Sunday, January 30, 2005

Winning against a Big Ego (3)

Another in the occasional series (#1, #2) of musings on how we little people can survive in the shadow of the Big Egos -- and perhaps even win a bout or two.

The DISC model uses four character dimensions to come up with fifteen personality profiles. Each profile is a different mix of the four dimensions: Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.

Executive leaders tend to score high in Dominance and Influence. These are their strengths, but also their weakness.
  • People with the "Inspirational" pattern, for example, set out to control their environment and audience. They're very high on Dominance, and also on Influence. They care about the projection of personal strength, character and social power. By the same token, they fear weak behavior, and loss of social status.
  • Those with the "Persuader" pattern seek authority and prestige; they revel in growth, and like to sell and close. In this case, Influence is higher than Dominance, but both dwarf the other two dimensions. Persuaders fear a fixed environment, and complex relationships.
Riffing on these DISC attributes, here are some tricks that might help level the playing field:
  1. Suggest that taking the course of action you oppose would make them look weak, or threaten their status.
  2. Present your proposal as leading to dynamic change, and their inclination as perpetuating the status quo.
  3. When on the defensive, draw them into the complexities of the topic. Beware, though; if they're intelligent and able to handle complex thinking, you may be outplayed unless you're at the core of your competence, and they're not.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Relax and don't-do it

Thanks to a post by Tayssir John Gabbour in a discussion on Larry Lessig's blog I came across Joel Sapolsky's 2002 post on "Fire And Motion". The title refers to the infantry tactic of constantly moving forward as a way to suppress enemy fire, which is a simile for the successful software business (and life) strategy of just keeping going, day by day. His comments on Microsoft's use of this approach, which sounds a lot like kaizen, gets most attention, but I was more taken by what triggered Joel's meditation: creative block, and creative productivity.

Sapolsky starts out from the observation that there are times when he just can't get anything done, which leads to the observation that most people only do two or three hours of productive creative work a day - which is more than enough, it turns out. The rest is filler. Perhaps it's filler; but perhaps the rest of the grind is the kaizen that yields the creativity.

Perhaps; but perhaps the grind dulls the creative edge. Joel tells the story of an intern that only worked noon-5 every day (including lunch), but was loved by the team because he still got more done than the average developer.

This sounds a lot like the taoist approach of doing by not-doing (see e.g. It is easiest to perform an action when one is relaxed, when it's like not doing it. A hard task for the obsessively conscientious among us - particularly those who apply themselves diligently to the paradoxical work of non-work. A new year's resolution: every day I will strive to not strive, and work harder at not-doing more.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

It's in the mail

The angel and the old man were yelling at each other.

The old man was leaning forward in his chair on the porch, his hand cupped to his ear. “What?!” he bellowed. “Speak up!”

The angel shouted, “Your vocation! I’ve got your vocation for you!”


“It got lost, and didn’t get delivered when it should’ve been! But we can tell you now!”

“Speak up!” The old man squinted into the light. “What?!”

“It’s the vocation you’ve always wanted! Don’t you want to hear it?”


Saturday, January 08, 2005

Dirt world meets digital world

Are we on the verge of -- or already in the middle of? -- a war between nation states and global organizations? Do we have the makings of a conflict between the dirt world and the digital world?

Electronic communications and strong global trade networks are creating a global production/consumption system where nation states seem to be accidents of history. On the other hand, nation states are the ones with guns and taxes; national leaders and their constituents live in a particular place and are still tied together by physical proximity.

A wonderful book recommended by Marc Smith bears on this topic: The Sources of Social Power, Volume 1, A history of power from the beginning to A.D. 1760 by Michael Mann. The Mann outlines a theory of social power, and then tests it through a masterful analysis of innumerable historical examples. For him, societies can be explained by the interactions among four power sources: ideological, economic, military and political relationships. The relative influence of these power sources varies. Cultures of conquest like the Assyrians and Incas were based on military power. The ideological power of the Catholic Church was key during the Middle Ages. Political power became more visible during the rise of the European monarchies, and was joined by economic power in the run-up to the Industrial Revolution.

Mann's other key claim is that "a society" as a well-defined unit of analysis is a fiction. Societies are shot through with power networks that have wildly different physical scales; in the Middle Ages, for example, political power was limited to the feudal manor and its immediate environs, while the ideological power of the Church reached in a uniform way across Western Europe. The constituent parts of notionally distinct "societies" thus overlap and intersect with each other in complex ways.

Mann's thinking applied to current conditions suggests that globalization and territoriality are not at odds. They are, in fact, power sources operating at different scales. Nation states have political and military power which is based on physical contiguity. Globalization is, so far, an economic phenomenon. (Ideology doesn't play much of a role - yet.) This is not unlike the situation Mann describes in the Middle East around 900 - 400 BC. A number of quite distinct power centers around the Mediterranean, from Egypt to Persia, were stitched together by Phoenician and Greek trade.

I therefore think that my fears of "vertical" conflict between national and global power players are overblown.

A much more likely fight is a "horizontal" one between nation states on the basis of the globalization enabled by digital technology.

I was told yesterday that business leaders in major companies are frustrated by inability of their CIOs to deliver the business system interconnection they need; outsourcing would be much more common than it is today if Service Oriented Architectures actually worked.

Another straw in the wind: some researchers suggest that demand for university places in India will rise to 9 million places in 2015, and 20 million places in China in 2025. The NCES projects that just over 2 million bachelor's and master's degrees will be conferred in the US in 2013. In other words: in less than ten years, there will be more than ten times as many qualified knowledge workers in Asia as in the US.

At this point interpretation becomes a matter of temperament and bias. Some people believe that the rise in international trade and the shift to a knowledge economy will lead to a happy world where everybody becomes more affluent. Richard Rosecrance argues from this corner in The Rise of the Virtual State: Wealth and Power in the Coming Century.

I'm not convinced; for my money, Prof. Rosecrance under-estimates the negative impact the rise of knowledge economies in Asia will have on earning potential and life-style of Americans and Europeans. The standard of living in Asia will certainly rise; the question is whether economic growth is enough of a non-zero sum game for US/EU living standards not to decline. Rosecrance argues that the rise of virtual economies will make military conquest obsolete. Even if this were true, it addresses only one of the four sources of power that Michael Mann uses.

Organizations with global aspirations, from international NGOs to multi-national companies, play a crucial role in accelerating the development of a world where such conflicts arise. They can also play a key role in defusing tensions. Countries go to war where there is no commonly accepted authority to resolve their differences. Global organizations can create the conditions where there is a common set of values within which conflicts can be worked out.

This does not necessarily imply a global government. Government is just one of Mann's four sources of power, ie political power. Ideology can play a similar role without the creation of a black helicopter brigade. But what ideology? I'm still thinking about that... Fifty years ago one might have proposed communism or capitalism. These days the most obvious candidate is neoliberalism. However, there's a more interesting possibility: the emergence of a ideology based on the synthesis of neoliberalism and socialist activism. One can see the makings of such a fusion in many technology companies whose employees are predominantly Left on social issues and Right on commercial ones.

Miranda Murphy

One of the scary things about digital life is that one can't depend on stuff fading into dust any more, the way analog media do. It's a variation of Miranda:
Everything you say digitally will be remembered, and can be used against you.
This didn't worry me much until I ran into this corollary of Murphy's Law:
If something you say can be misinterpreted, it will.
All this came together in a rather unfortunate series of events that led directly to the intermittent posting of the last few months. I learned the hard way that quotes on a semi-public blog concerned entirely with private thoughts ("semi" given the minute readership of this blog, but "public" given the existence of search engines) can bleed over into one's work life.

I have had to think long and hard about whether I'm willing to continue to take the risk of blogging under my own name. For now, I've decided to keep going. Somebody will probably use my writing against me (and my employer) again, but the pressure of exposing myself to criticism is invaluable in improving the quality and clarity of my thinking. If it were anonymous, I might as well just write a private journal.

The Lesson for the reader? If you write a blog, remember that you don't just have the Muse floating over your left shoulder; Miranda Murphy is on your right, as well.