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Comfort Zones May 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Last summer, I had the opportunity to watch a group of Boy Scouts go through a high-ropes team building exercise.  Beyond the fun of watching boys climb 50 feet in the air with nothing more than a safety rope hooked to their waist, I learned a clever trick about comfort zones.

High-ropes courses are all about getting out of your comfort zone.  I am very comfortable on the ground, enjoying the combination of gravity and my feet firmly planted on the earth.  Climbing a 40-foot ladder comprised solely of five planks at eight-foot intervals took me way out of my zone, to the point of near-frozen, knee-shaking fear at the top.  But I did it, and I’m better for it, if only to avoid embarrassment in front of 13-year-olds who scrambled to the top like monkeys.

There was a more subtle comfort zone that was shattered five minutes into the day.  When we arrived, the instructors asked the boys to pair up.  As you would expect, they found their best friends and quickly formed twosomes.  She then asked them to each assume a character, either SpongeBob or Patrick (remember the audience here).  They did so.  She then gathered all the SpongeBobs into one group, and all the Patricks into another.  One group headed to the ropes course, and the other to another exercise.

In one deft motion she separated every boy from his best friend! For the rest of the day, the boys worked without the comfort of their buddy, opening them to social opportunities they would never have had.  They still had fun, accomplished things, and grew a bit.  But they did it with a little more risk and became more open to partnering with others throughout the day.

I was so impressed by this trick that I asked the leader about it.  She shared that they had choices for any number of groups.  Need groups of three? Team them in trios and then ask them to become one of the Three Stooges.  Foursomes? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And so forth.  They had learned that boys know how to game the “count off” trick, positioning their best friends “n” people away to make sure they stayed together.  The character game took them by surprise, before they could figure out how to thwart the leader’s intent.

As adults, we probably won’t be asked to become a cartoon character (I’d pick SpongeBob, FYI). But, boy, do we need to be broken up and moved out of our social comfort zones!  How many times do you arrive at a networking event and look for the familiar faces?  I’m guilty of this, and I really enjoy working a room and getting to meet new people.  For the less gregarious among us, breaking out to meet strangers is a difficult exercise.

How many opportunities do we miss for fear of breaking away from our comfortable friends?  There is such value in meeting new people, expanding our horizons, and finding ways to help others.  Our reluctance to engage a stranger costs us so much.  As adults, we are supposed to know better and not require outside intervention to make us do the right thing.  Yet we still revert to old behaviors, rooted deep in our psyches.

We all own this problem.  At your next event, acknowledge the familiar faces and turn away to meet the strangers.  If your friends chase you down, gently aim them at others as well.  You may have to write “SpongeBob” on your name tag to make your point, but it will be worth the effort.

Social Simulation May 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Computer simulation is a powerful tool, refined over decades to give engineers unparalleled ability to test and verify designs before bringing them to physical fruition. Simulation is also used to explore all sorts of scenarios that can’t be brought to life: weather, nuclear reactions, global warming. But there is a cautionary adage in the simulation world: Be careful; if you do it long enough, you start to think it’s the real thing.

And so it is with social media. We like to think that tools like Facebook and Twitter allow us to develop real relationships with people we otherwise would not have met. And while we can get real value by interacting with people via these tools, it is a far cry from a real relationship. Like simulation, don’t begin to think that exchanging tweets, however well-intentioned, is the real thing.
This came home to me at the Microsoft CIO Summit a few weeks ago. The Summit affords IT executives a chance to share advice, learn about new things, and generally commiserate. I always enjoy the opportunity to meet new CIOs and build new relationships.

While socializing, I realized that I was learning more about these people in a two minute chance encounter than I would in a month of tweets. While there was value in the words we exchanged, the rich context of the engagement provided all sorts of clues about the real person behind the data stream. How did they shake hands? Are they dressed neatly? Do they hold my gaze or look away? How do they laugh? Do they talk a lot or a little? Do I get a “good feeling” about them?

Your brain is the most advanced pattern matching device ever developed. It takes thousands of data bits and instantly makes decisions that dramatically affect how you feel about someone. Your mom was right: first impressions are lasting. When you meet someone, you are matching them against every interaction, good or bad, you’ve ever had and making a judgment. We call it intuition, and most people trust these impressions.

Social media strips away 99% of this data, leaving your brain with very few data elements to work with. I suspect that we fill in the gaps with optimistic values, leading to better impressions of our social media peers than might otherwise be warranted. Social media is to a real, in-person encounter like Morse code is to HD television. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth to get a good feel for the other person.

That isn’t to say that our social media friends aren’t good people (especially all of mine). But it is easy to start believing that social media is enough to sustain a good relationship. Like simulation, it is easy to start thinking that it is the real thing.

Perhaps we need to think about social media as a place to start a relationship. One started, we need to use traditional tools like meeting and speaking to build on that beginning. As the relationship grows, social media enhances the experience instead of supplanting it. Here’s a novel idea: pick one person that you’ve met through Twitter or Facebook and (gasp) call them. If they live close enough, meet them for coffee. Have a high-bandwidth encounter and see what it does for the relationship. I bet we’ll all be better off for it.

How Big Is Too Big? December 15, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking.
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I’ve been using LinkedIn for a long time, at least six or seven years.  In that time, I’ve accumulated 270 links in my network.  In all but a few cases, I know each person, why I linked to them, and what relationship I currently have with them.  Certainly, some links are stronger and more robust than others, but they all were created from an initial meeting of some sort that justified the connection.

Some people are compelled to collect links and compete to see who has the most.  Some of these people even include their link counts in their LinkedIn account names, as a sort of badge of honor.  I’ll confess: I do not understand this behavior, beyond some natural desire to compete and win at something.  Certainly, the network that results from this kind of link-hunting is effectively useless.

Network connections have value because you leverage the trust relationship for a mutual benefit.  That might be some advice, or a job reference, or a quick answer to a question.  You know to whom to turn in your network because you actually know these people and know what they can offer.  My recent post on “knowing who knows” expands on this.

When requests are sent to me through my network, I know that I can trust them and deal with them with some level of confidence.  The original goal of LinkedIn was to replicate the traditional face-to-face business network with its semi-formal model of introductions and references.  That whole practice only works when knowledge and trust is part of the network.  If you don’t know the person at the other end of the connection, the interaction is worthless.

I routinely ignore requests to connect with people I don’t know.  No offense intended, but my network is valuable to me.  That value is diluted when anonymous connections begin to accumulate.  Honestly, my rejection improves the quality of the requestor’s network for the same reason: if they don’t know me, why would they want to trust me?

I feel sorry for those link hunters that you see on LinkedIn.  Their network is worthless, and everyone else (except for the other link hunters) knows it.

There is far more value in a small, carefully maintained network than in a large, unkempt one.  Guard your network closely and grow it carefully.  You’ll reap the benefits for years to come, and its value will grow immensely over time.

Know Who Knows November 24, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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1 comment so far

Early in my career, I worked with two mathematicians who had been in computing since the very beginning.  They had all these great stories about using Fortran for the first time, and drum memory, and mercury delay lines.  They were brilliant and eccentric and were both named George.  George Haynam was called “George” and George Petznick was called “GP” just to avoid confusion.

The neat thing about either George was that they did not immediately know the answer to most mathematical questions.  Instead, they knew how to derive the answer from first principles.  Once, I asked GP for the formula for standard deviation.  He stood up at his blackboard (a real blackboard with chalk and dust) and, recalling that the standard deviation is just the square root of the variance integrated about the center of mass of the sample space, quickly derived the discrete formula.  Simple!  The running joke in the department was that the Georges could figure out anything, starting with f=ma.

This all came back to me recently as I was discussing aspects of successful leaders.  I pointed out that, in most cases, I don’t need to know the answer to something.  I just need to know who knows, so I can get the answer from them.  If my network is robust and current, and I surround myself with people smarter than me (very easy to do), the “know who knows” model always works.

This is true for everyone, of course, but I don’t think we coach our teams to value and use this trick.  Instead, we have lots of people on our teams who try to be cowboys, singlehandedly trying to know everything and solve everything.  As they move up the management chain and realize they can’t know everything, they begin to adopt the “know who knows” approach.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to learn this lesson.  Some people never do.

People at every level can dramatically increase their value by developing their network of “people who know things” along with their collection of “things they know themselves.”  The sum of both parts is substantially larger than everything they can hope to know, but that lesson isn’t learned right away.

As effective leaders, we need to explicitly teach this lesson to our people and offer opportunities for them to build their networks of “people who know.”  Social tools help, of course, but so do real social interactions with experts: training, conferences, seminars, etc.  Force your people to engage others as they solve problems, and show them how to fall back on their networks early in the problem-solving process, not as a last resort.  That lesson, learned early, can make a huge difference in the course of a career.

A High-Contact, Low-Touch World November 10, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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All these social networking tools are supposed to increase our interaction and communication with other people. For long-distance relationships, this is certainly true: I am sharing thoughts and ideas with people that I otherwise would never interact with on a regular basis.  From that perspective, social tools are improving those relationships and bringing depth and detail that would otherwise escape me.

For those folks that I see every day, tools like Twitter and Yammer can paradoxically create distance where it didn’t previously exist.  A coworker recently complained about this, pointing out that Yammer offers yet another way for people to hide in their office and text to each other, avoiding real, live conversations.  She’s absolutely right, and I don’t quite know how to solve the problem.

On the one hand, the message stream that is captured and shared by Yammer and Twitter is really useful, and allows many people to experience a single train of thought as it occurs.  On the other hand, people really need to look at each other and engage in actual interaction, as messy as it might be.

Sadly, the introverted world of IT makes this worse.  I am in the distinct, tiny minority of IT professionals that are extroverted.  Sometimes, I think the “I” in IT stands for “introverted.”  The synthetic, predictable world of computers provides a safe haven for those who are shy and allows those folks to succeed without ever developing some really important communication skills. Don’t misunderstand: many talented introverts achieve great success in IT, and that’s a good thing.  Were they to be thrust into sales or marketing, it would be painful and counter-productive.  The wardrobe errors alone would be overwhelming.

Nonetheless,  providing tools to these introverts that allow them to further withdraw and still be successful may be a mistake.  Teams succeed by communicating.  Good communication involves more than 140 characters of text and should include body language, voice tone, and facial expressions.  The elimination of direct engagement first began when people began hiding behind email and later learned how to use voice mail and call screening to their advantage.  The latest tools make it even easier to avoid other people and still get work done.

As leaders, and extroverted ones at that, we need to recognize that this is happening and force people to engage.  I will sometimes intervene when I see an email chain go on for too long and insist that the communicants actually gather and meet.  I also have a stock question when someone comes to me to complain about someone else: “Have you discussed this with this person?”  The first step to solving problems is to talk about them, and we need to gently encourage people to do this, in spite of the cool tools that tempt us otherwise.