Customer Service Surveys and Nazis

I’ve just finished reading the book Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. It is the true story of  Eddie Chapman, one of the most fascinating and effective double agents working for Britain during WWII. Chapman, a career criminal, was the only wartime agent pardoned for his crimes by the British. The Nazis so valued his efforts during the war that they awarded him the Iron Cross.

Eddie Chapman was clearly talented when it came to telling stories and charming friends, romantic interests, and his spymasters. Yet there were times when his deception should have been flagged and investigated more carefully by the Germans. One reason this wasn’t done lies in what the book calls “the central defining flaw of the German secret service.”

The Germans tied the fortunes of the spymaster to his spy. Dependent on each other and competing with other German spies and spymasters, there was great pressure to provide information about the Allies. Chapman’s Nazi controller needed to believe the misinformation Chapman was feeding him. Having a productive spy increased his monitory rewards and kept him away from the Eastern Front.

In contrast, within the British secret services, spy case officers shared responsibility for multiple spies. The British knew that if a spymaster’s self-interest was tied to his agent, he would not see that agent clearly and that might compromise the spymaster’s personal integrity.

This problem with tying individual rewards and punishments closely to the performance or satisfaction of a third-party is something we still see today in businesses, government agencies, the news media, and public schools. One of the most annoying manifestations of this type of warped reward dynamic are in the ubiquitous customer service satisfaction surveys. Too many companies have clumsily tied some aspect of compensation of front-line employees to the results of customer satisfaction surveys. This results in front-line sales and customer service employees coaching customers to always “give a 5-out-of-5.” From car dealerships to carpet cleaners they repeat the mantra that if the customer isn’t completely satisfied and isn’t able to give a 5-out-of-5 (or a 10-out-of-10), the customer should immediately tell them and they will fix the problem *before* the customer fills out the survey. This creates an environment where senior management is kept in the dark. Hidden are possible systematic issues that would be obvious if customers filled out surveys without influence. Any problems are either fixed with a series of one-of solutions by the front-line workers or are swept under the rug because the front-line workers have pressured customers to only give perfect scores in the surveys. A perfect score on a customer satisfaction survey is basically worthless to the company who is trying to improve.

Throughout business, when managers run their departments with little outside input or objective analysis, misinformation is bound to creep into reports. In schools, the pay-for-performance movement and the penalties imposed by No Child Left Behind created an environment that encouraged standardized-test cheating scandals.

Of course, as the Nazi’s found out, glowing reports that fail to mention the negative, will eventually catch up with you. If you are a business, perfect customer surveys will not stop your customers from finding other venders when they are truly unhappy. In the schools, kids who are below grade level will eventually feel the negative effects of that, regardless of their impressively doctored test scores. In order to get quality information, we must be much more careful about introducing self-interest variables into our search for the truth.

Twin Cities Startup Week — Let the ideas, coffee & beer flow

Twin Cities Startup Week (#TCSW) begins tomorrow, Tuesday, September 9th. From the Beta.MN kick-off party tomorrow evening through to the Startup Weekend demos presented Sunday evening, this is a week to learn about and celebrate entrepreneurship in Minnesota.

Google for Entrepreneurs sponsors Startup Weekends around the world. They are intense 54-hour weekends where developers, designers, marketers, business people, and people with non-technical backgrounds come together and create compelling startup business demos. Billed as “the world’s starting point for entrepreneurship” they give budding entrepreneurs opportunities to pitch and develop their ideas. After a day and a half of intense work, Sunday evening the teams present their demos hoping to win significant prizes that will take their idea to the next level.

Here in the Twin Cities, the startup community has expanded the idea of Startup Weekend to an entire week of networking and information events for companies and individuals interesting in what is happening in local tech. I few of the events I’m looking forward to include MinneDemo18, the Twin Cities Startup Crawl, and Women in Entrepreneurship.

The Book on Autism & Education You Need to Read

Temple Grandin’s new book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, is a must read for educators, parents, and anyone concerned about how our society is dealing with the huge increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Published this spring it incorporates current research and thinking about autism.

Throughout her life, Temple Grandin has seen and lived through our changing ideas on autism and how to treat those afflicted with it. The medical profession still does not fully have a handle on it as evidenced by the newest version of the Diagnosis Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association which redefines what it means have ASD yet again. This controversial change will in all likelihood, reduce the number of children with clinical diagnoses and may limit their ability to get services.

The book combines extensive information on autistic brains with a plea to the parents and educators of kids with ASD to stop defining them by their disability. A few items that really stood out to me:

  • Based of current neural research, what a neurotypical person feels when someone won’t make eye contact is what a person with autism feels when others do make eye contact and visa versa. Kinda gives a whole new perspective on why kids with ASD don’t like to look you in the eye.
  • Through ever more sophisticated brain scans of younger and younger children, scientists seem to be on the verge of knowing how autistic brains develop differently. Geneticists are also picking apart how different mutations and their combinations may contribute to autism. This is going to be an exciting area to watch over the next 10 years.
  • Historically, we have defined and treated autism by what it looks like from the outside rather than what it feels like on the inside. The result of this is that parents, educators, and the medical profession have downplayed the importance of sensitivities. What if the autistic behavior that we are trying so hard to change is actually a perfectly normal and rational response to how the autistic brain amplifies and processes what neurotypicals experience as benign stimuli? If this is indeed the case, modifying the exterior environment might be the most effective way to change undesirable autistic behavior. As an aside, since many gifted people have sensitivities, Ms. Grandin’s advice on how to deal with them may also be helpful for the gifted community.
  • There are probably 3 types of thinkers and these types manifest themselves differently in neurotypical and ASD brains:
    • Visual Object Thinkers: people who think in pictures.

Picture thinkers like hands-on painting, cooking, and woodworking type activities and they are being horribly let down by our schools as curriculum changes emphasize reading and writing at the expense of classes like drafting and shop.

    • Visual Spacial Thinkers: people who think in patterns.

Pattern thinkers think about the way things fit together and can picture objects in their minds and imagine manipulating them in space. these people are frequently musicians and mathematicians. They may be behind in reading but way ahead in math. Schools must allow them to work ahead in math to improve their school success and confidence.

    • Verbal Thinkers: people who think in words and facts.

Verbal thinkers are easy to spot and, except in math, may have a big advantage in our reading and writing oriented public school system.

  • Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success

It is vitally important that we start defining kids by their strengths instead of their disabilities. Ms. Grandin laments the fact that the current generation of kids diagnosed with ASD are too quick to talk about their limitations. Sadly she feels that today’s gifted kids on the autism spectrum will not reach the same career heights as the Silicon Valley innovators. This is because we have diagnosed them with a disability and then let that disability define them instead of discovering, calling attention to, and nurturing their strengths.

Temple Grandin’s job advice for kids on the spectrum:

  1. Don’t make excuses
  2. Play well with others
  3. Manage your emotions
  4. Mind your manners
  5. Sell your work, not yourself
  6. Use mentors

Our society greatly benefits when people with complementary ways of thinking design our products and systems. Autistic minds have strengths not seen in neurotypical minds and the collaboration between different types of thinkers creates an end product that is greater than what any one type of brain can imagine.

Forget Potential, Nurture Passions

Today as Twitter goes public, it seems right to take a step back and reflect on how a company like Twitter reaches this level. Despite their lack of profits, they are the most anticipated IPO since Facebook began trading last year.

Many companies have great potential, yet only a few become common household names with worldwide recognition. While luck and timing undoubtably play a role, perhaps a more important factor is passion. Having a vision, believing in your ideas, and feeling strongly enough about your goal that you are willing to put in the time and effort to work through setbacks and adversity, is a necessary component for achieving great success.

Too often in business we focus on the bottom line and the day-to-day. While mission statements try to define a purpose, they cannot by themselves create a zealousness for putting in the extra effort needed to take a company to the next level. That type of energy bordering on fanaticism must come from within. People put time and energy into their passions in a way that is unsustainable in an ordinary job. Frequently this enthusiastic effort doesn’t even feel like work.

Our country and our economy needs passionate entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators. We need our best and our brightest to discover what fascinates them and run with it. Too often though our educational system does just the opposite. In gifted education and literature we focus on making sure students are meeting their potential. We design gifted services to provide identified students a chance to work at a higher level in adult-defined academic subjects. We expect our gifted students to excel in math, reading, and science and we teach them and test them to ensure they are living up to their potential.

Yet, ability and potential does not automatically equate to success in the business world. Yes, being smart can help you pick up on new concepts, but gumption, knowledge, and experience are far more important over the long haul. Instead of merely worrying about whether students’ grades and test scores properly reflect their IQ tests, we should support their unique interests. Instead of just signing them up for yet another enrichment class, we should take the time to listen to what is important to them and find opportunities for them to pour energy and effort into what moves them.

If we want to create enthusiastic innovators, we need to stop worrying so much about whether gifted students are working to their potential and instead help them discover and nurture passions.


5 Rules for Asking Engineers Questions

The other day I was listening to an interview with a project management specialist on how to handle different personalities on project teams. While most of what she said seemed helpful, when it came to working with engineers and IT admin types, she went off on a huge tangent on how “those people” had ego issues. She seemed to think they purposely were difficult and slowed projects down because they needed to feel important. She expressed that when engineers are reluctant to commit to a timetable and/or are reticent about giving details on how far they are through a particular phase of a project, it is because they want to feel important.

She couldn’t be more wrong. Very few engineers are the ego maniacs she describes and even those that are can be very easy to work with. Non-engineers just need to understand projects from the perspective of the engineers.

Engineers know that computers and software are not 100% predictable and reliable. They plan for the unexpected and build redundancies into systems where possible, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been burned. The more experience an engineer has, the more likely it is that he or she has spent hours or days recovering data and/or rebuilding a system that never should have gone down. The more familiar an admin is with different hardware and operating systems, the more likely he or she is to have a strong opinion on what will work. Yet, because sometime it just doesn’t, the more reluctant that admin may be to give a direct answer on what should be chosen and how long it will take to deploy. They have all seen “simple” installs and upgrades that did not perform as advertised. The last thing they want is for someone who does not understand the subtleties of their craft to hold them to expectations and deadlines that may turn out to be unrealistic.

You can start to improve your ability to work with engineers just by following some simple rules for asking questions.

Rule 1: Whenever possible, ask questions in person. This will allow you to see if the engineer is deep in thought coding or troubleshooting. Don’t just start talking, wait a minute or two until they finish typing or reading and turn to you with their full attention. Some of the biggest misunderstandings happen when questions are not fully heard.

Rule 2: If you can’t ask your question in person, ask it through email, not in a phone call. For the reasons listed above, if you just call an engineer and start talking, there is a good chance he or she will miss the first chunk of the conversation. This is especially true if they are actively troubleshooting an urgent problem. You will only have half their attention and it is unlikely the answer they give you will include all the details you need.

Rule 3: Whether you ask the question in person or in email, summarize their answer in an email confirmation just to make sure you understood their answer and you are both on the same page.

Rule 4: Semantics matter. Engineers tend to approach things as black/white, on/off, zero/one. This helps them greatly when working with code and computers and is something you need to keep in mind when asking them questions. To a non-engineering mind, the following questions may appear the same, but to an engineer are very different.

Can you do X?
Can we (as a company) do X?
Can anyone we have on staff do X?
Is it easy to find someone who can do X?
Should we do X?
Does doing X follow best acceptable practices?
Will doing X take so much time that it isn’t worth it?
Have we done X before?  Were the circumstances the same?  What were the benefits and drawbacks of doing X?

Rule 5: Whenever possible, questions should initially be phrased in term of the functionality you would like to see instead of an exact method of achieving that functionality.

Ask: What is the best way to set this up with a CMS so the customer can directly update their site?

Instead of: Can you put the XYZ content management system on their server?

Generally, engineers, especially introverted engineers, will answer the exact question asked. They will not necessarily volunteer all the additional information you may need. By following the rules for asking engineers questions, you will improve your ability to work with the engineers on your team.





Confusing Technically Knowledgeable with Gifted

The fast-moving, mobile, cloud, social, gadget industry is now part of our everyday world, web and app technology is seamlessly integrated into our lives. Most readers of this blog get their daily news electronically, reading it on a desktop screen or tablet instead of from paper. Our gadgets, cars, and houses communicate with each other, outside companies, and us in ways lifted from science fiction. We are experiencing the first true wave of the Internet of things on a consumer level and it is an exciting adventure.

Students and employees who are knowledgeable about the latest apps and social media platforms, who can write code and deploy servers, who have experience on the development side of the digital world, are in high demand. In colleges across the country the numbers of classic liberal arts majors are declining while students flock to acquire the engineering and math degrees that employers value so highly. As the economy continues its long road to recovery, many employers are taking the safer bet and hiring specific skills instead of general abilities.

While technical skills are necessary in many businesses these days, the reality is that the basics of being able to evaluate and analyze data, understand the marketplace, build strong relationships with coworkers and customers, and think, are more important than ever. While it is tempting to hire the person who currently has all the correct boxes checked for skills today, it is more important to make sure they will continually learn and make the connections that will drive your business forward.

Too often we assume that folks with deep technical knowledge are smarter than those with deep knowledge in non-STEM subjects. Perhaps this is a holdover from our reverence for the engineers that sent spaceships to the moon and created the home computer and Internet revolution. Those people were and are, not typical, even within the technology industry. Engineering revolutionaries and pioneers, like most innovators, are gifted. Although anyone with strong technical knowledge is smart, and many jobs require technical knowledge, we need to refrain from assuming that one specific category of skill trumps all others. Technically knowledgeable people may or may not be gifted. Beyond mere technical skills, we need people who can see the big picture, find relationships, discover hidden needs, and anticipate paradigm shifts.


The Grown-Up Gifted Child

Recently I have been re-reading one of my favorite books on living with and raising gifted children, the award-winning, A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children. Early in the book there is a table that lists, “Problems Associated with the Characteristic Strengths in Gifted Children.” As I was reading this list again I realized, I know these people. The funny thing is, they aren’t kids anymore.

When gifted kids grow up they don’t usually age-out of their gifted passions, strengths, intensities, and quirks. They may learn to act in a more socially acceptable manner and they, hopefully, gain a measure of perspective and self-discipline that they lacked as children. However, the essence of who they are and how they are different stays intact. One of the big arguments in favor of programs exclusively for gifted students is that they aren’t just bright. Their brains are wired differently and while, yes, they can complete typical school work at an accelerated pace, that isn’t what defines them. They are more passionate, sensitive, and intense. Merely completing the lesson plan isn’t enough. They want to go beyond the lesson plan, or alternatively, question its basic worth. They are more driven by deeper meanings and philosophical questions than other students their age. This can make them an under-achieving, dejected, argumentative, moody pain in the wrong classroom environment or the engaged, high-performing, thoughtful student in the right classroom environment.

The same is true once they grow up. Just look at the a few of the strengths and associated issues they can create as detailed in the book.

Strength Possible Problem
Acquires and retains information quickly Impatient with slowness of others; dislikes routine and drill; may resist mastering foundation skills; may make concepts unduly complex
Ability to conceptualize, abstract, synthesize; enjoys problem-solving and intellectual activity Rejects or omits details; resists practice or drill; questions teaching procedures
Enjoys organizing things and people into structure and order, seeks to systematize Constructs complicated rules or systems; may be seen as bossy, rude, or domineering
Thinks critically; has high expectations; is self-critical and evaluates others Critical or intolerant toward others; may become discouraged or depresses; perfectionistic
Creative and innovative; likes new ways of doing things May disrupt plans or reject what is already known; seen by others as different and out-of-step
Intense concentration; long attention span in areas of interest; goal-directed behavior; persistent Resists interruption; neglects duties or people during periods of focused interest; seen as stubborn
Sensitivity, empathy for others; desire to be accepted by others Sensitivity to criticism or peer rejection; expects others to have similar values; need for success and recognition; may feel different and alienated
High energy, alertness, eagerness, periods of intense efforts Frustrated with inactivity; eagerness may disrupt others’ schedules; needs continual stimulation; may be seen as hyperactive
Diverse interests and abilities; versatile May appear scattered and disorganized; becomes frustrated over lack of time; others may expect continual competence

In the work environment these possible problems can limit opportunities, cause issues with HR, and possibly lead to terminations. Perhaps this is why many gifted individuals become entrepreneurs. As their own boss they can find the best way to work with their strengths.

In relationships, when the innate characteristics of gifted boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses go unrecognized, unrealistic expectations from both parties can poison the partnership.

Gifted individuals need to understand themselves and how they may differ from others at home and in the workplace. Self-knowledge of natural strengths and how they can become liabilities is essential to long-term happiness and fulfillment. This information guides the grown-up gifted child in working through misunderstandings and frustrations with their significant others, at home. At work, it enables them to increase their productivity, improve relationships, and perhaps even realize when their current work place is just a bad fit and it is time to move on.

Developing self-awareness in gifted students is one of the primary goals of quality programs for the gifted. It is also one that is virtually impossible to reach when gifted “programs” consist primarily of accelerated, in-classroom, differentiation. The farther away from the mean a student is, the more likely it is that her strengths will cause her issues at some point in her life. Gifted educators need to mentor their students on how to live in and thrive in the regular world as a highly, profoundly, or exceptionally gifted individuals.

Moms of Highly Gifted Face Steep Work Off-Ramp

The CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, just abolished Yahoo’s work-at-home policy. This bold move to kill workplace flexibly will disproportionately affect employees who have primary caretaker responsibilities for aging parents and/or young children. Employees were ordered to start working in the office in an attempt to save Yahoo through better collaboration and increased innovation. While employees can be very productive working at home, they need face-to-face interactions and chance meetings at the workplace in order to find synergies and maximize creativity.

Ms. Mayer is taking heat for her decision because it was assumed that as a young working mother she would make the workplace, if anything, more friendly to the needs of working parents, not less. Instead, she is putting the needs, as she perceives them, of Yahoo, ahead of the needs of employees that, due to family obligations, require flexibility in their work life. Since the job of both raising children and taking care of aging parents falls disproportionately to women, this decision will have the greatest effect on Yahoo’s female workers. While it may well be the correct decision for Yahoo’s bottom line, it is further evidence that is very difficult for women to have it all.  As convincingly analyzed last July by Anne-Marie Slaughter of The Atlantic Monthly, women who manage to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. Given that Ms. Mayer became CEO of Yahoo at age 37 when pregnant with her first child, it is a good bet she is the first two.

So what does this all have to do with gifted kids?

The parents, especially the mothers of gifted children, especially highly and profoundly gifted children take an especially hard hit in the work-life balancing act. More often than not, they are the primary caregivers and it falls to them to figure it out when normal environments don’t work for their high-energy, asynchronous, and possibly perfectionistic, highly volatile child. This inability for highly and profoundly gifted kids to thrive or even fit, in regular childhood environments can start in daycare, long before official schooling. The rhythm of daycare with carefully scheduled, age-appropriate, group activities and rules can be exactly the opposite of what an insatiable learner needs. When the child’s needs aren’t being met, behavior problems frequently occur. The primary parent starts getting comments at pickup times, notes home, and calls about her child’s misconduct. These can continue into elementary school. When the environment isn’t right for a significantly gifted child, both that child and the primary care giver suffer. The dread of the next phone call or note home, along with the knowledge that your curious, creative, learner is becoming disengaged and miserable, frequently sparks a search for a more appropriate childcare and/or schooling environment.

When regular daycare and school doesn’t work for significantly gifted children, there are three standard solutions — working with the school to increase engagement and opportunities for your child, putting your child in a school for gifted children, and homeschooling. Oftentimes parents do all three of these, sometimes at the same time. One truism when raising significantly gifted children is that school environments and challenges must be evaluated on an almost yearly basis. Again, all of this takes research, work, and time. Lots of time. Time to find the right programs, each year. Time to get your child enrolled (which may also include convincing the administration that your young child is actually capable of doing the work), time to drive your child to specialized programs which are rarely in the local school district. This time burden increases when we add in the high-strung, perfectionism in many gifted kids that causes meltdowns, even for seemingly simple tasks.

All of this makes it very difficult for parents of significantly gifted kids, even in two parent households, to both work demanding, professional jobs. If one parent holds a job in a non-flexible work environment, such as the new Yahoo, the other parent is the full-time driver, teacher/teacher liaison, and emotional coach for the gifted child. More often than not, this job falls to the mother who then puts her career desires aside. In the world of giftedness, from meeting of gifted homeschoolers to SENG conferences, the rooms are filled with mothers, not fathers. Mothers sacrificing their careers, financial autonomy, and perhaps, their personal aspirations to instead focus on their children’s needs. The mothers of significantly gifted kids are usually highly gifted, innovative thinkers themselves. Our nation misses out when they are unable to fully participate in business, industry, and government.

While CEOs such as Ms. Mayer may be correct that businesses benefit when workers can talk, face-to-face, that does not mean that flexibility needs to be completely eliminated. We as a society can get more creative. Some companies have experimented with core hours — 4 to 5 specific hours in the day when all workers must be in the office. Others are recognizing that part-time positions can include meaningful, decision making, and advisory roles. Some schools  are working to match school days with work hours to eliminate the last 2 hours of the day childcare burden.

Creatively balancing workplace flexibility with face time is a good start, yet the biggest change we can make is in our attitudes. We need to stop viewing workers who have the primary responsibility for raising gifted kids as workers who are “taking a break” or “taking time out” from the regular work world. Raising a gifted child requires patience, research skills, negotiation savvy (both with your child and school officials), juggling priorities, trouble-shooting, and a host of other skills that companies desire. Parents who take a chunk of time away from paid employment should be welcomed back into the workplace as highly trained, effective workers who are switching industries. Taking time to raise gifted kids is not the same as taking a multi-year vacation and business needs to stop viewing it as such.