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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Career making is similar to Gardening

Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer has used this metaphor in their recent book "The Gardens of Democracy" to explain the different approaches (Machinebrain versus Gardenbrain) human beings have used to conquer their environment.

Machinebrain is a way of seeing the world as series of mechanisms which work like clock and precision. Everything happens efficiently in this world and is predictable. These systems can be regulated easily whenever a problem arises. On the other hand, Gardenbrain sees the world as set of eco-systems. They are unpredictable like gardening. They are effective, not efficient. Regulating these systems is not 'after the problem', but is inbuilt in the process of tending it. Both preventive and corrective steps are necessary to tend them.

In my five years plus of coaching and research, I have observed these two approaches in career-making . Here are the six differences i particularly find enlightening: 

1. Machinebrain professionals assume that their career is made once they get the best education: be it IIT, IIM, MBBS, CA or Phd. Gardenbrain professionals assume that their career-making starts only after they have finished education and have started working. Career-making is a tough grind like gardening.

2. Machinebrain professionals assume that taking preventive steps is waste of time, while Gardenbrain professionals assume that prevention is the best form of tending life.Once the pest overtakes the crop, very little can be done to prevent the damage. Garden brain professionals therefore spend time in understanding the challenges of taking up anything new ( such as new job, new role) and prepare themselves for it. Machinebrain professionals, on the other hand, will take up anything for the sake of 'good position and salary' and will create the 'mess' that has to be cleaned by someone else. 

3. As people can cause unexpected disturbance, both professionals view relation with people differently. Machinebrain professionals view people as 'cogs in the wheel' who have to persuaded, cajoled or threatened to toe a line. Gardenbrain professionals, on the other hand, view people as multi-dimensional who have different viewpoint that may be as useful as theirs. They therefore tend to spend lot of time nurturing good people ( when they find them) and will go to extra-length to tend relations with them, even if it slows their progress in work-life!

4. Machinebrain professionals pursue money, career and reputation with a single minded pursuit because they believe that contentment can be acquired later. They believe that 'parts' acquisition will lead to the acquisition of 'whole'. Gardenbrain professionals pursue the money and happiness together because they believe that 'whole' has to be pursued, not parts, Even though Gardenbrain professionals tend to get this 'whole' at a later age, Machinebrain professionals never get it.

5. Machinebrain professionals believe that their work-life success depends on their talent and hard work alone. They therefore have a very unrealistic view of their capabilities that often blocks them in achieving anything meaningful in their lives! Gardenbrain professionals believe their work-life success depends on their talent as well as serendipitious events that have happened in their lives. They therefore respect the realities of life and tend to pursue visions in life that are meaningful. 

6. As Machinebrain professionals believe that life is predictable, they view unexpected events as aberrations and crisis something that somehow needs to be 'regulated'. As Gardenbrain professionals belief that life is unpredictable, they spend more time on cultivating the soft qualities of mind - values and emotions - to make them flexible. They therefore view unexpected events as opportunities to explore their hidden talents.

If you ponder, you will appreciate that career-making is very much like Gardening

- Like Gardener, one has to chose plants that suit the environment. For instance, one cannot choose football or research career in India ( if you have choice) because environment is not conducive enough for that.One also has to choose a career that is suitable to you, not just follow others, because it is the most popular !
- Like a Gardener, one has to pull out the weeds before they stop affecting the growth of plants. For instance, you should stop viewing relation with people as single-dimension. Emotional ignorance is another weed that can suck up the entire career, if not weeded out in time.
- Gardener views all the aspects of tending as 'one whole': he does not tend to use excess water or undue fertiliser just because he has them.He maintains the balance all the time. So too, in your career, you have to keep the balance between money and contentment. Overvaluing one retards the career growth, as it retards the plant growth. One has to therefore find time to 'find meaning in life' before it is too late.
- Like a Gardener, one must understand the characteristics of plants, earth and weather before one can garden. So too, in career, one must understand the characteristics of work ( cognitive or sports talent) and the conditions to make the right decisions.
- Like a Gardener, one has to accept the unpredictable weather conditions and be 'flexible' enough to respond to it. One has to work on one's mind (values and emotions).

Sunday, March 04, 2012

If you can get accurate and timely feedback, it is enough to keep ahead in your career

Feedback is critical for learning and growth. A good quality feedback itself is enough to constantly improve one's skill and talent. If you want to see how, observe any sportsman.

Sportsmen constantly improve their performance with accurate and timely feedback because the quality of feedback in their work - playing tennis, cricket or football - is very good: timely, objective, context-independent.When the batsman in a cricket is told that his performance is 'poor', there is no doubt about it in the minds of batsman because the feedback is objective (he has scored consistently low in last three innings), seen immediately after the event and largely independent of context.

Having accepted that the performance is 'poor', the batsman takes the next logical step: 'find' an option out of multiple options that will 'improve' his performance by either correcting his 'technical' faults or 'mind' faults. His technical faults could be his awkward batting stance, his so-called strength of playing cut shots, or avoiding short balls. If he performs well in the next game ( even without correcting his fault) he is retained and can get an additional chance to rectify his fault. If he performs poorly, he is dropped. Although the system is very harsh on poor performance, it looks fair because it is transparent.


Why is it difficult to get accurate feedback in knowledge work

On the other hand, corporate professionals working in medicine, law, engineering, software or management find it difficult to improve their performance, because the quality of feedback in their knowledge work is very poor: it is delayed, subjective, and context-dependent. When my boss tells me that "My performance is poor in sales", feedback is confusing because it is delayed  (typically it is given after a year), subjective ( you are not aggressive enough) and context-dependent ( even objective-looking sales performance depends on various contexts: was the territory given to be tougher than others, was my budget inadequate in my area, or was the distributor  in my territory new, ...)

Because the performance is so dependent on context, I do not know that I have performed poorly in the first place. You will find many smart corporate professionals who use this feedback-characteristic of knowledge work to their benefit: they always manage to find other situations to blame their poor performance. They learn to manage perceptions.

But if I truly want to improve my work-performance, i do not know 'if I have performed poorly because of my lack of skill' or ' if I have not adjusted with the changing situation in my job' or if the 'situation required external support for me to perform'. I am stuck up because of poor feedback quality. Further, as I am prone to defend myself, i am more than likely to blame 'outside situations' and 'boss' for poor performance. If I find good reasons to blame bosses and colleagues, I stop taking feedback from them, even if they could be right. I stop believing that anyone is giving me good feedback. And that stops my learning completely. My performance cannot be improved easily now!

Because the feedback quality in knowledge work is poor and opaque, I start believing that the corporate system is unfair and stop doing anything to improve my work-performance! Instead I rely on something which I never wanted to do in the first place, manage perceptions!

Suggestions in obtaining quality feedback to improve your work-performance

If you wish to avoid blaming the corporate field, it is imperative that you learn to get feedback on your knowledge work. Here are five suggestions:

1. Get feedback on your behaviour, not on your attitude or thinking

We can see other's behaviour, not their thinking. Similarly, others can see our behaviour and not our thinking. This makes it imperative that you must get feedback to your actions, and not your thoughts.

Therefore, please take feedback on your actions, not on how you are thinking. For instance, please ask others 'what action did you think i performed wrongly'. Even if they tell you that 'you were not committed', ask them 'what actions of mine made you think i was not committed'. If they say, 'you were not prepared', ask them 'what actions of mine made you think that i was not prepared'. Learn to steer their feedback from 'interpretation of your thought' to 'action/behaviour'.

By restricting the feedback to actions, you ensure that the feedback is accurate and not subjective. Once you get the feedback on your actions, then you can 'review your thoughts' to correct yourself. For instance, if others are interpreting your 'action of early-leaving of office' as your lack of commitment, you appreciate that your thoughts are not in tune with the outside reality and 'recalibrate' your thoughts. This will give you important guidelines on how others 'interpret' your actions. This itself is an important feedback for you !

2. Always try to get feedback on the event soon after the event

In organisations, the feedback sessions are conducted once in a year. This kind of feedback is not useful to improve your performance, because one is rarely able to recollect the actions that have happened a fortnight or a month back. This becomes too 'generic' a feedback.

Instead, concentrate on getting feedback after an 'event'. Feedback becomes useful only if it is taken immediately after the event, say in a day or two. After a delay, one tends to give feedback on 'impressions' and 'memory'. This kind of feedback is not very helpful in improving your performance.

In sales situations, for instance, the feedback is ideal if taken after a closure of sales cycle. For other functions, feedbacks should be taken immediately after critical events are over: such as crash delivery done in short time, or after an important damage control event was conducted, or after an important presentation was done for a client, or when external events like audit are conducted. If no other option is available, feedback at the end of month is still helpful.

3. Get feedback on the event from the people who are involved in the event 

Always get feedback from the people involved in the event.  Bosses are ideal for getting feedback, but not all bosses are 'good' in providing objective feedback !It is therefore useful to get feedback from colleagues working in your group or working in another group with whom you interact.

I have a friend who gets feedback from his family members every 3 months in a very 'formal' manner. Every quarter, he asks his wife, for instance and asks her three questions, "What do you think i did wrong in last three months",  'what behaviour could have been better' , and 'What behaviour changes you would like to see'. He never 'justifies' or 'refutes' the wife's statements or conclusions. He only asks, if required, for clarifications such as "What actions of mine made you think that i do not care about your health". I find this is a very good method of getting good feedback as well as keeping your close relationships healthy! Although this is an example from outside the work, it is a good example of how feedbacks should be taken.

4. Talk with the best performer in the company to unravel the 'context' of your work

The right person to provide you feedback on your work is the best performer in your company, industry or someone whom you know ( even though he is not from your industry). If you are a sales officer, find the best sales officer in your company to talk to. If you are an investment analyst, find the best investment analyst to talk. If you are a production engineer, find the best production engineer to talk.

If possible, work with best performer for a time being, and observe his/her actions closely, whether it is programming or cooking. Ask specific questions to these performers such as 'I am finding difficulty in closing sales calls. What should i do', or ' I often work late to complete my work'. Asking specific questions help you diagnose the root cause quickly.

Or use these rules of excellent performers to improve !

5. Talk with a good external coach to 'sort' out the interdependency of the contexts 

In a corporate management job, there are too many contexts to 'peel out' to find how are you really doing. As we have seen earlier, a corporate job has very high variety due to three contextual mixups: function, domain and managerial contexts. This makes it very difficult to isolate them individually and determine 'what you are doing wrong' in your work. This first phase of diagnosis is itself very daunting.

A 'credible and trustworthy' coach is therefore not only useful but also necessary to help you sort out wheat from chaff if you are seriously interested in improving your work-performance. He can help you  perform an accurate diagnosis that can make a big difference to your performance in work !

What are you doing to improve your performance in knowledge work? Because, if you are not doing anything, you have to either depend heavily on perception management or adopt a victim  ( what can i do?) mentality to survive in corporate field.