Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘strategy

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

Management and Motivation

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I’ve recently investigated online courses at the MBA level, including taking a managerial accounting course through the University of Illinois. My work and other obligations piled up after I took that course, so I’ve held off taking further for-credit classes until at least January.

To supplement my work through Illinois, I bought a DVD series from The Great Courses entitled Critical Business Skills for Success. The series combines 12-lecture segments on operations, marketing, strategy, organizational behavior, and finance and accounting. The material is presented as an overview of each broad subject, with specific lectures focusing on topics such as the time value of money, rightsizing inventory, and evaluating mergers and acquisitions. There’s very little math and no homework, so the lessons are nowhere near as rigorous as the managerial accounting course, but it’s a great introduction to material I’ll study in depth later.

I’m watching the organizational behavior section now, presented by Clinton O. Longenecker of the University of Toledo. In his lecture “The Motivation-Performance Connection”, he offers some surprising results from a survey of corporate managers. His research found:

  • 85% of managers believe an employee’s motivation has a significant impact on performance
  • 79% believe that motivating employees is one of the most important leadership functions
  • 94% believe workforce motivation is important for overall operational success
  • 82% believe management behavior has a significant impact on employee motivation
  • 68% believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees

The numbers seem reasonable enough, so where’s the surprise? The surprise is that the first four items aren’t 100% (OK, 98% to account for the 2% lunatic fringe). It’s especially troubling to see the 9% gap between responses indicating belief that motivation impacts individual performance and that overall motivation is necessary for operational success.

I suspect there is a connection between those results and the final figure, that 68% of managers believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees. The economic downturn in 2008 led to significant layoffs and delayed retirements, which artificially flooded the job market with experienced workers who where either seeking employment or couldn’t afford to retire. Now that employment levels have returned to pre-2008 levels and the stock market has restored portfolio values, the labor market has started to tighten considerably, especially for highly skilled workers. When you add easy online communication about employment practices, increased expectations for good treatment, and labor mobility you have an environment where the privilege of coming to work tomorrow morning is no longer sufficient motivation for your employees.

Reasons for Playing Chess

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Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.

Chess as metaphor

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Games have long played a part in literature, representing a competition between humans or supernatural beings. Chess features prominently in many stories. The game’s intellectual nature lends itself to such depictions, with the idea being that if you can beat someone else at chess, you are the better man.

Other games, both real and invented, serve similar roles. For me, the best example is the game Azad from Iain M. Banks’ book The Player of Games. The game of Azad is a vast undertaking, with high-level matches often taking a month to play. There are several boards, a combination of team and individual play, and so many pieces as to nearly defy description.

In the story, the game was developed as a metaphor for the structure and values of the Empire of Azad. It was part pastime and part civil service exam. The Azadian home world held a tournament every so often, with the winner crowned emperor. The better you did in the tournament, the higher your position in the government.

The premise of the story is that another civilization, the Culture, sends its best game player to compete in the tournament. Banks was known for a political bent to his stories; The Player of Games is no exception. On its surface a simple diplomatic exchange, our player’s participation and continued success brings the conflict between the two civilizations and their values into sharper relief.

It’s telling that the Culture’s hero only starts to play at a high level when he takes on aspects of the Empire’s philosophy in his own play. Banks manages that conflict magnificently.

Chess is an abstract game with arbitrary but well-balanced rules that allow for a wide range of successful strategies and tactics. Though it doesn’t approach the (admittedly fictional) resolution of a game like Azad, it has long played a role as a metaphor for accomplishment and brilliance. As such, it provides a terrific instructional base.

Chess as a game (among many)

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Chess is often called “the queen of games”, at least in Western culture. The game’s austere appearance, when combined with its tactical and strategic depth, provides an air of challenge and mystery.

In many ways, chess is the prototypical Western game. Strategies and tactics are direct, with little progress to be made unless you directly confront your opponent. Chess is also a perfect information game, meaning there is no element of chance. You might not know your opponent’s next move, but there’s nothing hiding it from you. If you didn’t see what was coming, you can only blame yourself.

Although chess has increased in popularity in Asia, the traditional strategy game of Japan, China, and South Korea is go. Unlike chess, where the goal is to create a position where your opponent’s king is under attack and cannot move to a safe square, go players place their stones in an attempt to surround territory on the board. Chess boards are 8 x 8, with 64 squares, and the pieces stand on the squares. In go, the board has 19 x 19 lines, with 361 intersections, and players may place a stone on any unoccupied intersection (with a few exceptions).

The complexity of go far outstrips that of chess, at least in terms of the computation required to analyze and evaluate a position. Computers have conquered humans at chess…their calculating speed and positional evaluation let them beat even the strongest carbon-based players regularly. The most advanced go programs can only beat top professionals if they are given a substantial head start. That said, the gap is closing.

I said that chess is the prototypical Western game, but it’s mostly thought of as a European (and even more specifically, Russian) game. In America, the game of choice is poker. Poker is a gambling game, with a significant element of chance involved. You can do everything right but still lose if your opponent decides to fight the odds and draws the cards they need. Ironically, the better you play, the more of these “bad beat” stories you’ll have to tell. If you’re always in the lead, the luck of the draw means you will get chased down on occasion.

I hope I don’t sound bitter. But I am.

Do the Russians play chess, the Chinese play go, and the Americans play poker? If you look at our cultures and practices, you’ll see there’s a fair amount of truth to that statement. How well that metaphor translates to actionable intelligence is debatable, but it’s an interesting way to start a conversation.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.

Performers, Releases, and Misrepresentation

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I straddle two professional worlds — technology and performance. Those fields overlap in more ways than you might expect, especially when it comes to the types of contracts we’re asked to sign.

Note: I am not a lawyer. The following statements are not legal advice. If you have any legal questions about a contract or its terms, consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Contracts are put in place to codify an agreement between two or more parties. Almost all contracts have an “entire agreement” clause, which states that the written document is the sole representation of the agreement between the parties. That means that any side conversations, verbal agreements, or even written statements not included in the contract are non-binding and unenforceable. They don’t count. What matters is the signed document.

Because contracts matter so much, each party is motivated to negotiate an agreement that is most favorable to them. Reality television show contracts, created by the production company and to be signed by the individuals appearing on the show, are some of the most one-sided contracts available. Terms include the right of the production company to misrepresent a person’s statements, actions, or motivations for the sake of drama. I probably don’t have to tell you that this provision is slightly weighted in favor of the producers.

Recently, Maker Studios’ Polaris unit started taping footage for GAME_JAM, a reality show intended to run on YouTube. The show was set up as a team competition (like Top Chef or The Amazing Race), so there was some tension to the scenario. Polaris offered one-sided contracts to potential participants, with mixed results: some people signed them, some negotiated better deals, and some refused to sign but were allowed to participate anyway. That last consideration is telling…would the show have gone forward without their participation? Were not enough qualified programmers interested?

The GAME_JAM project came to a crashing halt when a production company employee attempted to create controversy by asking if teams with female programmers were at a disadvantage. After one day, the individuals who were not under contract walked away from the project, forcing it to shut down.

The lesson for employees, independent contractors, and performers is obvious. You can decide which projects to take on and under what circumstances. If you’re offered a contract, have a lawyer or (if you’re a performer) an agent look it over and get their advice on how to make it better. Yes, you have to pay for their services, but it’s often worth it. If you don’t have an agent when you’re offered a role, don’t worry. If you approach an agent with a contract offer in hand, you are giving them a shot at 15% (or the rate you negotiate) of a relatively sure thing. Even if it’s just for that single deal, having an experienced attorney or agent on your side gives you leverage and removes you from the negotiations, allowing you to concentrate on your performance.

And you can always walk away.