The Emotional Bumblebee

I finished Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” this past week. It’s the latest exploration in my decades-long journey to better understand myself and others. There’s a lot in this book and it’s been a paradigm shift for me personally. I expect the effects from the insights gained from Dr. Barrett’s work in my professional life will be equally seismic.

As part of this exploration and effort to understand what Dr. Barrett and others are discovering, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to organize and assimilate information. For years I’ve used mind mapping and its served me well. I continue to use this approach almost daily. Ah, but the relentless advancement of technology has resulted in new tools. My current favorite (meaning the one that so far matches how my brain seems to work) is a tool called Obsidian. It’s new and is evolving quickly. I’ve been using Obsidian to organize and study cognitive biases in a way similar to Buster Benson’s work. This past weekend I began a similar process with emotions based on Dr. Barrett’s work.

It’s early but it has already yielded many important insights and benefits. I began by collecting as many words I could find (currently, 514) that are used to describe emotional states or patterns. I then entered them into Obsidian, each connected to a single node, “Words that express emotion.” Here’s a partial screen capture of the Obsidian graph:

The graph is too big to fit on a single screen and have the words show. And Obsidian does not yet have an export feature for graphs into a standard image file. So I’m limited by screen real estate. Where I take this next…I’m not sure, actually. Probably a cycle of refinement and deep dive into definitions and descriptions. I can foresee the creation of a real-time tool for assessing emotional states using a circumplex. Lots of experimentation ahead.

There is a dynamic quality to the graphs in Obsidian that is part of the fun and path-to-insights with the information. I’ve created a video to show the effect and set it to Nikolai Riminsky-Korsakov’s orchestral interlude “Flight of Bumblebee.” If/when you read Dr. Barrett’s book, you will understand why I selected the bee theme. It’s a virtual emotional bee hive inside our heads and bodies. Be sure to expand the video to full screen for maximum effect. Enjoy!

Goals, Mission, and Purpose

Whenever you have trouble getting up in the morning, remind yourself that you’ve been made by nature for the purpose of working with others, whereas even unthinking animals share sleeping. And it’s our own natural purpose that is more fitting and more satisfying.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.12

When I was much younger I had an obsession with defining and achieving goals. I’d codified my approach into an unpublished workbook titled “The Goal Mapping Process.” There was nothing particularly unique about this process. All it really accomplished was laying out a method for breaking goals down into achievable tasks and then reassembling them in to the larger goal. It was very tactical and it worked. At least it did for me and perhaps that’s why I never published it. Working out the method within a frame of something that others might see forced a level of rigor that I might not have otherwise applied. In the end, it was just another way of getting things done.

Later in life the realization that completing goals had an element of dissatisfaction came into focus. Achieving goals, even big goals, wasn’t enough. The question of “What next?” frequently presented a blank slate. Figuring out how to achieve the goal kept me busy, but there was rarely any thought about what was after the goal. Or more importantly, what the underlying purpose of the goal was in the first place. What I learned was that a goal in and of itself, while often necessary, wasn’t as important to my overall satisfaction with life than the purpose or mission behind the goal. Goals are destinations. Mission and purpose are journeys.

This realization is perhaps twenty five or more years old. It turns out, defining goals and breaking them down into their tactical pieces is relatively easy. Defining an underlying purpose that makes identifying the associated goals is harder. After twenty five years I believe I have worked out a purpose and mission that has been fairly stable for the past five years.

My mission and purpose was influenced by the story of a woman named Janet. She died in 2005 at the age of 51. For ten years preceding her death she had been fighting breast cancer. For most of that time, her diagnosis was “terminal.” The battle statistics are staggering: 55 chemotherapy treatments, many of them high dose; 33 radiation treatments; 4 major surgeries; and uncounted doctor’s appointments. This and so much more is what it took to stretch a two year survival prognosis into ten.

I know Janet’s story because I was with her for every one of her chemotherapy treatments, the recovery after, and for each of her surgeries.

I know Janet’s story because she died in my arms.

I know Janet’s story because she was my wife.

I taught her how to search for and read research articles using Usenet and the nascent World Wide Web. While I was working two jobs Janet was searching these and many other resources for anything that might suggest viable treatment options. This effort is worthy of it’s own post, but does not factor so prominently in my purpose and mission. What does is something we experienced during this process of research.

Due to our heightened interest, news stories that claimed to have some angle on a “cure for cancer” caught our attention. Whenever we heard such news bites, we’d eagerly take note and then work to chase down the details. Invariably, they would end in disappointment. The news had hyper-inflated the claims of the researchers, often to the chagrin of the researchers themselves. We learned to tune out these news stories (eventually, the news altogether.)

I can recall many times during Janet’s cancer battle when I thought of these researchers. Indeed, of all the people working to solve the cancer conundrum. While Janet slept, I’d watch the milliliters slowly drip from the IV bag during the hours it would take for her chemotherapy treatments to run their course. I’d imagine dedicated individuals working long hours to solve chemical problem or design devices that would eventually replace the barbaric “suicide/salvage” strategy of contemporary chemotherapy. These were often moments of despair and feelings of extreme isolation. We were on the dark side of the moon, hoping for signals that would show the way across the cancer cure threshold and bring us home.

In the end, they never came and Janet lost the battle.

I’ve haven’t stopped thinking about the people who work to find a cure. Fifteen years later I find myself on the sunny side of Earth and in a position to help those working to solve the cancer conundrum. And I have to say, it isn’t how I imagined it would be.

There are certainly those who work long hours with a dedication that is both inspiring and humbling. But for the most part, there are people doing what people do – complaining, fighting for turf, lashing out over imagined offenses, scratching for more pay, finding ways to game the system, sinking to the lowest expected level of effort, defensive and afraid to correct bad behavior, perpetuating bad habits, blissfully unaware of cognitive biases that adversely affect their work, unaware yet aggressively protective their own limitations. It’s a lengthy list.

It is, as they say, a target rich environment for applying Agile principles and practices. The room for improvement pretty much matches the amount of space between here and the dark side of the moon.

One of the primary motivation devices in this environment are the success stories. And as well it should be. They are VERY moving and it’s impossible for me to see and hear the success stories of someone making it across the cancer cure threshold and not shed tears. For myself, there are also many untold stories which are similarly motivating and bring me to tears. These are the stories of those who did not make it across the cancer cure threshold but fought, like Janet, with everything they had while hoping a cure would be found before they lost the battle. The stories of the people who were fortunate to have been cured are examples of what we are trying to achieve. The stories of people who were not so fortunate are examples of why we need to find the most effective way possible for working together.

This is my purpose and my mission: Build teams that are communicating clearly and effectively, teams that understand both the value and limitations of diversity and inclusion, teams that are capable of uniting on well-reasoned goals, teams composed of compassionate individuals who are tirelessly seeking to understand themselves within the wider context and the longer view. Today, Agile principles and practices offer the greatest promise for fulfilling this purpose and achieving this mission. When something more effective emerges, I shall adapt accordingly.

Here’s to moving into 2020 with mind and eyes wide open.

Root Causes

The sage business guru Willie Sutton might answer the question “Why must we work so hard at digging to finding the causes to our problems?” by observing “Because that’s where the roots are.”
Digging to find root causes is hard work. They’re are rarely obvious and there’s never just one. Occasionally, you might get lucky and trip over an obvious root cause (obvious once you’ve tripped over it.) Most often, it’ll require some unknown amount of exploration and experimentation.

Even so, I’ve watch as people work very hard to avoid the hard work needed to find root causes or fail to acknowledge them even when they are wrapped around their ankles. It’s an odd form of bikeshedding whereby the seemingly obvious major issues are ignored in favor of issues that are much easier to identify, explain, or understand.

One thing is certain, you’ll know you’ve found a root cause when one of two things happen: You implement a change meant to correct the issue and a whole lot of other things get fixed as a result or there is noisy and aggressive resistance to change.

Poor morale, for example, is often a presenting symptom mistaken for a root cause. The inexperienced (or lazy) will throw fixes at poor morale like money, happy hours, or other trinkets. These work in the very short term and have their place in a manager’s toolbox, but eventually more money becomes the new low pay and more alcohol has it’s own very steep downside.

Morale is best understood as a signal for measuring the health of the underlying system. Poor morale is a signal that a whole lot of things are going wrong and that they’ve been going wrong for an extended period of time. By leveraging a system dynamics approach, it’s relatively easy to make some educated guesses about where the root causes may be. That’s the easy part.

The hard work lies with figuring out what interventions to implement and determining how to measure whether or not the changes are having the desired effect. A positive shift in morale would certainly be one of the indicators. But since it is a lagging indicator on the scale of months, it would be important to include several other measures that are more closely associated with the selected interventions.

There are other systemic symptoms that are relatively easy to identify and track. Workforce turnover, rework, and delays in delivery of high dependency work products are just a couple of examples. Each of these would suggest a different approach needed to resolve the underlying issues and restore balance to the system dynamics behind a team or organization’s performance.

Coder’s Lullaby

[Sung to the tune of Woody Guthrie‘s Hobo’s Lullaby.]

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.

Do not think about the deadlines.
Let the deadlines come and go.
Tonight you’ve got a nice warm cubie.
Safe from all the deadline woe.

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.

I know the bosses cause you trouble.
They cause trouble everywhere
When you die and go to heaven,
You’ll find there are no bosses there.

Go to sleep you weary coder.
Let the output scroll on by.
Hear the cooling fans a hummin’.
That’s the coder’s lullaby.