What You Figure Out Before Your Boss Tells You

Dominoes, by Jacqui Brown, cropped
Dominoes, by Jacqui Brown.  Cropped.

There is an emerging opinion that things get done in an organization more through social networks and less through the chain of command.  The best place to start on this topic is the great Wikipedia article which sets you up with the basics.  In brief, you are only partially a person who does the work in your job description under the orders of your manager.

An alternate way of thinking about this is that you pass along opportunities, ideas, and opinions through the web of people you know.  These are the people you meet around the office, at the coffee station, at lunch, or in the lead-up to meetings.  It’s not just your friends, but your friends-of-friends and beyond.  This environment – the social network – is a force to be reckoned with and can be more powerful than the chain of command.  Having a diverse network, keeping tabs on old friends, and talking with people who unsettle your complacent views are the things you need to stay in the game.

One of the areas where social networks are most powerful is in the transmission of new information.  If you can keep a good rapport with people who can feed you data, this is a good idea regardless of whether it is in your job description.  And those who create the information need that larger network of data consumers to give their new findings some reach.  We need each other.

Long Service, Secret Edge

Lockers, attributed to flattop341.

After many years in one job, little things can become easy.  Amongst the things that give you an advantage are small tips from colleagues about the way things really work.  For instance, I once worked in an office adjacent to a swimming pool.  At lunch, I would swim at the pool, and return to work relaxed and productive.  At this pool, there were coin-operated lockers that cost fifty cents.

I would frequently run into colleagues at the pool during lunch hour.  On one occasion, a long-service colleague attempted to use the same locker as me, locker #51.  He said “oh you go ahead and use the free locker.”  Free locker?  “Yes, the coin slot is broken but the lock works, so there’s no charge.”

This colleague showed me how.  Put your clothes in, close the door, skip the step where you put money in, then turn the key and pull it from the keyhole.  Lo and behold, there was a locked locker and a key in hand.  He handed me the key and said, “enjoy.”

In most workplaces, there are small advantages everywhere, just like locker #51.  An undiscovered staircase, prior versions of the report you’re working on, and contacts who can answer your question in one minute.  These are not always things that you find on the web site or in training materials.  These tips are not a result of having rank, data access, or an advanced degree.  They are just little tips that favor those who have been around for a few years and listened to their peers.

There are many twists and turns in our careers, things that make us energetic or complacent or curious or mad.  In the middle of these many changes, things get a little easier every year.  If we leave, we will lose this advantage.  I think it’s a secret reason why people stick around.

Can you think of the last time you found a locker #51 in your workplace?  What are some of the tips or tricks that you have learned from others?

You’re Smarter Than You Were an Hour Ago

Rear-view mirror of Zion Mountains, by daveynin
Rear-view mirror of Zion Mountains, by daveynin.

One of the greatest adventures in uncovering new information is the clash between our new ways of thinking and the opinions we had moments prior.  Our brains play tricks on us, through cognitive fallacies, when dealing with disruptive evidence.

One such fallacy is called “hindsight bias,” a kind of knew-it-all-along effect.  I have given complex and novel findings to clients who quickly proclaim that the information is basic and obvious in some way.  Sometimes it is basic and obvious, but quite often they had opposite views minutes earlier.  Learning and research can be thankless because it is so common for smart people to quickly absorb new information.  They don’t recall being ignorant.  If they do remember being ignorant, they’re not tempted to draw attention to it.

Those who neglect to pursue new knowledge and feed their curiosity become less savvy over time.  The times change, people change, and evidence shifts.  People who figured out the ways of the world many years ago start to lose their grip.  They have dubious clothing, haircuts, and social views.  They overlook emerging evidence.

Real smarts are not really about having a vault of information; it is the act of striving to explore.  I watch new data make its way through the organization, with little or no attribution to me or the original source.  Things quickly become known.  The culture becomes smarter.  It is quietly satisfying.

Tiny Portraits of Big Data

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso.

In August of 2016, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  As often happens at museums, I developed a new perspective.  I didn’t really understand cubism until I had the audio headset on, and took a close look at the art.  A main concept is that the things we see in real life are a series of smaller pictures that we bring together in our minds.  To portray this in art, the early cubists created larger paintings that were a series of smaller images put side-by-side.  The edges of the smaller pictures squared-off like a full painting.  The smaller pictures don’t flow together into something “pretty.”  Rather, the somewhat nonsensical image is jarring you with the idea that you do indeed perceive the world as a random bundling of small images.

This is not dissimilar to producing human resources metrics in Excel.  The high point for our clients is clean charts that get to the point, which tell a story and cause better decision-making.   For lay audiences, the goal is fewer and cleaner ideas, somewhat pretty, like impressionist or realist art.  However, for the analyst, inside each of the “cells” in Excel, we create stand-alone calculations that are complex and beautiful creations in their own right.  We bundle together thousands of cells with formulas that slightly differ from one row to the next.  They are clever little formulas using commands such as VLOOKUP and SUMIFS.  Sometimes the formulas are complex and interesting, sometimes not.  But every cell has its own story.

I realized that my entire analytic career is built around a cubist perspective of formulas, creating a final canvas that is a fusion of a large number of small ideas.  Some people see a page full of numbers but, for me, it all looks like Demoiselles d’Avignon (shown above).  I didn’t invent this concept – that happened long ago – but I do get to apply the idea to practical effect.  I have the pleasure of taking the concept out of fine art and applying it to the realm of workforce analytics.

What does this mean for you?  If you’re just getting comfortable with formulas, you are allowed to just create one small cell with a simple statement.  Then make a few more. Add a little more complexity.  Then you can stop.  Or build on it over time.

However, if nobody thinks your analysis looks pretty, don’t worry, this isn’t Hollywood.  If nobody wants to buy it, forget about it, you’re busy.  And sure, your colleagues could have made it themselves.

But they didn’t, did they?

Stop Looking Busy (it Doesn’t Work)

How it Works: My Brain.  Courtesy of frankieleon.

Employees are overwhelmed.  They are being flooded by too much information, being obliged to look busy at all hours, and experiencing fatigue and poor performance as a result.  Deloitte University Press has some great tips for employers about the importance of reigning-in excess information flow, shrinking meetings, and giving employees some spare time to relax a little and then get their actual work done.  Enterprise software is being obliged to produce one-click solutions to complex questions.  Increasingly, HR is being asked to help solve this problem.

Data Tastes Better With Ice Cream

Staunton Cherry Pie.  Photo courtesy of Tom Feary.

One day, years ago, I was picking up my children from school. My son, who was in Kindergarten, said “it’s pie week.” I thought about it, and yes, we were approaching March 14th, which numerically is 3.14, also known as Pi Day. I knew about this event, but I didn’t know they were celebrating it in schools. Presumably, my son’s teacher had mentioned it in class. I asked my kids if we should buy pies and share with the class on March 14th? Yes! The children were all in favour of this. How could they say no?

The night before Pi Day I brought home four pies, two for each class of kids. I had forgotten to tell my wife, and she asked “What are these for?” I told her. She said Pi Day was not a thing, and besides, she added, the teachers won’t take time away from teaching to serve pie. I put one pie in the fridge for ourselves, and I took the other three pies to work the next day.

Although Pi Day had been celebrated before, it didn’t elicit excitement. To change this, I put the pie in the coffee room and sent out a pithy email at 1:59 pm. You know, 3.14159, get it? It has well received.

That night I asked the kids what they did at school for Pi Day. Nothing, it turned out. I asked my son, why did he say it was Pie Week? “I just wanted to eat some pie.” My wife gave me that look again, and shook her head. “Pi Day is not a thing” she repeated.  Her disbelief sent me online. Yes, there was such a thing as Pi Day. But my jaw dropped when I saw the photograph on the Wikipedia page, showing the founder of Pi Day at an event. I experienced a startling déjà vu.

When I was in my twenties, I took a trip to San Francisco. At the end of each day I would meet a family friend at his workplace, and he would drive us home. One day I stopped in, and he offered a slice of pie. Their office celebrated Pi Day on March 14. “It’s just a little thing I started up around the Exploratorium,” he said. The man who handed me that pie was Larry Shaw. He was the founder of Pi Day, he was on the photo on Wikipedia, and he had handed one of the earliest slices of Pi Day pie. I had completely forgotten this random moment, until my son reminded me by accident. I never knew that Larry started this tradition until I saw it online.

I have been organizing Pi Day events at my workplace ever since. It’s a time to pause and reflect on how math that has improved our lives in the past year. As we stand there eating pie, my math-y colleagues talk about the great work we have done around the office. We seal the deal with food which, research shows, improves the likelihood that people will agree.