Author Archives: Edward Dolan

How Do You Survive An Organization In Flux — And Flourish?

Imagine being a player, coach or employee of the Los Angeles Clippers these last few months. Everyone associated with the team felt not only a lack of leadership and uncertainty about their futures, but shame and humiliation.

How do you survive something like that?

491054373I think we can garner 3 lessons out of that extreme case of an organization in flux.

FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL

Doc Rivers, the LA Clippers coach: “My focus is completely on trying to figure out a way of eliminating the distractions. . . . This is a situation where we’re trying to go after something very important for us. . . . It does [have an impact], but you’ve got to move on. . . . That’s adversity that we didn’t want, but we have it, we’ll have to deal with it.”

To counter discouragement and even despair and keep their people moving forward productively, Alcoholics Anonymous has long urged its members to focus on what they can control and let go of what they cannot.

To use another sports metaphor, star baseball players say that when their offense is in a slump, they need to stay focused on playing good defense, keep at it on offense and wait for a better day to click in.

ANGER – NOT RESENTMENT

Doc Rivers again: the team “was pissed.” “This is not anything anybody wants to go through, and this is never good for anyone. . . . They’ll grow from it and they’ll be better people because of it.”

Referring to plans to run an off-ramp of an interstate highway through a low-income Latino neighborhood, a good friend of mine, many years ago, emphasized the importance of making a distinction imagesbetween “being pissed” and getting resentful. Anger is a natural reaction to a threat. Resentment is settling into a life-negating spiral of outrage that ends up corroding yourself.

“Anger is not one thing. It is many things, loosely organized by language into a whole. It is . . . not the feeling of anger per se that has caused harm. Rather, the cold soup of enacted or contemplated self-righteousness or the hot energy of attacking others can easily lead to actions with negative consequences. But these need not be the core features of anger.” (1)

REMEMBER WHAT YOU LOVE

“When the [NBA] commissioner [Adam Silver] put this to me [becoming emergency interim chief executive of the Clippers], I said, ‘Hey, I love basketball,’ ” Richard Parsons said. “I don’t like basketball. I love basketball. It represents all the best in teams sports, and character building and it’s fun. I love basketball. I always have.”

The atmosphere may be foul, the future gloomy, prospects fading by the hour. But if I can dig down into what I truly like and enjoy about my work – not necessarily my job, but my work – then that may see me through some very difficult times and may become what transforms raw talent into polished skill, like tempered steel.

I know this is hard to do, a lot harder than fancy words make it seem. But if you walk into a factory, an office or a home where worry and uneasiness seem to rule, isn’t it the one bright, smiling, centered person there whom you will remember when you leave? Stay focused on what you love, and that energy may make you special.

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And that is the part of all this about “flourishing.” Human nature seems to have this propensity for getting sucked into the “Sturm und Drang” all around us. Those who rise above that will stand out for their resilience and will find value either in the new organization or the next organization.

 

 

 

(1) ACT On Life Not On Anger, George H Eifert, Ph.D.; Matthew McKay, Ph.D.; and John P. Forsyth, Ph.D. 2006: New Harbinger Publications.

Medical Device Leadership In an Uncertain Time: A Manifesto

Payments / reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act . . .

Purchasing consortia for hospitals and other health care providers . . .

Lower profit margins than in the previous decade . . .

An uncertain future in both FDA and foreign regulations . . .

Minimal venture capital interest in this industry . . .

How will medical device leaders choose which research directions to follow,

which product lines to invest in?

 

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The 1990s and 2000s are rather widely acknowledged to have been the heyday of finance.

Milton Friedman’s philosophy that increasing the financial wealth of shareholders was the sole justifiable principle for a corporation now governed all economic policy, seeped even into U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The compensation of investment bankers was (and remains) the envy of all. The free-wheeling lifestyle, “masters of the universe” power, invulnerable occupational security and exciting posture on the forefront of cutting edge economic growth left many in awe and envy. Finance came to dominate all discussions of industrial and economic policy. There was practically no sector untouched by the growth of the financial industry – none that exceeded its enormous growth.

Then came the crash(es) of the last 15 years, and the vulnerability of our bets on the financial industry as the leader of growth was exposed. Losses were great – and left bare how much of the “growth” had been paper growth, not raw development.

This may be the time to capitalize on products and service as our key economic benchmark. This may be an opportunity to seize an advantage in the effectiveness, the documented outcomes of fewer, but better, products and services.

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Yes, it is difficult, risky and expensive to demonstrate effectiveness of medical devices, biologics and drugs. There are likely to be fewer (financial) winners, and the rewards may be smaller (on paper; quarterly) than in the previous decade; so, indeed, there may be fewer entrants into the race.

On the other hand, might we recapture an earlier (really, not that long ago) criterion of success: building a firm with lasting power, grounded in the security of demonstrated effectiveness, successful outcomes that could be counted on by health care providers for years to come? They are often the ones who persevere. They are the heroes, not only of the industry, but of the economy.

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Let’s think of “economic” over “finance.” Etymologically, “economy” means management of the household. “Finance” comes from a French origin meaning “payment/ending of a debt.” Economic policy – managing the good of our national well-being – should be the overriding category and priority, with financial success a subset – not the other way around. In that world medical devices companies can flourish. That is the opportunity we now have.

Important Lesson From IRS Snafu

 

IRS Building

“Elizabeth Hofacre, an [IRS] agent in the Cincinnati office, . . . said an IRS lawyer in Washington, Carter Hull, micromanaged her work and ultimately delayed the processing of applications by Tea Party groups.

“She said Hull’s interest in the cases was highly unusual. ‘It was demeaning,’ she said. ‘One of the criteria is to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education, whereas on this case, I had no autonomy at all through the process.’ ” (The Boston Globe, AP, 6/7/2013)

We have taken many lessons from the IRS political circus to which we have been treated recently, and, as appropriate, keep returning to “How did this happen and how can we prevent its recurrence?” While there will be the usual political sturm und drang around this, vows of tighter control, proposals for more regulation – as the IRS agent, Elizabeth Hofacre, states, at its root, the problem came from an all too frequent lack of respect for the intelligence, ethics and decency of people in the workplace. No doubt, Carter Hull has his own intelligence, ethics and decency, but by becoming a micromanager, he exalted his own reasons and priorities above those of anyone and everyone “below” him. Heavy-handed managers seldom have the humility, usually lack a sufficiently broad perspective and rarely believe they have the time to listen to line staff.

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Should Elizabeth Hofacre have pushed back more strongly and more eloquently at this intrusion from someone in Washington? Ideally, yes. But far too many people in the workforce have already seen the consequences, for themselves and/or others, of challenging people “above” them who definitely have some kind of agenda they are pursuing. They know the dangers all too really. No, what we really need is a healthier, more vigorous demand for good, common sense management, one that sees its role as nurturing people’s ability “to work independently and do research and make decisions based on your experience and education”. That will not solve all problems, but it will bring more people’s savvy and conscience into play when crucial decisions are being made.

The Unitary Theory

One of the major problems that physics has dealt with during the last hundred years is the search for a unitary principle or unitary theory. For a long time physics studied electricity and magnetism as 2 separate forces. Then came the discovery of electromagnetism as one of the elementary forces of the universe. Simple common sense saw space and time as 2 quite separate realities – until Einstein explained the space-time continuum. Many physicists now search for the single, unitary theory that will explain the interrelatedness of gravitation, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the Higgs field.

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In the field of management theory there is a similar quest for, if not a single principle, at least a single explanation, a single list of the elements that make for good management, good leadership. If only we can find it, if only we can figure out how to teach it to managers and leaders . . . .

As in the field of physics, there are many quite serious, profound thinkers contributing their efforts to the search. And, as in the field of physics, it may, ultimately, be an illusory quest.

What makes someone a good manager or leader?

Why do smart, successful executives fail? (It was Sydney Finkelstein’s presentation at the Human Resource Leadership Forum last Wednesday that got me thinking along these lines.)

What is the correct way to handle conflicts on a team?

What exactly is the proper distinction among vision, mission, goals and objectives?

What is the approach to follow: Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, Cog’s Ladder or any of the multiple other systems of performance and process improvement?

Each and every one of these questions, each and every answer represents a legitimate approach to organizing, systematizing our approach to nagging, ongoing human interaction issues that bedevil organizations such as businesses. We need order in our thinking. We need to have thought beforehand about the resources needed. We need to foresee likely consequences and “side effects” of our actions.

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Let’s just not collapse our thinking into a single (unitary) tunnel vision that robs us of our ability to think of alternatives to our own favorite ways of understanding the world. Let’s remember the Law of Large Numbers: “the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed.” (Wikipedia) Often we don’t have enough repeated experiences to make statistically valid generalizations about “the way things work.” We make flawed decisions based on the inadequate, limited information, insights and advice we have available to us.

And we fail. And we adapt.

Is that my “unitary theory”?

” . . . something special to give, but only if we don’t crush their spirits.”

In an e-mail exchange recently, Tony Toledo, one of the pillars of the New England storytelling community, shared this quote from Lynda Barry:

There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.
I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.
They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”
Lynda Barry,
What it Is

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Doria Hughes, another prominent storyteller in New England, had the following powerful reflection to add:

Lynda Barry’s quote had a very powerful resonance for me.  For the first 18 years of my life, I endured unceasing bullying at the hands of my peers; bullying which was compounded by the insensitivity and misunderstanding and sheer lack of imagination of many of the adults around me, who believed that the problem stemmed from an essential character flaw within me, the person targeted for bullying.  I was given to understand in no uncertain terms that my torment would cease if I could somehow learn to not be tormented.  To them, I was a honeypot of trouble, so no wonder that flies were attracted to me; it was up to me to fundamentally change what and who I was, not for the flies to stop buzzing.  My refusal or inability to change simply reinforced their belief that there was something wrong and bad about me.  At best I was lazy – “not trying hard enough to fix my part of the problem”; at worst, I was a truly bad person, who deserved the badness that was drawn to me.

When Barry uses the phrase “fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it”, I guess you could say she was being metaphorical.  If I could be so bold as to translate her words for you, I believe that she is saying that there is a kind of sad and familiar narrative (what she calls a story or fairytale) being played out among children and adults, in schools and playgrounds.  She describes the narrative as a story/fairytale because that is shorthand for saying that it is a narrative which has been reenacted over and over and over, all over the world, throughout most of recorded time.  And she calls it “hopeless”, because we it continues to reenact itself even today, on school playgrounds and in classrooms and in homes everywhere.

In other words, we aren’t making the kind of progress we ought to be making to ease the psychic pain of children who are “different” from their peers.  We – the grownups – are failing to recognize that the “different” kids are just as worthy of love and praise and encouragement as their peers.  We are too focused on our besetting sin as humans – the desire to be similar, to fit in, and be the same – when our true virtue and our greatest strength is our differences, and our diversity.  

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The human race did not get where we are today by ensuring uniformity of thought and appearance.  We have made amazing technological and fashion breakthroughs precisely because certain individuals among us were different, and those individuals were able to fight their way through to maintaining their precious essential true selves so as to achieve a special destiny: discovering a new way of dressing, a new way of communicating, a new way to cure a disease.  The very qualities that cause some of us to be teased and scolded on the playground and in our classrooms are PRECISELY those qualities that lead to some people growing up to be Beethoven, Einstein, or Coco Chanel.  After all, what do you suppose those people were like as children?  DO you imagine that they conformed to the way all the other kids were acting, dutifully bent their head when the teacher taught them that 2 + 2 = 4?  Not when they knew that it sometimes equals 7.

Lynda Barry understands this narrative, has seen it play out in real life, and has made the connection between tales of real children to Stories and Fairytales in which imaginary children also suffer, and try to find their way.  She recognizes that Stories and Fairytales provide many of us with psychic roadmaps, or at the very least a little bit of human understanding.  They show us that we are not alone in our suffering, that other people have also been persecuted or driven away for being different.  And that sometimes those folks can have happy endings, if they persevere and have hope.  Have you heard of the “It Gets Better” project?  It’s an on-line film project where adults film themselves telling their stories about how badly they were teased and hurt in their youth for being gay, but how they have managed to survive to a happy or at least better adulthood.  Their mission is to give hope, in the form of stories, to gay youth who are facing the prospect of suicide as the only way to stop the misery of their current existence.

As Barry says in the quote which Tony posted, “[Stories and Fairytales] can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it.”

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I could continue to explicate Barry’s extraordinarily wise and very rich words, but I have to take my daughter to her bassoon lesson.  As a personal aside, I want to mention that she is the only child in her school who plays bassoon, an instrument that looks and sounds like a loudly farting bed post; in fact, she plays it in her Jazz Band, where she is the only girl in an otherwise all-male ensemble.  I am thankful every day that she embraces her own uniqueness, and fearlessly faces the world as a Jazz Bassoon-playing girl.  She knows that doing something which nobody else does is not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate, something which can bring joy to people around her.  It feels like a miracle to me that when she honked out her solo (her Jazz Band leader arranged Michael Jackson’s “Bad” for bassoon and Jazz ensemble; he is a man with fearless intelligence and imagination) last weekend in front of a gym-full of people, with the boys in her band playing backup, it never occurred to her that anyone would put her down for who she was and what she loved.

I am thankful for the grownups like Lynda Barry and my daughter’s Jazz Band leader, who understand the value of ALL children, not just the normal well-adjusted ones, but the strange and unusual ones.  All of those children have something special to give, but only if we don’t crush their spirits.  And yes, stories help.  I read stories and fairytales with hungry desperation throughout my childhood, and they were a kind of solace that, as Barry says, helped me to face the harsh reality of life in the “real” world.  “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”  For those youth who have no one to turn to and cannot sustain a nurturing fantasy world in the face of intolerable cruelty, many choose not to stay with us, to our eternal loss.

– Doria

The “New Sheriff In Town” Syndrome

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New leaders in an organization can bring a blush of new life, new beginnings. But they can also mean the arrival of the squelching of current staff, their ideas, their creativity.

Call it the “There’s a new sheriff in town” syndrome.

When there is a new leader, it often represents some dissatisfaction with the approach of the former leader. So a new beginning is desired! Great! New ideas. Different perspectives. An understanding of shifting priorities, meeting customer demands and expectations that may have been disappointed in prior times. This could be the birth or re-birth of innovations and insights that have percolated within the organization for some time.

The danger comes when the new leader sweeps in with the perception of a mandate that says, “What has been in place has not worked, and you need to fix it.” Certainly some of the things that have been in place have not been optimal, but the new leader has to bring their perspective, their expertise, their background to bear on a situation that includes some hard work and successes that many people in the organization are justly proud of. Before new precepts issue forth from the executive suite, it is important to listen and hear what the existing expertise in the organization is and what has been learned.

One of the worst violations of the existing bank of knowledge possessed by staff occurs when those at the top countermand what line staff has been doing because “We are not meeting customer needs.” That may be true, but the executive needs to be careful about defining who “the customer” is in these circumstances. It is likely that the executive is talking to other top level executives about what they need and want. Again, that may yield true and very important information about new imperatives; but middle managers and line staff in one organization are usually working with middle managers and line staff in another organization, and their experience may yield equally important information about what is working, what is breaking down, and where fixes to those problems are most likely to occur.

New sheriffs seldom enjoy access to the informants who provide necessary intelligence to get work done most effectively. New leaders should lead, and leadership always includes a huge component of listening well, carefully and at all levels.