Friday, March 30, 2012


It is often easiest and fastest to do things yourself than to get others to do them for you. Problem is, doing everything yourself doesn't scale. There is only one of you. Furthermore, plenty of stuff is much better done by teams - and plenty of stuff is better done by others than by yourself. Yet getting others to do stuff is difficult: you need to find the people, motivate them, train them and support them... Your productivity will decrease while you do all these and have less time for "doing stuff". It is tempting to continue doing stuff ourselves and leave the "team building" for later. But this is obviously short sighted. The sooner you start building your team, the sooner you'll become more productive.

What got me thinking about this? That starting after Spring Break each boy will be responsible for one talk per week. Nico on Mondays, Paco on Tuesdays and Ale on Wednesday. I'll keep Thursdays and Fridays. I anticipate that it will take effort to motivate them and support them. But the results should eventually be much better. Paco and Ale already thought of their first topics: Paco will talk about avoiding replacing "bad" with "worst" and Ale about his upcoming trip to Cuzco.

Hey, I only posponed this for three and a half years :-).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Response Times

This morning I was wondering whether to ping someone who I emailed last week but from whom I had not heard back. So I spoke with Paco & Ale (Nico is in Strasbourg with his school) about appropriate response times for text messages, emails, Facebook messages and voicemails. Their answers:
- Text message: minutes to hours (depending on the topic).
- Emails: days.
- Facebook Messages: if online, minutes. if offline, the next day.
- Voicemails: days.

We spoke about the importance of being sensitive to these appropriate response times when using a specific communications mechanism, e.g., don't send an email if you need an answer within minutes. And also when reminding someone of a message to which they haven't responded. Ale asked if it was such as thing as responding to quickly. Could that be inappropriate? I said I didn't think so, although you want to be careful about establishing certain expectations that you might not want to always meet.

We spoke about giving people a heads up if you might take long to respond. For example, if you wont get to an email for a week or two it would be nice to send a brief email to the sender letting them know - unless of course it would take you just as long to send a proper response to the email...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Turning Back

The steep brick street in front of our house gets slippery when it rains. Most cars have no problems with it but some can't make it up the hill. We hear them spinning and spinning their wheels. Why do these drivers continue to try to make it up this one particular street instead of turning around and going up one of the parallel streets (which are made of asphalt and thus are not slippery)? Eventually they have no alternative, but it sure seems like they persist up our slippery street for way too long.

I told the boys that in life it is important to know when to turn around and find a better street. To know when to quit. Our society gives quitting a stigma. Being a quitter is perceived as a bad thing. But what about the time wasted on dead-end streets? More people make the mistake of quitting too late rather than too early. To go back to the street analogy, I guess the challenge is to know when there are parallel roads that are better, and when all nearby roads have the same problem as ours - such as when there is traffic and one keeps searching for a road without traffic only to find more and more traffic. When you are stuck try to determine whether you are in the one slippery road of te neighborhood, or whether there is traffic everywhere and you are better of inching forward.

Don't be afraid to quit - at least not anymore afraid than to discover you are on a dead end street.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rotating Trees

We have a small lemon tree in the kitchen for Martin, Nico's bird, to hang out. One of its branches was sticking out and on the way. Ale bumped into it and suggested cutting it. Unfortunately, though, Martin has "mutilated" most of the branches on the tree and this is one of the few remaining healthy branches - because it is harder for Martin to reach. So Cindy and I were reluctant to cut it. What to do? It didn't take long for us to come up with two altnatives: Cindy suggested rotating the whole tree (which obviously is inside a pot). That was a partial solution as there were branches on the other side of the tree that would become a problem with too much rotation. I then bent and stuck the offending behind another branch. Problem solved, no branch cutting! Why did Cindy and I find a better solution than Alejandro? Not because we are smarter or more creative, but because we felt a need to save the branch. There are two lessons here that I discussed with the boys:

1) Necessity is often the mother of invention. In Cuba, for example, there are no spare parts for their 50 year old cars so they have come up with innovative approaches to keep their cars running. Many of these need driven innovations are inferior to the ideal solution, but nt all. Sometime one of these solutions is better than the original and ends up replacing it.

2) When you solve a problem, take a moment to consider your solution and whether it has imperfections. If it does, try to come up with an alternative solution that has no such problems. I am quite certain that had Alejandro done this he would have recognized the negatives of cutting the branch and would have come up with alternatives - probably better ones than the ones Cindy and I came up with!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Returning Cuff Links

I had a party last saturday for which I decided to wear my 20 year old tuxedo. I realized the day before that my cuff links were missing. So I walked into a store and bought a pair. On my way out of the store I noticed that the invoice said that I could return the merchandise for a full refund within 30 days. I was with the boys so I asked them if they thought it would be OK to go back to the store after my party and return the cuff links. Their initial reaction was that no, it would not be ok to return them after I used them. I pushed back a bit. I agreed one shouldn't lie, ever, so, if for example one could only return unused merchandise then I shouldn't. But what if the terms allowed for returns with "no questions asked"? If a business decides to have a very lenient return policy that is their decision and customers who take advantage of such policy are not doing anything wrong. I said one possible place to "draw the line" would be whether one intended to return the item before buying it in the first place. That would seem to cross a line. But take the cuff links, I didn't intend to return them before buying them. I only thought of it after the fact. And the return policy said nothing about using the merchandise... We spoke a bit about the reasons why stores have more or less strict return policies. How it is a business decision and a trade off between customer loyalty and cost. And how with more and more sales going online brick-and-mortar stores have to provide better service with things such as lenient return policies.

What about my cuff links? I'll keep them for five years from now when I wear my tuxedo again.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bending the rules

A good friend's daughter wanted to go to the summer program of a specific university. Problem was she had to be 16 before the program started but her birthday was a few weeks afterwards. My friend and his daughter decided to apply anyway and see if they got accepted. They did, some four months before the summer, and got it. They paid for the program, got her a visa, air tickets, and all the other preparations. But a couple of weeks before the start of the program they got a message from the university: the university had just realized she didn't meet the program's age requirements. She could not attend.

My friend called the university upset that they would first let her in then turn her down just two weeks before the program's start. The university was not at all apologetic, far from it, they were upset my friend's daughter had applied despite the fact that it was clear she didn't meet the age requirements. They felt that had been inappropriate.

I told the story to the boys and discussed the alternative approaches my friend could have taken:

1) Not apply.
2) Lie about her age.
3) Apply like they did.
4) Apply but add a cover letter mentioning the age issue and making an argument she would be fine age wise.
5) Inquiring before applying whether they would make an exemption and let her apply even though she was a few weeks short of the age requirement.

The boys quickly agreed that options 1, 2 & 3 were all bad. We debated whether 4 or 5 was better. The advantage of 4 was that it showed commitment and effort on part of the applicant before they had to decide whether to make an exemption. They could also potentially read the application and make an exemption if they liked the applicant. The downside of applying without getting the consent is that it was a bit "aggressive", sort of like showing up at someone's office (coming from far away) without having an appointment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires.

We concluded #5 was probably best, particularly if the inquiry also included a bit of info about what made the applicant special.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Grandparents in a word (or three)

Grandma was visiting this weekend. I asked the boys for one word that came to mind when they think of grandma. Their answers: generous, humorous, happy. I then asked them about their other grandparents. For grandma 2: supportive and supportive. Grandpa: negotiated (negotiates everything), calculated and role model ("first thing that came to mind"). Grandpa 2: always joking.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Your Spine

Showed the boys a TED talk about storytelling by Andrew Stanton from Pixar. One of the points he makes is the need for each character to have a "spine". A "motivation" that drives everything he does. Nemo's father is all about keeping Nemo safe; Walley is all about finding beauty, and Woody is all about doing the right thing for his kid. Andrew then made the point that everyone is the same in the "real world". We all have our key motivations and should make an effort to understand them and be consistent with them. As a parent, he says that he understands that his kids' motivations are something he cannot (and should not) change. Instead, he should try to understand them and support them.

I asked the boys if they knew what their motivations were. They don't. And wouldn't expect them to this early in life... And I guess motivations change and evolve over time. Still, it is important to be sensitive to them. Why do we do what we do? Why do we want what we want?

Monday, March 12, 2012

ID Checks

I was traveling last week. Upon checking in at my hotel the receptionist asked me for my credit card and ID. I gave him my credit card and showed him my ID through the clear plastic on my wallet. He asked me to take my ID out of my wallet. Now, I am used to security guards at airports asking me to do this, but a hotel receptionist should be able to check my ID through my wallet's plastic. I was annoyed since I assumed (incorrectly) that he had no good reason for his request. I told this to the receptionist and he explained that he needed to put my ID on the a scanner. First time I have my ID scanned at a hotel, but at least that explains the request. Two takeaways:

1) Give people the benefit of the doubt.
2) The receptionist could have done a much better job when asking me to take my ID out of my wallet. He could have explained why he needed me to do that and he could have been apologetic/polite about it. Instead, he behaved like a government security guard.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

I heard a very thought provoking talk by Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA, last week. Her job is to lead and inspire the engineers and scientists of DARPA to come up with mind-blowing innovations. I loved how she challenges them by asking: What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail? We all know that fear of failure shouldn't prevent us from doing what we want. Yet most of us factor in the chances of success when we make our decisions. Inevitably that prevents us from trying some things that we consider too risky - yet those "risky" things could become amazing achievements - only if we try. The truth is that we are not aiming high enough if we are not failing some of the times.

I asked the boys what they would do. Nico would build an in-the-brain-videogame (whatever that means), or, wait, no, a Siri that understands alien languages and actually does anything you ask (I guess it would have to be renamed genie). Paco would build a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light to explore the universe. Cool, ah? Ale was in swim practice this morning so I'll have to ask him later...

Me? I am already cooking a new project. It is ambitious and it might fail. Which I guess is the whole point.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All Star Teams

Today we continued yesterday's conversation based on Dr. Gawande's ideas of improving our health care system (can only cover so much in a mile!). Another missing aspect in healthcare is teamwork. Most physicians these days are specialists. And most serious illnesses require the involvement of several specialists. Yet they don't work as a team. Instead, each doctor does his thing mostly independently. Imagine a team of engineers designing a car: one responsible for the brakes, the other for the transmission, another for the suspension, and so on. Yet they never get together in a room (physical or virtual) to make sure all the pieces work well together. Instead, each engineer designs what he considers is the best possible component. We would end up with a Frankencar! We watched Moneyball the other day so the kids got this right away. They immediately pointed out that, not only is teamwork essential, but the members of each team must be selected so that they complement each other and can work well together. Just trying to assemble the best at player for each position wont work. Not exactly how health care works...

Monday, March 5, 2012

Checklists for Surgeons

I heard a great talk last week by Atul Gawande, health care journalist and author of The Checklist Manifesto. Atul has been exploring how to improve the US health care system. He had a simple yet powerful insight: doctors are performing all sorts of procedures without checklists. No pilot would think of flying a plane (no matter how large or small) without going through a pre-flight check-lists, yet surgeons perform heart and brain surgery without it! Atul (who is also a physician) developed a basic pre-surgery checklist and tested in a few hospitals. The result? Infections, complications and even mortality dropped dramatically. Why are physicians resisting this? Decades ago we had standard treatments for very few deseases. Physicians needed creativity and independence to try to help their patients. Doctors didn't used to be specialists with a limited set of well understood procedures to perform. I guess most surgeons don't see themselves like pilots of 747s, who follow checklists, put the plane on autopilot, and only used their extensive experience and expertise if something goes wrong. Hopefully they soon will.