What can science bring business?

Although I normally think and write about what the commercial business (aka the real) world can bring to astronomy management, I thought I would take a new look at the subject and consider what science can bring the (real) world of business management. Are there aspects of  science and astronomy  that can be applied to the business world?  In short,  yes.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the Vietnamese company, Viettel. Viettel is one of the fastest growing telecommunications companies in the world and I was very impressed with their leadership and their company’s vision and culture.  The company has 8 very visible values that seem to directly reflect the marriage of the scientific approach within the commercial world framework.  The translations I found differ, but their 8 basic values can be summarized as:

  1. The data decide the right answer.
  2. Learn through success and failure.
  3. Change is the norm; adapt quickly.
  4. Innovation is life.
  5. Think about the system, not just the parts.
  6. Combine the East and the West – look at things from different perspectives.
  7. Exploit the military tradition and manner: discipline, unity, perseverance, decisiveness, thoroughness.
  8. Viettel is a family.

I really can’t think of a better way to put it. These principles capture the data-based, experimental, innovation driven approach from science with a systems engineering, multiple-perspective, disciplined outlook in an organization that treats its employees as family. That sounds a lot like the marriage of science and business, fairly consistent with my own management and leadership goals as mentioned in a previous post.  Some benefits of the scientific approach, which Viettel seems to understand, include the objective competing of different ideas and different solutions in order to find the best solution.  The search for the truth is more important than any one person being right.  In working together to explore multiple ways of solving a problem, we create alignment in purpose and a focus on providing the best results for the organization.  We do not make decisions based on opinions, but on facts and data.

Viettel also acknowledges that learning comes from failures as well as successes.  Combined with their focus on objective data, I imagine they explore why their successes worked as well as why their failures failed, and learn from each.  My personality type, I’ve read, typically views failures as incomplete successes. That characterization may have been meant a bit facetiously, but the Viettel principles show the value of such a world view.  If we use the data at hand, make an objective decision that ultimately proves wrong, we have learned something valuable – perhaps as valuable or more than we would have learned had we got it right instead. We try, we fail, we learn, we improve, we move on.  (The downside to that approach of course arises if you fail to learn from the failure, and simply reclassify it as a success. That is not what I am advocating.)

I think this ties into a concept I have been hearing more and more about lately of radical transparency, but more on that in a future post.

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What exactly should managers manage?

At Facebook, moving into management is not a promotion. It’s a lateral move, a parallel track. Managers are there to support people and to remove barriers to getting things done. Managers focus on building a great team, creating a vision for how that team will execute its goals, and helping the people on that team develop in their careers. They are put in those positions because of their strong people skills. They aren’t there to tell teams what to do. This viewpoint has become so effective that some managers at our company have even gone so far as to stop saying things like “my team,” instead opting for things like “the team I support.”

I forget exactly where I found this, but here is one source:  https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/3-tricks-facebook-uses-to-shut-down-toxic-office-politics.html

I really like this idea and it supports this general notion I have that concentrating power at the top with direction flowing down is the wrong way to run an organization.  At my organization, managers used to propose projects, evaluate which we could and should do, and then worked to form teams that carried them out.  We’ve grown a bit since then in that we accept project proposals from all staff, but we still let a small group of executive managers decide which we should do.  There’s a tacit understanding that executive management has to set the strategies, and therefore the tactical plans, for the organization.

Our next growth step, I hope, is to allow staff themselves to select which projects we execute.  Managers, then, would have the job, as at Facebook, of creating environments where people can work effectively, and where staff understand the observatory’s strategies and operating constraints well enough to make the right decisions.  As Ricardo Semler explained in his book, Maverick, this means management has to make the organization’s finances, regulations, governance and other constraints accessible to the staff. Educate them in the nature of the business so they can use their experience on the lines to develop new solutions and projects that propel the organization forward.  (Ricardo even went so far as to hold accounting classes that taught employees how to read and understand the company’s income statements and balance sheets.)

The next step would be to consider who owns and develops the organization’s strategies.  Is it executive management or the staff? Do executives make the strategy, then educate staff so they can figure out the best way to implement it, or do executives explain to organization’s environment so that staff can both develop and implement the appropriate strategy? What is the role of the visionary leader executive if not to develop clever strategies that when efficiently executed by employees lead to industry success?

My answer to those questions involve removing the word “executive” from my last question. Why does the visionary leader have to be an executive? Furthermore, why does the visionary leader have to be a single person?  Don’t we get more opportunities to develop clever strategies if we reach out to all our staff and give them the ability and access to chart the organization’s future? Isn’t that the role of management – to maximize the value each employee adds to the organization? If a line employee has a compelling vision, there is no reason to stifle it just because the originator is not in executive management!

That’s the organization I’d like to see. Management that creates environments in which employees can work effectively and that educates staff on the organization’s business so that good ideas, tactical or strategic, can come from anywhere within the organization, producing staff that all have the ability and knowledge to identify and carry our their best ideas.


Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Great leaders: Are personal crucibles a prerequisite?

I’ve been reading the book Strengths Finder 2.0, by Tom Rath.  Like one of my favorite business books, First, Break all the Rules  by Curt Coffman and Markus Buckingham, Strengths Finders 2.0 relies on data gathered from extensive Gallup surveys to help the reader discover and understand their five (out of 34 possible) top strengths.  The author’s premise is that we gain more by concentrating on our strengths than we do trying to improve our weaknesses.

In the end, I did not find my five identified strengths terribly enlightening. The premise that we should spend more time working on maximizing our strengths – both by strengthening them and by maximizing how often we use them – and less time improving our weaknesses, however, resonated with a couple other things I have been thinking about recently:

  1. Performance evaluations: I think we spend too much time pointing out weaknesses and developing improvement action plans when we do annual employee evaluations. I would like to see people figuring out what went really well, why, and how we can set things up to realize similar successes in the future. That is, performance evaluation discussions should dominantly be about doing more of what we do best and not about trying to be a little bit better at what we do poorly.  But then I get this nagging feeling that weaknesses are important to. Weaknesses make us blind to entire pathways of opportunity. Weakness make us fail to connect to people who think drastically different than we do.  If all we did was capitalize on our strengths, we would reach a certain level of success quickly, but to transcend to the next level, I think, requires an understanding and embracing of our weaknesses.
  2. Great leaders:  All the great leaders in  Bill George’s book, True North, went through at least one particularly difficult and personally challenging life-changing event on their path to becoming great leaders.  George’s belief is that it is through life’s experiences that we discover our true north, our purpose and our reason for leading.  Author Rajeev Peshawaria takes a similar approach in another book I enjoyed, Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders. While reading these books, I  began to ponder: do all leaders need what George calls a “crucible” to be successful? If you do not have a life-changing event of tragic proportions, does that mean you cannot be a great leader? What exactly is the role of the crucible? Is there something else going on besides finding a passion to lead for a particular purpose?

I did not initially see how these two topics relate, although I have now come to think of the purpose of the crucible as the opening up and revealing a part of yourself that was previously unknown. George and Peshawaria’s main point is that crucibles give leaders a deep, personal drive that motivates themselves and others.  To this, I agree.  Yet, I think there is something more.   What crucibles also do is sort of complete the package. Crucibles make potential leaders more rounded and complete in part by exposing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  In revealing a sense of purpose, crucibles peel back the onion and uncover hidden parts of people’s psyches.  What used to be personal blindspots become irresistible areas of development and opportunity.   They often reveal a side of us we never knew we had – perhaps even a side we considered not only a weakness, but irrelevant.

The best leaders know not only their strengths, but also their weaknesses. They organize their primary roles to take best advantage of their strengths while partnering with others in their areas of weakness.  They know that their weaknesses represent potential blindspots that, if ignored, hamper their ability to lead.  They also know to not only work with, but to value people that are strong where they themselves, are weak.

George’s crucibles can help bring this clear sense of being incomplete, of seeing not only the value of our strengths, but the value of our weaknesses, as well.  This awareness helps us develop those weaknesses and to find others around us to support our weaknesses while fostering a strong drive to develop and accomplish something meaningful.

Truly understanding ourselves is key to recognizing what our true strengths are. It helps us realize in what areas of work we are likely to excel. Truly understanding ourselves is also key to understanding our weaknesses and what aspects of our work we need to pay particular attention to and allow others to help us with.  It helps us find opportunities we would otherwise be blind to.  Understanding our strengths, supporting our weaknesses: this is beginning to sound like my paragraph on performance evaluations, yet it derived from studying a group of great leaders and their struggles.

Which  brings us back to Strengths Finder 2.0. Yes, in terms of performance output per energy spent,  maximizing our strengths is generally going to be more rewarding  than improving our weaknesses.  But that is not the whole story. It is the knowledge of our weaknesses, our real ownership of them, that allows an additional level of growth that takes us from being good leaders to potentially great leaders.  Crucibles not only directly confront us with our weaknesses, they often expose a part of ourselves that we didn’t know we had.  Sometimes this part of ourselves ends up being a weakness that perhaps is not quite as weak as we thought.  We begin to appreciate the value of our weaknesses. That is, we are forced to re-classify what we may have previously cast off as not very important or useful, as something not only useful, but valuable.  The very act of discovery both increases our own abilities in our areas of weakness and helps us to appreciate and value others whose strengths are our weaknesses.  People that we might otherwise have not valued, we begin to see as key contributors to our mission. We begin to value, rather than shun, people who think differently from us.  I believe these results are what transform George’s (and our own) generally good leaders into great leaders.

So, do you need a crucible to be a great leader? Perhaps not, but you do need to understand who you are, why you are, what you do well, and what values those different from you bring.  A crucible is just a convenient, if sometimes painful, way to get that.

Fifteen years ago, Scot took a personality test and was most shocked not by his resulting personality type, but at one particular type that he clearly was not.  He was amazed there really were people – both functional and successful – that were really this type. Today, he finds  exploring that part of his own personality and working with others of that type, very rewarding and a key to working his way to being at least a good leader.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Recognizing our anxieties

I was mowing my lawn the other day, lost in my own thoughts as I usually am when mowing the lawn, when I saw someone I didn’t know walking by.  I saw him watching me and I found myself thinking he’s probably wondering why I am mowing in such an inefficient pattern.  I wonder if I could do this better. It looks like it is about to storm at any moment, so I am trying to cover as much ground as I can before it starts to pour. Yes, my pattern is inefficient with respect to completing the lawn, but it is efficient with respect to getting more area mowed in a short amount of time….

And then I had to stop and laugh when I realized the huge projection I had just made of my own needs and insecurities onto this random passerby. This stranger gave me no indication that he really was thinking about my inefficient mowing strategy. That was entirely my own projection. There are many things I could have thought, but didn’t:

He’s probably hoping he gets back home in time before the rain starts.

He’s probably glad he got his lawn mowed yesterday when it was dry.

He’s probably wondering if I am going to continue mowing even when the downpour starts.

Isn’t that a neighbor? Hi.

and so on. Yet I didn’t think any of those things, I thought about my inefficiency, clearly indicating my own focus and hangups.


If the passerby had stopped to talk while I was still projecting, I might have offered a defense of why my apparent inefficient mowing strategy really was actually the most efficient thing I could be doing at that time. I might have said this even though the odds are this thought wasn’t even close to being on his mind.

These assumptions and projections fill our lives and flavor our communications with people all the time.  Listen for them in yourself and in those you work with.  Understanding these assumptions can help you correct them in yourself to be more open to what others really have to say. They also illustrate the nature of the lenses you have on the world. What is important to you? How do you see and judge yourself?

By listening for these assumptions and projections in others, you can tailor your words to both address their needs and get your point across in an easier way. When you find someone being defensive when you approach them about something, they are probably projecting their own anxieties on you. If you listen to what they are, you can better address them while adjusting your approach to get your issue in the mix, as well.

Efficiency, as the vignette above demonstrates, is important to Scot. He is naturally keenly aware of time and does not like to see it wasted. While this fixation has some generally good consequences, it can also hamper his ability to spend a bit more time to explore a different path, get people settled, or discuss how people feel about a given action. Luckily, there are both (and more) types in the world for us all to learn from. And occasionally, Scot even remembers taking the time to do these things can actually end up being more efficient in the end than not doing them.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Breaking projects into tasks

I was been feeling a bit unmotivated at work a while back until I realized one reason why. I took (yet another) look at my task list and found most of the remaining items were not tasks, but projects. They were projects that would take multiple hours to complete and in many cases weren’t clearly defined as to their final results. What were these projects supposed to produce? How would I know when they were done? How would I start them?  No wonder I didn’t feel motivated. People don’t do projects; they do tasks. When I looked at this task list I saw vague, undefined projects that had no defined end and no defined place to start. They represented hours of work when I rarely have consecutive hours I can spend in once place to spend on one project.

So, I picked an item of my list and asked myself what I needed to do to start on it. In this particular case, the answer was to locate an old version of a similar document I had to write, take a look at it, and decide how I wanted to change it for the new document I had to write this time.

A colleague and I regularly teach this trick in a task management class we lead, and it’s standard course in any Getting Things Done like approach: always start and stop a project by noting your next task.  Doing so always gives you a concrete place to start when you pick the project up.   I shouldn’t have had to remind myself to do this, but at least I’m glad I eventually remembered.  A good reminder for myself, but also good to keep in mind when people you work with are not making the progress you expect. Maybe they don’t know where they are headed or maybe they don’t know how to get started.  There are both easy things to fix once you are aware of what to look for.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Who are you?

Who are you, if not your job or profession?  I asked myself this question recently, and didn’t have an immediate answer.  It’s easy to say I am an astronomer, or I am my job title, but what am I besides my job?  What are you?

I’m sure for some people, this is an easy question to answer, but for others like me (an enneagram 3) who tend to identify themselves with what they do, it’s not as easy.  Sure, I am a son, husband, father, brother, uncle, etc., but these don’t define me.  They don’t make me me – with the possible technical exception of being a son, of course. 🙂

I am an adventurer.  Yes, but no. I like discovering new things and I am usually up for an adventure, but I don’t really live for it.  What else could I be?

I am an expert.  No that’s both too arrogant and inaccurate. I have too many interests to really be an expert in any/many of them and although I want to learn how things work, I don’t feel I have to be an expert in them, so that’s not right.

I am an observer. There’s some truth in that, and not just as an astronomer, but it sounds too passive. I like watching things and noting how things work, but I don’t want to just watch things happen, so I need a more active description.

I an optimist. That’s close, but I don’t go through life looking for things to be optimistic about.  I believe we can often make events good simply by choosing them to be so while other times, we can extract good from an otherwise bad event by studying it and working to do so.  So, optimism is more of a tactic than a strategy for me.

I am an explorer. OK, that’s sounding better.  It describes my interest in science and astronomy and includes key applicable traits of being an adventurer and an observer.  I explore to understand how things (including organizations and people) work. I explore to learn how to make them work better; how to use them to do other things; and sometimes simply just to understand them.  In the process of exploration, I’ll often take something I know and look at it from a different angle or do it in a different way. All this fits with being an explorer; it is,  at least, the best I’ve come up with so far.

Beyond my attempts to peel back my own onion layers, what’s my point here? That each of us is more than our jobs and our professions and that by understanding both ourselves and our colleagues better, by understanding who we are besides what we do, we can better work with each other to create better environments for people to live and work to their potential.

So, who are you? And who are your colleagues? Are you working to help give them what they need to be themselves? Are you creating an environment where each of you can get the most return out of being who you are?  Do your colleagues know who you are so they can do the same for you?

Scot’s been suffering from jetlag recently and this post arose as a result. He hopes, however, it still makes some sense and he wishes you all, whoever you are, a happy holiday and a great 2015.

Posted in General | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Learning from an amygdala hijack

Last week I was hijacked.

By my amygdala.

I should have known better. I do know better. But last week, I didn’t prevent it when I could have and boom – I was hijacked by my amygdala.  An amygdala hijack (google the web for lots more on the subject) basically occurs when your adrenaline increases and you find yourself reacting in a far more emotional way than the situation warrants.  It is usually a sign of feeling threatened resulting in your amygdala kicking in to help you protect yourself. The result, at least in our modern world where we are more often confronted by an aggressive colleague rather than a saber-tooth tiger, is often an overreaction that can  cause more trouble and more long-lasting damage than the initial situation itself.

The key to avoiding the amygdala hijack is to see it coming and stop it before it stops you. Listen to your feelings and ask yourself why you are feeling the way you are. In most cases, you can make yourself realize that you feel threatened in some way that probably wasn’t intended and you can work more calmly and more systematically to address the issue rather than jumping immediately and aggressively into fight or flight mode.  If you know what your hot buttons are, you can usually identify them as the cause for your high emotions and can then cancel the amygdala’s red alert and act more rationally.

Image of a person probably rightfully under an amygdala hijack courtesy of http://fightorflightsurvival.blogspot.com/2012/11/mind-control.html.

Alas, in one particular instance last week, I did none of this. I felt threatened and I attacked back.  Luckily, the “threat maker” stopped and took control of the situation, allowing me to see the hijacking that was going on and stop it.  In the end, I thanked my colleague for taking the time to do so, but I wished I had stopped it myself.  So, what happened?

I had earlier received an email I did not like from this colleague.  I felt she (or maybe it was a he? 😉 ) was threatening my team and telling me what I was allowed to do with them.  That was not of course, what she meant, as it turns out, but this is one my hot buttons, and I got angry over the email and told myself that she was not going to get away with that. No one was going to limit the progress of my team.  Who does she think she is?  It was at this point that I should have caught myself. My reaction was over and above what was appropriate for the email. And it was an email after all; they are so easily misinterpreted that you should never get mad over an email. I knew that, but I did not stop myself. I allowed the hijacking to begin.  Seeing my hostile reaction, I should have stopped myself right there and asked myself what else my colleague could have meant in her email. If I were giving her the benefit of the doubt, what was she trying to tell me?  With this framework in mind, I should have talked to her at the next opportunity to see what she really meant. If necessary, I could calmly indentify my fears and help her understand the performance and independence of my team are important to me, but that probably would not have been necessary; she was not threatening me or my team at all, but I didn’t see that. I was being hijacked.

So, the next day when our paths crossed in the hall, I was still annoyed at this email so when she asked me what I thought about it, I got aggressive.  It briefly escalated from there as I told her that she couldn’t tell me how to run my team, etc., until she took a breath and started a sentence with something like “Scot, I’m feeling a little bit … now” and started to tell me how she was feeling about our interaction.  The adrenaline was still pumping in me (I could feel my heart beating), so I wasted no time in telling her how I was feeling, as well.  It wasn’t nice, but acknowledging why I was feeling angry started my hijack recovery process. It was the step I should have taken when I got that earlier email.  (And in hindsight, my colleague’s “I feel” statement seems like a very good way to respond to an amygdala hijack in someone else.)  I started to calm down and realize what just happened.  I began to realize why I was upset and how that was not really a result of anything my colleague had actually said or done.  I was able to calm down and listen and talk to my colleague in the way I normally do to solve problems for mutual benefit. After a few more moments, we got to the core of the issue and reached a good agreement.  Where only a few moments ago, I was ready to go to battle with this person, I now felt we had formed a successful partnership in understanding and meeting our mutual needs.

What a great outcome that I would have missed out on completely had my colleague not helped me tame my amygdala. I am grateful to her for doing so and I made a note to myself to pay more attention to these situations in the future. Watch my emotions, watch where they are coming from, and when I feel that rush of adrenaline when there isn’t a wild animal leaping towards me, take a step back and address the issue calmly.

As an enneagram 3, being in touch with his emotions is not one of Scot’s natural strengths. Being so, however, has great benefits both personally and professionally, so it is an area he constantly works to improve, with some success and the occasional setback.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

So, I finished my MBA. Was it worth it?


22 months and countless hours later, I finished my MBA program from the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It was probably more work than I expected, but I also got more out of it than I expected. I could have put in less effort and still completed the degree, but as with anything in life, you tend to get what you put into it and putting in more effort than the minimum needed, I think, was highly worthwhile. What I expected from this program was to learn how business is done, how managers manage, and how leaders lead out in the “real world” in ways that I could apply to the business of astronomy.

The program certainly did all this, but there was a lot more. I learned many practical things about personal finance including stocks, bonds, negotiation tactics and strategies that were only obvious after I discovered them, and a bunch of other stuff I figured I should learn about some day, but never did.  I even now own a genuine financial calculator, although it is RPN, so I’m not a total sellout :).  Perhaps, even more importantly, I learned about myself – I learned more about who I am, why I am the way I am, and what I want to do with my leadership and management initiatives.

For one of my last classes, I ended up defining the purpose of my leadership as being:

…to combine the data-based, scientific method of problem solving with
the human elements of trust, respect, and opportunity for all in order to form truly healthy teams and organizations.

I may still need some work on this purpose, but I think it’s a pretty good place to start. I want to help create, vibrant, healthy organizations in astronomy, specifically working to set up environments that allow people to perform at their best, whether they be scientific, technical, administrative, or other support staff. Similarly, I enjoyed bringing scientific rigor to my co-MBA students who worked in all kinds of non-profit and for-profit industries and were not well-versed in the scientific method. There is a lot of potential fulfilment in this line of work as well. Bringing the best organizational aspects of the rest of the world to astronomy, and the best analytic approach of astronomy to the rest of the  world. This purpose helps me understand the two worlds I try to live in: the scientific and the professional management/leadership worlds.

Shidler DLEMBA Class of 2014

And finally, I spent 22 months collaboratively and intensely working with 29 of the best managers and leaders in Hawaii. These people, my co-students, come from all backgrounds and fields, but shared this one crazy thing in common: a desire to learn more about how to run, manage and lead better organizations so strong that they agreed to give up their evenings and weekends to sit in front of their computers and join forces with each other to complete this program. While I may have been able to complete this program without them, it would not have been nearly as much fun or rewarding. I learned from each of their stories and each of their industries, as much or more as I learned from the faculty. They are all on my personal Board of Directors.


Another sign of Scot’s dual interest in astronomy and effective management and leadership is portrayed through Myers Briggs type assessments which, depending on when he takes the test, result in either INTJ (code-named “Scientist”) or ENTJ (code-named “Manger/Leader”).  This whole astronomy management thing is starting to make sense.

Posted in General | Tagged , | 2 Comments