PhD in dilettantism: Everything is an ecosystem

Standard

If I could get a PhD in being a dilettante (a nice way for saying that I can’t focus and want to know and learn a lot about everything without really becoming an expert), I’d sign up now.

Today I dabbled and dealt in so many different disciplines, tackled so many things in so many languages, worked on hands-on fix-it things but also read poetry, marketing theory papers and some clinical research (in healthcare), that it could never be said that I do the same thing all the time. What I do with my time would probably bore the majority of people, but that’s what makes the world tick. Some of us want to drive trucks; some of us know how to mix drinks; some of us want to drill teeth (hopefully as dentists); some of us want to write about destination weddings in Italy while baking coconut macaroon tarts and filling them with dark chocolate ganache (recipe and pictures to come). I also saw a record number of cats prowling around the immediate vicinity, answered a lot of overdue email and told someone what a “croque monsieur” is (even if I have never made nor eaten one myself).

I write all of this, though, as a preface to a debate I often have running in my head about the value of focus versus multidisciplinary meanderings. I conclude that there should be no “versus” in that statement because it is not really something about which one can make a value judgment – both ways of doing things have their own value. They accomplish different ends.

What prompted this was the recent death of activist Billy Frank Jr. One of the articles I read after his passing pointed out that Frank’s life work, dealing almost exclusively with fishing rights, restoring salmon habitat and the ecosystem was sometimes criticized by Native American groups that felt Frank should use his voice and platform to fight for or pursue broader Native American issues in his agitation and political work. Frank was direct as always: he worked with what he knew. He wanted lawmakers, when they saw him coming, to know exactly what he wanted from them and would talk about.

“I know there are other problems, but the one I know about is the salmon, and when these politicians see me coming I want them to know that’s what I am here to talk about.”

While this singular focus served Frank, does a singular focus on an important issue sometimes prevent us from seeing a bigger picture or looking outside a given discipline to find a solution to a big problem? This might not have crossed my mind except that around the same time Frank died, and I had salmon populations and the whole “ecosystem” idea on my mind, I had seen a program (multiple times), Lifelines, on Al Jazeera English about how an overabundance of a parasite in Senegal led to epidemic levels of schistosomiasis. The disease is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t) and can have very severe consequences.

In the story presented on Al Jazeera, the freshwater snail that carries this parasite basically overpopulated the river once the river had been dammed. The population using the river water would then become infected. Even though the infection is treatable, reinfection occurs when the person uses infected water, of course, making it a neverending cycle unless something could be done about the overpopulation of snails.

Doctors and specialists working in Senegal on this public health issue decided to look outside their own sphere of expertise. They knew, according to the documentary, that damming was responsible for the outbreak but were not sure how or why.

“…until a development specialist linked the explosion of schistosomiasis to the extinction of river prawns in the river system caused by the dam.

River prawns prey on the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. Without prawns, the snail population increased, and so did the risk of schisto infection for everyone who entered the river”

It took some different thinking to look outside, for example, the immediate problem of a dammed river or outside the medical problems at hand to see the entire ecosystem and discover what had changed (the prawn population) that could have caused this. In this case, a focus on one thing (suddenly 90% of the population was infected with schisto) led to expanding the focus to consider different disciplines that could explain the problem and come up with a solution (repopulating with prawns).

One could argue, of course, that all of this makes sense because regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist, so much of what gets done is well-integrated with everything else. It’s an interdisciplinary world, and much like the natural ecosystem, the manmade ecosystem relies on this interdependence and the different types of skills and expertise its parts and people have. (More reason to cheer for my unorthodox but totally interdisciplinary higher education at The Evergreen State College, eh?)

Almost Lover – Soon Will Be Making Another Run?

Standard

I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when I shouldn’t – and I keep trying to learn that lesson. But I am human and never do. It is just that I try to see the good in people, be compassionate – and then that gets pushed too far, I guess. But at least usually when I close the door, it’s closed – and I don’t regret it. Or the time or the things I have done with/for those people. But just as I cannot control it, I also know when I cannot continue it.

Fuck You It’s Over” – Glasvegas

I have realized that almost all people are completely out of control and indecisive – and I have to be the decisive one – or as America’s best-ever president (hahaha) Geo W Bush said, “I am the decider“. Haha. And I need to be the adult, the caretaker – not all people are always going to like that, but regardless of their role, at least the issue is fucking decided and it’s back to the drawing board. No wishy washy BS for weeks, months, years that prevent all parties involved from moving forward and taking responsibility for the things in their lives. That is what making decisions – even incremental ones – enables.

Almost Lover” – A Fine Frenzy

Goodbye my almost lover/goodbye my hopeless dream/I’m trying not to think about you/can’t you just let me be?/So long my luckless romance/my back is turned on you/shoulda known you’d bring me heartache/almost lovers always do…

The same actually applies in business. Not that I want to equate the misery of indecision in romantic entanglements with unclear business strategy – but when am I not talking shop? I recently decided to follow an online “basics of marketing” course as kind of a refresher since I work in marketing but was never a marketing student. One of the fundamental points made in creating a strategy is: you can’t do everything, you can’t cater to everyone. Right – this is why we segment and target. But the same principle applies in creating a general business strategy. You can’t really set seven major goals and expect all of them to be met. Choices need to be made and a focus decided. I see this lacking – a lot of talk about strategy and endless meetings about and revisions of strategy but nothing real and tangible that one can bite down on, take a chunk and work toward meaningfully.

At least in a relationship, you can bite down, take a chunk and work toward something if you really want to. But that is a matter of making the choice and focusing too. That’s my conclusion in my old age, sage wisdom and experience – not unlike the great wise, leadership of Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. Hahaha.

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

Standard

When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress