Frankenstein Lives

“What causes you pain,” I ask my user. His aspect changes. First he looks a bit surprised, but then a very predictable thing happens. His body language, tone of voice and facial expression shows frustration. He’s been given permission; he commences unloading with considerable emotion, about what hinders his work.

“Well, um…I have to enter the same information on every invoice for clients. You know, um, shipping address…it takes too much time. I should just be able to pick the location and then all that stuff fills in. I do dozens of these a day. It would save me so much time.”

“Great example,” I say, “tell me more.” With each answer, his mood improves, his brow unfurls. He’s been heard.

It’s a fairly simple question, but it results in myriad answers, easily organized into only a few recurring categories: just like stories that fall into into one of the seven major plots. The users address process deficiencies; they identify, often in whispers and furtive glances, who they believe are ineffective managers; they even admit, on rare occasions, that they themselves are the problem, citing poor training, or in some cases, no training at all, which when fully analyzed, still points to a problem with their employers.

The most valuable project management skill is identifying and refining requirements, which are often gleaned from users whose expertise is process-based work. These users are constantly evaluated and compensated based on some form of tangible output, such as the number of pallets shipped or the number of orders fulfilled in a given period.

This seems like a simple process, doesn’t it? One would think that it culminates in a task list, which can then be completed step by step, which would in turn culminate in perfect conditions at the end.

However, anyone with any work experience agrees that no process improvement, big or small, is that simple. All the data gleaned from interviews must be catalogued and categorized, then the emotional responses must be analyzed for root cause and organized objectively as to their true impact to the company and the user. In conjunction with a team of subject matter experts, the project manager presents solutions to the project sponsors. I cannot count, for I long ago lost track, the number of times that the solution is education. In order for a user to be more effective, he or she must understand intimately, end to end, where lies all of the potential failure points, and more importantly, how to mitigate or avoid them. This is the nature of process dynamics.

Having honed this skill over many years, I have peripherally become good at analyzing political arguments. I “hear” what people are really saying, on both sides, and as they talk, I am forming potential solutions to the problems they are discussing. Keeping my personal feelings out of the debate is essential to what I do. I have often found that people do not “hear” reasonable solutions unless those solutions fall within their emotionally accepted range of possibilities. Emotional responses ALWAYS lead to “bandaids.” They want a fix now that they cannot understand will cause them bigger problems, later.

Designing information systems for humans is a unique parallel to solving societal problems. A user who cannot complete his or her tasks often has the same visceral response as those trying to solve a social issue. They become focused on how the problem affects their immediate existence. They make decisions based on the fear of losing their jobs. They are not concerned with root cause; they want an immediate solution, which is how bandaid after bandaid becomes the monsters that are poorly written solutions. Those same bandaids satisfy management in the immediate, because their key performance indicators stay within range in the short term. Sadly, legislation is a canon of bandaids that rarely, actually solves a problem, but it makes the public happy until they’ve forgotten about the original issue.

It is useless to have “feelings” about a problem. Long-term solutions require that root cause is identified and accepted without the chaos that accompanies fear and loss. Effective, feasible, long-term solutions are most often the result of small, measurable course-corrections. A well-placed ripple can become a tidal wave of change.

I am grateful that my friends and acquaintances are a bell curve of political viewpoints (minus the pesky, lunatic extremes at both ends, which I attribute to my limited tolerance for stupidity). The ONE thing I’ve experienced consistently is that when we have open and honest discussions (about anything), and listen without prejudice to opposing opinion, we find common ground. In the end, we all tend to want the same things. The arguments, the intractability, is in the how.

I understand that it is difficult to remove emotion from an argument, especially one as intimate as politics, but bickering based on how we feel about a problem is the intellectual equivalent of throwing cow manure at one another: everyone ends up angry and reeking. Is this really what we want to teach our children? Listening, maturity and reason are the prerequisites for effective and lasting change. If you, an adult, are not willing to hear opposing views and try to understand them, how can we expect our children to become good, informed decision makers? How can we expect that we ourselves can make informed, lasting decisions if all we ever do is talk into a mirror?

Lately, I’ve read too many op eds, posts and comments and seen far too many videos of people who cannot seem to assimilate that they are not informed, that they do not have a clear understanding of the “big picture,” that they’re unexposed, “small town” perception does not translate to a world view. They are busy with their heads buried firmly in the mountains of detritus shoveled out by the media, and then perpetuated by the even less informed. Most are too lazy to seek the truth for themselves. They simply accept whatever trash supports their personal agendas. We claim to be improving as humans, in better health and with greater capacity for complex thought. Yet, we’ve allowed an insidious anti-intellectualism to infect society. We  tolerate views that are virtually irreconcilable without our hard-won freedoms, so that we can say we are the welcoming, the magnanimous. We continue to create more problems than we can possibly solve because we cannot seem to operate outside the confines of our personal circuses and those we trust to implement effective solutions are not keeping their collectives eyes on the prize.

In order to move forward, we have to accept that the human race mimics exactly the animal kingdom. There are predators and there are prey.  We are an intellectual food chain of personalities. For society to operate, we have to minimize the impact of the predators and protect and empower the prey. Predators will always manifest destruction because that is their psychosis. This applies to every aspect of human existence, from the stewardship of our environment to the protection of both our loved ones and our rights.

The question is, how do we identify and eliminate predatory behavior without restricting the rights of the rest of the human race? What is creating new crops of predators? We have to ask ourselves hard questions, some of which make us very uncomfortable. Are we manufacturing predators as products of our behaviors? Have we, as a society, as a race, created the monsters we now want to contain? Are we collectively Dr. Frankenstein?

All the Knowledge in the World

What if you could assimilate everything you heard? I mean everything.

I began to think about this while sitting with my morning coffee klatch at Starbucks. I am usually the only female member of this daily gathering. I mention that because my perspective is unique among them. I’m female, and those experiences that are uniquely female have often affected what I learned. I can hear you asking what you believe might be a stupid question, ‘what does being female have to do with this?’

Simple. I was raised in a household that believed that marrying well was my best option. It had nothing to do with my intellectual capacity. It had to do with a philosophy that had been learned from the previous generation. Men were the bearers of political, economic and financial knowledge and were saddled with the burden of thinking and providing. What purpose, then, did I serve, I wondered? I, a woman as non-compliant and ill-suited for ornamentation as any I’d ever known. I would never be anyone’s trophy wife.

Why is this important? Well, that’s another very good question. Now, I am nearly fifty and I am amazed by what I don’t know, despite the amount of information I have assimilated, through education and reading. I sit, nearly every day now – a relatively new development in my daily routine – and I absorb information from the six men that make up the other members of the daily klatch. Among them are two financial planners, three real estate investors, business owners and a martial arts expert. Some are a mix of those things. All are highly intelligent, well-read and diversely experienced. Except for two, they are a decade older than me: an important detail. I have at my disposal, every day, an impromptu classroom of makeshift professors discussing how the economy is faring, what is trending in the stock market, what will happen to real estate values in the next few months and the position of world markets at any given moment. They hang out at Starbucks because they can. I hang out at Starbucks because for roughly $8 a day, I get a world class education.

Now, don’t think for a minute I am not already educated. In terms of volume, I am just as well-read in my field. From me, they learn about photography and technology and occasionally, insight into the female mind. But as an insatiable student, I want to learn it ALL. They don’t see themselves as teachers, but I do. In fact, I’ve met many people who can’t comprehend how they can be perceived as teachers. Maybe, I’m just a better antenna than most.  Maybe I care to learn more than most. So, I listen. I ask questions. I assimilate everything I can and I respect and value their knowledge and expertise. I understand that the very nature of learning is that it is constant and cumulative, and no one person can ever fully become the educational equal of another. Education, especially that which is the result of experience, is as individual as a fingerprint.

As Voltaire said, “The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.” But damn it, I’m going to do my best to know as much of nothing as I can.

Plague in the 21st Century

di·vi·sive adjective \də-ˈvī-siv also -ˈvi- or -ziv\
: causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups

No, it’s not the Word of the Day from dictionary.com (that was galoot, a word that is, frankly, just fun to say).

Divisive is the name of the plague that is destroying our country. The symptoms are easy to see, everywhere: complacency, blame, intractability, narcissism. How long do we think we can steer a ship the size of our country with all hands pulling the sails in different directions?

In the last year, I was invited to join a politically-focused group on Facebook. It was the first time I’d allowed myself to be drawn into political discussions in a social medium because I knew how many divisive subjects there are within the framework of my friends list. Participating in discussions with people I didn’t know meant a whole new level of vulnerability. I agreed only because this group is dedicated to civility. It frequently misses the mark, but it’s closer than many. Nearly a year later, I’m profoundly glad I did. Not only have I learned an amazing volume of information, I’ve been exposed to some truly exceptional minds. And as an added bonus, the man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well.

Let me repeat that, because it’s significant. The man who invited me is now one of my dearest friends, as are other members of the group, as well. 

While the membership in the particular group is diverse, and sometimes polarized, I noticed something interesting after a discussion with a man whose views are different than mine. In the comments, he’d written something that I’d found arrogant. Normally, I’d have responded by shredding his opinion, using my own as the weapon. But instinct prevailed and I sent him a private message instead, resolved to quell my own reactionary and insular conclusions; I wanted to know his motives better. A year later, I still consider it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, for he too is now a dear friend. Moreover, it taught me that really listening to others taught me more than I realized as a younger, inexperienced woman.

You see, people generally want the same things, despite the canyon that may separate their understanding of how to get it. If you poll any mother or father, unless they suffer a significant mental deficit, they will tell you that they want their children to be happy and healthy. If you ask any young, newly graduated college student (and the same caveat applies), they’ll regurgitate the same idealistic wish for world peace. These are rites of passage for both groups. However, there is an immeasurable number of paths to achieve those ideals and just as immeasurable is the number of definitions of what those things mean.

Beware the man who needs something bigger than himself as a compass. The disease lies in the extremes.

While researching this piece, I ran across an excerpt from “Extreme Fear” entitled “The Grandeur of Delusions”.[1]  In it, Wise writes:

“As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 44 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.

The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.”

In any discussion, with any other individual, both parties have to understand that the other’s experiences and belief systems are the core of their opinions. One cannot be separated from his or her core. However, considering that the brain behaves more like a muscle than most realize, it is possible to expand the core and with it, one’s world view.

However obvious this concept seems to be, one only need read innumerable, witless statements by a palette of congresspersons, pundits, clerics and world leaders to see how delusional world views can be. Not all, but many. Very many. Shake my head daily many.

Wise also writes:

“What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful.”

And therein lies the secret. If one’s experience is that he or she grew up among a diverse population, where everyone was allowed to flourish, where no one could oppress another person with beliefs, then all would have the opportunity to flourish. But that requires that no one wants to project his or her core beliefs/fears on another. Such application of control from one person to another begins at the moment of conception. A pregnant mother elects to eat a certain way, for example, in order to ‘control’ the health of her baby, for good reasons. However, this extends outside the womb from the first breath: vegetarianism, christianity, liberalism, and any number of philosophical positions in between. Even normal, healthy adults feel right because of what they believe, rather than evidence in support of or contrary to their personal argument. That will never change. But prejudice is just as easily projected on the others. It is learned. It is the first component of divisiveness.

Some people are so entrenched in their fears that they cannot possibly assimilate ideas that fall even slightly outside their belief systems. And this is where the disease of divisiveness harms us the most. The foundation of this country was once freedom from a system that limited the individual’s right to choose, yet the trend is toward creating a regime based on a mob mentality. We are imprisoned by a movement toward the homogenous and slowly, we’re being convinced that we cannot possibly function without our corpulent government. We are becoming the Borg.

Meanwhile, the great ship is coming apart pin by pin. If we cannot return, as citizens, to facing the same direction, to realizing that protecting our individual rights is paramount, then we will surely follow Rome, Hattusa, Alexandria and countless others throughout history. We cannot continue to be polarized in our views on how to achieve a balance between social needs and individual freedoms. It is the personal responsibility of every citizen to recognize the struggles we have undertaken as a nation to ensure that we can walk down any street, in the middle of any day, and do what we want (as long as we do no harm). Living in this country is not a right, it is a privilege. While nowhere in our constitution is there a guarantee, the US is among the few countries that allow people to pursue life, liberty and happiness without oppression. How ‘bout we keep it that way?

[1]  “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” by Jeff Wise, published on PsychologyToday.com
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/201303/the-grandeur-delusion