“Actually,” It’s Not (All) Data


It’s tough to surprise me at work.

In twenty-something years leading people, I’ve learned that no matter how unique it feels at any time, at work I’m part of a universal human experience.

In the last five years, I’ve encountered a few moments of true surprise.  Notably, when smart, nice people meet anonymous feedback?  The result can be unexpected.  In a not-good way.

When we use a performance management processes to help people to grow and do a better job at work, it’s a beautiful thing.

When our process is a weed-out, people rationalization, we might create a mean-reverting machine.  It might be toxic.

Today, in some workplaces, people are asked to use an app to record little bits of real-time reaction to their peers’ “performance.”

So, imagine Brian talks over Jessica in a meeting.   Then, she zings him on the app.

Or, Jessica is late with her contribution to a project.   So Melissa and Edwin register their displeasure.  On their phones.

Then, we call their entries “data,” and abstract a measure we call performance.  This elevates our work to a science.  Right?

Show me the control.

And show me how we account for Brian having stumbled into work after he spent the night on a chair outside the NICU, where his premature baby is struggling.

Or, how we factor in the inexperience of the manager who assigned Jessica to work on a project she’s unprepared for.

And how Jessica, Melissa and Edwin’s input is vetted for accuracy.  Whether they’ve been trained to give feedback.

How the tool accounts for an entry made in anger or frustration, vs. a thoughtful gem.

It’s not data.   It’s not an experiment.  And it’s not science.

I recently saw Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo created a faux prison in a Stanford basement.  He randomly assigned paid undergraduates roles as guards or prisoners.

The “experiment” was cut off after a few days.

First, the research team (which included grad students and an ex-convict) became part of a toxic power structure that arose after being assigned roles and “jobs.”

If you’re a manager of any tenure, you’ve probably been a guard at some point.   And you’ve probably also been a prisoner.

A recent NY Times story on Amazon was a brutal indictment of the company.  Front and center:  anonymous feedback and its misuses.

Of eleventy billion internet reactions to this story, two floated to the top for me.  CEO Jeff Bezos doesn’t recognize his own company.  Former Amazon employee Julia Cheiffetz does.   Her conclusion:

In the absence of meaningful public data …all we have are stories.

Amazon is a 150,000 person company.   Times reporters talked with 100 people — many, anonymously.  Commenters claim to be firing Amazon.

Hashtag, irony.

Cheiffetz, Times reporters, Bezos…I’d bet that there’s truth in all of these stories.

Photo: Fort Monmouth Environmental Testing Laboratory, by US Army Environmental Command, via Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0 license

Silver Bullets, Workshops and Workbenches


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My dad has a workshop at the back of his garage.   He builds, he hacks, he plays.   It’s magical.

Dad’s great with craft projects!  Sometimes, he does all the work, like cutting scrap wood into paintable shapes for our little people.  Other times, I’ve seen how to use a new tool — like a drill press (for a bookbinding project.)

At work, we often want to “workshop” a people management skill.  Or build our team.

We want the workshop — or retreat — to be a solution.   Sometimes we want too much.

At best, workshops give people:

  • Exposure to new skills.   Maybe a bit of practice, in vitro.
  • Novel ways to meet colleagues, outside of the daily flow of work.
  • Ways to search, together, for a common understanding.
  • (Fulfillment of compliance requirements.)

Before jumping into a workshop — especially if we want to solve a problem — ask a few key questions:

  • How will workshop content/design move us towards our desired end state?
  • Do our people see workshops as great development opportunities?   Or a barrier to getting their “real work” done?
  • In the weeks and months that follow, how will our leaders support and reinforce people’s learning?

Also ask, “What might go wrong?”

Layering a team building exercise on top of existing relationship issues?  It might not end well.   (I still remember the relationship fallout of a 1990s exercise in game theory.)

I suspect that the term “workshop” comes from the entertainment industry.  “Workshopping” is a low-cost, high impact way to test and get feedback on a play.

Workshops and retreats are expensive in time.   And potentially in relationship, too.  (Ask the boomers in your life about Trust Falls.)

After working with my dad at his workbench, maybe I’m qualified to drill holes through paper, fabric, and cardboard.   I wouldn’t use the drill press unsupervised, or on wood or metal.

“Begin with the end in mind,” is a Stephen Covey principle.   It’s a good one to consider when investing your resources in a learning program.

Leaving a workshop, I expect to have a change in state.  A transformation.

And yet, no workshop or retreat is a silver bullet.

It’s also not a workbench.  When I walk away from Dad’s workbench, we have created a tangible artifact.  Something that will exist in the world.   I’m thinking about this lately, out talking with people about useful workplace learning experiences.

Photo:  Workbench, by Lenore Erdman, via Flickr under CC 2.0 license.


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