Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stabilizing fossil fuel emissions

Here is a great graphic from Climate Central reaffirming the "wedges" analysis for slowing climate change - and demonstrating how much more needs to be done than when the first analysis appeared in 2004.

The graph illustrates the concept of the "stabilization triangle," which two Princeton professors, Robert Socolow and Steve Pacala developed to illustrate the efforts that would need to be made to limit the rate of emissions of greenhouse gases. You can read the Socolow's blog explaining it here, and James Fallows' clear gloss here. (I follow Fallows' blog and that's how I found the graphic - thank you.) I recommend reading both pieces for more details, but the short point is vividly illustrated in the graphic. In 2004, there were seven distinct wedges - things that would have to be done - in the stabilization triangle. Now there are 9. And the data are from 2008 (2001 in the first iteration) so they understate the problem.

In his blog post, Socolow argues that advocates are partly at fault for urging prompt action without acknowledging psychological barriers to receiving unwelcome news (I've written about that cognitive bias before), how much about climate science is still unknown, and how risky possible solutions can be. He then goes on to argue persuasively for something he calls "iterative risk management:" looking at a 50 year horizon with 10-year or shorter increments for reduced emissions goals, and taking advantage of increased knowledge (and, one hopes, positive feedback from actions) when setting new targets. It's very clear and well worth taking the time to read.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Managing the Unexpected

Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, (2007) by business school professors Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, is a much-praised business practices book for those who want, or need, to step out of their comfort zones. The book brings many of its examples from what it calls "High Reliability Organizations" or HROs - businesses that need to anticipate surprises and uncertainty, like woodland firefighters or nuclear power plant operators. Some of the knowledge set out here can usefully be applied to the operations of a not-for-profit providing human services or arts support.

A crisis, or what the authors call a brutal audit, tests a program's operating systems - and everything that is unprepared becomes a weakness in a crisis. So what's their prescription? Operating in a manner that the authors call mindfulness. More specifically, that means:

     * Pay close attention to weak signals that may be symptoms of larger problems
     * Don't be too willing to interpret or simplify
     * Pay attention to operations - ie, the be responsive to the messy reality that exists within even the most carefully designed systems
     * Respond to the unexpected by improvising if you have to, and using expertise where you find it and
     * When you have a near-miss, look at it as an opportunity to learn.

Despite its unfortunate lapses into B-School jargon and some generality of expression, this book has several extremely helpful audits and tips, and includes the best discussion of understanding and changing organizational culture that I have ever read. It took a while to understand what the authors mean by "mindfulness," and I finally concluded that it means something like the watchfulness you have to have when you're driving - driving itself doesn't take too much effort, but you need to be aware of what's happening around you so you can respond when the car in the next lane drifts into yours. (And that's why talking on the phone while you're driving is such a risk.)

I was also provoked by the authors' insistence that managing by the numbers is not necessarily a useful practice in high reliability organizations, since the usual thesis of this blog is that managing by numbers is important. But on further contemplation I concluded that managing by numbers is an important first step, and that what you conclude from the numbers is where you have to be mindful. After all, interpretation of results is a form of simplification, as is categorization. When you're using numbers, you do have to reexamine them at least annually, and the lens of mindfulness that Weick and Sutcliffe lay out is an extremely useful one.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Updated: Continuing the mistakes theme with Netflix . . .

Update, December 13: To thank me for still maintaining a dvd subscription, Netflix is offering me a "free bonus DVD rental to supplement" my subscription. So I get to have three out at once. I can still watch only one at a time, when I have time, but I guess I appreciate the gesture. I did click on the link. Any thoughts on this gesture?

Update, October 10: Netflix has announced this morning that it is not splitting in two, "This means no change: one website, one account, one password . . . in other words, no Qwikster." They're also trumpeting their new marketing deals and streaming arrangements. Maybe this was the plan all along?

or perhaps not. Slate's Farhad Manjoo argues in this post that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings' announcement Sunday morning that the company is splitting in two, with Netflix to keep the streaming business and a new company, Qwikster, to mail DVDs, may have been a very smart move. And, counterintuitive though it sounds, that's because the announcement alienated customers.

What do you think of the Netflix decision? Manjoo's argument? Post a comment!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Andrew Thompson talks culture

The "Corner Office" column that the NY Times runs on Sundays is often interesting reading, but I normally don't link to them. This week's, a condensed conversation with Andrew Thompson of Proteus Biomedical, is different: read it here. What Thompson says throughout about creating culture is interesting: he's very clear about how important it is to recognize failure, and not punish it, because without trying new things you won't be able to identify approaches, or ideas, that work. It's also worth reading on to see what he says about horizontal structures, and the true function of leadership. (And there's a nice tennis metaphor, one that can be carried even further: you don't want to let the person on the other side of the net get inside your head. It's as true in the workplace as it is on the tennis court.) The attitudes Thompson brings to his business definitely have a place in the not-for-profit world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The science of grunting. Really.

Several websites have run articles lately on the noise players at the US Open and other tennis tournaments make when they hit the ball. And, it turns out, they may be on to something. Discovery News reports that a post-doc at the University of British Columbia found that a sound made as a ball is struck significantly slows response time, and affects responses.

Here's a link to a Slate story about the first grunting tennis player, Victoria Heinicke.

And a modern example:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blue Avocado, a very useful website

I've occasionally come across the name Blue Avocado - it's a blog that offers "practical, provocative, and fun food-for-thought for non-profits." It's easily searchable, and includes links to related topics at the end of every article. Just this morning I started out looking at examples of ground rules for meeting facilitators - Blue Avocado offers a very Gen Y example - and from there went on to useful articles about succession planning, executive sessions during board meetings, and board development. It's a useful and eminently readable resource.

Here's a screenshot of those Gen Y ground rules:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Making mistakes, and learning from them

Challenging as it can be to admit, we all make mistakes. But as I've pointed out in this space before, and as Alina Tugend describes in her new book Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, mistakes, if they are acknowledged and looked at, are an opportunity. Tugend quotes John F. Kennedy on that point, "as a wise man once said, 'An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.'"

Different cultures approach mistakes and learning from them differently, and Tugend argues that we need to change our approach to mistakes, if only so as not to get caught up in a dead-end perfectionism. Perfectionism can be paralyzing in any circumstances, she points out, but particularly so if we live or work in an inflexible environment where blame is cast around. The solution, she says, is to figure out what can be learned from a mistake "and fix the lesson, not the blame." (Tugend relates a story of the CEO who rejected the resignation offer of a subordinate who had just made a big mistake saying,"Are you kidding? We've just spent $10 million educating you.")

This is not a management book (there's no mention of Deming, for example, or root cause analysis), and it's not a parenting book, though Tugend uses examples from her own household. It's an exploration, and as a result Tugend packs quite a number of themes, from middle school math to effective corporate apologies, into it. But Tugend lists several ways that we can each change ourselves. Taken together, these would make an office, or a household, more inviting and in all likelihood more creative. They are:

     * Emphasize effort, not results.
     * Appreciate that we can't be perfect.
     * Take risks, challenge ourselves, and don't fear failure.
     * Solve problems, don't place blame.
     * When you're solving the problems, keep lines of communication open, and remember that communication goes both ways.

But if you work in an office, how do you know when you've made a mistake? Especially when you're the boss? When you're a senior staff member or an executive, you may not always get the information you need - you may be hearing only what you want to hear. And unless you ask in the right way, you're not going to get feedback about your personal style. Robert S. Kaplan, a professor at the Harvard Business School, sets out a few ways for senior staff to get this kind of information in the September 2011 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly. Among his suggestions:

    * Ask your staff about how you can improve. I tried doing this once, and got nowhere, but Kaplan offers a specific, workable process that would have worked for me.
     * Ask yourself what facts about yourself might help your staff understand you - and then tell them.
     * Find some mechanism for your staff to debate, openly, all the key issues they are dealing with.
     * Do what Kaplan calls the "Clean sheet of paper" exercise - ask your staff to consider what your operation might look like if you started from scratch.

This is a short article, and useful for anyone managing staff as well as senior executives.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

NYS Assembly Grants Action News

The New York State Assembly provides an electronic resource, "Grants Action News," identifying newly available state, federal, and private grants in a wide range of areas, from social services to sciences to arts. It regularly identifies funding opportunities for individuals, like this month's NEH 2012 summer grant program. And every issue includes information on grantwriting resources.

Here's a screenshot of some of the September issue:

Grants Action News went online in January, 2008, and you can access the archives here. It's a useful resource if you use it in conjunction with other grants research. You can subscribe by sending an email to grants@assembly.state.ny.us or by printing, completing and mailing this form.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Greg Mankiw's Blog

Greg Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard who has also written several economics textbooks, including an increasingly popular introductory one. His blog, "Random Observations for Students of Economics" is clever and entertaining, with lots of useful information for anyone interested in economics (and who isn't these days?) as well as students.

A couple of useful posts:
   * Here's Mankiw's "summer" reading list of basic books about economics - some I've read, some I think I will.

   * And here are two ways to remember 10 basic principles of economics in limerick or easy-to-remember rap form.

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