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March 2016

First Quarter: Q1 2016

Today marks the end of the first quarter of 2016. Yes, I'm probably the only person in academia who notices things like that. But I've been reading books on onboarding for the "First Quarter"(insights for new grads on taking a good start in the workforce) part of my blog, and the business focus in The First 90 Days has convinced me to try planning my goals in terms of quarters. I like the concept because 3 months is long enough that you can have concrete, meaningful achievements, but short enough that you - hopefully - see a clear path to get there from the beginning. Fear not, this is not going to be a post where I drag you through my to-do list and give myself public kudos for how many items I've crossed off (although I was tempted - it's been a very good Q1!). But if you haven't tried planning your year in quarters, you might want to try. Then you can break your big quarterly goals into smaller monthly mini-goals, and even smaller weekly micro-goals, and maybe even daily nano-goals. The quarterly goal might be something not directly in your control, such as get promoted, but the daily and weekly goals should be things you can control. The quarterly horizon allows you to stay focused on a goal that is both meaningful and achievable.

Because so many (all?) universities have their fiscal year start July 1, the end of Q1 also means there is only one quarter to go before the end of the year in higher ed, and while just about every media outlet will talk about New Year resolutions when January 1 approaches, I haven't seen anything about New Academic Year resolutions. Why would you want to have July 1 resolutions if you're not in academia, you might ask? Because (1) late November and December are usually so full of family drama or celebrations (your pick) that many people don't have the energy required on January 1 to start tackling high-impact change projects and (2) people usually take some time off over the summer too, so they might be better able to take a head start on tackling their resolutions. And if you've just graduated and only starting work in the fall, this might be the longest vacation you'll have in many years to come. Make it count. 

If you're in academia, then it makes sense to have New Academic Year resolutions because you're probably starting a new year of employment with your university and a new year on your clock to promotion, tenure or reappointment - if you started work during the summer like most faculty - and because your students (especially the doctoral students on your research team) also count their seniority in terms of academic years, so your plan would be aligned with their development. 

While you can never plan your life according to a rigid timeline (unless your work doesn't involve you interacting with other people in any way...), reviewing quarterly and yearly goals helps you remember what you want to achieve instead of getting distracted by low-value daily commitments. It is easy to get sidetracked and hard to get back on track.

The best part of making monthly, quarterly and yearly goals, I think, is to keep all those lists together and review them periodically to see what you have accomplished and how your objectives evolve over time. I have sometimes carried to-do items over from a monthly list to the next several times in a row, and when I just can't manage to get something done, there is usually more to it than a simple time management problem. So it is worth also using the lists to take a step back and wonder if you see a pattern in the things that you just never get around to getting done. 

Finally, I'll end this post, since it is part of my First Quarter series, by mentioning the David Allen bestselling book Getting Things Done. Often the time management systems students have developed in college aren't enough to handle the variety of projects and tasks they have to tackle in the workforce, and it might be worthwhile thinking about better systems to put in place before you start. Getting Things Done will prove full of excellent ideas in that regard.


HBR on Learning to Learn

What is it with Harvard Business Review that it publishes lots of beginner-level articles these days? The feature in the March issue of HBR on "Learning to Learn" is a very basic feature advocating for aspiration (wanting to learn), self-awareness (understanding your level in the skill you want to learn), curiosity (trying something until we succeed) and vulnerability (accepting you may be bad at something for months). This is the sort of cutting-edge thinking that get you published in HBR these days.  

Here is what I would've added to it, taking a manager's or would-be manager's perspective, since after all this is HBR's target audience. First, do you really need to learn the skill or are you reacting like the employee you were in your previous role? Maybe you did a lot of data analysis before you were promoted to manager, and now your direct reports are talking about R and Python. Do you actually need to learn the software, or are you just a little nostalgic for your old job? Let's assume you actually need to learn a new skill for your new job. There will be two types of skills you have to learn: (a) skills you know you don't have or have a lack of, and (b) skills you don't realize you don't have, like those people who think they have amazing interpersonal skills because they ask their employees how they're doing once every six months.

Obviously, identifying (b) skills is tricky. So you should make a list of the top skills you (and anyone you use as sounding board - mentors, advisors, former colleagues, new boss, new colleagues) think you will most need in the new job, and evaluate your blind spots. Why did the person who used to have your job (in case of a promotion) succeed, or fail? What are the skills you didn't need as much in your previous job? We often develop skills to the level we need to function in our current role, and not much above. (Unused skills tend to atrophy.) Where will you need to stretch? Are you really that good? What stories are you telling yourself that may no longer serve you? For instance, you may work in Division A, where the one thing you know for sure is that Division B is full of the people no other division wants and everything wrong in the company is their fault. If you're promoted to leading Division A and the role calls for a close interaction with Division B's manager, you will achieve whatever goals you have a lot more easily if you change the story you tell yourself about Division B to something more empowering.  

As you move up the ranks, learning shifts away from technical to personal/interpersonal content, from tactical to strategic issues, from direct contributor to delegator, from one-way communication (to one's immediate supervisor) to matrix collaborations with one's team and other units. If you can't think of a skill you need to learn, think about situations in your work life that keep repeating themselves. That will probably give you a clue.

For instance, if you were very successful early on when you took the helm of a company in trouble, but have been struggling with getting your team to follow you now that the company is on surer footing, maybe you have a "savior" leadership style that works well in times of crisis but not as well in less troubled times, where employees seek more autonomy. (This also begs the question: do you need to learn more consensus-based leadership styles, or do you need to find another company in trouble?)

When were you last wrong? If you can't remember when you were last wrong, then you have the issue you need to learn served to you on a platter, because no one is never wrong, and being convinced you're never wrong will only stifle dissent and discourage your colleagues or direct reports to be honest with you. If you've had even a moderate amount of success in your career so far and been promoted at least once (or been put on the fast track to promotion), it is also worth thinking about who might be wanting you to fail. People have the most irrational reasons for wanting others to fail, and people who succeed have such a different outlook (focusing on improving themselves, seeking role models, etc) than people who try to make others fail (obsessed with pulling others down to their level) that you might not identify potential troublemakers by reasoning alone. Yet, those people leave clues - they badmouth you to others, or make subtle digs at you. Lyndon Johnson is famous for saying that you don't belong in politics if you can't walk into a room and say immediately who is for you and who is against you. Once you start moving up the ranks, this is true of the business world too.  

Finally, you need a learning plan. What will the outcome look like when you have achieved your learning objective? Say you want to learn a new language because you're being transferred overseas. Do you want to have a basic conversation around the water-cooler on Monday morning, speak enough to go and buy groceries, be fluent enough to understand your new colleagues when they speak in their mother tongue? What are reasonable time commitment and timeline to achieve your objective? Has someone done something like this before? Who will you enlist to achieve your goals? What are your intermediary milestones and your weekly goals? 

An issue with academia is that new Assistant Professors get hired at research universities on the basis of their research but are expected to also teach. Quite a few, at least in engineering, have not taught during their doctoral studies and were only Teaching Assistants. These professors have to be "good enough" teachers to get tenure, but not exceptional. Hence, some of them don't see the value in learning how to be a great teacher given the time pressure to produce enough high-caliber research by the time they come up for tenure. They make the calculation, unconscious or not, that on-the-fly teaching (the "let's get the slides from my colleague and hope for the best" approach to teaching) will be good enough. They have few role models beyond the professors they remember from their early years in graduate school (later years are usually devoted to research), since professors rarely attend each other's lectures.

Learning to be a good teacher then is something that only professors genuinely interested in how to make their students best learn the material (whether for the good of their students or as an intellectual challenge but not primarily out of desire to gain tenure at a research university) learn how to do. This doesn't mean that professors who aren't good teachers don't want to be good teachers, but they may not find the time to become good ones - or they may be delusional about their abilities, as the HBR article suggests, in the one interesting stat the author quotes: in a Cornell study, "94% of college professors reported that they were doing above average work." (We will note that median and mean aren't the same thing, which the HBR article doesn't point out, and that the stat isn't solely about teaching-related work.) 

For my readers serious about developing their leadership skills, I recommend the unfortunately titled Primal Intelligence: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, which is a must-read. I also highly recommend The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, where I first read the LBJ quote.


HBR on Building a Culture of Originality

BR1603_500The March issue of Harvard Business Review has an article by Adam Grant, "Building a Culture of Originality" related to his new book: "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World", published last month. In the article, Grant argues that "most people are quite capable of original thinking, and leaders can set them up for success by building a culture of nonconformity." He argues that fellow innovators should evaluate the ideas, employees should be given "ways and reasons to generate lots of new ideas" and the company has to "strike the right balance between cohesion and dissent", which is quite obvious.

I liked Grant's previous book "Give and Take" and I haven't read "Originals" but the article bothered me a little in its narrow focus. The ideas Grant presents would probably work well for new product introduction, but in the same way that no one wants to be a follower as far as leadership is concerned, I doubt anyone out there dreams of being a conformist. Originality and non-conformity (and I say this as one of the most non-conformists people I know) are attributes people take pride in when they see it in themselves, but they rarely appreciate it in colleagues, unless they can benefit from it. There is also an ocean between providing new ideas and being a true original or non-conformist. True non-conformism introduces an element of unpredictability, which is not going to be to the taste of everyone.

It is one thing to generate 500 pitches for a new movie or 4,000 concepts for a toy (two of the examples Grant provides) - you still remain within the framework of idea generation - but quite another to do things completely differently or play by completely different rules. Grant's description fits within a process where people stay within the prescribed stages or context and provide new content. But true originals would redesign the entire process or skip some stages altogether, such as small focus groups or beta testing. (They also have to be willing to fall flat on their face more often, because fewer people among their colleagues will have the ability, knowledge or inclination to stop them from making mistakes.) It is also important to recognize that some leaders have no interest in a culture of originality. Originality tends to enthuse more the people who want to practice it rather than the people at the receiving end of it.

Higher education in particular is an industry that could benefit from a greater culture of originality, especially when it comes to teaching. But generating 500 ideas for better teaching doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what can and should be done. First, students should also be able to submit comments on what would improve their education - this is a tricky subject because some professors like to view students as the products rather than the consumers of the education, and don't believe students can really make useful comments since they're still being taught "how to think" and aren't yet able to realize what is good for them, which they can only hope to do after graduation, when the professor safely has his course evaluations in hand and any failure on the student's part to have a good career can be ascribed to so many other factors that there is never any clear link with the teaching that was received.

Maybe students would have ideas we professors don't expect, such as "all this talk about reversed classroom is nice but I already struggle with all my extra-curricular activities, I don't want to also have to find time to watch videos, I like being in a classroom because I'm with my friends, even if the professor is a drone" or "it would've helped if I'd had a better overview of the curriculum in my major as a sophomore/if a young alumnus had done a Skype talk to discuss how he used what he had learned in college/.... because there were several classes I thought were useless when I was a student and I realized afterward they were actually quite useful" or "forget all this talk about online lectures, I want to know the date for the quiz at least two weeks before the quiz happens so that I can start studying, is it really too much too ask?" or "this is the 21st century, every professor should write on a tablet and project the tablet screen on the projector so that we can better see what she writes, instead of struggling to see the blackboard from the back of the room, and what is written can be saved afterward and uploaded as lecture notes" or "let's abandon the course format and learn everything via a year-long project."

In addition, the intense debate in higher ed about novel content delivery methods, such as online lectures (with humanities professors dismissing them as only fit for vocational training, by which they mean bachelors of science programs in engineering), gives a glimpse into how hard it is to judge, let alone adopt, a culture of originality - the bottom line being, the jury is still out regarding the usefulness of online lectures compared to their offline, traditional counterparts.

If you have ideas to improve higher education, or want to suggest online resources for cutting-edge advances in higher ed, please submit a comment at the bottom of the post.

In the end, I found Grant's HBR article rather shallow, although not worse than some other articles - a clear hook for the book but with interesting content. 


Leadership Ripples and Waterfalls

I was re-reading a recent article about leadership in The New Yorker the other day (Shut up and sit down, February 29, 2016) when I finally put my finger on something that had bothered me about the article, and leadership in general. The author - the excellent Joshua Rothman - worries about our current obsession on leadership and the related obsession for generating crises that can define leaders, echoing comments by Elizabeth Samet in her introduction to "Leadership: Essential writings by our greatest thinkers", which Rothman also quotes. ("Samet believes that our growing addiction to the narrative of crisis has gone hand in hand with an increasing veneration of leadership.")

Rothman discusses the trait model of leadership, where effective leaders are said to have a certain number of traits, such as courage or decisiveness, which then must be detected, "so that leaders could be identified in advance of their elevation." He connects the trait model to the hire of external, charismatic C.E.O.s, who "can inspire upticks in stock prices" but "also tend to be less knowledgeable and more expensive than internal candidates"; "many underperform and are quickly fired." Rothman argues, using research by Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana, that "there is little evidence for the C.E.O. effect".  

A more recent model of leadership is process-based: experts have "come to see leadership as something that unfolds in stages". In that model, leadership is "not something you are" but "something you do." Another Harvard Business School professor, Gautam Mukunda, makes the case that "you should think about the context in which you find yourself when you choose a leader. The question isn't whether a dark-horse candidate will make a good leader (who can know?) but whether times are bad enough to justify gambling on a dark-horse candidate." This also matches Michael Watkins's STARS model of matching strategy to situation for new leaders (see "The First 90 Days").  

The article ends with a call to leaders to keep a sense of perspective, which is a rather deflating way to end a fascinating article, although Rothman has a point. Rothman writes: ""If a man who thinks he is a king is mad," Jacques Lacan wrote, "a king who thinks he is a king is no less so."" Less obscure is: "To some extent, leaders are storytellers... Because the serialized drama of history is bigger than any one character's arc, leaders can't guarantee our ultimate narrative satisfaction... Because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too. Leaders make the world more sensible but never sensible enough."

Two points came to my mind when I was reading this. First, there may not be a link between the charisma of a C.E.O. and his company's performance, but realistically speaking few employees ever come in direct contact with their company's C.E.O.. People who do, though - the Chairman of the Board, other C-suite executives - are often involved in the selection of the C.E.O. and there may be a link between their job satisfaction, job performance, ability to innovate, and the charismatic quality of their C.E.O., because he is their immediate leader. He communicates with them in more than just through bland emails using the company's lingo that have been vetted by the communications staff. He interacts with them in person. He makes them dream they can become better versions of themselves, reach their full potential, learn by observing a "top dog", make a difference in their company, and perhaps even be hired elsewhere for the top spot.

For the C.E.O.'s personality to ripple through to the front lines, he would have to be represented by managers with similar charismatic attributes at every layer of the hierarchy - the charisma of the C.E.O. water-falling through every step. That is certainly possible, but unadvisable, not only because you want to encourage dissenters to bring fresh eyes to a situation, but also because the qualities such as high-level strategic thinking that make C.E.O.s inspirational can quickly become annoying in positions that require a good grasp of details. Yet, it is likely unrealistic to hope that a C.E.O.'s qualities will have a noticeable impact on the stock price, which depends on performance in the front lines, many hierarchy layers away from the C.E.O., whose impact is necessarily diluted by the leadership qualities of the line managers and the specific challenges they are facing. The C.E.O.'s charisma ripples through the organization, but the ripples are felt more strongly by the people in his immediate proximity, such as his direct reports. It would be more interesting to study the impact of charisma for a line manager, especially when he may only have a limited influence on strategy, both in the short term (encouraging his team to achieve their performance goals) and in the long term (for his own promotions). 

This brings me to my second idea, about the crises of leadership. In order to become a better leader and show what you're made of, you want to be tested in battle through a leadership crisis, but the level of the crisis needs to be matched to the development needs of the would-be leader - a situation akin to the advice of modulating the pressure in the environment, in the works by Ronald Heifetz (Leadership without easy answers and Leadership on the line, coauthored with Martin Linsky). This seems to suggest a series of progressively increasing waterfalls as a leadership model (whitewater rafting?) But at which moment in your career do crises become useful for your development, before you are in a position to define the vision that will hopefully get the company out of the crisis? And are we becoming too quick to label events crises so that the people in charge will look better in the process? People take rash, ill-advised decisions in crises, dismiss work-life balance, burn out. The advantage of a crisis is that it provides an impetus for change. Maybe we should measure a leader by his ability to foresee crisis where the rest of us sees none yet, and the ability to convince us of the need for change as well as to execute that change before the situation has turned into full-blown catastrophe. That, for me, would be the true measure of leadership.


Student Workload

This is the time of year where we in academia give our students a lot of midterms, and since my graduate students had one yesterday and my undergraduates have one next week, I found myself thinking about student workload. The graduate and undergraduate students are in two sections of the same course (Financial Optimization). Initially I had planned on giving them their section-specific quizzes on the same day but left the date open between March 2 and 9. The graduate students, who take a total of three courses and had exams in their two other courses next week, wanted March 2, but the undergraduate students had a big test in Simulation on the same day. So I moved their test to March 9 and kept the graduate students' test on March 2. This is possible because I have a Teaching Assistant who can proctor one group while I lecture the other (thank you, Shuyi!) 

Reflecting upon my last few years, the days where I've found my undergraduate students most focused on their laptops even when what we do in class is not online has been - I realized in retrospect - when they had exams in other classes or were finishing a big assignment. (My graduate students I don't have as good of a read on when they're behind their laptop screen. They take fewer courses so they might study for their next class or they might be writing emails.) It is easy to believe the media in thinking that the Millenials generation is spoiled and the students can only be browsing the Internet or reading sports results when they're not paying attention, but my students at least seem to be heavily multi-tasking to handle their course load. 

Which brings me to my point: why aren't professors better aware of their students' workload? Maybe professors want to keep their quiz the day they had planned, and if they are aware the students have three quizzes and one essay due to the same week, refusing to be accommodating would make them look selfish, so perhaps they find it better not to know. I feel universities spend a lot of resources on study centers ("centers for academic success" or equivalent) and mental health resources to help students handle the workload, but unless students have developed a close relationship to a staff member, the advice of a staff member may not be as powerful as the behavior of a faculty member, especially in the department the student is majoring in. 

Education today is often a collection of pieces, people who teach their courses without trying to show how the pieces fit together, faculty who steer capstone projects toward topics they are comfortable with. We keep saying that students have to work in teams, but delivering education doesn't currently happen in teams. Faculty members may talk about the curriculum as a whole once every few years, except for the lone ABET coordinator who valiantly struggles to bring it to the forefront more often. 

As a starting point, since we live in a data-intensive, analytics-driven age, I'd love to have an online survey system where students can input dates of their upcoming quizzes, assignments and other deliverables for each of their courses, and then we could use a PivotTable to summarize how many students have a test in a given course in a given week and get a better sense of their workload. I think most students do want to do at least reasonably well in their courses and perhaps it would matter to them that their professors know when they are under pressure. 

I would also love to have an online survey system where at the end of each semester, students can summarize what they have learned in a course and the topics (especially projects) they have worked on. (This is not a teaching evaluation.) At the end of the four years of the undergraduate curriculum, we would have a much clearer picture of what specifically each student has learned, and hopefully would gain some ideas of how we can make the pieces of the education puzzle better fit together.