Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Prairie Gold

As the year draws to an end, I have been counting my blessings. This has been a very good year for me.

I have been healthy and strong and full of energy. I have a solid network of family and friends who sustain and support me. My apartment has become a comfortable home with the addition of new flooring and new furniture.

2009 has been a year of discovery and learning and beauty:
  • I have moved outside my comfort zone in networking and promoting my freelance business.  
  • I spent three glorious weeks in Spain studying architecture and design, trying my best to learn a new language, and exploring a new culture completely on my own.
  • I have taken thousands of photographs and even gave a slide show about Spain at the public library.
  • I have read voraciously on so many different subjects - creativity, economics, politics, and more. 
  • I am learning new computer skills, so essential in our current age. I developed a professional website and started using Google Reader and Delicious and Springnote.  
  • I have become more environmentally conscious, buying local, organic foods and trying to step more gently on the earth. 
  • I have attended lectures on architecture and urban design that sustained my belief that cities and buildings are for people not cars. 
  • I've been to concerts and plays and the ballet in Saskatoon and Vancouver and Spain.
  • I've delighted in the beauty around me - from the grassy fields beside the South Saskatchewan River to the scented gardens and fountains of the Alhambra and the Alcazar in Andalucia.
As the morning light turns the prairie grass to gold, I give thanks for family and friends, for the many opportunities to learn and to explore, and for the natural beauty that surrounds us. I give thanks for life.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How We Decide

We make thousands of decisions every day – what we want to eat or drink, whether or not to purchase a new electronic device, how to carry out our job. Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, is a fascinating look at how we arrive at all these different decisions.

What surprised me the most was the absolutely vital role played by our emotions: “every feeling is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can’t be accessed directly.” Our emotions help us to interpret complicated information. They serve as the link between all the information stored in our brains and our response to a new situation.

We rely on stored memory to help us decide when to swing at a baseball or when to brake. We don’t have time to consciously think through each of these actions, but instinct and emotions help us decide on the right response. In fact, if we think too much about how we swing our arm or how we steer, we’ll make mistakes.

Emotions also help us sort through complex decisions. We can rationally decide to buy a vegetable peeler as there are a limited number of factors to consider. We need emotions to help us sort through a complicated decision like buying a house, which involves many different factors – price, location, style, size, etc.

In fact, we may regret our choices if they are too rational. A research study asked students to choose a painting. The students who chose one they liked were happy with their choice. Those who were asked to provide a rational explanation for why they chose a painting often regretted their decision.

However, emotions can lead us astray as well. The mind treats losses differently than gains. We’ll respond far more positively to a proposal with a 90% chance of success than we will to one with a 10% risk of failure. It doesn’t feel like we’re spending money when we use a credit card, so we run up debts that we know we shouldn’t.

In addition, our brains will always try and impose a pattern on random acts. We start gambling, and we think we’re on a winning streak, so we keep going, even though we’re losing more and more money.

Sometimes, we don’t think enough. We rationalize decisions that we’ve already made, using rationality to justify practically any belief. For example, voters will use reason to justify their consistent, partisan voting patterns.

Lehrer recommends embracing uncertainty – identify what you don’t know as well as what you do know, and consciously examine your decision-making process.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mighty Popo: A Canadian Citizen

Life is a Celebration

How many guitar players and bands are writing alternate national anthems? Not many, I suspect. But the Mighty Popo did. Because citizenship matters to him. Mighty Popo was born to Rwandan parents in a Burundi refugee camp. He had no citizenship, no country that he could claim as home until he was granted Canadian citizenship.

Mighty Popo and two of his band members played at a recent symposium on immigration in Saskatoon, and he had many of us up and dancing. He kept repeating that, “Life is a celebration.” Mighty Popo’s albums are available from Amazon and on iTunes. He's also one of the featured artists on the CBC's two-part African Guitar Summit.

Refugee Success Story
For more information about Rwanda and Burundi and the life of a refugee, I highly recommend reading Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. The book recounts the story of Deo, a young Burundi man, who arrives in New York City, with nothing. He deliveries groceries and makes friends with people who help him go to medical school. It’s a story of remarkable courage and perseverance.

I suspect that Deo and Mighty Popo have a great deal in common. Not because of the colour of their skin, but because of their strength of character and love of life.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RAGE: Residents Against Greenhouse Emissions

I really wonder why I bother to vote and why we spend so much money on maintaining a parliamentary system when our politicians seem incapable of taking a stand and establishing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. George Monbiot has singled Canada out as one of the major threats to reaching an international agreement in Copenhagen. Why? Are the politicians too busy squabbling amongst themselves or are they protecting the oil industry, particularly the tar sands?

It was reassuring to attend a lecture at the University of Saskatchewan by Dr. Marc Jaccard, an energy systems analyst who builds models to understand the interrelationships between policy, technology and economics. Jaccard says that it is increasingly obvious that we have the technologies to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions with marginal cost increases. (Of course, we still have to have the political and social will to do it.)

I’m not going to try and reproduce his talk, but he made some points that I found interesting and worth sharing.

Voluntary Action
For the past three decades, we’ve relied on voluntary action to curb energy use – and it doesn’t work.

We make more energy-efficient appliances, but people just buy more. In 1985, households had an average of 15 electronic devices; they now have 40 (this does not include major appliances).

Subsidizing energy reduction doesn’t have the effect intended either because 25-75% of the people who receive a subsidy for buying a hybrid car or installing insulation would have done so anyway.

Compulsory Policies
You can’t implement aggressive targets if you don’t implement compulsory policies. Regulations and penalties drive innovation, create markets and overcome lack of public understanding.

Jaccard points out that MADD has been extremely effective at curbing drunk driving because they combined education, changing people’s behaviour and compulsory policies and penalties. He suggests that we need RAGE – Residents Against Greenhouse Emissions.

Lifestyle Choices
Jaccard emphasized that policies must focus on reducing the harm to the environment rather than changing people’s lifestyles. For example, his research has shown that people are remarkably attached to their cars. You can’t just substitute public transit for a status enhancing, sexual compensating, personal mobility device. But you may be able to substitute electric cars.

And the economy won’t necessarily suffer either. Instead, Jaccard believes that by constraining our policies, we will change the nature of economic growth towards innovation by doing more with less.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Integrative Thinking

The Opposable Mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking by Roger Martin
Roger Martin’s book is a very accessible study of how successful business leaders resolve conflicting opinions, question long-standing points of view and develop creative solutions to their problems. The book is based on interviews with a number of successful leaders, many of whom are Canadian, and provides concrete tools that all of us can use to improve our decision-making capacity. I took three specific ideas away with me:

Existing models ≠ Reality
Martin defines integrative thinking as “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

We avoid complexity by accepting either/or solutions rather than drawing out the best elements of each and combining them as a creative new option. Martin uses Isadore Sharp, the founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, to illustrate this principle. Sharp combined the comfort and intimacy of a small, no-frills hotel with the well-appointed, state-of-the-art facilities of a large downtown hotel by focusing on superior service.

The key to integrative thinking is to “embrace the mess” and to avoid simplification. Focus on what might be in addition to what already exists.

Assertive Inquiry
When we have a discussion with other people, we’re inclined to defend our point of view rather than trying to understand the other person’s position. As a result, we don’t gain any new information that might help us to arrive at a creative resolution.

Martin recommends asking questions in order to gain a deeper understanding of other people’s mental models. Assertive inquiry involves a sincere search for another’s views (‘could you please help me understand how you came to believe that?’) and tries to fill in gaps of understanding (‘could you clarify that point for me with an illustration or example?’) It seeks common ground between conflicting models (‘how does what you are saying overlap, if at all, with what I suggested?’).

Deepen Mastery + Nurture Originality
Martin emphasizes that successful leaders “utilize their experiences to build and deepen their mastery while maintaining and expressing their originality. Experience helps you to identify what is important, to recognize causal relationships and to analyze a complex problem. But mastery without originality produces standard solutions that fail to consider the unique aspects of every situation.

When A.G. Lafley, former CEO of P&G was in charge of naval retail sales at the Atsugi Naval Base, he collected data on which customer populations were buying what goods and at what prices. He held mid-week sales and analyzed the results. But he also expressed his originality by stocking unusual merchandise. He integrated mastery and originality.

See Also:
The Game-Changer: How you can drive revenue and profit growth with innovation by A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan