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I make my living by identifying patterns. Whether it’s making sense of consumer needs, looking at what’s going on in the world of commerce to identify trends or opportunities, or helping a colleague get better at what they do, it all follows a similar logic: These are some things we’ve seen a few times. Here’s how they’re related. Here’s what it means. And here’s what you can do about it.

So it’s no surprise that I find patterns in other aspects in my life, too. I’ve been traveling like crazy for a few weeks. I kind of hate it. My natural instinct is to to see the pattern: I’m on a plane very frequently. My job requires lots of travel. I don’t like traveling this much, so I must not like my job. I should probably quit. That was last week.

Today’s ‘pattern’ was different. At about 6 PM, right before dinner, both boys totally lost it, in different ways. So this was the pattern: My kids are making me crazy. I’m not handling it that well. I’m not a good mom. Maybe I should travel more often.

When you’re accustomed to looking for patterns, you find them everywhere. Even when what you’re seeing isn’t really a pattern, it’s just a coincidence of events. On the travel issue, yes, sometimes I travel too much for my job. But often I don’t. So which is the pattern and which is breaking the pattern? With my kids, sometimes they lose it and I don’t handle it very well. But most of the time we’re together, we have a great time. And most of the time we encounter problems, I get through them pretty well. So which is the pattern?

I’ve fallen into a pattern of seeing patterns. Sounds kinda silly, doesn’t it. When I’m working with clients, or with colleagues, I have folks to keep me honest. Knowing that I have an audience to prove my patterns to keeps me honest abotu when it really exists and when it doesn’t. With no clients at home (not a bad thing at all) I I need to work on reminding myself to be more rigorous in pattern identification. I don’t want to jump to the final conclusion, here’s what I should do about it, if it’s really an instance and not a pattern.

Excellent picture from this site.

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A few months ago, I was speaking with a client who I’ve become friends with over a couple of years of working together. She has 7 year old twin boys and my monkeys are three, so in addition to talking about work I often turn to her for twin management advice. She’s super smart, has a great sense of humor, and seems amazingly on top of her shit.

I was totally shocked when she revealed to me that she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was about to undergo radiation treatments. I offered whatever commiseration and compassion I could, and she told me that she was managing pretty well.

Initially, she was scared, anxious and overwhelmed. Over time, it’s gotten better. She had come to see the situation as an opportunity to grow, to rise up to the challenge of asking for and receiving help, and to remind herself of her strength. Overall, her prognosis is good and she is extremely positive.

One thing that helped, she said, was maintaining a perspective on the situation. She keeps the Chinese character for crisis posted on her desk. The symbol is a combination of the words for danger and opportunity, she told me. She said it was comforting to see the opportunity in the situation, and it helped her not to dwell on the danger.

I thought it was a very poignant story, and immediately loved this idea of hope amidst crisis.  I planned on blogging about it, but as soon as I Googled the idea I found about 10 different posts saying that while Westerners like to say this, it’s not really true. It’s a misinterpretation of the way Chinese characters work. The anthropologist in me values the intrinsic Chinese cultural perspective over Western interpretations of the culture, and so I decided that it wasn’t really true and that I shouldn’t write about it.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about breast cancer and I’ve come to a new interpretation of the crisis means danger plus opportunity interpretation. I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter if it’s technically true or not. If it’s a powerful way of thinking about a crappy situation then it is, in some way, true. I’m sure it’s true to my client, if not to Chinese linguists.

Before, I dismissed the wisdom in the perspective because it wasn’t grounded in absolute truth. But now I realize that sometimes, truth is irrelevant. It doesn’t hurt anyone to believe that there’s ancient wisdom about how a person can respond to a situation. And it’s such a powerful idea that I believe it can really help ground a person’s approach to dealing with a frightening and often painful disease.

I wonder when else we let our intellectual understanding of a topic or an idea get in the way of emotional insight. I’m pretty sure it happens more than we know. I’d love to hear about your experiences with the truth in the comments below.

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The other day, I was reminded about an article that I read in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago on reasoning by analogy, How Strategists Really Think.

The basic premise of the article is that while reasoning by analogy can be a really great tool for strategic thinking, it’s equally likely to mislead companies. In an attempt to make reasoning by analogy a successful strategic tool, the articles authors, Giovanni Gavetti and Jan Rivkin propose 4 guidelines for reasoning by analogy.

  1. Articulate the analogy – make your assumptions explicit.
  2. Identify why the source strategy worked – make sure you’ve accurately understood the rules of the game.
  3. Identify the similarities and differences between the source and the target setting – make sure you acknowledge and understand when the analogy is transferable and when it is not.
  4. Translate your strategy to the new setting – borrow what you can, make modifications as necessary.

I was thinking about this after applying an analogy on my kids that totally failed. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, we were planning to make pizzas with the monkeys. To get them excited about it, I brought them to Fante’s, the fabulous ‘kitchen arts’ store in our neighborhood. They helped me pick out rolling pins. And then we went home and made pizza. The trip to the store really built up their sense of occasion. Once we got home and turned the house into a pizzeria, they were totally engrossed in the activity for about 1/2 an hour. (See gratuitous cute kids video here.) Pretty good for two almost three-year-olds.

Fast forward a few weeks and I start thinking about the cakes for the boys birthday party. This year, I’ve decided to try and make the cake myself. But I couldn’t figure out what kind of cake to make. So I thought it would be a good idea to take the boys to Fante’s to pick out a cake pan. After all, they had so much fun buying the rolling pin.

Of course, I got the analogy all wrong. The rolling pin was a much easier choice -there were only about 4 or 5 versions of them. And it didn’t really matter which one we picked out. Worse case scenario: we end up with a $20 rolling pin instead of a $2 version. I know how to use both of them to make pizza.  Ultimately, picking out a rolling pin is low stakes. Involving the kids is a no brainer.

But a pan for a birthday cake is a whole different ballgame. Sure, it’s the same store, but that’s where the similarity ends. You see, some cakes are hard to make and decorate and others are simple. Despite my best attempts to steer the boys to a heart shaped pan (the design we had talked about on our way to the store), a star, even a simple lion or a truck, they wouldn’t bite. They were indecisive for a painful 20 minutes – not very fun in a crowded store. And when the did decide, they chose this: In case you don’t recognize him, its Pablo from the Backyardigans. He comes complete with his own icing kit.

You may not know this from reading my blog, but I’m not really a baker. And I’m certainly no illustrator. So this weekend will be really interesting when I try to make a cake that looks anything like that adorable singing penguin. But that’s not really the point. The point is, I reasoned by analogy, and foolishly didn’t think through whether the circumstances were actually analogous. Turns out they were not.

Now I don’t always mess this up. I have had a few successful analgies. One of my favorite is the use of the ‘Goodbye song’ from tumbling class. You know, ‘you touch the ground, you touch the sky, you turn around and you say, goodbye.’ It’s brilliant. Totally distracts kids from the fact that their favorite hour of the week is over. It also works when it’s time to say goodbye to the polar bears at the zoo, a favorite toy, or the Bob the Builder DVD you’ve been watching for so long that the song is etched into the deepest recesses of your brain. Makes sense, doesn’t it. The song helps kids make transitions. And does in fact work for almost any transition. 

Reasoning by analogy can be very useful, for both strategists and for parents. You just gotta watch out for situations that look the same but aren’t. Or you could end up with a Pablo, oh, yeah, two Pablo cake pans. Anyone need a cake pan for their next birthday party?  

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Amid all of the rumor mongering about the Clinton campaign today, I spotted this. Hillary is reportedly ‘open’ to a veep role. I think an Obama/Clinton team is unbeatable. And I love the idea of a visionary leader backed by a no-nonsense go-getter.

I’ve heard that some ‘feminist’ groups don’t like the idea of Clinton taking a back seat to the male candidate. But seriously people, Vice President of the United States is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this rumor is true, and that the oneabout Gina Gershon isn’t. (I mean really, how much heartache should one woman be served in a single week.) 

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Another bonus of visiting our family in Orlando is that my sister-in-law always has lots of great magazines. The March 2008 issue of Redbook quoted a study by the University of Gottingen in Germany about the relationship between sex and work.

According to the study, 35% of women who have sex once a week and 46% of those who have no sex at all take on extra work. Those numbers are remarkable only compared to this one: only 5% of women who have sex two or more times a week report seeking more responsibilities at work.

I was surprised to find out that people are not just having less sex because they’re working so much. Instead, they are taking on more work as a distraction from their sex lives – or lack thereof. Which sort of makes sense, but doesn’t seem very sensible.

Instead of going after what we want — sex — we’re keeping ourselves busy with what’s available –work. And what’s worse, once we’ve taken on more responsibilities out of sexual frustration, it’s harder to make time to have sex.

As I read this, part of me is thinking, those silly Germans, don’t they know that if they take on more work it’ll only make their sex life worse. The other part of me knows that I make decisions like this all of the time, and that I sometimes do so knowing full well the consequences of my actions.

So what gives? Any one have other examples of those times when you get in your own way of getting what you really want?

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My husband and I are experimenting with new ways of handling childcare for the two monkeys and household responsibilities in lieu of a nanny. We’re trying longer days in school, and adding a day, plus hiring a dog walker for when I’m out of town, and asking my mother-in-law for some mid-week help.

It feels like we’re joining the juggle for the first time since the kids were born, and I’ll be honest, I’ve never been good at juggling. There are some things about our new arrangement that are working well and others that we’re struggling with. But one of the most difficult elements of the entire experiment is trying to keep perspective on this new arrangement as an experiment and not necessarily the answer.

After “the incident,” we decided to try this life without a nanny thing. We said we’d try it, see how we liked it, and then see what we needed to change. But now that we’re doing it, some strange kind of inertia keeps trying to take over and remind us that success is not an option. Instead of acknowledging what is and what is not working, we slip into defending our choice and making rationalizations about what’s going wrong. In truth, it’s too early to tell. But in fact, it’s hard not to feel like the no nanny lifestyle is already a done deal.

I see the same thing happening all the time in my company and the companies that we work with. A direction, once chosen, becomes set in stone as ‘the way we now do things,’ even if it was intended as a stopgap measure and not a final solution. A product launch, once it passes some early stage gates, moves forward, even in light of some later information that would point to cancelling the project.  A prototype, intended as a vehicle for learning, gets either canned or launched as is, because it’s judged as if it were the final execution of an idea.

Successful people become accustomed to succeeding. And that can sometimes get in the way of being open to learning though trial and error. But I’m finding that there are some things that I can’t learn any other way. It’s so easy to say, “Fail early to succeed sooner.” It’s much harder to actually let myself do it.

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One of my Strengthsfinders strengths that I’ve always identified with is input, which means that I’m a collector of information. In my case, it means that I’m an information addict, filing pieces away in my brain, overloading on data, never shirking a web search when more information might be out there that might be able to help me in some way that I can’t even imagine.

When I was pregnant and a new mom, it actually started to feel less like a strength and more like a weakness. Especially since the more books your read about getting your babies to sleep, eat or play, the more perspectives you can find about the ‘right way to do it.’ Ultimately, after consulting 6 different books about gas and finding 5 different answers ranging from it’s all in the parent’s head to your child could be seriously ill, I made a clean break and decided not to rely on books to help me rear my children.

Instinct, I decided, would be a way better teacher for me than information, and I vowed to stop reading the baby books. Oh yes, every once in a while I can’t resist, and still consult a chart that tells me what my kids should be able to do by now or an article that helps me decide whether they’re really sick or just have some evil cold. But for the most part, my husband and I have been going it alone since sometime before the monkeys’ first birthday.

Enter the era of the tantrum. Lately, my kids have been really stumping me. The whining. The crying. The defiance for defiance’s sake. It makes my head hurt just thinking about it. And while every once in a while I find myself coming up with an inspired way to handle their behavior, for the most part I have no freakin’ idea what to do.

So today, I read that Dr. Harvey Karp has come out with a new book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block. I’ve heard about his first book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, but never read it. And while I’m still really into the idea of parenting by intuition, I’m wondering if it has it’s limits. I mean, how many times can you use the same approach to address behavior and find that it doesn’t really work before you start questioning that approach.  

I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve already learned something from reading the review of the book in the New York Times. The article goes into a bit of detail on Dr. Karp’s method for talking a toddler out of a tantrum. Instead of reasoning, or trying to soothe through calming adult language, Dr. Karp suggests talking toddler speak, mimicking your children’s language and phrasing. In response to a child’s wilful demands for a cookie, “Dr. Karp adopts a soothing, childlike voice to demonstrate how to respond to the toddler’s cookie demands. “You want. You want. You want cookie. You say, ‘Cookie, now. Cookie now.’ ”

Talking directly to toddlers in their own language shows them that you’re listening to them, and, Dr. Karp suggests, reinforces that you’re acknowledging their point of view. My guess is that it may also surprise them enough to shock them out of their tantrum. Gotta try that one.

This idea really resonates with me because it reflects the attitude I try to take when having conversations with clients and colleagues. When folks are frustrated or upset, the first thing I do is repeat their concerns to help them fell heard. Of course, when I do it with my kids, my instinct is to rephrase what they say in my own words. But I really like Dr. Karp’s suggestion of using their words and their phrasing to really drive home the point.

 So I’m intrigued. I probably will even buy the book. And it makes me think about the limits of intuition. As a consultant in an emerging field, I am often asked to solve problems that go beyond my area of expertise. Most of the time, that’s OK, because something that I’ve done before prepares me for what I have to do now. Even if I don’t have the exact experience of doing something, I have enough related experience to figure it out.

But any good consultant knows that some things lie directly outside of their area of expertise, and therefore require bringing in other people who do have the knowledge, or figuring out how to learn really quickly. As much as I think relying on your intuition is a good thing, its also critical for me to know when I’m outside of your zone of effectiveness, and when I need to consult outside experts to get the job done — whether that’s with my children, my colleagues, or my clients.

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