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Ruminations on work life balance August 22, 2014

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Grab Bag.
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Labor Day is right around the corner as we approach the end of another vacation season.  Taking time off is an important part of the balance between work and play. Going on vacation is beneficial for multiple reasons and mental health is a primary one. Companies like to proclaim how important employees are and that having paid time off (aka, vacation) is a benefit they  (sometimes grudgingly) provide. We all look forward to the annual summer sojourn to a familiar place. Or, the thrill in going to new places while taking time off.

So I find it interesting the strong reaction people have when the media reports our elected officials have vacation plans. Not only plans, but, actually going on a trip for vacation. The shock, the disappoint from people when a state senator, city mayor or even the president takes a few days to recharge.

summer_vacation-5188Why are we surprised by this? Do we really expect politicians to work all the time? Of course not. However, there is perhaps an unrealistic expectation that a politician will stay at work during a crisis or when there are lots of events that may require their attention.

Consider the furor from two recent events. One involved NYC Mayor, Bill DeBlasio. He and his family planned a trip to Italy.  The timing of this trip upset many residents who use mass transit. The nerve of him planning to leave the country while there is the threat of a transit strike. He should be at work!

A second event involved the POTUS. Aka, the President of the United States. Critics state he should not go on vacation while there are issues in Ukraine, Middle East and Ferguson, Missouri. He needs to be in the oval office. Taking vacation now is in poor taste, shows bad judgement.

Hold on. Everyone likes to go on  vacation. We eagerly look forward to taking time off. Studies clearly show the benefit in maintaining a work balance with life outside the office. This applies to everyone regardless of their job. Also, our elected leaders are never really out of touch with current events. Not anymore. They may not be in the office yet staying connected has never been easier. Politicians, like the rest of us, can and often do, work remotely.

Taking a few days off is not so dire. Consider a vacation from 1927 with then President Calvin Coolidge. He and his wife spent three months in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Three months!  Taking that amount of time off today is unthinkable. How times change.

Great leaders can, and should, delegate effectively. When done well, we do not notice a difference. How many times has a co-worker post poned vacation plans to stay at work? Was it really necessary? I say, enjoy your planned vacation and let our leaders do the same.

By the way, how was your summer vacation? Do anything exciting?

Enjoy the long Labor Day weekend and the time off. Comments always invited!

Ramblings on positive change September 22, 2013

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, career.
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Since my last post, I have gone through some changes. Changes in employment and changes in location. It came about fairly quickly, now that I have some time to reflect on it. I recently found a position as a project manager and am part of a web development group once again.


I am fortunate to have so many good people in my life. My family has been 100% supportive. I have great friends who wished me well and their help is only a phone call or email away. I have but to ask. That support makes the transition much easier.

Taking this new job required relocating out of state. Not something I had intended initially. For many reasons outside of my control, the job I wanted was not available locally. I have been solicited to work in many areas around the country but held out for an opportunity that was in my home town. Keep the other aspects of my life the same. Did not work out that way this time around. Over the last 5 years, I have had several career changes. Most of those were outside my control in terms of duration.

change_exitAs for the work, it feels good to be back in many ways. Good to be working again. Good to be with an IT team that works closely with Marketing.  Like any new job, it takes some time to get settled. Get up to speed. Learn the ropes. More shop worn cliches. There are some interesting challenges ahead. I firmly expect to have an impact and be able to help my new team. I already know they will listen. That makes things so much easier. In my first week, I have already established my skills and experience. Here the biggest change is people are willing to accept it. That has not always been true in the past.

Going forward, more changes will be dealt with. In both the personal and professional facets, I will have good people to work through any and all changes that come my way.

I am most grateful for that and hope that never changes!

Training pays off in Boston on Monday April 17, 2013

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior.
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I need to stress the positives in this post about the bombing in Boston on Monday. Let me be clear  – it was awful. But I want to focus on and highlight the good here. The first responders reacted immediately. No hesitation. Civic leaders quickly communicated to the public and worked with local, state and federal officials. Their impressive response was the result of proper training conducted via simulations. The pay off from those drills was clearly demonstrated as we watched, posted and reacted with our comments.

I see it as a positive that there are overwhelmingly more good people among us than there are evil ones. That was evident  right from the beginning. From those acts of bravery and kindness, we should be confident and committed to belonging to a society willing to assist others. We immediately put aside our differences and acted as one community that went beyond the borders of towns and states to show support.

Previously, I wrote a blog post about disasters after the tsunami in Japan. That piece talked about how you would respond if you were there. Today, I saw this piece from the Harvard Business Review on how leaders emerge from these crisis events. It prompted me to post this article. I want to relay my gratitude to all who responded. To those who spontaneously helped out others who happened to be near them and provided comfort, food and shelter. There are good people among us and they will help us get back to normal after this.

The Boston marathon will be held again. Good. The runners will train for that day and the city of Boston will prepare for the 2014 race. They will be well organized as they usual and they will update their plans based on learnings from what happened Monday. They will also revise their training to be ready for anything and everything that comes their way.

In the grand scheme, my ramblings here will not change anything. I am grateful to the kind and helping people assisting others in a dire situation. Going forward, let’s not jump to conclusions to quickly. This event should remind us not to rush to make brash or grandiose statements but instead to observe, collect some facts based in reality and trust those in authority to respond correctly.

To respond as they are trained to do.

Ramblings on Impressions July 22, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior.
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If asked to state my favorite artistic movement, I would say it is Impressionism. I enjoy how the impressionists capture light in their paintings. Impressionists defined a new way of seeing the world. Those artists depicted short bursts of daily life in an era just before photography become popular for the masses.

There are many impressionist paintings I enjoy. One of my favorites is this scene from Renoir. His Luncheon of the Boating Party is arguably his best known work.

In a sharp segue on life imitating art, I want to mention a few thoughts about social impressions. There is an old cliché that states “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. It is a slightly humorous way to stress the importance of making a accurate reflection of  who you are right away.

As with most cliches, there is a bit of truth embedded in this. To me, impressions deal with how you present yourself to a new contact. Introductions are important in setting a correct impression. How introductions are conducted in a business or social setting quickly set the tone and level of interaction in a relationship. By this, I’m referring to how formal or informal the introduction is.  Your tone of voice, demeanor and posture all contribute to the impression you make. What I have found is that over time, impressions contribute to your reputation such that it is fairly accurate reflection of who you are as a person. When I meet people at work or at network events, I state my name, shake hands firmly and make eye contact. I try to ask questions that demonstrate that I am listening and my interest or experience on a given topic.

Recently, I have found that impressions can also be a very powerful force in behavior. Combined with reputation and assumptions, impressions shape how you are perceived. I also think that behavior speaks louder than words and what you do is more important than what you say. While you can’t change impressions, your behavior can add or detract from your reputation.

How do you handle first impressions? Do you always make the impression you want? If you had the chance to make a second impression, would you take it?

Ruminations on Diversity and Potatoes March 24, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior.
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They come in all shapes and size and have close to 4000 varieties. They can be fried, chipped, baked, even twice-baked, or whipped, mashed and stuffed.  Even when you think you know them, potatoes surprise you in unexpected ways with how diverse they can be.

A few years ago at a department meeting, we held an interesting exercise in diversity. At the back of the room, spread out on tables were raw potatoes in various shapes and sizes. The exercise was for each of us to grab a spud, look it over carefully, know your potato; slowly examine it then place it back on the table among the other spuds. After a few minutes, everyone was finished. The spuds were then ‘shuffled’ and placed back on the table. The next part of the exercise was to find our potato once again.

How can you pick one apart from the others? They’re just potatoes, after all. What does it matter? Why do I need to remember how to distinguish one from the rest? And, that was the point of the exercise. Accept things as is, not change to suit yourself. I cheated and marked my potato with an imprint. That way, I could distinguish that one from all the others. I knew my potato by my imprint, not by what made it unique.

The same is true with people. They can be as diverse as potatoes. Just as I did, there are people who imprint those who are different from themselves. We’ve all met people like this. They are they ones who assign a nick-name. There was even a recent president who did that a lot. When that happens, they are designating you as something so they can remember you. They slot you in some way that helps them remember you as ‘that’ person. They are in fact, not accepting you for you, as you are.

Dimensions of DiversityWhich brings us to the facets in the diversity wheel. The most common ones include gender, race, age and sexual orientation. But there are other dimensions as well. They include religion, family status, education and income among others. It can also include first and last names. Imprinting is not supportive of diversity. It suggest a closed mind, unwilling to deal with something different.

It was surprising to me that diversity is mostly an issue in the US. In other parts of the world, this is a non-factor. While America is touted as a melting pot, dealing with people different than ourselves can be difficult. While tempting, we can’t treat people like potatoes. No nick-names, no imprint, just different. We need to change and be willing to accept people for who they are, as they are.

Since that meeting, I constantly caution people not  to ‘mark their potato‘. I explain what I mean via a quick recap of the exercise. It certainly has made an imprint on me as that meeting on diversity  was ten years ago. I’ve met a lot people and come across a lot of potatoes since then. Takes work not to imprint. I can accept people as well as potatoes that are the same and are different than me and mine. I ask for the same. No nick-names, no imprints. Accept me and my diversity, whatever shape it’s in.

Ruminations on Risks and Black Swans March 10, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Project Management, Trends.
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Whatever we do, we deal with risks.  Despite our best laid plans and intentions, there are always those uncertain and unwanted events that happen which are beyond our control.  In a previous post, I talked about risks on projects. This post deals more with risk behavior. Risk management (or, risk tolerance) covers the spectrum from total avoidance at all costs to a laissez-faire, what-does-it-matter attitude.  A low risk tolerance leads to ‘safe’ choices that eliminate, or substantially reduce, an unlikely event with a negative impact occurring. Likewise, a high risk tolerance leads to choices where outcomes are unpredictable and not guaranteed. In this scenario, the chances for unlikely risks occurring are higher. Financial investors know their level of risk tolerance and how it influences their investment choices.

Black Swan

The occurrence of a highly improbable event that may not always be planned for. The impact can be positive or negative.

There is a related effect with investors called the ‘Black Swan that describes what happens when a uncertain, unstable event does occur.  In a 2007 book by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, titled ‘The Black Swan – the impact of the highly improbable‘,  it is defined  as :

  1. an event that is unpredictable (an outlier),
  2. has a massive or, extreme impact and
  3. after it happens, we create rational to make it more predictable (less random).

Taleb makes a living betting on the occurrence of Black Swans.  He is a contrarian when compared to the typical financial investor who avoids risk by seeking the small gains in the stock market. The positive effect of a Black Swan is seen over time. Likewise, a negative Black Swan happens very quickly. For most investors, the preference is to avoid the downside risk of a negative Black Swan. Managing risk can be a tricky business.  Taleb has 2 observations related to risk assessment I want to highlight:

  1. We have more confidence in what we know is wrong than in what we know is right.
  2. We over-estimate what we know and conversely, underestimate our uncertainty.

The first point bears repeating. We are more certain about something we know is wrong.  Our intuition, skills and experience tells us what is wrong. Sometimes, we know something is wrong when we see it. That confidence drives our behavior with money, work and our personal life more than we may want to admit. I think that is because we are better at dealing with failure than success. We plan for success, of course, but realize we have to deal with a minimal level of failure.

The other facet on uncertainty I have seen at work many times. Providing accurate estimates is a skill built on experience and dealing with knowns. When faced with new challenges, it is tempting to minimize complexity. How hard can this possibly be? More than likely, it is harder than you are able to imagine at this point in time.

When a risk is deemed highly improbable, we tend to not spend much time and energy thinking about it. When a negative Black Swan strikes, the risk mitigation(s) you have defined will be quickly tested. If your tolerance is low, you will have well thought out and documented options. Your sponsors, stakeholders and clients will benefit from and appreciate your efforts. The path forward that is selected is based on their risk tolerance of those negative Black Swans. Positive Black Swans can only make things better, right?

What’s your risk tolerance? What method(s) do you use to deal with uncertainty?

Ramblings on Fast and Slow Thinking February 29, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior.
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I am currently reading a book about how we think. The recently published book is titled “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and was written by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. From the book, I want to illustrate what psychologists call ‘System 1‘ and ‘System 2‘. These two systems control our thoughts and reactions in ways I find very interesting.

Briefly, each system can be described as :

System 1 – Fast. Automatic, intuitive and quick with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. Detects simple relations. If we are uncomfortable and unhappy, we lose touch with our intuition.
Some examples of what System 1 does automatically :

  • Detect that one object is more distant than the other.
  • Orient to the source of a sudden sound.
  • Detect hostility in a voice.

System 2 – Slow. Follows rules. Deals with the mental activities that demand attention. Performs complex computations and is associated with subjective experience. Monitor and control the thoughts and actions that are suggested by System 1. Allows some of those to be expressed in behavior and suppresses or modifies others.
Examples of System 2 in action :

  • Focus on the voice of a particular person in a crowded and noisy room.
  • Search memory to identify a surprising sound.
  • Tell someone your phone number.

To illustrate how the two systems work, consider the following puzzle :

A baseball and bat together cost $1.10.

The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

Instantly, you think of a number. As Kahneman writes, “The number, of course, is 10… The distinctive mark of this puzzle is that it evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing and wrong.” This is System 1 in action.
He explains that “If the ball cost 10 cents, then the total cost would be $1.20… not $1.10.”

With a bit of effort, System 2 shows what the answer is. The ball cost $.05. If you were able to resist the intuitive response, you determined the correct answer.

This is a great illustration of the two systems working. Kahneman describes it as “…our tendency to answer questions with the first answer that comes to mind.”

System 2 is lazy. It can work out an answer but defers to System 1. The book expands on how each system works and their interactions.  Other topics Kahneman cover include biases, choices and overconfidence.  I’m still reading, and learning from, this book. I look forward to further insight about our thought process and how it influences our choices. As I can, I will share other learnings on topics along with my thoughts in a future post.

Until then, keep thinking. Fast, and slow. 😉

Rambling on Solving Problems – Puzzle vs. Mystery February 13, 2012

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Grab Bag.
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Information workers are used to solving problems. Approaches can vary to determine a viable solution and can be bound by many constraints. Resources, budget, timing are among typical real world constraints. I read an column from the author and New Yorker columnist, Malcolm Gladwell, that talks about problem solving. Essentially, they can be thought of either one of two possible types : a puzzle or a mystery.

The article was published by the New Yorker in 2007 and is titled ‘Open Secrets‘ covers multiple topics. The article is part of a collection included in the book “What the Dog Saw” and talks about the Enron financial debacle, hunting for Saddam Hussein, analyzing Nazi propaganda and techniques for cancer diagnosis. As an information worker, what caught my attention the most was the distinction between a puzzle and a mystery.

As Gladwell states it, the difference between a puzzle and mystery are shown below along with my comments.

Puzzles are “transmitter-dependent”; they turn on what we are told.

For each puzzle, the information source controls what (and, how) we are told. Completing the puzzle is possible if we are given accurate and sufficient information. The information source may withhold data that can inhibit solving the problem.

Mysteries are “receiver dependent”; they turn on the skills of the listener…

The skills you (and, others) bring to solving the problem then determine if you can devise a solution. All the information is provided but you must be able to logically, sensibly decipher it.  There is a related issue withe the amount of data provided here. Gladwell argues that we can become saturated with data; too much data is a bad thing. 

There is also a  danger for information workers here with the scenario of analysis-paralysis.  Looking at so much information that we got lost in what is important vs. trivial and inhibits progressing to a solution.

I have read all of Gladwell’s books. His insights help me think outside the box. As an information worker, I will look for ways to assess if I am dealing with a mystery of a puzzle. I think I prefer mysteries; I know I don’t enjoy puzzles.

If you can assess what problem type you have, it may drive your approach to a solution accordingly. Part of the assessment then will include things like :

  1. Do you have enough information?
  2. How do you know?
  3. Is your data source credible?
  4. Do I have the correct skill(s) for this problem?
  5. What resource(s) are available to assist me?

I hope my ramblings lead you to insights on problem solving.

Is this a puzzle or a mystery to you? Comments invited!

How do you behave under stress? April 7, 2011

Posted by Edwin Ritter in Behavior, Grab Bag, Trends.
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We live in  a less than perfect world and not everything goes as planned. Things can, and do, go wrong despite your best intentions. How you deal with those situations and your resulting behavior says a lot about you. Inner strength, coping, values – those things that allow you to steer a path forward.

So I find it wonderful to see how the Japanese react to the recent tsumai and the nuclear reactor leak. I want to focus on the positive here. How they help each other, are orderly and organized. No riots, no looting, many individuals willing to help others. I even heard that those who lost everything are now volunteers working in the radio active waste. Sacrifice for the greater good. Their behavior under very stressful conditions is a testament to their strength, values and will enable them to move forward. Japan will rebuild from this event. The Japanese will remember this event and continue forward.

While I sit here in comfort, surrounded by those near and dear to me, it makes me  appreciate all that I have. I am humbled by the positive I see in Japan.  We should all behave so well under stress.