When a ‘disability’ is a gift

According to The Annual Disability Statistics Compendium: 2012, there are in excess of 8 million adults (ages 18 – 64) with cognitive disabilities (CDs) in the United States.  An individual is considered as cognitively disabled if they answered ‘yes’ , when asked “if due to a physical, mental, or emotional condition, they had ‘serious difficulty remembering , or making decisions’. Of this number, approximately 1.8 million are employed, an unemployment rate of 77%.

Advances in neuroscience research is  progressing at an astounding pace to unravel the causation and effects of many CDs.  Increasing ability at diagnostics is revealing the higher incidence of many of these conditions,  such as Aspergers Syndrome, that were not well-known a decade ago. The dichotomy is that many of these individuals, (as well as those with High Functioning Autism, or, HFA) possess technical skills that are in-demand, at a time when projections indicate a growing gap between the supply / demand of those skills.  Many individuals with Aspergers posses unique abilities at testing computer software, a task that requires near obsessive attention to detail and an ability to focus.   National Public Radio recently featured examples of individuals once considered mentally impaired in many circles, in possession of unique highly-sought professional skills.

In parallel, studies around Science Technology Engineering Mathematics, (aka, STEM) predict  insufficient numbers of professionals with skills in STEM-related fields of study and industries. What is more compelling than developing these much-needed skills, critical to maintain technological competitiveness, from within a group of individuals considered ‘disabled’?

The employment of individuals with disabilities has acheived recognition as a priority including a Presidential, Executive Order 13548 — Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. Reliance on the federal government is not sufficient, and there are examples appearing from individuals and companies with foresight. A great example is Chicago-area firm Aspiritech, on the leading edge of providing individuals with these skills to well-known technology firms.

We need to re-think our own individual bias and misperceptions around a word; i.e., ‘disability’. With unrelenting progress and discovery in  ]science of the mind’, what other characteristics will appear in individuals that we now label and stereotype? It begins with changing our perceptions; perceptions that use  words like ‘different’ and ‘disabled’ to shroud  individual gifts that many have to give, but are not given the chance…….

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Three Critical Elements to Better Decisions

  • ”Every once in a while a bad idea will pay off” (Willie RobertsonCEO, Duck Commander)

I am amazed that one of the most important business processes (remember that word!) is ignored, and bereft of any training. As the quote suggests, it seems to be accepted as a fact-of-life, that decisions just ‘happen’, and will by luck occasionally be correct.

Let me establish a context for my essay on better decisions. I presume a decision involving two or more individuals that normally collaborate as a team. My background suggests this as management staffs, which regularly work, debate, and make decisions together on a regular basis. Accordingly, making decisions is a skill to be honed, and continuously improved upon.

  1. Frame the problem & charter the team or individuals responsible for a solution. A classic Einstein quote captures this beautifully: “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”  Part of the ‘problem framing’ could be a realization that sufficient expertise needs to be brought-in to assisInitially, the ‘team’ that is charged with the process needs a clear mandate. My favorite is the CAIRO method, an acronym that describes the roles of constituents as follows: C = consult, A = approve, I = inform, R = Responsible, O = Omit. There should be no ambiguity about thisOnce this scope & responsibility has been socialized, the decision teams themselves (the ‘R’ in CAIRO, as those responsible for the decision) need a structured approach to achieve their mandate.
  2. Implement a structure that will drive the decision the fact you use a process is more important than the process you use. However, some of the common attributes should be:
  • Options are formulated and examined on their relative merits. These options can be quite complex, for example, when investment alternatives are being weighed against one another. In these type of scenarios, criteria need to be formulated
  • Tradeoffs, pros/cons of each option need to be considered. What are the perceived consequences of selecting one option vs. another? What risks accompany each option’ An option may be highly desirable, but impose significant risk
  • Ramifications/ Consequences specifically, what results will occur by not selecting certain options,
  • Implementationonce selected how will the ‘decision be executed. The complexity can vary widely based on the problem / decision set. His step is a key element in gaining support and consensus.A structured process will serve as an ‘audit’ trail, if decisions are questioned in the future. The ability to demonstrate a structured approach will lend legitimacy to the decision, as well as build credibility for those involved

A decision process that I am particularly biased toward is described in the book by Hammond, Keeney, Raiffa; Smart Choices A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions, It employs a system called PrOACT (Problem, Objectives, Alternative, and Tradeoffs. It is very thorough and easy to implement.

3 Challenge objectivity I am not a trained psychologist, but I have managed long enough, and worked alongside enough colleagues to have  a rudimentary understanding of the bias and subjectivity we all bring to our professional duties, including myself. Self-awareness is a sign of maturity, and sensitivity to what ‘cognitive bias’ we each bring to our decision-making is a critical character trait. See the excellent Wikipedia article on this. My mention is merely to make you aware of the myriad ways we stifle objective decision making.

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Book Review: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

With all the business titles to choose from, I get overwhelmed maintaining a reading list of titles I will actually read, or, are worth reading.  Amazon’s Kindle ‘one-click’ has made-it way too easy to amass a virtual stack of unread books on my iPad. Of necessity, I have become more selective on what I read,

Many new business titles lack compelling value, and detract from reading some of the ‘classics’ that I regard as must reads;  The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen; On Strategy by Michael Porter; Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey Moore;  The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu Goldratt; The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable by Nicolas Taleb. This is a short list of the many excellent business titles that are required reading.

I was underwhelmed with my read of The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. I read Mr. Anderson’s article of the same name in a 2006 issue of WIRED magazine. It was a thought-provoking article, but  hardly warrants a ‘book’ version, in which I found little additional value.

The author describes changes that cause small, incremental, sales volume from more products; depicted as asymmetry in the tail of an otherwise normal statistical distribution. The depiction is accurate, but in my opinion, extremely constrained,  to some very specific markets. Specifically, products that have undergone revolutionary change in business models; e.g.,  music, film, books,

These markets experienced a ‘perfect storm’ where new customer acquisition costs plummeted, resulting from more ‘eyeballs’, thanks to Amazon, Apple iTunes, Netflix.  This was coincident with changes in packaging (digital vs. physical media), distribution (internet download vs. shipping). This convergence , with enormous ‘unserviceable demand’ (individual titles, available immediately vs. entire albums) was an unprecedented ‘disruptive’ event, period.

The author is correct that the distribution of revenue contribution is tailing-off, i.e., total revenue contribution is increasing from additional products (at a rate of lower marginal revenue contribution per unit), but this is a result of well-known micro-economic theory affecting supply & demand.

The author compares the “80 / 20 rule”, the modern-day lexicon for Pareto’s Principle (states that for many phenomena 80% of consequences stem from 20% of the causes, and named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto) with “The 98% Principle”. That ‘principle’ was coined by the experience of a firm Anderson interviewed that provided ‘jukebox’ services, specifically, 98% of their 10,000 catalog of unique songs was played once per quarter.

Namely, the acquisition costs of new customers (in this case music or books) has dropped precipitously, and the cost-of-goods-sold has decreased almost exponentially; both attributable to the internet. In the case of the former, the marginal cost of a ‘new set of eyeballs’ belonging to a prospective buyer is near zero.

The author provides ‘evidence’ of “how broadly the theory has been applied”; that’s like me taking credit for discovering gravity because I fell-off my sofa the other night, on which I was standing to change a light bulb.

In summary, there is no new dynamic or trend described in this book; it’s renaming (often inaccurately) a business trend based on Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes.

Read the article reprint in WIRED magazine; you’ll get the full benefit of the argument, it doesn’t warrant a book to explain it.

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Linked In Contact Network Visualization

Visualizing Your Contact Network in Linked In

Few books have made an impact on me as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, the seminal work by Edward Tufte.


This work was the how to embody & represent quantitative information (i.e., numbers) in a visual form, ‘content absorb-able’ with a glance

Further reading revealed the why; specifically who cares I offer this excerpt from a book authored by Tamara Munzer on Visualization for the why:

“Visualization allows people to offload cognition to the perceptual system, using carefully designed images as a form of external memory. The human visual system is a very high-bandwidth channel to the brain, with a significant amount of processing occurring in parallel and at the pre-conscious level. We can thus use external images as a substitute for keeping track of things inside our own heads”

There has been a renaissance in the past several years on various methods and approaches that build on Tufte’s work; some personal favorites are Many Eyes (from IBM), GE Data Visualization, NodeXL, and visualizing.org.  Tufte also has a ‘bulletin board’ that ironically, is non-graphical.

A great practical example is a simple tool offered by Linked In to ‘visualize’ your own network InMaps – I visualized my LinkedIn network. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me that allowed visualization of my contacts ‘footprint’.

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