Making Beautiful Art With Excel

Augutso Tokumori. Photo courtesy of tenjishituT6.
Augutso Tokumori. Photo courtesy of tenjishituT6.

Incidentally, there’s a gentleman named Tatsuo Horiuchi who makes fine art using the Microsoft Excel software.  It’s gorgeous, check it out.  In addition to his artistic creativity, I give him bonus points for choosing Excel because it’s less expensive that other applications.

Breathing Life Into Your Work Team

I love bubbles. So much. by Sam Wolff.
I love bubbles. So much. Photo courtesy of Sam Wolff.

In 2011 Google released the results of Project Oxygen.  Project Oxygen was Google’s effort to identify what makes a good manager.  They put analysts onto large volumes of data from 10,000 sources to find what is at the center of the puzzle.  Their results are:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Show interest in employees’ successes and well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills, to help advise the team

In the New York Times article summarizing these findings, a few things jumped out to me.  Five of these items (numbers 1-3 plus 5-6) imply a compassionate, nurturing, and transformational leadership style.  It is a rebuke to the notion that managers need to assert control, maintain discipline, and establish themselves in the hierarchy.  However, managers are also not allowed to be weak or wishy-washy in terms of results and clear vision.  While new managers step away from alpha-dog dominance to lead people in a “different” way, the alternate style cannot be deliberately passive.  You still need to actively cultivate, intervene, and get the information out.

It’s some stellar research.  For most of my work, I manipulate numbers.  By contrast, this is an interpretation of large volumes of text and I know this is hard, specialized work.  The findings are also contrary to many vested interests.  When the client and the analysts themselves are great at technical analysis, and they declare that technical skills are not the most important thing… you know they’re not feathering their own nest.

However, I would like to highlight a couple of vulnerabilities about these findings, just to keep everyone on their toes.  First, these findings are specific to the time and context, and findings can shift from one dataset to the next.  It’s likely the list looks a little different if you don’t work at Google, and it may even change within Google over the years.  Remember, this is not a representative sample of all organizations throughout time.  It is good practice to give research findings the benefit of the doubt within context, and be skeptical or critical outside of that context.

For example, what if everyone at Google is really good at certain things and therefore those attributes don’t have a correlation with anything else?  Examples might include having a university degree, getting access to information, receiving a decent salary, and vitamin D.  You need a data sample where some people are bad at certain things to build out the lower-left corner of a scattergram.  Otherwise a perfectly plausible driver of success will drop from statistical significance.

In the discussion about this project’s findings, people tend to go on about how technical skills are “dead last.”  Not so fast.  Wasn’t this a list of dozens of attributes, and they dropped all the attributes below number eight?  As presented by the analysts, technical skills still make the list.  Also, consider how you can blend technical skills with career development, empowering your team, and being productive.

I think it’s still the case that sleep, diet, exercise, and a good mood are the major drivers of focus, emotional intelligence, and energy.  As individuals we need to take care of those home-front items in order to break into the next level of performance.  However, if you botch the home front, you might not even get the job in the first place, never mind being good at it.

This brings us to the fact that they chose a fitting name for this project.  What is the one thing you need above else to determine your success at work?  Oxygen, of course.  Lots and lots of oxygen.  Good luck motivating staff without it!

An Ode to the Number Pad

Number Pad. By Tony Cuozzo
Number Pad. By Tony Cuozzo.

Everyone who doesn’t use their number pad is taking orders from someone who does.  Just placing your middle finger on that nub on the number-five key will increase your professional drive.  If you’re right handed, you’ll see that the thumb on your right hand is hovering over the arrow keys, allowing you to easily navigate your territory on a spreadsheet. Your pinkie rests on top of the enter key; moving onward after entering some numbers is effortless.

If you aren’t using the number pad as a course of habit, try a little data entry.  Maybe at home you can key-in a column of questionable expenses that you saw on your bank statement.  Or maybe there’s something from a web site or a PDF that isn’t cutting-and-pasting so easily.  Just find a good excuse to do ten minutes of data entry.

If it’s your first time using the number key, you’ll notice that your fingers will start to remember where things are.  Your speed will pick up, your accuracy will improve.  Even better, you’ll learn your own margin of error, which gives you the ability to control trade-offs between speed and quality.

With your hand sitting on the home row, everything you need is in reach.  At least, every number you need is in reach.  By contrast, it is the use of words that takes extra effort.

Honey, I Shrank the Unemployed

Shrink Tricks. By Arne Endriks (Edited)
Shrink Tricks. Photo courtesy of Arne Endriks.

What if we just pretended that society’s problems had already disappeared?  It sounds dicey, but that’s often how things are done.  People who are struggling with unemployment are having a hard time explaining their lives.  And if you’re sitting in a job in human resources, you know that you have to understand this crowd.  Whether you’re administering layoffs and terminations, sorting through a long list of unqualified job applicants, or talking to friends and family who have a little problem at work, you know that the bewildered masses are your people.  But thankfully, you can make their problems disappear through government statistics.

An article from June 1, 2017 in the Huffington Post notes that the share of Canadians with a job has hit  a record high.  The content can be dense and confusing, but at issue is that people wrongly think the unemployment rate is a meaningful indicator of how well the economy is doing.  For labour economists, unemployment rates border on being a garbage statistic.

The unemployment rate is the number of people who have jobs divided by the number of people in the labour force.  But people have all kinds of reasons for not being in the labour force.  These include: discouragement from a long unemployment spell, disability, the decision to stay at home with kids, retirement, financial independence, postsecondary studies, prison, and travel.  Governments can also reduce unemployment by deciding that certain people aren’t trying hard enough to get a job and, therefore, they aren’t really in the labour market.  There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with economic statistics.  Since the labour force is half of the equation, the unemployment rate itself is of debatable value.  You can still use it occasionally (i.e. for month-over-month comparisons), but only with caution.

A far better statistic is the employment-to-population (EP) ratio.  We know who has a job, and we know how large the population is.  Take these totals, divide one by the other, and suddenly the data is clean and interesting.

The Huffington Post article notes that the EP ratio in Canada is now 78.6 percent, its highest level since Statistics Canada first started measuring this in 1976.  That’s good for Canada.

It’s also interesting to look at the second diagram in the article, which describes the labour force participation rate.  The labour force participation rate takes those two denominators we described earlier and combines them.  It is the number of people who are in the labour market divided by the population (within the relevant age group).  The labour force participation rate disregards whether the person actually has a job; it’s an indicator of how involved people are in the world of work.

Canada has a high participation rate relative to the US.  Amongst the working-age population, over 77 percent of Canadians work or are looking for work.  Labour force participation rates in the US used to be 77 percent, back in the late 1990s.  In the twenty years since, participation has slipped 5% to 72 percent.  The decline happened during three different presidents, and only half of the decline was during that nasty recession that started in 2008.

Long story short, the US has an unemployment rate of 4.1%, but they have an extra 5% of the population that could work but doesn’t.  It’s the tale of two economies, two Americas.  There is one America where things are bright and sunny, people aspire to career growth, and they talk about red wine and heirloom tomatoes.  But in the other America, things are not so great.  Theirs is a world where people lost their jobs to globalization or technology, lost their homes to the mortgage fiasco, and are now losing family members to the opioid crisis.  This is a crowd for whom voting for Donald Trump is totally rational.

Yes, we can pretend that society’s problems don’t affect us, and that those who don’t fit into the new economy are not our concern.  But those who don’t fit in get to speak their mind, and it’s not in a way that some find pleasant.

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.

It’s About Policing Numbers, Not Number of Police

The Police, by Luca Venturi
The Police.  Courtesy of Luca Venturi.

Can big data reduce crime?  Yes it can.  This is a great TED Talk by Anne Milgram about using analytics to improve the criminal justice system.  The talk from October 2013 describes how Milgram successfully attempted to “moneyball” policing and the work of judges in her role as attorney general of New Jersey.  Hers is a great story, and has many features in common with the Moneyball book and movie.

The speaker describes how she built a team, created raw data, analyzed it, and produced simple and meaningful tools.  Her most impressive outcome is a risk assessment tool that helps judges identify the likelihood a defendant will re-offend, not show up in court, or commit a violent act.  She and her team have successfully reduced crime.

Baseball players and police officers alike have a culture of bravado and confidence which may be critical when handling conflict, intimidation, and credibility.  Yet what police officers and baseball players often need is a safe space to question their assumptions, assess whether they could do better, and decide that they will do better.  These types of vulnerable moments don’t play out well when a player is at bat, or when an officer is handling complaints from the perpetrators.

In Milgram’s talk, where others see cool math tricks, I see a change in mindset and demeanor.  The speaker expresses curiosity about the information, enthusiasm for unexpected findings, modesty about baseline effectiveness, a lack of blame, and a can-do attitude about trying to do more and do better.

It’s a great metaphor for business.  In those workplaces where managers fiercely claw their way to the top, there may be a reduced willingness to talk about shortcomings in a manner that requires trust and collaboration.  Yet making exceptional decisions require that leaders choose an entirely different mood and posture while they explore an uncharted area, allow information to out-rank instinct, and aspire to a more subtle kind of greatness.  Put posture aside, and just do good work.  The way things are changing, those are the only kinds of people who will stay on top.