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Observe more. Ask questions.

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“Hi Donald, it’s Mom. Have you got John’s phone number handy? I wanted to give him a call.” I thought it was a strange request, but passed it along without much thought. John is family. Maybe Mom just wanted to discuss an idea for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

As a young person in America it is easy to forget how short life really can be. Fortunately there are those moments – two to be exact – when all of the dreams and unfinished plans rush back to ultimately remind me there is much to be done and little time for it. The first, taking-off and landing in an airplane. Something about the bumps, various tones and bells, and of course leaving the ground that is the perfect recipe for a sobering moment. The second, receiving a phone call from my Mother about her reoccurring brain tumor.

I first learned about meningiomas when returning home during the winter break senior year of college. My parents sat me down to break the news to me; my younger Brother was not yet home. They offered to have this chat at the kitchen counter, or to sit down in the living room. This peculiar behavior certainly had me exploring the realm of possibilities. Could my parents be getting divorced? Maybe they had decided to move south? Mom was always malcontent for the cold and the often obnoxiously dreary winters of southern Maine. I was overcome with impatience and began blurting out all of these thoughts and more. Nervous smiles crept onto my parents’ faces as Mom shifted closer to me on the couch. I recall my Dad sitting more distant in an adjacent chair. I took the hint and shut up.

“You know all of the headaches and visits to the Doctor’s office? Well I had an MRI done and they diagnosed me with a brain tumor.” Shell shocked, I searched for some comic relief. Finding none, I asked what seemed like the most reasonable question: what does that mean? Within a couple of minutes they had relayed the only bit of knowledge they had on the subject. And I lunged at my Mother, squeezing her tight and not letting go. I later learned the tumor was a meningioma, a type of tumor that develops on the surface of the brain. They continued to tell me they had found all this out a few weeks prior, but did not want it to distract me during final exams. And they told my friend and mentor, John, so he was prepared to talk with me about it.

I became obsessed about brain tumors and even asked my aunt to fax me what seemed like endless pages from the National Institute of Health, the World Health Organization, and whatever other credible information sources were available.

It was hard to say what was in store for her and for us. She was still — and would always be — my mother, but this was a revelation I had not ever considered. (No surprise there.)

Shortly thereafter, while driving from Worcester back to his house, I asked John — always a spiritual person — what is God? “Who is someone you care about?” John asked, not seemingly answer my question. “Mom”, I responded. “Where is she right now?” “At home”, I said defiantly. “But how do you know that?” He asked, sure I would have no response. I guess I did not, but it was a Sunday and where else would she have gone? The fact was, I was so comfortable knowing exactly where she was at that very moment without any evidence to support it. I could picture her and everything.

“That’s God,” he said. “God is love.” I’ll never forget it.

Originally written in 2009 at the suggestion of a dear friend, Houman Younessi, who always encouraged me to write and “write what you know”. It doesn’t get any more personal than this, I suppose.

This is an exploration in the areas of organizational behavior, marketing, sociology, decision science, group identity, values and attitudes, especially where it may pertain to business, process management, and public policy.

Research Question Proposals

  • How do values influence social structures? How do values connect people and form/join organizations?
  • How do you use values to target and market to potential clients? (i.e. can we show correlation between values and needs, and through understanding of – perhaps a more fundamental property – values identify new clients. See figure 1 below.)
  • How do we effectively model targeted marketing through social values and attitudes?
  • Do certain affiliations translate into increased opportunity for generation Y university students? In other words, what organizational trends exist within college communities, especially focusing on Greek associations?

Proposed measurements:

  • How do people identify within their community?
  • How many activities do they participate in? How many hold leadership roles?
  • What are the job placement rates. What are the salaries over time?
  • What are the starting salaries?
  • What alumni participation do we observe? (subquestion)

Other research questions…

  • What is the role of values in determining the success of an organization?
  • Do successful organizations share common values?
    • Major questions still lie in how we measure values, success, and the interactions between to two.
  • Can we better identify affinity groups through improved understanding of values?
  • Is group identity founded in a collective/agreed upon set of values?
  • When and how do people expose their values?
  • Is there a finite number of values?

Often tools used to measure values or opinions, such as a survey, provides possible acceptable responses based on the categorization determined by the survey’s author. Do we limit our understanding to a significant amount, ignoring key elements of reality with this method of observation?

Idea Generation

Fig. 1: A Hierarchy of Value Assessment

In business, we speak of internal and external needs. If we follow this down, we understand the needs of the client precipitate problems. In order to solve these problems we set goals, which we prescribe strategies to guide us in meeting these goals. Finally tactics are identified as steps within the strategic plan to do essentially work to satisfy the established needs.

This hierarchy begs the question: where do our needs come from? How do we arrive at these needs? Through cursory observation it appears our needs are formed as a function of our system of values, where values are defined as the judgement one has in deciding what is important in life. For example, if we value our family it might seem reasonable to need to be near them. This might create a problem since we live in Wisconsin and they live in North Carolina. Together set decide it is our goal to move within a drivable distance apart, and we set strategies and/or tactics to make this reality.

Finally, if we reiterate this question once more replacing “needs” with “values”, we see our values are a function of the environment in which we exist.

This brings to question a few more things:

  • Is there a finite set of values? If so, what are they?
  • If these things are results of each other, can we reduce the number of problems which exist by altering or minimizing the number of values within a system or organization?
  • Is there either correlation or causality between values and specific problem? (i.e. is there in fact a hierarchy which is described by this model?)
  • Where do people exhibit their values? When is the best time to observe one’s values?
  • Is there a one-to-many relationship as we traverse down the hierarchy?
  • What properties of our environment are most significant? Are there particular properties we want to control for most?

We — engineers particularly — focus almost exclusively on the solving of problems. Under this model we begin to realize problem solving is important, but only a piece of the larger picture. In fact, we may be able to understand the more fundamental aspects to what is affecting our problem and thereby appreciate why the problem exists.

Too fat? Stop eating.

Smoking cigarettes? Quit.

Hooked on drugs?

You see where I am going.

Abstinence, this idea that we can and should simply go without, is too often our default response to any problem — personal or otherwise. It is typically more difficult than that. More to the point, there is usually something else at play. Confusing the symptom as the problem only creates confusion or misdiagnosis, leading to a masking of the true issue at hand.

More recently, there has been conversations at both my collegiate fraternal organization and my alma mater, both centered around drugs and alcohol; but mainly alcohol. Seen as the root cause of many problems, the conversation is about eradicating alcohol. This does a disservice to the members of our communities, not because alcohol abuse should be tolerated, but instead because it assumes there is no responsible use. Having a beer, generally speaking, is not going to harm someone. It is when bad behavior is practiced when we see issues arise.

With regards to fraternity issues, there is a growing interest in an overall banning of alcohol use on-premises. If they can’t keep it under control, it is said, then take it away. Perhaps a logical conclusion, but what then happens? Does alcohol consumption go away? Yes, in a manner of speaking. It goes away from a liability perspective, but it does not cease to exist. It is swept under the rug. Our legal counsel may agree that the problem has been solved. This may be acceptable to some, but I find it disingenuous for the same individuals to espouse our values, those same individuals who state that we do so as leaders making the tough decisions — making good men better. Like a bouncer at a club letting an underage person into its establishment, we’ve only turned a blind eye to the reality.

Real leadership in this situation would take a broader look at how we can make cultural changes, to reward good behavior — not punish all behavior. Not to disavow our bad behavior, but to acknowledge it and stand up against it, at times requiring we make proper examples of those who refuse to live by our values, including expulsion. That is okay. It does not speak of failure within our organizations, but rather the success for having taken responsibility. Building culture — and for that matter changing it — is done by defining what success is for our groups and applauding it. Tolerating bad behavior is in essence allowing that behavior a seat at the table when it comes to what success should be. Equating good and bad behavior, through total elimination by abstinence, only makes matters worse.

Organizations, including those like my alma mater and my national collegiate fraternity, should reconsider their policy decisions by taking action in favor of fixing problems (e.g. improve cultural norms) over abstinence.

Engagement is perhaps the industry term of the last decade. To me, engagement has always been about keeping the conversation going, about understanding needs, and above all else relationship building. Lately, it is clearer than ever that I have misunderstood. Engagement equals addiction. Measured in so-called impressions, repeat clicks, total time spent, with the ultimate goal of converting your attention into cash. I do not own a pair of rose colored glasses. I always knew this was about moving folks through a hypothetical pipeline, strike deals, and make money. What I was blind to see is how aggressive everything has become — or been — and just how manipulative things are.

When it came to fundraising, I would run reports and look at the overall numbers, e.g. thousands of alumni. But the next step was always to drill down to specific names, actual human beings. Now, it seems data sets are reported in the aggregate only.

Companies harvest data to see what folks are clicking on, as if what we click on is tantamount to our interests. CTR equals relevant content, which in turn means companies should put out more of the same thing to this group. It’s no wonder there are those of us constantly in search of something different, artisan, authentic.

When I first saw artificial intelligence (AI) as a way to help manage this engagement process, I thought I was staring at the answer to one of my [on-going questions]: what is the role of technology to the sale process? AI would give us the tools necessary to take data and put it into action. (“Actionable insights”, another piece of [jargon] folks are eating up these days.) As it turns out, it may be the first real effort to transform the humanity in our work to an artificial one. Are we asking ourselves what we lose as we switch to AI when it comes to human-computer interaction? Merriam-Webster [defines engagement] to include “emotional involvement or commitment”, but how will this be if it is administered via AI? Will that be meaningful?

If we define engagement as the interactions that lead towards a developed relationship, what of current marketing practice does and does not adhere to this definition? What can we stop doing in favor of customer experience and customer retention? What CLV are we sacrificing if we continue down this current path?

The slogan or subtitle of this site is “Ask questions. Observe more”. I suppose I could have included “challenge assumptions”. It’s all in a similar vein. While in engineering school, a big overarching theme was understanding our assumptions and to accounting for them. If that seems like a simple thing, often it isn’t due to our inability to see what is sitting right in front of us. They are called assumptions for a reason. This is where “observe more” comes from, to remind me to take time to look and listen.

Observation feeds curiosity. Curiosity leads to more questions. Asking questions leads to more discovery and more information. It’s all a vicious cycle, really. But observing more requires empathy, perspective, and sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism. Not an easy feat.

So to conclude this moment of pontification, I say “ask questions” because it’s the only way we learn anything. It’s the only way we challenge the status quo. To reference Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas in their article:

Think back to your time growing up and in school. Chances are you received the most recognition or reward when you got the correct answers. Later in life, that incentive continues. At work, we often reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Questioning conventional wisdom can even lead to being sidelined, isolated, or considered a threat.

Since then, there have been other articles discussing the power of asking better questions rather than focusing on seeking answers. It turns out proper questioning can be a very advantageous thing to do.

If you’ll spare me an anecdote: freshman year of college I had a Turkish roommate from Istanbul. Alican was a very kind man and it’s always a pleasure when I bump into him. I was always fascinated with cultures and languages and I remember there were moments when he would point out words in Turkish that simply did not exist in English. (Of course I cannot think of one, but perhaps something to do with sneezing or apologizing? Gosh, it’s been too long.) My point is, the limitation of our language is sometimes the limitation by which we can observe or articulate. Do you remember the first time you learned a new term or phrase for something you’d thought of, but didn’t know how to express it? Asking questions, in my view, is an extension of this. If we cannot ask it, how can we answer it? If we ask an inaccurate or inconsequential question, how can we expect a useful answer?