Postive Thinking - 'Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short'

Do you recognize the quoted phrase in the title of this post? Think you've heard something like that before but can't place it?

It's from a 1651 book by Thomas Hobbes entitled "Leviathan", and the quote characterized the life of man in his natural state (or a pure democracy)! Hobbes wasn't much of a positive thinker, apparently.

Then again, maybe positive thinking isn't natural. According to Hobbes, the natural state is one of fear and avarice - every man for himself. There are places around the world today where this scenario is a reality and despair is in abundance. People in those situations naturally fear everyone and everything. People in safer circumstances ask how a benevolent God could allow such suffering? Or get cut off in traffic and feel personally insulted, and perhaps even take retribution! For me, at least, it's often hard to see good in many of the lessons of the School of Hard Knocks, particularly when they come in bunches. Or, as it sometimes happens, near-comical torrents (okay, they'd be comical if they were fictional and happening to someone else). The natural thought is "What next?" or "Why me?"

Much of this comes from the fact that the oldest parts of our brain, our reptilian r-Complex, survived for millions of years using just that set of attitudes. We only later evolved the ability to love and subsequently to reason at a high level. Yet in times of stress, the reptile brain makes decisions using the old patterns, and later our higher brains backfill the "reasons" for those decisions. Often to our detriment. How many times has justifying a bad irrational decision caused us further harm?

Winston Churchill once said: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." People may think that asking "What is good about [insert bad situation here]?" is naive and Pollyanna-ish. But as with democracy, it beats all the other thoughts you could have at that moment. Take for example the centerpiece of my weekend. It's about noon and well over 100 degrees in the shade. My daughter calls and her car won't start. I pack up my tools and make the 40 minute drive to her apartment (did I mention the air in my car is acting up?). I get there and we pop the hood. We are not in the shade. Try to jump it. No luck. Disconnect and pull out the battery. Drive to semi-nearby auto parts place. Battery has kicked the bucket. Buy new battery. Install new battery only to note that terminals are reversed. Uninstall battery, drive back to auto parts store, exchange battery, drive back to apartment, install battery. Success! Seek medical help for heat stroke treatment.

During this whole time there are many choice thoughts I could have had (and have in the past). But my daughter is very busy (full time college student by day, overnight manager at a major retailer by night), and I don't get to see her nearly as much as I'd like. And I knew she really needed her car fixed right away. So I was grateful for being able to help her, and for the bonus time we got together. I still looked and smelled a fright when it was all done, but I felt great!

This post is part of Think Positive! Blog's group writing project. I was pressganged into this project by Nic Darling, whose post title of Positive Thinking: Life is Miserable inspired me to come up with something even more anachronistic. Thanks, Nic! And thanks Kristen for starting the project!

posted by Mike at 12:42 PM 4 comments


Spooky Action Introspection

What if death is just a portal? A less awkward and faster acting version of puberty?

(Don't call 911. I'm just asking how it would change your outlook on life)

posted by Mike at 9:11 PM 2 comments


The Theory of (Personal Productivity) Constraints

My friend Dave Olson writes an intriguing post:
How do you increase your capacity?

* Emotional capacity
* Financial capacity
* Productivity capacity
* Relationship capacity

If the key to growth in life is capacity, then you’ve got to learn how to do more.



The key to increasing your capacity is doing more… of less. At least that’s what I think.

I believe that when he first said "you've got to learn how to do more" he meant "more" as in "new and different things than you already know". And when he says that's the wrong approach, I stand up and salute!

Dave continues:
"If you concentrate on doing only the things that YOU should do, you will become more effective."

Amen to that!

I've heard other people tout the "focus on your strengths" approach; most notably Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengthsand the brand newGo Put Your Strengths to Work. But that seems a bit counter-intuitive. Shouldn't I work on fixing my weaknesses?

Dave finishes his post by asking:
"What are you good at? What unique things do only you do?"

My response:
"I see connections other people haven’t (probably to maintain their sanity). For instance, your “focus on your strengths” is analogous to Eli Goldratt’s “focus on the constraint” in production systems."

Dave asked for a bit of clarification, since he hadn't heard of Goldratt (!)

Eli Goldratt is an iconoclastic genius. His book The Goalwill forever change your understanding of manufacturing and production processes.


If you haven't read the book, go hit that link and ask for express shipping. Or run to your local library or book store. They've got it. You will thank me.

But if you've read the book or just want the spoiler notes, here is why I think that Goldratt would agree with Dave's statement.

Eli's basic thesis is that any production system of nontrivial complexity is constrained by at most one or two steps in the process. In the book the constraint is a machine known as Herbie. The machines upstream from Herbie can make all the parts they want, but if Herbie can't process them they will just stack up as excess inventory. The machines downstream of Herbie are dependent upon his output, so they can't go any faster than he can. The entire system's capacity is controlled by the capacity of the constraint. You can spend all the money you want on improving other departments and other machines, but every dollar will have been wasted. You would have been better off flushing them down the toilet, because at least then you wouldn't have an expectation of improvement!

Faced with this problem, Goldratt outlined a five step process for maximizing the throughput of a system:
  1. Identify the system constraint
  2. Maximize the throughput of the constraint as is
  3. Subordinate everything else to the constraint (for the reasons stated above)
  4. Invest in adding constraint capacity, if prudent
  5. Go back and see if the former constraint is still the constraint. If not, rinse and repeat.

Let's say you run a take-out pizza joint. You've got a pretty good crew. Your dough crew can knock out 1 pie per minute. The sauce and toppings guys can handle three per minute. The oven requires 15 minutes to back a pie, with a capacity for baking 5 pizzas at a time.

Where is the constraint?

Yep. The oven. No matter how fast you create 'em, that oven can only crank out one every three minutes. So if you want to increase your throughput, all you can do is increase oven capacity. So let's say you invest in one of those conveyor-belt models that can churn out a pizza every 45 seconds. Now where is the constraint?

So that's the theory.

Now, how does it relate to personal productivity?

You decide the pizza business doesn't allow you to express your creative self. So you become one of those sidewalk chalk artists.

How do you make money? People throw money into a handy receptacle you provide for tips.

What is the constraint on how much money you make? It's your ability to create compelling artwork.

But that's not the only thing you do. You have to keep your permits and finances in order. You need to find good locations to work. You need to interact with potential patrons.

But is your time better spent adding a juggling act or refining your ability to render those eye-popping 3-D effects?

The time may come when you want to scout new locations, but is that something you need to do yourself, or can you get someone else to do it?

Your unique talents are usually the things that gets rewarded the most in the marketplace. By focusing your efforts on improving your unique value proposition, you maximize your throughput / monetary value. You can work to improve in other areas because it's fun or you don't want to bother finding someone else to do the work, but you're not really maximizing your capacity.

And that's why Eli Goldratt, Marcus Buckingham, Dave Olson, and I are all on the same page on this concept.

posted by Mike at 5:29 PM 7 comments


What I Learned From an Unscheduled Trip to Cleveland

Bob Hruzek has a new "What I Learned From..." project running, this time concerning work. Because I started my unfortunate illustrious career in product support, I learned a whole heck of a lot in a short amount of time. An MBA from the School of Hard Knocks.

One of the products I supported (yes, I was the entire product support group), was an integrated voice and data terminal. [Google search for picture was fruitless] Imagine a machine about the footprint of a laptop. Then put a 9" CRT sticking out of the right side and a handset on the left side, with a corded keyboard you could either stick under the unit or pull out to type. The devices had a built-in phone/address book and terminal emulation capability (hey, the IBM PC had just come out; who knew they would end up on everybody's desk?).

One of our beta test customers was a conglomerate based in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. They had outfitted several of their top executives with these devices. The initial installation and training seemed to go fine, but almost immediately we started getting calls telling us that the autodial capability from the built-in phone directory didn't work. But not for every entry. It seemed almost random. We tried to reproduce the problem in our lab, but couldn't. We entered all of the entries they had into one of our machines, but every one of them worked. Worse yet, our on-site techs would create duplicate entries that worked just fine! After several days, the sponsoring client executive blew a gasket and demanded that my boss and I show up in person to resolve the problem or he was going to throw all of the equipment out the window (that's what he said anyway, and they were 14 floors up)!

So my boss and I packed up a bunch of test equipment, including some fresh-from-the-lab non-UL listed prototypes, and headed off to Cleveland. We arrived mid-afternoon and were escorted to his office, which was larger than my first house. The executive himself was out of town until the next morning, but his administrative assistant showed us to his desk and the device in question. We got into the phone directory and looked at the first two entries:

We pressed autodial on the first entry, and the call went through fine. We pressed autodial on the second one and it failed.

"It seems to be stopping at that one", my boss said.

"That's because it's a lower case L", I replied.

We looked at each other with that "it couldn't be, could it?" expression, but after another 30 seconds of checking, the pattern was clear.

"Who created the entries in the phone book?" we asked the AA.

"I did", she said. "I didn't realize they would be a problem." Sure enough. All of those seasoned assistants had learned to use L's and O's instead of numbers as a way to keep their fingers home-rowed many years ago in typing school. On paper, they work great. But those damned computers weren't smart enough to know what they were doing.

In about 15 minutes we instructed all of the executives' admins how to fix the problem, and everything was great. When we met with the sponsor the next morning, he was more than apologetic. And he went from being one of our biggest detractors to one of our biggest proponents.

So what did I learn from all that? That the old saying is true: You can never make anything foolproof; fools are so ingenious.

Actually, the real lesson is that you can test a new product every way imaginable, but that your customers will find a way to break it almost immediately. Plan to deal with it gracefully if you want to keep them happy.

posted by Mike at 6:11 AM 8 comments


Dexter's Memetic Laboratory

I know what's wrong with my blog now.

Liz Strauss recently instigated a group blogging project, asking people to answer the question: What's Your Blogging Metaphor? I tried to ignore it; focusing instead on writing the irreverent guide to experience design, but Troy called me out, so I thought I'd take a quick shot.

After 10 minutes of scribbling and crossing-out, it hit me. For me, blogging is Dexter's Memetic Lab.

Dexter's Lab is a cartoon featuring a boy genius who has a secret laboratory in his house, in which he creates all manner of machines and monsters. Mayhem then ensues directly or as a result of interaction with his sister Dee Dee and other characters.

Since I began blogging, I've used these pages to experiment with ideas (or memes). From looking at the book Good to Great through the lens of epic mythology, to experimenting with typologies of fun, Spooky Action has been my lab for new or unusual (or as Wayne Hurlbut quaintly puts it: eclectic) ideas. Sometimes they turn out better than expected. Other times not. Sometimes they generate interesting conversations, but usually they don't. That's okay, because what I'm doing here is experimenting with memes. And the experimenter is rarely defined by failures they generate. but are remembered for the successes they do have (see sidebar)!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do...

posted by Mike at 12:01 PM 2 comments


Carnival of the Capitalists for June 4, 2007

Welcome to this week's Carnival of the Capitalists, which includes submissions regarding business, economics, finance, and management (but not personal finance or career management; sorry). Here is this week's fine fare of business posting:

Pamela Slim at Escape From Cubicle Nation posts Obsession with the competition is a luxury of the over-funded. While the title really says it all, Pam has some great advice about keeping the proper perspective regarding competition.

Carmen Van Kerckhove at Race in the Workplace posits that Diversity Training Doesn't Work. Here's Why and knocks that topic out of the park straightaway to the deepest part of left field!

Pawel Brodzinski at Software Project Management demonstrates how NOT to implement a new cost cutting program in Cost Cutting for Dummies. Extremely generalizable to other corporate initiatives.

Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership has an interesting and nicely balanced take and the challenges of managing the new generation of workers who are Addicted to Praise.

Steven Silvers thinks that the eHarmony complaint proves once again that lawsuits are a great way to generate serious publicity for extremist silliness. I think he defames cavemen in the process.

Rob Sama at the samaBlog explains why he thinks we are (despite contrary indicators) in a period of high inflation. Interesting food for thought.

Charles Green at Trust Matters ask Who Should You Trust on Trust in Business: a respected researcher or a business magazine with pages to fill? Oops, I guess I tipped my hand!

Rob at BusinessPundit asks if dressing (or in his case driving) for success really matters in JB Fuqua and The Trappings of Success: Do You Need Them?. He wants to know if his '74 AMC Pacer might be holding his career back. Go leave him a comment!

James Hamilton at Econbrowser sings Don't Worry, Be Happy about anemic-looking first quarter real GDP. I sure hope he's right!

Wayne Hurlbut at Blog Business World discusses Marketing gimmicks: bending spoons and magic. "Marketing gimmicks" is redundant, right? Or is that "Marketing magic"?

The Laundry Capitalist share stats showing that The Poor Get Richer, as do the rich, leaving a few crumbs for the middle class. Ouch!

Becky McCray at Small Biz Survival tells us What I Learned From Failure. That girl has made more than her share of lemonade!

Michelle Cramer at GreatFX Business Cards write about Rules for Networking on MySpace.

Next's weeks Carnival will be at Steven Silvers' place. Maybe I should take back that defamation remark? Nah!

There were a few posts that I thought didn't fit the criteria listed above, but marginally, so I included them here:

Dan Melson's There's No Such Thing as Full Service Agency for a Discount Price

Leon Gettler's The Politics of Pay

Silicon Valley Blogger's Stock Market Technical Analysis Versus Fundamental Analysis, In Pictures

John Ingrisano's Is Franchising Right for You?

Thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to look around. There are some suggestions over there on the right.

posted by Mike at 11:09 PM 4 comments