying. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a difference in the images that are brought to people’s minds. Communication is never a perfect transfer of thought from one brain to another. Something always gets altered in translation.


It’s quite possible you saw the Cheryl-Albert-Bernard logic problem on the internet this past week. Ava printed it out and brought it home for me to try. The basic premise of the challenge is that Albert and Bernard don’t know Cheryl’s birthday, and instead of telling them she has them guess from among ten possible dates. Then she tells Albert the month and Bernard the day. After a couple of comments from each the two boys figure out the answer and you are supposed to be able to determine what it is by using their comments and making logical deductions.
This problem came from a standardized test used in Singapore, and I think it went viral because while it is a fun game there is also something fundamentally unclear about it. The absence of clarity is subtle and I think people shared it with one another because they weren’t sure whether it was them or a fundamental problem with the challenge itself.
            The solution to the problem hinges on Albert’s first comment which is “I don’t know the answer and I know that Bernard doesn’t either.” This is supposed to tell you that Albert knows  that he doesn’t have enough information to answer the problem and that he knows that Bernard doesn’t have enough either. Recognizing this sets the logical deductions in motion. However, when I read the problem, I imagined the three people having a conversation. In this conversation, Albert learns that Bernard doesn’t know the answer either, however one cannot make the same logical deductions from that situation that you can if you understand the statement to mean that Albert knows without talking to Bernard that Bernard doesn’t know the answer either. It is a subtle difference and not on the face of things particularly problematic. But, my inability to correctly comprehend the question led me to not having any chance of answering it correctly. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the logical steps, it was that I couldn’t see the problem in the way it was intended to be seen. In my case, there was a disjuncture in communication. The speaker and the audience were not hearing the same thing.

Pip encountered a similar conceptual difficulty this week with some of his homework. The teacher gave him a simple measurement sheet where he was directed to use the ruler on the page to indicate the length of different lines to the nearest ¼ of an inch. Now Pip’s smart and studious. He listens in class and he takes care when he does his work. And he got five out of the eight measures wrong.
            I know this because Pip’s teacher sends home all student work on Fridays and permits them to correct any errors and resubmit the work on Monday. Pip usually comes in and plows through this in a matter of five minutes, but with this sheet he was having lots of trouble. He just couldn’t figure out why he had gotten so many of these problems wrong. He called me for help and when I came over to look at things I could see what was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out why he had answered the questions the way he did. For example, for one line that was clearly 2 ½ inches long, he had written 2 ¼. On another that was 5 inches long, he’d written 4 ¾. At first I thought he was reading the ruler wrong and so I just told him to look at them again. When he came back just as confused as before, I went through every problem to see if I could determine how he was approaching them. It turns out that the only two he got right were lines that measured 1 ¾ and 3 ¼. It also turned out that all of his answers contained either ¼ or ¾. Pip had taken the instructions to mean find the measurement to the nearest ruler mark that contained a 4 in the denominator (i.e. ¼ or ¾), so he had rounded down all the measurements to reach one of those two choices.
            After I realized this it took a surprisingly long time to explain to him that the nearest quarter of an inch means every quarter inch increment including whole number marks and ½ inch marks. It was something that had not clicked intuitively in his mind and thus was something that he had a tricky time fitting together. For him ½ inch was ½ inch, and he had to work to see it as being 2/4 inch (Interestingly, my word processor has the same problem. It automatically shifts ¼ and ¾ to fraction forms but leaves 2/4 unchanged).
            The point of this is that while Pip could very easily perform the skill, the language of the problem didn’t fit with what he knew. Now whether that’s his responsibility to learn or the test maker’s responsibility to clarify is always going to be a negotiable thing, but it is a reminder to me of one of the constants of parenting – and human interaction in general – words are not neutral. Words are not standard. They have meaning because we have each learned them in certain ways and those ways are all unique in subtle and unknowable ways.

It also reminds me that when you think the problem is with someone else’s understanding, the problem probably also has something to do with you. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Counter-programming on the soccer field

            This past weekend brought Pip and Polly’s first two soccer games for the spring season. It was a full weekend for us all.
            Pip had a very good weekend. Not only did he score his first ever (and the team’s only) goal, but he also began figuring out how to deploy his energies on the field. In the defensive box he used a combination of confidence and assertiveness to thwart oncoming attacks. During his quarters upfield, he moved well, largely avoiding getting sucked in to ball chasing and instead playing his position and moving into open spaces. It was this movement that enabled him to score the goal as he and one other player on his team were spread across the top of the box when the ball squirted along the line towards them. Pip stayed a touch wider and when his teammate’s shot bounced off the goal keeper, he was able to gather the carom and lift the ball over the keeper and into the goal. It was not a very graceful play but more often than not that’s how goals are scored. Pip was in the right place and was rewarded for it. He also spent a quarter playing goal during the second game, stopped a couple of shots, re-distributed the ball well by throwing instead of kicking it, and took command of the defense. The general success of playing well made the weekend as a whole very fun for him.
            Polly also had a good weekend, though she did not have as many definable moments of success as Pip. She spent most of her time on the field staying out of the way of others, moving around but largely sliding to the side before too many people got around her. Later she told me that she was scared of getting into the scrum of kids. As the youngest player on the field and someone who has only seen three to four soccer games in her life, I can’t fault her for feeling that way. It was the first time she’s been surrounded by such an environment and amidst the swirling chaos it’s hard to understand the underlying order much less what one should do to try and shape it. In the Saturday game she had a couple of chances to stop a ball in the open field and she did well handling it and sending it back in the correct direction. This leads me to believe that in time she’ll be more willing to get into the middle of things and work to clear the ball away.


            What I find myself needing to do with Polly now to make her into a better player is to undo some of the half-decade’s worth of behavioral training she’s undergone thus far. In other words, I have to encourage her to become more aggressive.
This goes against everything we’ve done with her since she was a baby. Our family’s general approach to living is one of exercising patience, calm, and respect for others. These qualities obviously doesn’t come naturally to children (or us to be honest), and Polly has been known to jump on Pip’s back for no particular reason or slam down a LEGO in frustration when it doesn’t go together the way she wants it to. Ava and I have worked steadily and consistently to replace those impulses with ones that lead Polly to stop, take a step back, and collect herself when faced with a problem. And this has largely worked. She’s a kind and considerate friend to her peers and – when not tired and cranky – a conscientious and respectful kid with adults. She still gets upset when her LEGOs fall apart, but she doesn’t slam them about the way she used to when she was younger.
            Now, as I had to do with Pip, I have to figure out how to undo some of this training to get Polly in the right mindset for the soccer field. In Pip’s case, an increased familiarity with the dynamics of a game did most of the work. In the fall he was reluctant to bump into any one because he didn’t want to make them upset or violate the spirit of the rules. He understands better now the dynamics of when contact is necessary and useful after getting banged around some towards the end of the fall season. He came into the spring looking to make an impact, and he has learned take the ball away from people through them with determination and persistence. This requires a touch of meanness, a touch of fury that wills one to keep banging away at things even when the ball doesn’t immediately do what you want. It also requires finding a touch of darkness inside yourself that for a brief moment hates the person with the ball and wants only to exert your power over them. This seemed to crystalize for Pip during a defensive series during Sunday’s game when it took four tries to finally dislodge a ball from the box. He went after it each time with a focused and furious determination that was exactly what he needed in that situation.
            Polly possesses that kind of spirit as well, but it may be some time before she’s ready to channel it. She loved being able to bounce around on the field and celebrate when her teammates did something well. She was a happy pixie with a long pony tail, smiling and laughing and having fun. In some ways I’d rather her just stay that way, but that’s not going to do her much good as a soccer player.
          At the same time, she’s not yet big enough to crash into people effectively and not yet strong enough to exert her will physically in a scrum. What I’ll really need to do with her is get her comfortable with staring down another player in the open field and sticking her foot in his way. I guess that will come as long as I’m patient with her. I can’t let my own aggression undermine the aggression I want to emerge in her. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning to speak the truth the hard way

Two weeks ago Hillary Clinton held a press conference in which she attempted to explain her decision to use a private email server located in her house for all of her email communications while she was Secretary of State. Because this decision had given Clinton complete control over what correspondence made it into the public record and what was destroyed, it raised serious questions about her activities while in office and about her respect for the kind of public transparency that is necessary for a democratic government to function. Unfortunately, the press conference itself was a sham because whatever explanations Clinton gave for squirreling away her correspondence, it was clear from the beginning that she would not discuss the actual truth. Her explanations would consist of strategically innocuous reasons that could possibly be true but in the larger context would make no sense at all (really, you were just scheduling yoga classes?). They would be the politician’s answer wherein the kernel of truth, the nugget of intent, is hidden away beneath layers of strategic denials, disingenuous phrasings, and winking ambiguities. They would contain the kind of language that works great when no one’s paying close attention and makes you look absolutely ridiculous when everyone is.
And no one comes away from that kind of farce unscathed.
            The best example of such damage comes from the impeachment trial of Clinton’s husband. For all the good Bill Clinton did as president – the Dayton accords, the Irish peace process, a sustained period of economic growth during which the federal government actually had a balanced budget - he will always be defined in so many minds by the verbal contortions he used to avoid admitting that he messed around with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office. It was a shambles of idiotic proportion. He would have been much better off coming clean and moving on. People will forgive the doing of stupid things if one admits it. They will not forgive being treated as if they were too stupid to understand the meaning behind the contortions.
But that view of the world doesn’t fit the politician’s training, and they rarely can see the damage they do to themselves until it’s too late.
            This is certainly the case with Hillary Clinton and her emails. I was a solid Clinton voter. She has the experience and the skills to be an effective president (which is more than can be said about any other potential candidates out there in either party). I also appreciate the work she has done in the past with women’s and children’s issues. I would like to see what a person with such a background might do while in the White House. But, in the wake of this whole email debacle, my vote is less assured. I don’t know what she’s hiding – and I don’t really care - but the knowledge that she’s ducking and weaving to avoid talking about it is making me wonder if I should vote for her. It keeps reminding me that she’s just a politician and has me looking around more seriously to see who else is out there. I imagine many others are doing the same.


I've taken a particular interest in Hillary Clinton’s travails with her email because Pip has recently been trying out some disassembly of his own, altering the truth about his intentions or his actions when he realizes he’s stirred up some trouble. The most recent example of this dodging and evasion came a couple of mornings back as we rode our bikes down to school. Pip and Polly were jacked up after having fun at an Easter egg hunt the night before and just before we reached the final crosswalk, Pip diverted his bike from its usual path to run over a newspaper lying on the edge of the sidewalk. It was a little move and probably didn’t do any damage to the paper, but it felt destructively mischievous. Once we made it to school, I confronted Pip about this little shenanigan, asking him why he went out of his way to run over something that belonged to someone else. His stumbling reply was that he thought he would try to jump it. This answer, while not particularly good, seemed plausible enough in the moment, but as he wheeled his bike down to the bike rack I realized that he’d made no effort to actually bounce his bike in any way. This would not have been a big thing except he’d been bouncing his front tire a good deal over the past couple of weeks, and this move would have been the first thing to do in any effort to jump something. I had the distinct feeling that Pip had given me a line.
            In reality I imagine Pip didn’t know why he decided to run over that newspaper. He was flying along in the world and probably felt an impulse to see what would happen if he bumped over it. I doubt there was much thought involved and when pressed by me for an explanation, he didn’t really have one. So, he came up with something. Now if this had been the first time he’d come up with some half-truth to explain away something, I’d probably have let it pass without comment. Or, more likely, I wouldn’t have even noticed the ambiguous nature of the explanation at all. However, this wasn’t the first time. It was more like the third or fourth and as such Ava and I both were on the lookout.
            At the bike rack I made Pip go back through his explanation again and then told him I didn’t believe it. When he didn’t protest, I made him go back and try again. I told him how I felt about half-truths. I told him how such moments chip away at the foundations of any good relationship, how they undermine our future ability to trust and believe in what he is saying, and how without that trust, things quickly fall apart. Everything becomes uncertain. All answers come with an asterisk and our bonds of love get shredded and bulldozed by suspicion.
            This was a little thing – both the newspaper bump and the thoughtless evasion of responsibility – but, I told him, the little things are where we practice for when the big things come around. If you don’t do the little things right, it’s too late to change when the big challenges appear because in that moment your instincts will lead you astray. They can only tell you what worked in the past, not give you guidance on how best to handle the future. And then you’ll wind up like Hillary Clinton, doing something dumb and then only making it worse by trying to explain it away while no one in their right mind believes a word you say.