The 90% Preparation Principle

Forgive me for I have fibbed. At the end of the last post when I said I didn’t know how to build team chemistry. The post was plenty long and I needed to pull the plug.

One of the secrets to building team chemistry is the 90% prep principle. Any residential painter worth her weight will tell you painting is 90% prep. Come on, there’s some female house painters out there aren’t there? The 90% prep principle is why, when our crib needs painting, I write a check. Inadequate patience. But I digress.

The best elementary teachers apply the 90% prep principle at start of the school year. They figure, “Even if it takes around 10 days to build a sense of community and teach the rules and procedures, we’ll accomplish far more than we otherwise would over the remaining 170 days.” Visit a local elementary school at the beginning of the year and you’ll likely see some expert teachers calmly saying to their students, “Nope. Try again.” And then watch the students return to their seats and line up table-by-table for recess or lunch a second, third, and maybe fourth time. Equal parts firmness and kindness.

In the same spirit, the best leaders take time when their teams are first formed to build community and establish decision-making norms. Community building, of course, can take many forms, but the common thread is team members getting to know one another better. Horizontals embrace community building activities more than Verts. Very early on, agreed upon expectations and decision making processes are made explicit.

Savvy leaders know that maintaining team chemistry requires ongoing community building activities, whether shared meals, celebrations, or retreats. They also know decision-making norms need to be revisited on occasion. They know their team’s success depends upon members genuinely respecting one another.

Families, athletic teams, theater troupes, church councils, school faculty, government agencies, and multinational corporations that consciously build community and spell out decision-making norms enjoy greater espirit de corps, and experience far less in-fighting, complaining, and malaise. Consequently, they’re more productive.

There’s an alternative that lots of teams revert to, ignore community building and decision making norms and hope and pray the common work is engrossing enough that people get along just well enough, just long enough to finish the work. Like running on a balance beam on fire. Run fast enough and you might just get to the end without getting burned or falling off.

And now my friends I bring teamwork week to an end with some self-disclosure. I’m most often a Horizontal; however, not when travel planning with the GalPal. How can I put this so that she keeps taking trips with me? Her travel decision making process is a tad bit drawn out for even me. When having to decide on destinations, dates, modes of transpo, departure-arrival-return times, etc., I transform into a Vertical. When it comes to group decision-making, we’re all probably switch hitters of sorts.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Why is Team Chemistry So Elusive?

Why do so many married couples divorce? Why are so many homeowners’ associations riddled with conflict? Why do so many parents involved in youth sports organizations butt heads with one another? And why is group decision-making so problematic for school faculty and other workplace teams?

Because everyone of us brings imperfect interpersonal skills to our teams. Multiply my social shortcomings and quirks with yours and the next women’s and the next guy’s and it doesn’t take long to understand why positive team chemistry and enlightened group decision making is so elusive. Every team of two or more are dysfunctional in different ways and to varying degrees.

Also, every team has an uneven mix of what I refer to as “Vertical” and “Horizontal” members. Verticals have little patience for processing others’ feelings, talking through differences of opinion, and consensual decision-making. They’re often quite comfortable with someone above them making unilateral decisions. In contrast, Horizontals prefer consensual decision making and the sometimes extended discussions they require. They’re sensitive to other members feelings and often distrust superiors to make unilateral decisions.

When a couple, community group, or workplace suffers challenges that result in hurt feelings, Verticals emphasize focusing on the present and “just getting back to work”. Before returning to work, Horizontals feel compelled to work through what went wrong and attend to team members’ hurt feelings. Trying to negotiate these different orientations becomes another challenge in and of itself.

So every team member is screwed up in his/her own way. And eventually, crises put extraordinary pressure on the team’s decision-making processes. Then some team members want to talk things through, others don’t, and those different perspectives add fuel to the fire. Is it any wonder that lot’s of couple’s divorce, the CIA and the FBI don’t get along, and some work environments turn toxic?

And there’s more. Many teams—whether couples, community organizations, or workplaces—aren’t nearly thoughtful or intentional enough about fostering understanding of one another’s unique contributions to the team effort and the mutual respect that engenders. Instead, a mutual sense of being misunderstood and under-appreciated spreads.

Add to that the fact that teams rarely, if ever, build in time to talk openly and honestly about decision-making processes. Which the Verticals are cool with, but not the Horizontals. For the Horizontals, when there’s little to no opportunity to reflect on decision making processes and surface the occasional hurt feelings, meeting fatigue sets in.

These multi-faceted challenges often overwhelm teams’ collective interpersonal skills. Which results in more resentment. Team members succumb to passive-aggressive behavior, not talking in meetings but complaining bitterly out of them, and walk around with invisible backpacks on, into which they repeatedly stuff hurtful exchanges from the near and distant past. Eventually, in the interest of self-preservation, they retreat to their own corner, cubicle, classroom, office. Making team chemistry even more elusive.

And now I should probably do what all bloggers are supposed to do if they want to grow their readership—help readers. Instead of bullshitting you though, I’m going to be honest. On this Sunday evening, my insights into team chemistry and decision-making dysfunction greatly exceeds my feel for promising fixes.

But I know for a fact that some of you are team leaders who know more about building and maintaing team chemistry than I do. And some of you are members of healthy teams who can offer helpful suggestions on how to maintain team chemistry—whether a couple, a small organization, or a ginormous company. Your turn.

And God said, “Thou Shalt Get Good Grades”

College bound secondary students do a fantastic job of internalizing parents’, teachers’, and college counselors’ expectations that they earn “A’s” on everything, do well on their college entrance exams, and participate in endless extracurricular activities. Wired to seek their parents’ approval, they acquiesce to a college admission committee full court press.

Parents of college bounders pay little attention to whether their children are curious, interested in ideas, and acting ethically in school. Given good grade mania, it’s unsurprising that most college bounders cut serious corners as a recent New York Times headline detailed in an article titled, “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception.” A more accurate headline would have read “Studies Find More Students Cheating, Especially High Achievers.”

Parents of college bounders let their economic anxiety get the best of them and their children. They worry about whether their children will get into a good college, earn a degree, and find and keep a job that pays a livable wage and provides health benefits. Parent pleasing, achievement oriented students learn that school is a competition for good grades. Making sure one gets mostly “A’s” justifies all sorts of shortcuts including copying other’s work; befriending teachers as insurance in case of borderline grades; cheating on exams; and getting their parents to do their work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A more humane alternative is to talk about academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives. We need to challenge and encourage young people to imagine themselves as doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, engineers, plumbers, business owners, and field biologists. People for whom considerable knowledge; communication, technical, and interpersonal skills; and character matter far more than one’s grade point average.

Forget being an “A” student. Instead, pay close attention and work really hard in school today so that five, ten, fifteen years from now you’re the best doc, teacher, nurse, social worker, engineer, plumber, business owner, or field biologist as possible. And thereby touch more people’s lives in more substantive ways.

Academic transcripts communicate little if anything about whether students are developing increasing self-understanding and an emerging sense of purpose, nor do they reveal what skills students are developing. And I’ve never seen an academic transcript that communicated whether or not students are fulfilling their potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Fight the power of good grade mania by framing academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives and agitate for much more revealing academic transcripts.

Stop Trying to Control Things Outside of Your Control

William Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, explains we’re susceptible to negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy because of our evolutionary programming. Each of those negative emotions increased our earliest ancestors’ odds of survival, so overtime, they became engrained in us. For example, early humans who weren’t afraid of lions were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. Similarly, those that didn’t worry incessantly about having enough to eat were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

Irvine explains the good news. Since we can reason, we can understand our evolutionary predicament and take conscious steps to at least partially escape it. For example, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. We need to learn to “misuse” our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes us susceptible to negative emotions.

In short, Stoics pursue tranquility. The major impediment to tranquility is our evolutionary programming. Tranquility and inner joy is achieved by “misusing our reasoning ability” via repeated practice at using specific Stoic psychological techniques.

For example, we must overcome our evolutionary tendency to worry by determining which things we can’t control. Irvine labels this the “trichotomy of control.” Once we identify those things we have no control over, we can use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties related to those things. Doing that improves one’s chances of gaining tranquility. To better understand the trichotomy of control, take a piece of paper, and using a ruler or folding it, make three columns. Label the first “absolutely no control”, the second, “total control”, and the third “some control”. It’s easy to quibble with “absolutely” and “total”, but work with me.

Here are some possible items for each column just to get your wheels turning. No control—the weather, the eventual death of loved ones, our own gradual physical decline, and how fast a competitor might show up at your next race. Total control—to eat nutritious food, to exercise daily, to get adequate sleep, to marry or not, to have children or not, to vote or not, to wear boxers or briefs. Some control—to shape your children’s values, to reduce your commute, to make your work environment more pleasant, to protect the environment.

It doesn’t take long into this exercise to realize the lines between the columns should probably be dotted since there’s often blurring. Not as fancy sounding, but a continuum of control would be better than Irvine’s “trichotomy”. The whole point is to learn to let go of everything that makes up the “no control” anxiety-producing end of the chart or continuum. Accept the fact that if you live in the Pacific Northwest it’s going to be overcast for seven or eight months of the year. And there’s going to be an incessant light rain for those seven or eight months. I originally wrote, “incessant, annoying light rain,” but that’s the exact point. Only things we have some or a lot of control over should have the potential to annoy us.

One last example of learning to let go of those things beyond one’s control. One night last week I asked Seventeen what she was swimming in the meet the next day. “The 50 and 100 free I think.” Internal dialogue. “What?! That’s what the beginners swim. That’s embarrassing for a fourth-year co-captain.” Actual response, “Really?!”

Parenting fail. She could feel my disappointment. In a bathtub (too much information too late alert) partially filled with very warm water, I replayed our brief exchange in my mind. I realized I could give in to negative emotions and be frustrated that she doesn’t approach high school athletics they way I did or the way I think others should or I could recognize that she’s an independent young adult who can choose not to train until the season and who thinks of athletics first and foremost as another way of having fun with friends.

It doesn’t matter whether she swims a slow 50 or a fast 500. Positive parenting rests upon unconditional love. Post bath I attempted a recovery. “I’m really looking forward to watching you swim the 50 and 100 tomorrow afternoon.” “Good!” she said in a way that communicated forgiveness. All was well with Seventeen. And the world.

How to Live?

That’s the question my writing students and I are focusing on this semester. I can’t think of a better age to craft a philosophy of life. Most of them are on their own for the first time in their lives. Having to make many, many more decisions by themselves and find their way.

William Irvine, philosophy professor and modern day Stoic, argues you’re likely to waste your life away without a well thought through philosophy of life. Here’s his argument.

You have three choices in how to live. One is “unenlightened hedonism” in which you thoughtlessly seek short-term gratification. Think Faber College, 1962.

A second is “enlightened hedonism” in which you seek to maximize pleasure in the course of your lifetime. People practicing this philosophy of life will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. Then they’ll devise strategies for maximizing pleasure.

Regarding hedonism, Irvine writes, “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability.” He adds, “There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.”

But I digress. The third and final choice in how to live is to carefully think through what you most want out of life and then organize your life accordingly. Not the goals you form as you live day-to-day, but one “grand goal in living”. Of the many goals in life you might pursue, which one do you believe to be most valuable?

Most people have trouble naming their grand goal in living because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about such things. Instead, it provides an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. To their credit, some people swim against the stream of distractions by journaling, taking digital sabbaticals, enrolling in my writing seminar, and going on silent retreats.

If determining a grand goal of living isn’t challenging enough already, it’s only half the battle. The other half is developing effective strategies for attaining it. These strategies will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life you take to be of most value.

This is where Irvine says Christian pastors and the ancient Stoics differ. Most Christian pastors, Irvine argues, focus on what people must do to have a good afterlife. Pastors, he says, have far less to say about what people must do to have a good life. That’s why, he notes, it’s tough to distinguish among the religious and non-religious.

For his own philosophy of life, Irvine chose to update Roman Stoicism for modern times. Stoics claim that many of the things we desire—most notably fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they developed strategies for achieving tranquility and inner joy by eliminating negative emotions like anger, grief, anxiety, fear, and envy.

Eight years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I took time to write a guiding paragraph that I can’t find anymore in my computer files. I can remember most of it, but it’s okay I misplaced it, because it’s time to update it. And then reference it way more regularly.

If your curious about my philosophy of life, just eavesdrop on me as I live my day-to-day life. Because actions, of course, speak louder than words.

Apple Inc. and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Big week for Apple fanboys and girls. New iPhone. You better keep up with all the cool people and buy one. It will change your life. Well, maybe not, but you’ll be the envy of all those iPhone 4 losers. “Wow dude,” you can say to them, “that’s one short, thick, throwback phone.”

A recent book by two Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporters titled, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” criticizes Apple for outsourcing too many of its jobs. Here’s a National Public Radio story on the authors and their book.

Even though I’m an Apple fanboy and investor, I believe the bigger the company and the greater its influence in the world, the more we should hold it accountable for being transparent, honoring workers’ rights, and protecting the environment. Apple’s marketing, products, and momentum can bedazzle at the expense of critical inquiry.

I’ve been swapping emails with my friend—Dan, Dan, the Transportation Man—about driverless cars. The last one I sent him linked to an article that suggested, initially at least, driverless cars will cost around $300k. “Just do what Apple does” he wrote back sarcastically, “and outsource it (the manufacturing of the driverless car) to China.”

In the United States, especially during election season, knee-jerk criticism of outsourcing is legion. Few of the critics take any time to consider how much more they’d have to pay for their toothbrushes, clothes, iPads, bicycles, and cars if they were all completely manufactured in the United States. Heaven for bid if we connected a few dots.

In their critique of Apple, I wonder whether the “Betrayal” authors factor in the daily benefits of its products to users around the world. I made light of the newest iPhone, but you’d have to pry my MacBook Pro from my cold dead fingers.

Also, outsourcing is an abomination only when economic nationalism prevails. It’s possible, theoretically at least, to think more globally without sacrificing love of country, and therefore, to cheer job growth irrespective of political borders. Especially given global economic interconnectedness and the fact that most of Apple’s foreign-based employees buy some U.S. imports.

The authors would chuckle at my naivete. They’d point out we continue to run a tremendous trade deficit with China because international trade is conducted on a grossly uneven playing field. China has far fewer labor and environmental regulations, pays workers far less (even when adjusted for cost of living), and places protective tariffs on our imports. The uneven nature of the international trade playing field is a pressing problem.

But I wonder what the authors would say about the charitable giving the GalPal and I will be doing the next few years as a result of recently selling some Apple shares that had quadrupled over the last four years.

For me, the jury is still out on what kind of corporate citizen Apple is. I value critical analyses, but at present, I will continue to use its products and invest in it. I am not a model to follow. Apple’s fate will be determined by the individual and collective decision-making of technology users around the world.

For cutting edgers like me, there’s just one decision left. A black or white iPhone 5?

Young People and Anxiety

Recent research suggests that as many as 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives, this means that up to 5 people in a typical 30 person class may be living with anxiety, whether that be OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), social anxiety and shyness, exam stress, worry or panic attacks.

That’s borrowed from this excellent overview on young people and anxiety.

And carve out eight minutes to watch this moving and educational documentary about a rookie professional basketball player who suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.