Up In the Air: A Self Reflective Movie

Today I saw the movie Up In the Air, a George Clooney starring film. It’s a good story and worth my $17. I was interested because of the reviews, but after I read up on it I found out that the same person did Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Thank You for Smoking is a favorite of mine.

The story follows Ryan Bingham who has a career of laying people off. The company he works for is Career Transition Corporation, a politically correct name for an activity of firing people. But it’s a reality and that is what is so gripping about the movie: the layoffs are heart felt. “You’ve been let go” is a phrase uttered by Mr. Bingham to many throughout the movie and the reactions are as pure as they can be.

Handling these situations takes a delicate touch and George Clooney, as Ryan Bingham, portrays a true professional. Throughout the movie are many insights to consider when relaying the news.

Throughout this blog I often talk about being prepared for the next opportunity. Someone like Ryan Bingham is the reason.

“Make no mistake. Moving is living.”

Valuable Data from Failure

I recently finished up my Six Sigma Green Belt certification for my day job. There are aspects to the methodology that I really got into and other parts I felt were overly process oriented.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the Voice of the Customer portion of the project. This is where you survey your end users and find out what they need. I prepared the questions and sent them out and received back a very good percentage of responses. At this point the fun really started for me. I analyzed the responses in a myriad of ways and I purposefully set up questions to reflect different prerogatives of the customer. When I compared the responses against each other it was really revealing. Our objective was much more clear – data doesn’t lie.

I read a piece in wired magazine this month called Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer that fascinated me (there are other segments to this theme in the magazine as well). Recently I had a minor failure in my professional life. I put myself out there and didn’t get a positive outcome. But I’ve taken the live and learn attitude from it and am better off for the experience. So when I saw this article it pulled me in.

The emphasis of the writing is mostly on how scientist deal with results of experiments that produce data that contradicts the hypothesis. Here are a few excerpts I really liked:

“These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

How did the researchers cope with all this unexpected data? How did they deal with so much failure? Dunbar realized that the vast majority of people in the lab followed the same basic strategy. First, they would blame the method. The surprising finding was classified as a mere mistake; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale.“The scientists were trying to explain away what they didn’t understand,” Dunbar says. “It’s as if they didn’t want to believe it.”

Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories.

There is also an explanation of two areas of the brain that play a part in understanding the world. One area, located in the center of the brain, is called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and it is the part of the brain that comprehends things that are against preconceived notions, such as the uniform pull of gravity despite weight. The other is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) which focuses the mind by filtering out stimulus that isn’t worthwhile (there is so much information coming in through the senses), but in doing so it can obscure minute differences. We start to use this mechanism as a shortcut, installing assumptions – that work 90% of the time – to close the gap in how we understand the world.

The article goes on to talk about the value of working on the margin; outside the establishment. This is useful for several reasons, but one is that questions are asked that aren’t usually. The reason is that assumptions have turned into an institutional echo chamber. People like Albert Einstein did their breakthrough work away from the centers of thought leadership. This environment makes people with alternative ideas explain their concepts to people who aren’t knowledgeable of the subject. This process acts as a test, which can either help the thinking through process or clarify the error in the method. Either way, it’s valuable to talk to people who are going to challenge the idea. As the article puts it:

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake. Bob Dylan, in other words, was right: There’s no success quite like failure.

And here is where my own experience kicks in some as well. I had thoughts on how the six sigma project should proceed, but I allowed the data from the Voice of the Customer to point me. I had my answers to the questions, but I kept a blank slate in my head to not cloud my judgment. I anticipated my answers were imperfect and that type of approach, cerebral rather than visceral, kept me humble enough to consider alternate realities. But when the time came to run with it, I did. As Bob Dylan said, There’s no success quite like failure. Live and Learn.

An Economic Winter Solstice

As I write this, the Winter Solstice for 2009 has come and gone. That means the shortest day of the year has just occurred or said another way, the longest night. But tomorrow the days start to get longer minute by minute. And that is how I feel about the economy. There have been subtle signs for about six weeks now that the economic solstice occurred and improvements are becoming more frequent. We are still a long way from an economic summer, but when each day is a little better than the one before, the psyche at least feels less stressed.

I gathered some optimistic views I’ve started to notice and pulled out the stats I thought were relevant. One caveat: I feel like the recovery will be very much moderate in 2010, but the foundation will be built for a long run standard of living improvement.

Jobs Are on the Way!
Second, when demand begins to pick up, businesses prod existing workers to work harder. Which is why we’ve just witnessed the fastest two-quarter productivity surge since 1961.

Third, when growth persists, bosses give part-time workers more hours or bring on temporary workers. In November, the economy added 52,000 temporary jobs, the largest addition since 2004, and retail hiring for the Christmas season is up 37 percent this year.

The Census Bureau is hiring 1.2 million people in preparation for the 2010 census.

The big rap on the stimulus—it wouldn’t happen fast enough—may turn out to be one of its virtues. Since it was passed in February 2009, only $237.6 billion (30 percent) of the $787 billion package has entered the economy

A growing global economy and the weak dollar point to a second source of support for job growth: exports. Exports fell from $164 billion in July 2008 to $122 billion in April 2009, but they’ve risen every month since then, to $137 billion in October. On Dec. 4, Boeing and Korean Air announced an order for five 747-8 Intercontinental jetliners totaling $1.5 billion.

Five years ago, Google had about 2,300 employees. Today, it has about 20,000. Did any seer envision that in December 2004? Economists can’t forecast what will happen in five months, let alone five years.

The Case for Optimism on the Economy

During the first half of this year, the investment component of GDP declined at a stunning 38% annual rate. Since the investment share of GDP was then about 14%, this implosion accounted for minus 5.4 percentage points of GDP growth. But since overall GDP declined “only” 3.6% in those two quarters, the rest of GDP (the 86%) actually rose. It was a small but real reason for optimism in a stormy sea.

Then came the third quarter. Like a woozy prizefighter lifting himself off the canvas, the battered investment component of GDP managed to rise (at an 11% annual rate), which added 1.3 points to GDP growth rather than subtracting 5.4 points. That 6.7 point swing was the start of the slingshot effect, which is not yet over.

Investment has three components: business investment, inventory stocking, and homebuilding. Inventory stocks were still declining at near-record rates in the third quarter; they simply must level off within a few quarters because sales are rising and firms will not want to deplete their stocks indefinitely. Business investment remains 20% below its 2008 peak; its likely course is up, not down, because plants and equipment wear out. And housing? Well, you know. Homebuilding is still in the doldrums—limping along at less than half the level of 1960. The only way to go is up.

True, the average personal saving rate has risen to 4.5% of disposable income so far this year from 2.7% in 2008. That’s higher, but a long way from the 8%-10% saving rates the doomsayers have foreseen. A saving rate near 5% is consistent with 3%-4% GDP growth in 2010.

The last two quarters were even more extreme: Productivity in the nonfarm business sector grew at a shocking 8.1% annual rate. There are two possible explanations. One: The last two quarters were among the most technologically innovative and entrepreneurial in the history of the United States. Two: Fearful businesses pared payrolls to the bone. If the second is closer to the truth, payrolls are extraordinarily lean right now. Which means that firms will need to hire more workers as their sales and production grow. Which means that employment may start growing sooner than the pessimists think.

The unemployment rate is falling!

The national unemployment rate improved to 10% last month as joblessness fell in 36 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Labor Department’s survey on state unemployment. The rate rose in eight states and held steady in six.

In a normal economy, Vitner said about 100,000 people enter the workforce each month. As the economy recovers from the worst downturn since the Great Depression, that number could double each month for at least a year, he said.

That would mean that more than 2 million jobs would have to be created over the year just to keep the unemployment rate from rising.

Labor Data Show Surge in Hiring of Temp Workers

Last month 52,000 temps were added, greater than the number of new workers in any other category. Not even health care and government, stalwarts through the long recession, did better.

More raises, smaller pay increases in 2010

An estimated 14% of employers will freeze salaries across the board in 2010, down from 30% in 2009, according to a survey released Monday by consulting and outsourcing firm Mercer.

Of the organizations that plan to give raises next year, the average base pay increase is projected to be a paltry 2.7%, down from 3.2% in 2009, and even lower than what was predicted earlier this year. In April, a Mercer survey projected pay raises in 2010 to be 2.9%.

Mercer’s 2009/2010 US Compensation Planning Survey Update was conducted in November and includes responses from more than 350 mid-size and large organizations in the United States. 

Working Thoughts 12/21/08
Strange Decision by the NY Times

Working Thoughts 12/21/07
Consumer Spending Rises

Value Creation with Fahrenheit 212

Early this year I posted an entry about how recessions are game changers. The down part of the business cycle challenges companies who don’t have flexible personnel. Creativity is at a premium as process goes out the door.

Well, at the time I got a comment from Joy who was representing Fahrenheit 212. She stated:

Ben, executives also need to know that they don’t have to go it alone.Companies can reduce risk AND improve their post-recession competitiveness by partnering with innovation specialists. If, that is, the innovation consultancy gets paid to perform, not just muse. At Fahrenheit 212, we share innovation’s risks and rewards with our clients. It’s a model that’s especially ripe for these times.

I was intrigued and we did a little email interview that I posted back in June called An Interview with Joy Bergmann of Fahrenheit 212. Here’s an excerpt:

7) If Fahrenheit 212 helps other companies be innovative, then you must have some very talented individuals working there. How would you describe them or what characteristics do they have?
The Fahrenheit 212 crew is without question the most remarkable group I’ve ever encountered. Everyone here is witty, well-traveled, energetic, caring and madly CURIOUS.

Lots of companies like to think of their culture as collaborative, but ours is relentlessly so. Teams propel each other to smarter strategies, better ideas and bigger wins.What’s extraordinary is how constructive, fun and supportive the whole vibe is.

We’re also quite diverse. Though a small firm, we hail from five different countries and celebrate our differences. For example, one innovation director was born in Lebanon, raised in France and Canada, studied architecture, has a foodie blog, aspires to be a perfumer and considers a typical morning to include revolutionizing consumer banking, inventing a new cocktail category and designing a necklace. One illustrator is also a licensed massage therapist, a weekend taxidermist and a museum-worthy oil painter. We’re not a dull group!

So I was happy to see on Fortune.com today a long feature piece on Fahrenheit 212 and the type of company they have. From how they are described, it sounds like they are set to grow tremendously over the next 3 years. And this is the work I often try to cite as the future: creative problem solving as a team. Math and science are very much needed, but so are those that can see something that doesn’t exist yet and make it come to life.

Update 12/21/09: Fahrenheit 212 also has an outlined approach over to chiefexecutive.net called The Innovation Imperative: How CEOs Can Deliver the Type of Innovation They Seek. Here is an excerpt from it:

A recent study published by Bain &Company illustrates the potential benefits of making a bold move when the going gets tough.

Bain studied over 200 companies across categories and came to three conclusions worthy of consideration at this moment:

  • Twice as many companies made the leap from laggards to leaders during the last recession as during surrounding periods of economic calm.
  • More than a fifth of companies in the bottom quartile in their industries jumped to the top quartile during the last recession. Meanwhile, over a fifth of all “leadership companies” — those in the top quartile of financial performance in their industry — fell to the bottom quartile.
  • Of the firms that made major gains in revenue or profitability during the last recession, more than 70 percent sustained those gains through the next boom cycle. The corollary was also true: fewer than 30 percent of those that lost ground were able to regain their positions.

The question is how?

As we said at the outset, calls for change can be more of a nuisance than a help if they don’t offer advice on “how” to change. We believe there are four critical steps in implementing a truly successful innovation program:

Step One: Break out of business as usual

Whenever you’re setting out to change the game, define the outcome you want to achieve and then assess what must be true to get there. Working backwards ensures you stay focused on the big goal and becomes a useful filter as you’re defining the challenges and key success factors that actually matter. A great example of this came from NASA in 1961. When President Kennedy proclaimed that the US would be on the moon by the end of the decade,the lead scientist at NASA said something along the lines of “We know where the moon is, we know where the earth is, everything else is just details.” Genius.

Data and Creative Story Telling

I’m somewhat of a dork when it comes to numbers and stats. I’m good at math, but that isn’t what I mean. I just like how data can be used to tell a story.

I stumbled upon a poster series that’s available through Flowing Prints that shows how America learns. There are three available.

What I really enjoy about these illustrations is the creativity it took to show the data in captivating ways. I imagine these guys are going to expand their talents to other topics. Here’s how the guys explain themselves:

Spread Awareness. Support Data.

Each series we choose an open data source,analyze and visualize it, and design three original prints that each provides a unique view into the data. Each print tells you a story.

This series is on education. Buy the series for yourself, or send it to an education department near you.

Who We Are

Nathan Yau shares his thoughts on data, statistics, and design at FlowingData. He is a statistics graduate student, with a focus on data visualization, at UCLA.

Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr. is a designer and illustrator working out of Brooklyn, NY. Some of his recent clients are The New York Times, Time Inc., Fast Company Magazine, and Good Magazine.

Atley G. Kasky lives in Los Angeles and works as a graphic designer at GOOD; he also co-curates But Does it Float. He likes letters and the equally vital spaces between them.

Working Thoughts 12/15/08
Quick Advice for the Newly Unemployed

Confidence and Mistakes

We all know someone who screws up a lot, but never really pays for the failures as what you would expect. There is a hint of jealousy as you think to yourself that if it was you, you’d be canned. But the world keeps spinning and this person keeps messing up. Why?

There are all kinds of reasons for this and I’ll concentrate on two mainly.

The first is that this person, in spite of their failures, has many successes as well. They just get overshadowed by the mere volume of all that goes on. And this type of aggressiveness is acceptable because it isn’t the norm. Plus sometimes it’s just easier to see a long list of accomplishments. It almost doesn’t matter if half of them are meaningless.

The second is this person’s attitude tends to be an enabler. What I mean is that their lack of fear is comforting to others. We tend to imagine extremes, so although all errors are not created equal we often lump the consequences as all being the one that results in a job termination. When someone demonstrates that this isn’t true, it makes the job less stressful. It allows a little freedom in.

Another part that is interesting about these types of people is they are so visceral. Leading from the gut is great when it works out, but that’s the thing, they never seem to remember when it doesn’t. What usually happens is that everyone starts to react to them, whether right or wrong. This is first mover strategy in Game Theory, but it’s also personally innovative. It changes the rules of the situation to be advantageous to the strengths of this person.

It takes a certain amount of confidence to pull this off. I’m currently finishing up a book called Why We Makes Mistakes by Joseph Hallinan which, as the title suggests, discusses the different reasons why people make errors. One of them is overconfidence. According to the book (I’ll do a review soon) no one considers themselves average. We all rate ourselves above average. This lends itself to taking risks that are disproportionate to the payoff. And another slant on it was written about in an article by David Ewing Duncan on Fortune.com called A Crisis of Overconfidence. He references a study that shows that this overconfidence is in the genes of humans. And in today’s world those that are audacious retrieve more spoils. Those that are timid allow it to happen; they don’t want the conflict.

Which brings me to the cautious. If it happens too often then you fall into the trap of being uncertain and doubtful. It’s good to be cerebral and think things through, but there is a time for just making a call and going with it.

You aren’t always going to be right, but many times it won’t even come down to right or wrong, people will just be reacting. And if you need some advice, you can always ask the screw up guy. But let’s hope that is something he is good at.

Working Thoughts 12/11/08
Three Leader’s Strategies in a Down Economy

Working Thoughts 12/11/07
November 2007 Job Report Statistics

A Jobs Report Prediction – One Year Later

A year ago is when we first started to see the carnage with the job situation. Most of 2008 had losses, but they were relatively manageable (usually losses in the mid 100K range). But the November 2008 numbers came out and showed a ramp up.

I decided at the time to take a stab in the dark and do a prediction of the labor situation for 2009. Here is my entry from a year ago today:

Here is a quick chart of how things have progressed over the last two years in regards to unemployment – the blue line that is. I included the red line to emphasize my viewpoint on the next few quarters. First,I’ll say I’m actually not as optimistic as the chart indicates. But I have a good feeling about the unemployment shape.

Here is my rational for a deep unemployment situation, but not a drawn out one:

1) Transformation Efficiency. The method for transformation is much more efficient than it once was. Business within the US is inconstant fear. Because of that most companies have both hiring and layoff systems in wait. So when a company needs to activate one or the other the time to get the machine moving is very small. Plus people can acquire skills faster than ever before.

2) Impatience! No one seems to be talking about the most valued resource in the US =TIME! The greed that caused many investors to abandon long term investing strategies (why wait 10 years for 9% return when I can leverage everything for 20% now) will very soon pull the US out of the situation. Its as simple as there are just to many deals to be had out there right now…

As you can see, I was way too optimistic. But these numbers (they were revised to be even worse than originally reported) are completely outside the line of history. Plus what I was trying to get across was more the shape. It so far is a V-shape, not an L or U. The V is very deep.

Here is a revised view of what I thought and what happened.