Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dress Up and Pretend (II)

Yesterday in Dress Up and Pretend, I wrote about emulation as a form of self-education; one of the best ways to learn something is to find someone who is really good at it and do what they do. It occurred to me that I might have left out a few important items that may or may not be obvious.

One day, shortly after being promoted to management, I was asking my dad about how to become a great manager. I mentioned my theory of emulation and my dad said, "That sounds good, but the problem I've found is this: it's easy to see what bad managers do that make them bad; it's not so easy to see what good managers do that make them good."

I responded, "I guess that all depends on how you see."

To be sure, whatever it is that makes great managers and leaders great often evades analysis. More often than not that evasiveness is due to the bias of analyst. The analyst has expectations of what it is that makes the great person great. The expectations filter out much of what the great person does. Although the analyst feels she's thorough, she lacks the full picture.

One of the reasons we adults are terrible emulators is that we lead with our expectations. We analyze before we act. As we observe our model we casually discard various actions, activities and aspects of manner and demeanor as insignificant or irrelevant to what we want to accomplish. We fail to notice that the super-articulate, well-groomed, highly-intelligent manager who works wonderfully with the IT organization frequently shows up in the IT department unannounced with a large pizza and 2-liter bottle of Diet Dr Pepper. We don't see that first level manager who knows all the executives on a first name basis pays more attention to the executive assistants than the executives. We don't notice that they negotiator who wins all the big contracts always to concedes the minor points.

We have expectations of what it would mean to be a great manager, no doubt expectations that have been guiding us and haven't been working. No wonder it's so difficult to see what makes great people great.

As a result, when we emulate the manager, we don't. We simply pick up bits and pieces. In isolation they don't work. Our emulation fails. We decide that emulation doesn't work. Pricing your product like a Mercedes doesn't work if you miss the brand-and-quality parts. Making unconventional decisions like Steve Jobs doesn't work if your miss the getting-them-right part.

If you want to learn through emulation, you need to emulate all aspects of the person from whom you want to learn. Only after it's working for you can you discern significant from insignificant, important from unimportant (perhaps not even then.) If you analyze before doing, then you're not emulating; there are aspects of behavior that evade analysis until the behaviors themselves have been performed. Emulation is not dim-sum, it's bouillabaisse.

By the way, all this is true of instruction in general. Until we subordinate our own expectations and insights to those of the instructor, we compromise our capacity to learn. We haven't really "tried" it until we've tried it in a manner thoroughly consistant with that which was instructed. Wax on. Wax off.

You probably have a long list of things you've tried, but didn't work. I'll betcha a dollar that you haven't really tried them yet.

Happy Tuesday,

PS Once you've got it (i.e., it's working), then you can analyze and filter. Keep what you want, toss the rest.

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