Monday, August 29, 2011

The warning signs that you are pushing for an unwarranted change

Seth Godin has an excellent blog called "The warning signs of defending the status quo."  It's good and I agree with everything in it.

But I find it interesting that the rather obvious assumption is that defending the status quo is wrong--something that deserves a warning. Often the existing state of affairs is a desirable state--that's why it is the status quo.

So I did a little Zen thing where you contradict your assumptions to shake yourself up a bit. Here are some of Seth's warning signs in their original (in italics) and then in their contrary form.

When confronted with a new idea do you:

  • Consider the cost of switching before you consider the benefits? Consider the fun of switching before you consider the costs?
  • Highlight the pain to a few instead of the benefits for the many? Highlight the benefit to a few instead of the pain for the many?
  • Exaggerate how good things are now in order to reduce your fear of change? Exaggerate how bad things are now in order to instigate a change?
  • Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people behind the change? Undercut the credibility, authority or experience of people who support  the status quo?
  • Grab onto the rare thing that could go wrong instead of amplifying the likely thing that will go right? Grab onto the rare thing that goes wrong with the status quo instead of amplifying the many things that go right?
  • Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits, because the short-term is more vivid for you? Focus on short-term benefits instead of long-term costs, because the short-term is more fun for you?
  • Etc, etc. I'll let you do the rest if you want.
Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against change. I just don't have anything against the status quo either.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What to do when you screw up

I screwed up at work. Details are not important. We all screw up in a number of ways: We make a bad decision, we behave poorly, or we just make a mistake ("Hmmm, it was such a small change, who would have thought it would have taken the entire stage environment down"), etc.

So you're telling me icebergs are bad things?

However you get there, you find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of having caused a problem and now having some degree of scrutiny coming at you. There are three ways you can handle it (hint: two of them are not good):
  • Aggressively snap back. "I wouldn't have made the mistake in the first place if so and so hadn't done such and such."
  • Get all passive and pouty. "Fine, I'll just do exactly like I'm told, Now, exactly, how do you want me to do my job?"
  • Take the beating and move on.
 I would never advocate deliberately making a mistake, but the truth is that mistakes can have an upside. People will watch how you handle yourself. When I used to play golf, I would occasionally land in the sand trap. So do the pros. The difference is that it would take me three strokes to get out and my exit shot generally landed on another fairway. Pros get out in one shot and put it next to the hole.

The aggressive reaction will be your first and instinctive one. Find something to distract you for 24 hours until it passes. Updating your resume is a good activity for a number of reasons. For one, it restores your self-esteem. It can also come in handy if it turns out that this was a really really major screw up.

When the aggressive reaction passes, you slip into the passive one. Have a drink and keep reminding yourself that this is a much bigger deal to you than it is to them. Go back to work with a bounce in your step.

Then take the beating. Admit the screw up, have a recovery plan, and get back to business. Do something visible that shows you have moved on and you are back in the saddle. It's better if that something is unrelated to the screw up. Something that establishes "Storm's moved on, nothing to see here."

Just like golf, people remember the recovery stroke that lands in the hole, not the slice that got you into the sand trap.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Notes from a Grammar Anarchist

I've been involved in some grammar conversations lately, and I have been reading some recent articles about grammar in Twitter posts. It has reminded me that I am the opposite of a grammar Nazi, I am a grammar anarchist. Man, I am the Che Guevara of grammar!

I hold that as long as the communication is clearly understood, standing on points of grammar is hegemonic. By that I mean that we apply somewhat arbitrary rules as codes to tell "our kind" from "them." The power class assigns the concept of "correct" to their way of speaking and "wrong" to other dialects that identify someone as not being in the power group.

Easy example: the double emphatic negative in English. No one has ever been confused by a sentence like "I don't have no money," although many English teachers pretend to be. We in power have made the somewhat arbitrary decision not to use it (Spanish, on the other hand, includes it as part of its standard grammar) and we wield that rule to sort out those who do use it. There is usually a very slippery slope that gets attached to this: Different = Wrong = Uneducated = Unintelligent.

Let's take an example that might make us a little uncomfortable. Some people pronounce the word "ask" as "aks." This is often viewed as "wrong" by people who pronounce it as spelled, and the insinuation is that the one pronouncing it "aks" lacks education or sophistication.

Instead of branding it as wrong, let's describe it for what it is: it's called a metathesis, i.e., a "transposition, more especially of the letters, sounds, or syllables of a word." There are lots of them around. But if you are a member of the power class, your metathesis is deemed "how the word is pronounced."

Everyone I know who rails against "aks," blithely pronounces the day after Tuesday as "Wenzday" as if it were spelled Wendsday. But it is spelled Wednesday and should be pronounced Wed-nes-day. After all, the day is named after Woden, not Woned. BTW, Woned is the mythical husband of Wonelly and the two of them are the German deities who go around stopping mules.

So why is "our" Wenzday right and "their" aks is wrong? They're both just examples of a common language phenomenon of metathesis.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for speaking clearly and unambiguously, but grammar Nazis stop the conversation. Their corrections are more distracting than whatever aberration they might be attacking.

Bill: "This evening couldn't have been more perfect."
Mary: "You shouldn't modify an absolute--if something is perfect there is no way it could ever be more perfect. So will you call me tomorrow?"
Bill: "Uh, I think I'm leaving the country, yeah, I have to go on a secret mission and will be out of touch for about three years."

So here's my point: Language is pretty screwed up and is full of inconsistencies. We need to be careful when we brand our inconsistencies as "the way it is" and others as "that's wrong."

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Why did it take this long?

Getting old has its compensations for what it extracts from us. Case in point:

I did a demo yesterday of a mobile application we are about to release. The manager of the product management group was monitoring the chat during the demo and forwarded a comment to me over SameTime chat.

"One of the participants noted that the email follow-up icon was not intuitive and looked more like it would be to edit the ticket being displayed. Did you consider other icons, maybe something more intuitive like an envelope?

No action required, I'm just passing this along to you."

I started to respond that we wrestled a lot with the icon selection on that and eventually decided to use the standard mobile icon for email.

I then thought about explaining that icons are a crap shoot at best and that we would have some customer education to explain that entire feature.

Finally I responded:


Why did it take me so long to develop that communication skill?