Confessions of a good father

It’s time for a revolution in my house. I determined this recently on Father’s Day, which to me is largely a Hallmark holiday, so I have no real expectations for special treatment. Nonetheless, I woke to my two daughters arguing over something like, “Who’s better Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift?”  And it got me thinking about our life and what it means to be a father.  First, let me say that my kids are great. They are mostly kind and generous to each other, well mannered and respectful, and they pitch in to do their part to keep our family on track.  So let me be clear that I’m not in any way implicating them in this idea.

I think by most standards, my wife and I would be judged as a good parents.  Our kids behave as well or better than other kids we know (most of the time).  We know about sibling rivalry and we have some pretty good coping skills in place.  We’ve seen Babies and know that kids will fight over rocks and sticks even if they don’t have the abundant array of things we have.  Our kids get plenty of sleep and have a well balanced diet full of super foods (but ice cream is more a rule than an exception).  We’re not as strict as the Tiger Mom, but we’re pretty tough with our family rules and deliver consequences at least as well as Mike and Carol Brady.  We certainly don’t have parenting all figured out, but our family journey has brought my wife and I closer together, as we are totally outnumbered by the kids.

That’s so seductive.  Really seductive.  I can pat myself on the back and feel great because I do so much for my kids.  But you know the old joke about how fast you have to run to get away from a bear?  (Faster than the other guy!).  This is an absolute problem, not a relative one.

How fast do you have to run to escape the bear?

My wife and I have worked diligently to provide a safe, stable, and stimulating environment for our kids.  But in doing so, I fear we’ve removed too much adversity and created a bubble in reality.  I worry that my kids are not sufficiently aware of how things work for the overwhelming majority of people in the world.  I hear constantly that great people are made by overcoming difficulties in their lives, yet when I look around our lives I don’t see any real difficulties.  That said, I certainly can’t say I grew up under tough circumstances.  My first 20 years were spent in a place akin to the town in Caddyshack,where I was more of a Danny than a Spaulding, but certainly not wanting for much.

My next 10 years were spent largely working in non-profit organizations, providing leadership and social skill building programs to “at risk” kids.  These kids were “at risk” of things like teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and not finishing school.  During that time, I learned to see the world through their eyes and I came to understand how lucky I was to have the privilege of a safe comfortable home with resourceful parents taking care of me.  When I met my wife we both agreed it was our top priority to create a happy home where our children could thrive, but now I’m struggling to make sense of the competing commitments of stability and adversity.

We can fabricate adversity. I played sports and went on outdoor adventures to test my limits.  I recently watched Lucky Ducks, where wealthy New York City mom Tracey Jackson feels much as I’ve described above, and decides to make amends.  She decides to create a film of her intervention, which consists of sending her daughter to India to teach street children instead of going to the beach for Spring Break.  Great premise, but in my opinion, she gets lost in her desire to create a hit indie film and comes off looking worse than when she started.  My least favorite scene is when she jets off to Montana to gather advice from a self described “Kid Whisperer” psychologist about how to help her daughter.  Ugh.

You can’t use the same thinking or resources that got you into the mess to get you out of it.  What got you here won’t get you there.  Etc. etc. This is not about fixing the kids or the family.  This revolution is about me.  What am I willing to change about my life to help my children get more grounded in reality?

The afternoon of Father’s Day, my daughter was sent to her room for somethingoranother and yelled back, “What am I supposed to do for food?”  I replied that she could go to bed without dinner.  Her response: “Fine, I’ll just starve to death!” (insert door slam here).  That was the last straw for me.  We waste more food at one meal in our house (and we’re pretty good at cleaning plates and managing portions) than some kids get in a whole day.

So this is my question… how can I create experiences where my kids will grow to see themselves in the context of the world and know better how to respect and appreciate their circumstances?

I don’t want drive-by, tourist observation experiences, I want something natural, reciprocal, and sustainable.  I don’t want this to be the kid’s problem (it’s mine).  I know this will be uncomfortable for me and my wife.  We have to adjust our own lives to make this happen.  It will mean we have to miss out on other things we’ve got built into our lives… perhaps sports, or Brownies, or a family vacation.  What a luxurious problem to have.

Your advice is welcome, I’ll keep you posted on our journey.



Make better decisions

There are some people who are naturally gifted at understanding a group vibe. These folks always seem to know the “right thing to do” and are often rewarded well for their savvy. And, kind of like the old LIFE cereal commercial, other people begin to depend on the few that have a sense of right and wrong for decisions.  When pondering a difficult decision they say, “Let’s get Mikey!” and run off to seek direction as if that one person really knows the answer by some divine right.

In this manner, many people rely on their boss for direction.  “We’d better get Jim’s input on this before we proceed!”  While Supervisor Jim may have a good sense of what won’t work, it’s doubtful that he will be able to provide much insight on some new idea or direction.  Of course his opinion matters and his experience helps, but he probably has no more perspective on a new situation than you (sometimes less).   This is a huge threat to innovation, because most controversial decisions are “kicked upstairs” and new ideas are almost always killed.

In reality, great decisions come from being connected to an appropriate set of stakeholders who provide diverse and independent input on a situation.

The magic 8-ball says…

A great boss should say, “Well, I’m not sure about this… who else have you asked?”  This attitude leads people to check things out more broadly before coming to a conclusion.  You’re probably thinking, sure I can ask a lot of people and get 20 different opinions, but I’ll still have 20 opinions… there’s no way to please everyone.  That might be true, but it’s no reason not to proceed.  Since we already know that deciding in a vacuum leads to bad decisions, how might we overcome the problem of having too many opinions?

Ask the Magic 8-ball! (this is a very retro post)  Not that Magic 8-Ball… create a new kind of organization chart that helps you magically determine who to ask and what to ask in order to get better decisions.  It works like this:

1. Clarify your question  (anything can be decided this way, from small to large issues).

2. Determine who cares about this issue (think broadly) or will be impacted by your decision (commonly known as stakeholders).

3. Gather their thoughts on the issue via a series of short 1-1 discussions (build an evolving, proposed solution as you move from person to person, and share it as you go).  This approach is better than a group meeting because it avoids group think or an information cascade that bias the outcome.

4. Test your proposal as you gather input (i.e. ask what they like/don’t like, how they would change it and assure them that you’ll share the “final” proposal before you move forward).

There are two valuable benefits of this approach:

1. You get better insight based on the various perspectives and independent reactions.

2. You build support for your issue as the stakeholders get better context and understand your constraints more deeply by participating in the process.

Here’s one way to chart your stakeholders.  Each “orbit” around you is an existing group (e.g. “sales team” or “senior leaders” or “women in our company”).  Use the orbit to help you identify specific individuals in each stakeholder group and test your breadth and diversity of input.  Tap the wisdom of this crowd by sampling a small set (2-3) of people from each orbit, for a total stakeholder group of  12-20 people.

An atomic organization chart

Stories create impact

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human interaction.  Consider what a storyteller looks like when presenting versus how someone looks when reporting the news or reading a report.  There’s emotion, action, passion.  Reports are dry and neutral.  Stories are alive and engaging. Steve Jobs is a master storyteller, and the photos of him presenting the new Apple iPad today demonstrate this well.

Kimberly White / Reuters

I’ve heard very few facts about the iPad.  Instead, I’ve heard this “magical device is a more intimate personal media experience.” Not a computer without a keyboard or an over-sized mobile phone.  These phrases might sound like “spin” if we didn’t believe the story teller to be authentic.  Perhaps many people are skeptical of Steve Jobs, and for them his story will not be compelling.  This is the challenge of incorporating stories into your everyday life.

How do you become more engaging and compelling without overdoing it and winding up as a spin-doctor?

Know your audience: Adjust what you emphasize depending on the needs of the people around you.  Consider the story of the Three Pigs.  When talking to a five year-old, you might point out the concrete details of how each house is constructed and inject humor into the interactions with the wolf.  But for a 10 year-old, you might focus on the symbolism of the big bad wolf and play up how big problems arise from misplaced priorities.  The characters, facts and sequence are the same, but the tone, tenor, and supporting elements are very different.  In either case, a neutral outline of the facts or PowerPoint bullets about what happened will leave an audience underwhelmed.

Understand your venue: Is it live? Email?  A blog?  Are you in a business or family setting?  Friends or colleagues?  Short or long-term relationships?  All of these factors should affect how you tell your story and what you say.  Do you have one chance to make an impression or will there be many days/weeks/months for someone to learn it?  I did not find a press release or message of any sort about the iPad on the Apple website today.  I learned about it weeks ago in a “leak” about what might come (foreshadowing) which created some buzz and speculation.  Then I saw the building on the news this morning and an interview from a national news show where it was mentioned.  Finally, it appeared on the Yahoo! home page as reported by someone who was there to hear the announcement.  This is great storytelling, it gets you curious and pulls you along, and leaves you wanting more.

Get to the point: All of the drama and craft in the world will be for nothing if there’s not a relevant “point” to your story.  In sales it’s called the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) statement you provide to answer your listener’s question.  Do you have a question to ask, something to teach, a request?  Your story should engage and inspire someone to act, so you need to be clear about how/what/when you want the action to occur.  Even stories used for entertainment (think movies, books, and songs) have a point.

Unless the point is to not have one, but that’s another story.

The toughest job

In our community of friends, my family is well known for a weird trait.  We put our kids to bed very early.  Not just very early, jaw-dropping early.  I give total and complete credit for this to my wife.  And, I used to subtly side with the sometimes curious, sometimes judgmental friends and family members who found our habit odd.  But not any more.  I’ve noticed over time how our routine has become a non-issue and our children usually go to sleep happily.

flickr photo by jose777i

flickr photo by jose777i

Some people look at us like we’re crazy, and say straight out that we were missing out on “quality time” with our kids in the evenings.  Some people express envy over the “couple time” we have in the evenings while the little ones are asleep.  Most say, “well, they must get up pretty early then, huh?”  Not really.  As we learned early, from Dr. Marc Weissbluth, “sleep begats sleep”.  Hard to imagine with an adult mind.

Did I say my wife is a genius?  It’s very counter-intuitive, and sometimes logistically an incredible challenge, but the discipline of getting our kids to bed at 5:00 PM is the only piece of parenting advice I’ll ever give.  That’s 5:00 until they are in Kindergarten, then up 30 minutes each year.   Our third-grader goes to bed at 6:30 most nights (a bit of a peer to peer issue!).

We are not militant in this approach; there are sleepovers and evening activities mixed into our routine.  But as a normal course of action, our kids go to bed an hour or two before most of their peers.

For me, this is the toughest job as a parent. Bedtime can be such a nightmare!  There’s always something else to do before bed, including such important things as homework and brushing of teeth.  But apparently every 10 minutes count.

Turns out, there’s a growing body of research indicating that serious public health issues and education performance issues are highly correlated with the loss of sleep over the past few decades.  That’s right, ADHD, obesity, and lower academic performance are highly correlated with a significant downward trend in sleep.

There are significant developmental processes that occur in a child’s brain and body that depend on long, uninterrupted sleep.  And this developmental stage lasts through adolescence.

Yet, only 5 percent of high school students get 8 hours of sleep, with the average being 6.5 hours per night, according to studies by Dr. Frederick Danner at the University of Kentucky.  This loss can be traced to higher automobile accident rates and a recent movement to start school later to give kids a chance to sleep longer.

According to leading sleep scholars like Dr. Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University loss of one hour of sleep is the equivalent to losing two years of cognitive maturation and development.  That means a slightly sleepy six-grader is performing in class like a fourth grader.

This is not an isolated finding, studies conducted by Brown University, Penn State, the University of Virginia, and the University of Minnesota all point to the same thing: loss of sleep has serious effects on children’s performance and health.

I know you want to see your kids at night, and I know they don’t seem that tired.  But when you are considering the best things you can do to help your kids succeed, or find yourself at school hearing about attention problems, or at the mall watching your fifth-grader behave like a 2 year old, perhaps you should reconsider your bedtimes.

Read more about this and other cool new insights about raising kids in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

The economics of discomfort

There’s a great post on CNET about the Future of Capitalism.  I won’t retell the whole thing here, but it provides a great answer to my previous post, If feedback is so great, why is it so hard? It’s not a direct answer, but see if this makes sense:  feedback is hard because it acknowledges that control of your future involves lots of other people. And this feels scary, arbitrary, and unpredictable.

source: wikipedia

source: wikipedia

If you are working in a job with a boss, you can work with that one person to agree on your future.  If you have a bad boss, this isn’t so great, but you can go find another more agreeable one and move on up.  This is the source of much of the negative political behavior in today’s stereotypical corporate environment.

If the future of capitalism involves recapitalizing assets that have been undervalued, then behavior strategies popularized by characters like Michael Scott of The Office are doomed.

Your talent represents a great asset… something you can trade, hedge, remix, or share to generate value that others will buy.  So you can use your talent to work in Chris Anderson’s “Free Economy” to earn a living.  But you have to invest with your asset and add value to the abundant, free resources through aggregation, synthesis, distribution, and other means of improvement.  You must use your knowledge, skill, attributes, and experience as a unique lever to create new things like a service experience, an insightful article, an assembled computer, or beautiful music.

In the days when a person worked a lifetime for a company (or a land-owner), the responsibility to take care of your talent belonged to them.  And all benefits of using your talent went to them.  In this emerging new economy, technology has enabled you to benefit directly from your talent like never before.  I won’t get into all the political scenarios being mentioned out there, but the bottom line is that individuals have increasing freedom to make something happen in their lives if they aren’t happy with the more traditional approaches to work.

But freedom comes with responsibility (darn).  And this is where the answer on feedback comes in…  markets are really good at finding stuff that works, and even better at culling out stuff that doesn’t.  Feedback is hard because it involves finding out what parts of your offer are not working for others, and often represents resistance to your aspirations.  And it’s not only your opinion that counts, it’s the opinions of the social group around you that assemble into a shared reality-of-you that count.  And feedback is the only way to discover and make sense of those opinions.

Investing with your talent in this kind of economy can be extremely uncomfortable.  As the saying goes, The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

Getting Leverage for Change

I just saw a great post on Seth’s blog about challenging convention.  I really admire how he generates cool insights and puts them simply so they are easy to remember.  As I was reading his tips for challenging convention, it occurred to me that there’s a deeper issue below such challenges.  He refers to the convention as “it” and I began to wonder about the possibilities of “it”.

leverageOne of my favorite movie lines is “there could be anything in there!” (from: A Christmas Story), and this statement is so true here.  It really matters in his third point about leverage.  If “it” is a simple change to a control knob, your leverage challenge is relatively straightforward and concrete.  If “it” is a new paradigm of consumption, your leverage challenge requires a whole different level of challenging.  Some types of leverage are more powerful than others, but most importantly you should use the right one for the task at hand.

For example: are you trying to challenge the convention of a controlling music volume (Seth’s example)?  By shifting the convention from a physical knob to a digital slider you can focus on the physical parameters of the human/machine interaction.  But if a person is not already of the mindset to interact with music via a computer, your users will experience a disconnect.  The more effective leverage point would be to focus on the mindset of listening to music via a computer first, then shifting your focus to the digital interaction.

I believe this is what Apple did with the first iPod.  The early generation machines still had familiar physcial controls.  Now the iPhone has a completely digital touch screen.  If they had not first gotten people to listen to music via the iTunes system, I would think the adoption of the touch screen may have struggled.

For more ideas about leverage points, Dana Meadows provides a great spectrum in her article: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.  Check out the summary on Wikipedia.

Infectious Action

Here in Palo Alto there’s a movement afoot.  The folks over at the Stanford are hoping to get a portion of downtown Palo Alto to become a pedestrian mall.  Check out the post on Metacool by Diego Rodriguez for more details and to join in the action.

I love that they have a class called Creating Infectious Action (CIA) there.  Based on the recent scare caused by the swine flu, infectious transmission of very small things is a force to respect.  I loved Stephen King’s view of this topic (The Stand) as it plays on all of the big fears involved in such an outbreak.  The point is, if you want to make change happen, understanding how this dynamic works is like being a change magician.

Damon Centola at MIT has done some great research to point out how social networking theory needs a bit of a makeover.  In short, the original “small world” theory (Granovetter, 1973) proposed that people who don’t know each other very well can spread behaviors, information and diseases through a dynamic called long ties.  This appears to hold up just fine with simple contagions that can be passed between two people with no other effort (like the flu), but not to hold up if the contagion being passed requires 2 or more people to reinforce it.  Think of it like being a carrier of a flu virus which requires you also to kiss someone else in 10 minutes to activate the infection.  If you catch the bug, but don’t kiss someone within the time limit, the bug dies out and there’s no spread.

Complex Contagion Bridge

For something like the Palo Alto pedestrian mall to come to life, there’s quite a lot of reinforcement that needs to happen, long ties are too weak in this case.  It’s a complex contagion that requires conversation, discussion, influence, and discernment.  In order for it to take hold, a person has to first “catch” the idea via one of the hundreds of people posting it on Facebook or a blog (long ties/small world) and then they have to discuss it with people they know well (strong/high bandwidth ties).

According to Damon, complex contagions operate under four social mechanisms:

1. Strategic complementarity (huh?)… that is, several complimentary factors in play at the same time. Like how technology and cost go together to support innovation.  Until costs come down, some technologies are not enough to create action.

2. Credibility… this is the “everybody’s doing it” influence factor at work.   Research by Chip and Dan Heath shows how hearing the same thing from multiple sources helps get something to “stick”.

3. Legitimacy… if close friends do something together, “innocent bystanders” feel more able to join in.

4. Emotional Contagion… ever feel the vibe of a big crowd and just go for it?  That’s this one.

So don’t just let Facebook do your work with a simple post.  You have to mix it up with people mano a mano, get some demonstrations going, and experience live interaction to get a real change to take place.