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Invisibleism

Are You an Invisibleist?

Not too long ago, I was asked to sit on a diversity and inclusion panel at a conference to offer my thoughts on these topics in front of a few hundred people. My colleagues on the panel represented a vibrant rainbow of the human spectrum: Black, Latino, Woman, Disabled, Veteran, Gay, Asian, and more.

Why was I, a white male executive, on a diversity and inclusion panel? Read on, friends.

The group of us had prepared in the days prior to be asked questions by a moderator, and we had planned to speak in turn according to a loosely-defined script. We were each miked-up, headed out onto stage in front of our audience, and we were individually introduced by our moderator with a brief professional biography.

From there, things didn’t quite work out as we had planned. This was, for the most part, perfectly OK. The panel hit a passionate groove; the dialog was dynamic and interesting; but topics got covered in an organic manner, rather than in the manner in which we had planned. Discussion ranged from racism to sexism to classism to sexual orientation discrimination, and all of the sort of stuff that you expect in a diversity and inclusion discussion. Forty-five minutes in, most everyone on the panel had talked.

Except for me.

Inside, I had developed an unexpected uneasiness about people who were left out of this discussion, and I, too, began to feel a desire to go off-script.

I opened my mouth and started to talk, but it sounded to me like my microphone was no longer working. I humbly asked:

Is my microphone working?

And something quite unexpected happened. Three hundred people laughed. Laughed!

It took me but a second to figure out why: it was clear from the room dynamic that most people thought I was not there to speak as a person of diversity, but rather as a token white male executive, and that my comment about my microphone was a moment of irony. But you see, my biography did not include the fact that I was gay.

In that moment, I chose not to focus on that. Instead, I offered an observation that I want to offer you now, about what I consider a common and unwitting form of discrimination that I have come to call invisibleism.

Most of the panel — and the audience in the room that day, for that matter — had been focused on a discussion about discrimination against things that are relatively easy to discern, such as race, gender, age, and sometimes class. Gender identity and sexual orientation are always part of these discussions too, but at events like this, there is a general proclivity against discussing them because they aren’t so corporeal as the others, and people don’t like to have lengthy public discussions about things that involve a potential lack of clarity. These topics are called “delicate” for a reason!

Because of my background, I have developed a sensitivity to willful ignorance of people’s invisible traits, and I asked the audience to consider not just what they see, but what they do not see.

When you look at a person, you may instinctively be able to discern their race, their age, and even their gender (the latter having become something less clear as times have progressed, of course).Your reactions to these characteristics are what will classify you as a racist, ageist, or sexist.

But what about your reaction to characteristics like these?

  • Psychological conditions (Depression; Borderline Personality Disorder; Bipolar Disorder; ADHD ; Anxiety; Panic; Postpartum depression; PTSD; Insomnia; Dementia; Sleep disorders; Narcissism; Autism spectrum; Asperger’s; OCD)
  • Addictions (Alcohol; Narcotics; Gambling; Eating; etc.)
  • Introversion/Extroversion
  • Personal biases (which themselves are invisible) (Sexism; Racism; Ageism)
  • Illness (Cancer, etc.)
  • Life changes (Loss of loved one; New child; Newly married; New job; Fearful of losing job; Recent terminal diagnosis; Recent recovery)
  • Pressures (Children; Marital stress; Financial stress; Doctor appointments)
  • Family situation (Married; Divorced; Children; No children; Widowed)
  • Self-confidence level (High/willing to be wrong); Average; Low/pretends to know everything)
  • Relationship with boss (Good; Mixed; Bad; Is the boss)
  • Happiness with occupation (Loves it; Ambivalent; Hates it; Loves it too much)

These all take quite a bit more work to discern. How do we discern them at all? I can assure you that if you practice the foundational values we discuss on these pages, you will improve your ability to do this:

  • Vulnerability & Humility: We show our own weaknesses and make it clear that we understand our role as humble creatures in a large universe; others are more likely to open up to us.
  • Empathy: We take the time to look deeply at people and consider the variety of reasons they respond to the world and our interactions with them; we develop an ability to more accurately read between the lines to see what might be going on in their world.
  • Patience: This takes multiple conversations over time!
  • Compassion: We develop trust by going out of our way to help even when it might be an interruption.
  • Curiosity: We invest the effort to care to find out what’s really going on with a person.
  • Commitment: We don’t give up on all the above.
  • Willingness: Most importantly, we are willing to do all of the above because we know this will help us better serve that person’s needs.

How often do you do all of the above in order to better understand a person?

If you are eliciting requirements — and as I stated in my third post here, all jobs involve eliciting requirements to one degree or another — and you do not do these things, I suggest that you might be an invisibleist. This is as deep and harmful a form of discrimination as any other, and it has arguably caused much unaccounted damage to humanity over the centuries.

The next time you find yourself angry when a person disregards your idea, declines a meeting with you, or uses a cell phone during a meeting, how will you take inventory of what might really be going on?

Let’s play out a scenario:

Imagine that you are on a Scrum team presenting in a Sprint demo, and your Product Owner is distracted, texting on his cell phone.

How would you handle this?

Would you:

  1. Ask him to stop using his cell phone.
  2. Pause the demo to wait for him to finish texting.
  3. Take him aside afterward and respectfully ask him if he could avoid that in the future.

Those are the most common answers I hear in regard to this scenario. Which one would you choose?

I will share with you that I once served as Scrum Master for a team where this happened. What if I told you that none of these responses would have been remotely appropriate or helpful for the situation at hand?

What if I told you that your Product Owner had a son who was in the process of contemplating suicide?

You didn’t expect that, eh?

This is invisibleism at play.

It is possible to cultivate a workplace where invisibleism is addressed with the same vigor we apply to racism and other forms of discrimination. Study the culture at companies like Auticon, a company that specializes in hiring and cultivating autistic talent in a powerful way to provide top-tier software quality assurance services, for starters.But most importantly, apply our eight foundational values, and always — always — look deeper for what you are not seeing. Do not settle only for what you can see.

There is a power in every position that a human being can have along a multitude of spectrums. Will you commit to slowing down and searching for it?

And the next time you see a white male executive sitting in a diversity panel, what will you think?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o-iZ_GfTTs.

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Categories
Foundational Values Nonviolent Communication Willingness

Do You Gotta Be a Macho?

This is where you and I will take a left turn on our journey together.

You might recognize many — if not all — of the first seven foundational values that I have discussed to date. Many of them have been written about by other people individually or in combination with other values over the years (but not, to my knowledge, in this particular package).

There is one foundational value, however, that you have not seen before, and that is this, our eighth and final value, which is willingness.

Many businesspeople I’ve met over the years are fond of scouring the New York Times and Amazon nonfiction bestseller lists to find the next great management and leadership book. It’s always illuminating to walk into an office and see these perfectly-squared tomes lined up on an executive’s bookcase, perched alongside their children’s photos, both seemingly there to evoke a powerful reminiscence of a moment of self-realization.

I do not cherish many of these books, and I don’t have a long list to recommend. There are just a small handful that I believe are worthwhile. If I had to choose one — and only one — to offer any leader, it would have to be Marshall Rosenberg’s groundbreaking book on Nonviolent Communication.

(For more information on Nonviolent Communication, aka NVC, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication.)

This is not a book that I have ever seen on any other executive’s bookshelf (well, without my prompting). And I ask myself sometimes: why is that the case? Well, here’s where our left turn comes in.

The world of business is all-too-often a macho culture, filled with macho terms. Every time I go to a conference, there is always at least one keynote speaker — sometimes a famous sports figure — using words like:

  • Courage
  • Fearless
  • Brave
  • Daring
  • Tough
  • Emboldened
  • Power

These terms make me a little sick inside. Why is that? Why should a term like “courage” — lovingly embraced by none other than Brené Brown, one of a handful of people who really appreciate the importance of vulnerability — make me feel like I am coming down with the flu?

They are macho terms, and they are positioned in our brains to displace the notion of weakness to one degree or another, as if weakness were something to be avoided. If you grew up as I did — a nerd, an outcast, a “wuss” — these terms might have been thrown at you as values you should nurture and embrace. And in that sense, these terms would have been a violent affront to your inner world, as they were to mine.

“You’ve got it wrong! You have to be strong! Just have courage! Be fearless! Win it!”

—Some person who didn’t care about my feelings

In my mind, when I would hear things like this, all I could think was, “Ah, sure, I should just go beat them up. Right. That will solve everything… Sure.”

I believe that most people who use macho language do so innocently, but I do not believe that people typically take the time to ponder how dismissive this language can be. When was the last time you heard someone say, “she had balls!”? What did you think when you heard that? Is having “balls” supposed to be a compliment to a woman? Why is that?

I believe that there is a feeling or value that many of these people want to communicate, but I do not think that they have found a non-violent word.

So, I offer willingness.

What is willingness, and how is it different from, say, courage?

With the word willingness, we can have a discussion about doing something to move forward that honors, rather than diminishes, the value of your fear or your lack of courage. Willingness is a quiet value. It is understated. It is not showy, and it does not pretend to diminish the marianismo that is in us.

It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to lack courage. It’s OK not to have balls, or to not desire power. There is actually potential value in each of those positions. For example, if you lack courage, it might be because there is a real risk to you in doing something, and by honoring that risk, you stand to broaden your palette of choices in approaching your problem.

Instead of macho language, we can ask ourselves:

Are we willing to change ourselves?
Are we willing to throw out what we have done in favor of a new approach?
Are we willing to have a difficult conversation?
Are we willing to slow down?
Are we willing to stop?
Are we willing to wait?
Are we willing to go?
Are we willing to care about others?
Are we willing to be vulnerable?
Are we willing to admit what we don’t know?
Are we willing to commit?

All of this feels decisively less macho — ultimately, less violent — than we are used to feeling in business culture. I suggest that this approach has great utility, because if we can talk in a way that does not put people on edge about their valid feelings of weakness, we create a vastly larger opportunity to bring about the progress we so often seek.

In the end, it is important to me that the values we discuss in The Progressive CIO are nonviolent.

What macho — what violent — words do you find yourself using from day to day?

Most importantly, are you willing to review how you speak, and to identify friendlier alternatives?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZ1glxX1BiQ.

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Categories
Commitment Foundational Values

…To Every Commitment

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their little argument?

Most people are able to see that Al made a commitment (albeit reluctantly) to Stuart to put some numbers together. This is the type of tangible commitment that we are used to talking about, and the type we criticize when it doesn’t occur. That’s the easy part of this little exercise.

But in my experience, comparatively fewer people are able to see that Stuart also made an important commitment that morning: the commitment to review what Al did.

Why do you suppose this is so often overlooked?

While Al did something that was very obviously active, what Stuart did in return was comparatively passive. It doesn’t require any obvious action other than to listen or receive the active work of others, so it’s nearly invisible. Yet, Al would have been unable to meaningfully follow through on his commitment if Stuart didn’t follow through on his.

This might remind you of the old thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” If nobody is there to review your active commitment, does it even matter that you did it?

It’s actually quite hard to think of any commitments that are not dual-sided in nature. Even a successful surprise party involves a passive commitment on the honoree to be at a given place at a given time. The party would fall apart if he or she didn’t show up. I hope you are beginning to see how easily overlooked these passive commitments can be.

Did you ever do a difficult chore or errand that went unnoticed? How did you feel? I suspect that you probably felt a little like Al would have if Stuart had cancelled the 1:00 meeting.

Have you ever worked in an environment where people perform their assigned commitment, but at the agreed-upon review time, the customers who committed to review the outcome change their minds and try to reschedule? There is no reliable path to progress if this pattern prevails.

Yet, this happens all the time…and the fact that people are familiar with the feelings associated with the dismissal of passive commitments can actually make it easier to discuss. Whenever you make a commitment to do something and are unsure about people being around to review it, get vulnerable and discuss the anxiety that you have about the possibility that there will be nobody there at the end to “listen for the tree.” Ask everyone in your group to discuss the variety of things that could get in the way of a review of the outcomes, and ask what their anxieties are about their own ability to watch and listen to the results.

If you wish, simply share the Stuart and Al story to illustrate the point. Have everyone identify both the active and the passive commitments that are required for success for the initiative at hand.

Just as importantly, recognize and discuss the difference between a commitment-driven culture, and a promise-driven culture.

When we promise something, what do we expect to happen if that promise is broken? Surely, some form of flagellation (perhaps even self-flagellation) will take place, with an attendant apology and other consequences. Promises merely set us up for failure mode. This is typically counter-productive.

A commitment means we will do everything in our power to do what we say we plan to do.

In a commitment-driven culture, if we fail in our commitments, we do not beat ourselves up! Instead, we follow another commitment: the commitment look at why we failed. We then consider what we can change as we move forward.

Promise-driven cultures quickly grow tiresome because they are essentially fear-based. Commitment-driven cultures are sustainable, because they embrace the idea of continuous improvement.

As a leader, you already know that nothing moves forward without commitments. What will you do to boost your awareness of their dual-sided nature?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbn6a0AFfnM.

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Commitment Foundational Values

There Are Two Sides…

Would you agree that it seems hard for people to keep their commitments?

(Based upon the fact that Alex Sheen’s “Because I Said I Would” is a worthy organization with a passionate message that truly resonates around the globe, I certainly hope you agree that this is a very real issue for us all.)

Why do you suppose that is the case?

Humans make commitments with good intent. We seem to have a hard time, though, grasping what it’s going to take to follow through on that commitment. Unexpected things happen. Conditions change. We discover things we didn’t consider. The list goes on.

And we all know this sort of stuff happens. So why do we make commitments?

To be nice, and to express good will. It’s nicer to say yes than it is to say no, and we generally do not aim to displease.

I’d like to ask you to explore something that many people probably haven’t: Think about how you feel at the rare times when you resolutely commit to not doing something. “I am not going to go skydiving on this trip.” “I am not going to go out drinking on Saturday nights anymore.”

Why do you suppose that it feels at least a little bit (if not a lot) good to make that sort of commitment?

As with so many things, it’s all about control.

When we make a commitment to not do something, we typically have taken complete control over the situation. Only we can change the outcome (by changing our mind). On the other hand, when we make a commitment to do something, other people start to have control, and that is when things get sticky. At a minimum, we become beholden to the others with whom we have made the commitment, and that can induce…anxiety.

I once consulted for a small company that had a President (Stuart) and an Engineer (Al) who weren’t getting along.

One morning, Stuart informed Al that he had a call at 2:30 PM with a client to review the financial results of the work the company had done, and Stuart needed Al to put numbers together for the call.

Mind you, Al was a little like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: intellectually high-caliber, but socially awkward. Al could not contemplate doing anything without all things literally and logically discussed and considered.

Al: “That isn’t possible. I need at least two weeks to get those numbers together. I need more information.”

Stuart: “Well I know you can calculate the numbers well enough given the information that we have.”

Al: “I cannot be sure of that. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “I think you have enough information to do what I need for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “Al, please. You have enough to do what I am asking for. I don’t need this to be as perfect as you think. I need these numbers for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which…”

There were a few more back-and-forth motions like this; the very sort of thing the phrase ad nauseam was made for. At this point, I stepped in:

Me: “Al, what can you have by this afternoon?”

Al (pointing to Stuart): “Not that!”

Me: “Al, why don’t you put together whatever you can by 1:00 PM, and let’s all get together at that time to review it. OK?”

Stuart: “Sounds good to me.”

Al: “OK, but it’s not gonna be what he is asking for.”

Me: “Just try.”

A few hours went by. Lunchtime passed, and we got together at 1:00.

Al shared the numbers with us. He explained that he had to make a whole series of compromises, and began uttering a litany of disclaimers.

Stuart looked over the numbers. What do you think he said?

Stuart: “Perfect!”

What do think Al said in return?

Al: “But that’s not really what you were asking for this morning. I cannot be sure those numbers are totally accurate…”

Many of you reading this blog might recognize this story as a powerful lesson in Agility. Indeed, I have shared this story countless times in teaching how Scrum or Agile practices look, even without formal methods. The lesson of Agility is to try to figure out something small enough to do to help us get better control over our ability to deliver. But this dialog is especially useful in illustrating how Agile approaches require commitment in order to be successful.

In doing this, I like to ask my audiences the following question, which I now ask you:

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their argument?

Ponder that for a few days. I’ll reveal the answer in my next post.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx6_0Do0qGQ.

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Categories
Curiosity Foundational Values

What Exactly Happened to the Cat?

What does your childhood home look like now on Google Street View?

What is the most interesting piece of IMDB trivia for your favorite movie?

On what website can you find the inventor’s original intent for the Ruffles potato chip?

What piece of sports trivia would you share that would stump your friends? (For instance, why is a marathon 26.2 miles?) Are you 100% sure that you’re right about it?

When was the first electric car made? When was the first internal combustion engine car made?

Is your favorite teacher still alive?

How the heck is white pretzel salt actually made?

How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Did you care to look into at least one of the above questions before you reached this paragraph?

I implore you to share your most surprising findings on either the LinkedIn or Twitter threads relating to this post.

Now, I can’t tell from here how curious you are. But you can. It’s a pretty safe bet that you are reading this on a device that has access to the Internet, and if you didn’t take the time to look into at least one of the above things, what got in your way? Are you, perhaps, on a schedule to finish reading this page? Or are you, perhaps, light on curiosity?

There are eight foundational values at the root of The Progressive CIO, yet there is only one that is shared by just about all of the hundreds of senior managers I have consulted for or worked with over the years, and that is curiosity. I suppose this means that, despite some of the dysfunction I have witnessed in my professional encounters, there is at least one thread that ties most leaders together.

Why do you suppose that is the case?

To be curious is to be fully invested in one’s personal growth. Why would anyone want to hire a person who wasn’t interested in that? Even if you are hiring someone for a rote task, a non-curious individual would be a bore to work with. Yet, we have all worked with people who lack curiosity. Perhaps it’s hard to smoke out this attribute in a standard interview. One has to be curious about the curiosity of others in order to get to the starting gate. Therein lies the rub! What will you do to nurture this in your own life?

I once knew a vice president named Joe who proudly fathered the most richly rewarding line of manipulative interview questioning that I’ve ever encountered. This is how it went:

Joe: “Do you have any regrets?”

Interviewee: “Hmmm, yes. I wish I had {studied violin; finished college; traveled to Europe}.”

Joe: “Why didn’t you?”

Interviewee: “I didn’t have the time.”

Answers of that last sort occurred more often than Joe would have liked. The crux, for him, was that we all have time to do the things we want to do; we merely make choices about what we do with our time. He was most interested in hiring candidates who understood this.

Now, I have to say, I have shared this story probably a hundred times over the years, and I have gotten into some interesting disagreements. I remember one individual saying, “I have children. I don’t have the choices about what to do with my time that you think I do.” To which I replied, “I appreciate that, but it is still a choice. You are just choosing not to be a miscreant. Plenty of people do make the choice to be a miscreant. You, too, could make the choice to be a miscreant. I want you to realize that it is a choice, albeit one a fine person like you has made with integrity.”

We went on a bit, and I followed up by making the point that, beyond this sort of thing, we (typically) do make choices to have children, and there are consequences to that. These sorts of things are delicate, mind you. But they are healthy to take the time to consider. And, of course, beyond even that delicate point, we are all free to make a choice about whether or not we even live. For what it’s worth, I hope that you, dear reader, continue to make the choice to live!

So, to say that we don’t have time to do something is a lazy way of overlooking some of the tougher choices we have to make.

Curiosity is a choice. Because of that, curiosity will sometimes feel like it is slowing you down (see: Patience). The single most useful curiosity-based tool that I use regularly is the exercise of the “Five whys.” There is no question that it will slow you down, but if you’ve never used it before, give it a try sometime. I am willing to bet that you will continue to find that sort of slowdown to be immeasurably healthy.

Were you aware that there are a host of curiosity tests online?

(You’d be correct in thinking that I hoped you searched for that before I mentioned it.)

Take — no, make — the time to take some of these test. Curiosity is a choice. More pertinently, I suggest that you make the time to look for it in others.

Carve out the time to look into the things you need in order to grow, and you will grow. Plodding forward without a care in the world about what else might be possible is not a terribly strategic way of getting things done. If you do not value curiosity in yourself, it will be difficult to nurture that in your teams.

Should you encounter someone who argues: “But curiosity killed the cat!,” simply smile and offer: “If the cat steadfastly practiced the alternative, there would be no kittens to follow.”

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyZf0mKXZr8.

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Categories
Compassion Foundational Values

A Special Threshold

What is the primary emotion you feel when you watch Martin Gugino fall to the ground and bleed?

If your answer is not related to the idea of “compassion,” I accept that, and I am willing to admit that the approaches discussed among these pages might not be your thing.

I am fairly certain that “compassionate” is not at the top of the list of adjectives that are used to describe technologists. Nurses? Sure. But not us.

Why is that?

Could it have to do with the fact that we have come to be associated with soulless machines rather than people? That we are purveyors of things that are designed to supplant human beings in one way or another? That we have not found ways to accommodate and codify the irrational portions of life?

What does it mean for us to genuinely care about the people we are serving with our solutions?

It might mean that we would do well to appreciate that technology — and technologists — can elicit fear or anxiety in people in oh-so-many ways. We all can remember the first time we had to teach computer skills to a beginner. And certainly, if you are in a position to help someone solve problems by applying technology, the anxiety that accompanies the unknown future is part of the journey.

If you are your family’s technology “guru,” how many times have you been asked “What did I do wrong?” How does that question make you feel? Whenever I am asked that, before I open my mouth, I find it helpful to take a step back and ask myself, “What did we do wrong?” Typically, I can find a better answer to that. I feel so much better when I can say: “It’s not you.” And I have to tell you, the older I get, the more I find that answer to be the case.

Over the years, I cannot count the number of times I have overheard technologists uttering, while teaching, “Don’t worry. This will be easy.” How very easy it is to say that — it is the textbook definition of “dismissive.” Technology can be an affront to the senses. It is not natural or organic by any means. When we can develop an appreciation for that, we are in a better position to be responsive to the emotions that it can elicit in those we serve.

Compassion, like empathy, is hard. Compassion denotes a special threshold between doing what is easy and doing what is right. It involves more than just noticing a problem; it demands that you act on the problem. When we exhibit compassion, we make it a priority to stop to see what is wrong, and to exercise vulnerability, empathy, patience, and all of the other values we talk about on these pages. We slow ourselves down to accommodate the travails, anxieties, and fears of others, so that we can pick them up and walk with them, work with them, and guide them to a place where they can feel more comfortable.

Are you comfortable merely watching those who are afraid or hurt? Or will you get up and help them?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieQH6X_XBJo

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