Building Good PowerPoint – Part 1

I’m going to go off on a clear communication and PowerPoint harangue for at least the next few posts. Hopefully it will be interesting. At a minimum it will make me feel better.

A big part of my day job is spent teaching, helping construct, reviewing and delivering presentations to either classes or clients. I have helped build or witnessed hundreds of presentations over the last decade, so I see a lot of PowerPoint and have developed a strong opinion about what works and doesn’t work.

I just taught an executive education session on Critical Thinking & Communication that I’ve been offering for several years now. As attendance has steadily grown, I continue to be surprised at how much help people want with the basics of clear communication. I started with the class being largely about problem formulation and research design, as people struggle with that as well. But I’ll likely be breaking out the presentation component as its own class in the future because of the demand for help building well structured communication.

It re-enforced for me how few of us are ever really exposed to serious critical thinking training and feedback. I was fortunate to get beaten down for poor thinking from an early age in a good school system and had difficult teachers who actually wanted evidence. My business communication perspective emerged from this background. “So what?” and “Prove it!” are base concepts I took away. So how can we think about this in getting better at management/business communications?

I plan to post on three sub-themes over the next few weeks:

1)     Commenting on the “PowerPoint is lame/sucks talk”. My biggest argument here is (again) “so what?”. It’s the de-facto presentation format, so use it well rather than just railing against it.

2)     Building a useful and compelling story. The focus will be on structuring the communication vehicle, NOT on how to present.

3)     Building a good PowerPoint slide. Too much bad PowerPoint has been perpetuated on the world already.

Part 1: PowerPoint isn’t the biggest problem…

…it’s how simplistically people use it. It’s the thinking more than the tool.

A recent New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” offered up as an example of this tension as currently experienced in the US military.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was shown a PowerPoint slide in Kabul last summer that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy, but looked more like a bowl of spaghetti.

Here’s a graphic of that slide.

“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.

My thought: That’s exactly right. It’s not a terrible slide if the takeaway is “this is immensely complex.” It is terrible if the author intended to actually go through it as a template for discussing causality in the conflict.

Later in the article, another officer, Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

In General McMaster’s view, PowerPoint’s worst offense is not a chart like the spaghetti graphic, which was first uncovered by NBC’s Richard Engel, but rigid lists of bullet points (in, say, a presentation on a conflict’s causes) that take no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces. “If you divorce war from all of that, it becomes a targeting exercise,” General McMaster said.

I agree. But would a 1 page word document be better? Maybe – I am an advocate of prose forcing you to actually articulate the thought. But crummy logic and weak analysis is what it is.

In this case, military officers are presenting in a format that is approved by management and allowing sloppy thinking to be passed along. I am confident that the presenters didn’t think “I’m going to show my bosses (the generals) something that represents my views in a format that has worked for me in the past” rather than “let’s show the boss junk and see what he says!”.

If I’m right, this means the material McChrystal and McMaster tear apart represents what their chain of command deemed appropriate. They didn’t come to that conclusion on their own. It’s been inculcated. That makes them just like thousands of other organizations.

So what’s a soul to do? We have to present our content and most of us reside in organizations that assume PowerPoint usage.

It’s not very practical to say “PowerPoint sucks, so don’t use it.” Many of us live in a PowerPoint world. As an executive at 3M and a large consulting firm, I didn’t have the luxury of saying “I think PPT is inelegant, so here’s my clever rendering of data in a form you are unaccustomed to. Please be impressed by my clear thinking and originality as I ask you for phase gate approval in a format completely different from the other 10 proposals you saw today.”

Edward Tufte is a thought leader in information design that I respect highly. I would echo his sentiment from this old article in Wired magazine:

“PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”

He decimates PowerPoint in a pamphlet he published several years ago (The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint). I agree with his assessment of how he sees it applied and how its templates drive you to appearing shallower than you might like. (As an example, I mock my students who use “SmartArt” templates or stupid clip art as substitutes for actual thinking.The tool’s name is an oxymoron.)

Never-the-less, I think we are stuck with PowerPoint. So how do we make an admittedly challenged tool as useful as possible? We’ll explore that in several coming posts. The keys are actually having a point, a story to communicate it and then building specific slides that represent your thinking.

In parting, I saw this hilarious video of Don McMillan offering funny, but sound, advice on using PowerPoint on David Airey’s thoughtful blog on design and branding.

It’s important to laugh or you’d cry. Let me know your thoughts…

Part 2 can be found here.

Congratulations to the Class of 2010!

As another school year wraps up, current students head off to summer and you are graduating. I wanted to share my sincere congratulations and a few hopes for you.

First – the congratulations. You have worked hard for several years to complete a difficult course of work. You and your loved ones should heartily celebrate a job well done and degree earned with a lot of hard work and long days/nights.

Second – Thank you! I always feel privileged to get to work with smart, energetic young professionals early in their career. Your energy and enthusiasm continues to inspire me. I also want to thank you for your sustained efforts over the last year and a half. Your work has helped your clients be more successful, build the school’s reputation and build your skill set. It means a lot to them, but in particular to me.

Now, my hopes & wishes for you

Be curious – Don’t stop exploring. You won’t find your passion sitting on the couch.

Be courageous – Refuse to “settle”. Stretch yourself with challenges beyond what you think you can do. Regrets are terrible and some of the biggest start with “I always wished I had…”

Take the long view – Things play out over time. Don’t get too hung up on keeping score on short intervals.

Keep learning – When you stop learning, you stop growing.

Be flexible – Change is constant. Don’t fight it, be it.

Be true to yourself – Do what you think is right and live with the consequences. Don’t let others dictate the terms of your existence.

Work hard, but have fun – Life is too short to be miserable, so have fun. By the same token, few things worth doing are easy, so don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and work hard.

Build strong relationships – As one of my favorite country music songs says “it’s a long trip alone”.  You’ll live longer and be happier if you do.

Be useful – I think you’ll be surprised at how many things work out for you when you focus on helping others first.

I wish all of you the best as you move on to bright futures. Please stay in touch and let me know what I can do for you. It’s been a pleasure working with you.

Regards. Phil

A New Jobless Era?

I was just reading an excellent article in The Atlantic: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America – Magazine – The Atlantic

It discusses the long term implications of unemployment on individuals and our society. What I thought was particularly interesting (and scary) was the coupling of the personal impact of unemployment financially and emotionally with the current “millenial” generations’ personality. We’ll see how things play out. This is well worth a read.

Pre-selling Ideas

A big part of any professional’s success is the ability to get buy-in for their ideas. The ideas could be big investments, changes to internal process that require significant change, making a major hire…anything really. In situations where a group will weigh in on a decision it is particularly important to “pre-sell” your idea.

What do I mean by “pre-sell”? Simply allowing other stakeholders or decision-makers sufficient prior input so that you can factor it into your ultimate presentation and delivery.

Reasons for doing it include:

Understanding. You want to be clear on the politics and decision making process. Who in the room gets along with whom? What are everyone’s pet projects or interests? Etc.

Testing. Running your material by people in advance allows you to understand what specific elements of your story and analysis are or are not working. You can iterate your work to better tune it to your audience’s interests and biases. An example can be as simple as using the right language or concept. The same idea may be sold on “profit growth” or “revenue growth”. Which is a better tack given the culture? In a past life, I went through having to describe everything as a Six Sigma initiative. So be it.

Quality Assurance. In “testing” I mean more pre-flighting the content. QA means making sure your math and assumptions are correct. If a key number or assumption is wrong in a public/decision making forum, your idea will die a painful and public death. This is particularly important on very technical or detail oriented topics.

Efficiency. Having more intimate 1:1 conversations allows for fuller explanation of ideas relative to a particular stakeholder’s concerns. For example, the CFO may have much more detailed financial concerns than others. If you can walk her through all your spreadsheets in advance and she knows they are in the appendix, you have her on board and don’t need to dwell on the details in a large group.

Anticipating. You want to make sure you understand who doesn’t agree with you. This allows you to plan the presentation accordingly and either directly address concerns through adapting your material or planning your rebuttal. This is particularly important in meetings where you need a decision and the group meets infrequently. Examples include quarterly gate review teams. If you miss a window, you can’t revisit for 3 months. Not good.

Inclusiveness. If an idea is “yours” it may or may not sell based on your reputation. If many or most of the people in the room listening have their fingerprints on it and can see their interests being met, it will be much more consensus driven process. The best examples are when someone challenges a number in you presentation and someone else can explain and defend the value.

Avoiding. Often politics are involved. You never want a big debate or fight to break out when your idea is up for discussion (unless you have consciously set it up that way). If several stakeholders actively disagree, get that out before the meeting and figure out how to best satisfy all parties if you can.

So some simple rules for pre-selling:

  • Show your work in advance
  • Listen
  • Give people opportunities to provide meaningful input
  • Take advice
  • Offer credit where credit is due
  • Understand stakeholder’s perspectives
  • Get work done early enough to be able to share
  • Construct content that it is clear and professional

Some obvious “don’ts”:

  • Ambush people
  • Surprise people
  • Avoid feedback
  • Go it alone

If your idea doesn’t fly, you don’t want it to be for lack of planning or effort.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Sometimes you just have to take a position to move things forward. I see many teams and organizations get paralyzed by indecision, conscious stalling and/or lack of clarity.

I am certainly the king of “it depends” and “context matters” and am a serial deferrer to buy time for more data to come in. I also would stipulate that sometimes, waiting is the most effective strategy. But sometimes, you have to force the issue.

Let’s first discuss how we can force the issue and then get into when and why.

Universal Answer- How

In almost all of these cases, the “answer” is proposing a straw model(s) for people to debate. The point is to put something reasonable in print for people to respond to. In can be high-level and conceptual, or very detailed and well thought out. Whatever works for the context you are in. The point is to commit it to a form that people can understand and meaningfully debate.

You are doing several things in this process.

1 – Summarizing what you believe to be “the current understanding”. This requires synthesis and thought on your part.

2 – Framing clear discussion points for stakeholders. Whether in the form of a proposal, documented assumptions, alternate scenarios etc., you are allowing others to get the “digested” thinking. This advances discussion more quickly.

3 – Controlling the agenda. Remember that he/she who commits thoughts to print first frames the discussion.

4 – Increasing communication efficiency – The discussion will much more quickly move to clarification and debate when people understand what you are saying. No need to waste time on multiple rounds of clarification if you are clear.

You can position the straw model as your thinking, or distance yourself from it as appropriate. (You still need to e politically astute). Either way, you are driving discussion and action.

The key is often to embed a failsafe trigger that will “go off” if someone doesn’t respond. From a negotiations standpoint the idea is to create a sense of urgency. So document your idea/position and publish it. Could be an email to group, a power point proposal or clear position on white board in a meeting.

Now let’s explore a few times when forcing the issue makes sense. What follows is an unscientific list of situations that I see a need for “stakes in the ground”.

When to apply 

You are on a timeline

In this situation, you often have no other choice. Whether the issue is major or minor, there isn’t time to waste. This is particularly true for consultants. We are always “on the clock”, with time equaling either billable hours or engagement profitability. For better or for worse, clients also know you will be gone by a certain date. Often the issue is as much attention from relevant stakeholders as it is resistance. You are competing for their attention and mental bandwidth.

Example – A team of mine recently did a nice job of managing a client situation by writing a very detailed list of assumptions and actions they were going to take in conducting quantitative analysis of a large and complicated data set based on those assumptions with a due date. They also pointed out the cost if their assumptions were wrong and a timeline for responding.

The result was important (and timely) clarifications, as well as enhanced team credibility due to the detail and rigor of their efforts. Any less effort and we all would have been spinning our wheels for weeks more. They had been struggling to get clarity and finally realized that pe

You want to expose potential disconnects/create a shared understanding

What does this even mean? Here, you think that everyone is not on the same page and the point is to take a position to reveal others’ understanding of the issue. This can be particularly important in cross-functional or cross-organizational discussions.

 One example is that people may not mean the same thing even when they are using the same terms. “Terms of Art” is a phrase used to describe the actual definition of a technical or functionally specific term. For example, organizations often differ from classical functional boundaries. What does “supply chain” mean at your firm? What’s in “operations”? It’s crucial that you reach common operational definitions for these terms to ensure common understanding.

Other examples include:

  • Surfacing assumptions that are so deep, no one even thought to discuss them.
  • Highlighting areas believed to be commonly agreed, but more detail or specificity reveals that the devil is in the details and maybe there wasn’t as much agreement as thought.

You need to make people publicly take a position

This one is more political. Often people are trying to avoid taking a position on politically difficult topics. If you can maneuver them into a position where they have to be specific in their objections, then you can document their issues and potentially push them into a corner if you can address all their objections. You then expose their motivations if they continue to resist/object when their concerns have been addressed.

As always, I struggle with being MECE, but these are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head. Let me know if you can think of others.

Knowing which side is your bread buttered on

I’ve seen lots of people lose site of who the client/boss is. Whether it’s a consulting situation or merely your boss, it’s important to maintain focus on who it’s (relatively) most important to please. Particularly early in their career, professionals can get hung up on what’s “the right” thing  to do, presenting “the right” solution (as if there’s just the one) or naively misunderstanding what gets rewarded and punished. My point is not that idealism is wrong, but rather to keep perspective on priorities and understand “which side your bread is buttered on”.

(Caveat: There is a whole separate set of topics around this on “getting what you want” and “being politically astute”. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about these things. We’ll focus both on pleasing the boss and understanding the consequences of not pleasing him/her. There are certainly times when we decide to do what we think is appropriate and that has consequences. That’s for another post.)

First, let’s be goal oriented. As reward seeking individuals, we want to do well. This can be defined financially (won another sale, increasing my pay), reputationally (I was praised publicly, increasing my social capital), emotionally (I did good work that was important, increasing my satisfaction) and in many other ways. To get any of these you need influential people to decide you did good work.

So what’s the pecking order of who we need to please? With clear exceptions and understanding that “it depends”, I would propose the following hierarchy:

Level 1 – Your boss. You MUST please your boss. Even if your boss is ineffectual and weak, if they don’t advocate for you you will have a hard time in reviews and salary discussion. Make your boss look good and you are well on your way to good reviews.

Note: I get that some bosses are crappy and treat you poorly. In this case you need to manage a move without pissing them off. Whether you like them or not, you don’t want to turn them into career terrorists for you. Also – getting a reputation as someone who can work with anyone is a plus.

Level 2 – Your boss’ boss and chain of command. Collectively, these executives will have a big influence over your fate and your work presumably directly affects their performance. You want them to A) definitely know who you are and B) have a positive impression. Generally speaking, they will be the ones who decide whether you get other opportunities, not your boss. This is usually because they have greater span of control and more influence.

Note: They have more power, but are second on the list because your boss will still be more immediately relevant in your review, compensation etc. If your boss kills you in a review, you’re dead.

Level 3 – Clients. This could be either internal or external.

I have them third because in any individual interaction, you need to understand your boss’ priorities as you evaluate and prioritize your activities. In the long term if you piss of your clients, you’ll have a short career. I am not saying clients are less important than your chain of command. Without clients, there is not business. What I am saying is that for an early/mid-career professional, never forget who’s in charge.  For example, sometimes you need to aggravate your client to meet a firm goal in the short term.

If you are a consultant working for a client or working cross-functionally on a team outside your department in a large organization, it’s important to understand several things clearly.

First, who is actually paying (or reviewing) you? Stated differently what budget line item is your fee coming from and who is the actual decision maker? Never confuse that with “who do we deal with the most” or “who is assigned as our liaison” etc. Understand where the buck stops.

Second, you need to understand their political position. Are they internally powerful? Are they internally weak? This matters because you want to be smart about navigating a client’s environment. Whether it’s being clever in support of your primary client and their agenda or not overplaying your support because you want to win future work and they aren’t in a position to buy, you need to understand the landscape.

Managing across levels. Sometimes you have to piss someone off. Be strategic and don’t always make it the same person/group. Spread the pain and make sure you “make good” at some other time.

I’ll give a few examples I have seen in my career:

  • Partner tells you to do something that doesn’t appear in your client’s interests.
  • Client staffer (but not your “paying” client) you really like is going to get hosed by a pending decision.
  • Your boss’ boss asks you to do something not in your boss’ best interest.

How would you handle these? There’s no “right” answer, but I’d encourage you to think broadly about how to prioritize and always remember “which side your bread is buttered on”.

Jeff Bezos' "Regret Minimization Framework"

A friend (Thanks Morgan!)  just passed this great video of Jeff Bezos talking about his thought process when deciding to leave his “good job” to take a flyer and found Amazon.com. I love the way he frames it. Essentially, when I’m 80 and looking back, how can I minimize my disappointment with paths not taken? Stated differently, how do I follow my heart? If I do that and it doesn’t work out I may be OK. But if I go counter to my heart and it doesn’t work out, I’ll be bitter.

Take a look.  Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ

Managing Your Priorities Over Time

I was reconnecting with good friends and former colleagues this week and was struck by a few common threads. I got a few blog post ideas from them, but the one I’ll focus on is the impact of stability versus change as well as different categories of priorities in your personal and professional life and the impact your life stage can have on your emphasis.

In three different conversations in one day with executives running significant operations, all had personal commentary on where they were in their life and had thoughtfully come to their own conclusions. Each was trading off effort and engagement in career with personal career goals beyond current job and also against their life & family realities.

I see the same thing with my students. Some people have tremendous career ambitions, some merely want good work and fair compensation to fund their lives and goals beyond work. Many haven’t decided where they fall on that continuum. That’s part of the struggle. And by the way, the answer is different at different points in your life.

The tough part is sometimes we have to choose. Advice that looks like “you can have it all” strikes me as a partial truth. First – “all of what?” I’ve written on defining your goals before. Suffice it to say, you have to actually decide on some priorities along the way or circumstances will decide for you.

I’m going to avoid all my “what do you want” and “will that make you happy” commentary and focus on thinking specifically about how many moving parts do you have in your career and life at one time.

Balancing Priorities

A former boss once commented “you can have it all, but usually not all at once”. I think this is exactly right. We go through cycles in our career and it’s important to recognize that most people can’t be “cranked up” all the time. You’ll burn out.

I’d personally group needs into:

A) Career/professional (job, promotion, pay etc.)

B) Personal/Emotional (family, friends, health etc.)

C) Meaning (spirituality, community, impact beyond yourself etc.)

D) Intellectual (learning, growing, excitement etc.)

This mirrors other writers (I just can’t remember who I’m parroting).  Anyway, the categories are roughly MECE and broadly representative. I visualize these as a “stacked bar” chart representing energy (not the same as time) applied to these 4 categories and the distribution changing over time. (OMG – this sounds so much more new-agey than I mean it to).

So let’s deconstruct me as an example. I have definitely “red-lined it” a few times and dialed it down at others. There have clearly been reasons that I switched roles or jobs that went beyond “career”.

  • After undergrad, I pursued a History PhD. I’d say that was a bit about career, but much more about intellectual. I also married Michele here – so personal was pretty high as well. We had a nice quality of life. I had things I had to find out, but was able to do it without much “sacrifice” (beyond income).
  • MBA was much more about career and “growing up”. All the materials was new, we moved to MN and I worked really long hours to get up to speed. We did move closer to family though, hitting a bit on personal.
  • Consulting was definitely about career and involved very long hours, travel and lots of sacrifices. But I learned al lot as well. I consciously chose the challenge precisely because I thought it would stretch me and expose me to many situations I would never have seen otherwise or at least do it in a lot less time. Mission accomplished.
  • Coming back to the Carlson School to help launch the Consulting Enterprise was more about personal and intellectual. We were starting a family and I wanted more control of my time. Also – for me the meaning category runs through most jobs I’ve had. I enjoy situations that involve teaching, coaching and working with people on their development.
  • The move to 3M was about “the itch” in career. I was still career progression, compensation and corporate challenge oriented. An opportunity to work on interesting things in corporate strategy at a highly regarded global corporation was too much to pass up. I got to work on cool business problems, hire and develop MBA talent and ultimately run a global business. I had more control over my life than in consulting, but was losing it as I had larger responsibilities. In my last year at 3M I hit a personal life “red-line” with the birth of our 3rd child and the deaths of both my parents in a 6 month period. Lots of things became clearer to me in terms of priorities.
  • The move back to Carlson was about turning up the dial on meaning, personal and refocusing the career basket. I probably do better on intellectual too. I’m happy as a clam with where I am right now. I can coach youth soccer, be at home for dinner most night and enjoy diverse work. Also – the challenges in my work environment don’t bug me that much. Frustrations are muted when you like what your doing and can sleep at night.

The point of the walk through time is to show how differently the priorities were over time and how out of whack you can get. I have had extended periods where I was definitely “draining the tank” and others where I was filling my tank” emotionally.

Each of my friends had come to terms with their need for some emphasis of the personal over the career either in terms of time away to refill or an emphasis on intellectual needs. They were also managing to put things into motion to do this, rather than sitting back and complaining.

So are you conscious of how you are spending your energy and is it what you want it to be?

How Many Learning Curves Are You On?

I think many of us struggle with the balance between external challenges (and the professional satisfaction and recognition that comes from them) and personal feelings and needs (like family, private time, relaxation etc.). When you are ambitious it is often hard to achieve balance. Every new problem or work situation is interesting and could be career advancing. Similarly, we tend to prioritize the more “urgent” things and put off things that aren’t screaming for our attention. Things like working out, going to the doctor, taking a long lunch with a loved one.

So think about how much pressure you’re putting on yourself in how many different areas. I describe it sometimes as answering the question, “how many learning curves are you on at once?” If I take a new job in a new industry in a new city – a lot. If I’m moving into a new role in the same group I’ve been in for 2 years – one. Big difference in how much time and energy get expended. So be conscious of this and manage it as best you can. Don’t take on too many changes all at the same time if you aren’t really prepared for it.

Also – some may be imposed on you. My parents passing away certainly wasn’t a choice but it imposed estate planning, long-distance real estate transactions and emotional trauma when I already had a full plate. Still had to manage my P&L and be around for three small kids and Michele. Something had to give. It was sleep and my health.

Never forget to be open to living life as it comes, not in the future. Whatever plan you have will have to bump up against the reality of other’s plans and the universe. The act of planning and thinking some of this through will help you better respond to unplanned opportunities as they come along.

So I encourage you to think about the categories I suggest or come up with your own. Be conscious of what you’re trying to get out of the activities you engage in along the way. You can’t get time back and sometimes put yourself under unreasonable pressure to maximize everything at once.

Bode Miller is Very Zen – Self Evaluation and Pride

I was struck this week by the Winter Olympics. Athletes spend the better part of their young lives training for these events, some of which you get one shot and it takes less than 2 minutes. You couldn’t blame a person who had a shot at winning for being focused on their result.

So I was struck by Bode Miller’s comments after his down hill bronze-medal run. I am paraphrasing here (can’t find precise quote), but his comment was something like “When I finished, I closed my eyes and thought ‘am I happy with that run?’ and I was. Then I looked at the time.” He was going to be OK with the “result” on the scoreboard having self-assessed the run as a success.

To me, that demonstrates a level of personal and professional maturity that I wish for people. I encourage people to develop their own sense of what “excellent” performance looks like for them. We are so often externally motivated that you can get too hung up on the result and lose a sense of perspective. You can also lose track of what you can control vs. externalities that are beyond you.

In an interview I was reading today, Miller notes that he looks back on many of his crashes and DNFs (did-not-finish) with affection.  Based on his break-neck style, I assume this comes from the spirit of “I was going for it and didn’t get it, but went down swinging”.  So this week on the downhill he determined that he let it rip down the hill and his place was his place, but he did his best.

A former boss liked to point out a 2X2 matrix with “result” as one axis with “good/bad” as the two options and “process” as the other, also with “good/bad”. So the resulting payout grid had 4 options. His point was often that the “good process/bad result” was generally a better one over the long term than the “bad process/good result” one. The rationale being that good process you can control and doing the right things will generally lead to better outcomes. You can do things poorly in the short term and get a decent result, but that’s probably not sustainable. It also helps point out that you can’t control everything, so control what you can.

This ties back to what I was saying about Miller. He trained relentlessly and wanted to go fast. He pushed himself, risking potential crashes to be fast. He also impressed with his willingness to risk all. He wasn’t holding back. Fearless, he went for it. Having gotten to the bottom, he reflected on his own self-assessment of “process” before he checked to see “result”. The result was excellent (note – not 1st place), but he was personally satisfied first.

If you can develop an internal sense of excellence and be sure to satisfy yourself first, you can deflect a lot of heart ache along the way. If all you care about is the outcome – you’ll be very invested in a lot of things beyond your control.

Nobody likes to lose or not do well, but it’s a competitive world. Sometimes you do your best and the other person is better. Sometimes you win.  Internal pride and sense of perspective will help you perform well and weather difficult results when they occasionally occur.

Go abroad if you can

I just returned from a great two week stay Guangzhou, China teaching a graduate seminar and have been reflecting on the time my family and I spent in Shanghai when I worked for 3M, as well as other international experiences I’ve had both in school and during my career. My conclusion (which is probably obvious) is to take any opportunities you can to get outside your personal bubble and go struggle in another culture for awhile. You’ll learn a lot of things, some of them surprising. Any trip is good, extended stays are better.

This recent trip was such a joy in part because I had some China experience and most people on the trip had not been before. I got to re-experience learning a lot of things. It was fun to smile to myself as someone made some personal discovery and to see the students (both American and Chinese) piecing together a more nuanced view of the other culture.

In my undergraduate management class, I often make a point about learning in theory versus learning in practice. For the “in practice” part, there’s nothing like diving in. You can read all you want about another country (and you should if you’re interested), but the experience of how people actually live, work, think etc. is so much richer. And it forces you to confront basic realities that are not always well documented in the literature. It also puts you in situations where you have to be more personally resourceful than you would normally need to be in your life at home.

Here is my unscientific list of reasons why it’s worth doing:

It’s interesting.

You never know what you are going to see or learn on a given day. You may see a famous piece of art at the Louvre (and believe me it’s better to see it live than in a photo) or see unexpected everyday joys. Often it’s the mundane that becomes a joy. Street food in many countries can be a revelation. If you have a curious mind, any trip to a foreign country

It’s hard.

You’ll be challenged to overcome obstacles that are never an issue at home. Figuring out another city’s Metro, ordering dinner in another language, getting around if nothing’s in your language – all of it builds confidence and character. You’ll end up in situations that create more hardships than is common at home. You always figure something out, even if it’s “suboptimal” and you survive. Best, you get a new story.

You’ll learn to think differently.

People don’t see the world in the same way or through the same lens. I’ve come to realize that the base cultural assumptions about the world and what matters are very different around the world. Again, this may seem obvious. But there’s a difference between reading a concept and knowing it in your head and being surrounded by the other culture and experiencing the differences. I am a big believer in making your self a minority somewhere. The biggest cultural learning experiences in my life have all been immersive experiences where I was one of a very few (or the only) white, American males.

I teach about “high and low context cultures”. Well, you’ll understand this difference if you spend time immersed in the one that’s the opposite of yours. You have to adapt. No matter what you do, you will have “Lost in Translation” moments. But you will get better at avoiding them or at least realizing they have happened.

An example from this trip involved basic thought process. The student teams I had were posed a series of case questions by Lenovo (the computer company). The American students took a very analytical, top down logical approach. As one of the American students observed in a wrap up meeting, the team was headed straight down this path in looking at how to evaluate power in OEM/Supplier relationships in the PC/laptop industry when a Chinese colleague suggested maybe the team was missing something important. What followed was a brief description of guanxi and the importance of relationships in supply chains in China and the Pearl River delta. The team learned both an important local business concept (and as an instructor I was pumped that it was “emergent” learning) and a cultural one. The team had been steamrolling ahead and had to slow down to allow broader input from a team member from a “high context” culture. By the way, both approaches are “right”. They collectively reached a much better recommendation to Lenovo than they would have achieved independently. Cool.

The world gets bigger/smaller.

Whichever way you think about it, you will have a connection to and at least basic understanding of events around the world. My wife wasn’t that interested in China before we lived there several years ago. Now we have a running dialogue about every China headline. Whether it be political (information control – Google is the latest) or quality of life (health/food safety – heavy metals in toys is the latest), we both have an opinion based on experience. It has enriched out relationship and our kids view of the world.

You’ll have a clearer perspective on your own country.

I think we learn as much or more about our own culture when we travel to others’. You are forced to confront basic assumptions and compare/contrast. Often we assume where we’re from is “normal” or “how things are”/ These base assumptions rapidly dissolve when you see how differently other culture live.

For Americans visiting Western Europe, there’s the stereo-typical work-life balance debate as well as the role of government in everyday life. Another common realization I see among people is the realization of how wealthy the US is. The average American has a lot of stuff and (by world standards) a very nice home/living situation. I usually come home appreciating what I have even more than I already did. But you also see possible alternate realities.

You’ll be better at what you do.

Anything that broadens your perspective and forces you to think differently enhances your ability to think critically as well as relate to others. In my view, creativity comes from having a broad perspective, being able to see patterns and metaphors and being able to extrapolate or apply them in totally new ways. Travel and immersion is one path to this.

From a pure business perspective, you’ll better understand how radically different markets are. The Chinese consumer is not the same as the American consumer. Value chains look different and are more or less mature etc. My students were amazed by how manual many processes were in China. Even at the Honda plant. All sorts of macro-economic lessons about labor vs. capital became much more tangible when observed.

(Kidding…sort of) Your view of what is edible will expand.

Not too much needs to be said here. Suffice it to say I’ve eaten jellyfish, salamander, duck tongue/feet/colon, parts of a pig we don’t eat at home and all sorts of other delicacies. J And the longer you stay the more you’ll have to concede. A buddy of mine just had to “eat local” because he literally couldn’t find any of his go-to foods.

There are lots of other great reasons, but that’s my list for now.

A few other closing thoughts:

  • Any international/cross-cultural experience is valuable. Do what you can to have them.
  • Be brave and an explorer. I have a former student who was conflicted about high profile consulting career vs. passion for travel and culture. In the end he’s lived in Germany and is studying Mandarin to go teach English in China for a year. What an adventure!
  • The more immersive the better. The longer and more “local” you can get the more you’ll learn.
  • Don’t be afraid of language barriers. I am a lazy/sloppy student of languages. I think I have disappointed every instructor I’ve had. Latin, French, German and worst of all – my poor Chinese tutor (I think I embarrassed my whole country in addition to my ancestors. Sadly, I think she took it as her personal failing.). Despite that I have had great times and no major problems travelling all over the world. As I say above, you figure things out, satisfice and make do.
  • People are warm and friendly in most places. I have never been anywhere that people weren’t curious about Americans and at least generally warm and helpful.
  • You’ll be surprised at the joy you will take in small victories. Just figuring out the lay of the land, or how a bank transaction works in another language become epic accomplishments to be celebrated.
  • Take chances as they come and jump on them. Your life situation changes. Sometimes you have time, sometimes you have money. Use what you have when you have it. Take a semester abroad in college, do a church mission trip to build homes, take a foreign assignment…but do it. I have been fortunate to have work opportunities that helped enable mine and my family’s’ experiences, but there are tons of ways outside of work to get it done.