July 25th, 2014

Influence

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


When we want to influence others, it helps to be aware of what is influencing us. When you want to influence someone to do something, or to think or feel a certain way, first ask yourself a simple question: why do you want to influence this person? Spend some time with your response. Carefully observe the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise. Then, ask yourself if you can accept not having control of the outcome. If your answer is no, then you are being controlled (by your drives), and have far less freedom to influence others. If your answer is yes, then you’re less likely to get in your own way.

One of the ways I like to visualize influence is with the following analogy. Your influence is like a flashlight that can selectively emit different wavelengths of light at different levels of brightness. Each wavelength corresponds to a perspective that you can take. The more you have refined a given perspective, the brighter you can emit that wavelength. The more perspectives you can take, the more wavelengths you can emit. When you influence someone, you metaphorically stand next to them and invite them to envision their surroundings, including yourself and even themselves, as illuminated by your flashlight.

The impact of the brightness setting is unmistakable. When an expert illuminates a topic to a degree we’ve never seen before, our very way of thinking can be influenced. But influencing someone, of course, isn’t just a matter of turning up the brightness as high and as fast as possible. If you light up too much of the scene, the person can lose focus. They’re given too much content without enough context. The practice here is to center the light on a well known area, and expand accordingly from there. If you light up a scene too quickly, this can temporarily blind them. They may turn away in discomfort from something that they might otherwise find useful. To relate to that, think about a situation where you had a misconception about something and someone pounced on that, firing off a barrage of explanations of just how wrong you were. The practice here is to raise the level of lighting at a pace that the person can handle.

The wavelength setting is more complex. The perception of the person you are communicating with is shaped by their inner lenses. Some wavelengths may be amplified positively, others may be amplified negatively, and still others may be dampened, modified, or not even seen. When you communicate on a wavelength that resonates with them, influence is natural. When you don’t, things feel out of sync. What can you do in the latter case, if you can’t find a workable wavelength? What about a scenario where your brightest wavelengths seem to be unfavorably perceived by them, and you can’t generate the wavelength that seems to dominate their decision making process?

One thing you can do is to reflect on the dominant wavelength of the other person. Observe how your inner lenses/layers are filtering that wavelength. See if you can surface any unconscious reactions and withdraw any projections. As you do this, you will find that your flashlight can start to generate that wavelength. When it reaches a utilitarian level of brightness, you will be able to articulate that perspective within a neutral context, without feeling threatened or forcing a value judgment on it.

Now, you can make an informed decision on a key question – is their dominant perspective an important growth area for you, at the current time? If it is, you can take the time to actively develop that wavelength to a higher level of brightness that will resonate more strongly. If it isn’t, you can more confidently channel your energy into areas that are important to your growth. The utilitarian level of brightness you have developed with this wavelength will help keep you from being blindsided, even as you focus on other wavelengths. You’ll gain a better sense of where to assert your influence, and where not to actively intervene.

July 15th, 2014

Performance Feedback

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


Whenever we get feedback, whether it’s formally at an annual performance review, or informally during the course of our work, we have an excellent opportunity to observe our identifications. What do we feel proud about? What do we get defensive about? Sorting out our triggers helps us on the one hand not to fixate on the feedback, and on the other hand not to blithely dismiss it. We can put it into context and consider it thoughtfully. In this way, feedback moves from being an assertion that we have to accept or reject wholesale, to a springboard from which we can launch an exploration of our mental space, and where our eventual response falls out like one of many solutions to an equation.

Whenever we feel perturbed by negative feedback, whether it’s criticism of our strengths or weaknesses, we can engage this kind of mindful exploration. What sort of polarity is involved? What are we attached to as our “I”, what opposites are we not acknowledging, and how are we projecting that unacknowledged content onto others?

One of the most satisfying experiences in technology work is solving a core problem that in turn resolves several other outstanding issues that we didn’t realize were all connected. Resolving our projections at their origins has the same effect. Other problems go away without us having to even think about them. For example, we breathe more naturally, our tone of voice is calmer, our body language is more relaxed, we listen more attentively, and so on. Even if we aren’t able to fully withdraw some of our projections, the more transparent they are to us, the less energy we invest in sustaining them. We know at some level that they’re illusions, so our reactions are somewhat dampened – which may be all that we need to interrupt some of our unhealthy habitual patterns.

Over time, we can become savvier consumers of feedback, which is essentially a collection of stories about us. Some of them are myths, others are tragedies, and there’s always an element of comedy. Sometimes we’re cast as the hero, other times as the villain; sometimes the wizard, other times the fool. If we don’t get too caught up in the archetypes (projection), we can learn much about the storytellers. From what people say (and don’t say), we can glean insights into their priorities, values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. We can unlock remarkable significance in offhanded remarks, discount even solemn statements that are suspicious, and take more comments at face value. Feedback becomes a powerful ally in understanding ourselves and working effectively with others.

June 25th, 2014

Identity Labels

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


As we participate in open source projects or open learning communities like Wikipedia, Quora, Stack Exchange and others, we frequently encounter people from different countries who work at different companies. It’s not unusual to see people change organizational affiliations while working on the same project, or change projects while working at the same organization. Independent of any of the labels next to our names, we continue to increase the amount of innovative capability and insightful knowledge freely available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

This perspective reminds us that countries, companies and communities are all inner layers that we can check and uncheck. Holding these mental constructs lightly, we can recognize our affinities for them without turning them into identity millstones. We can keep our eye on a vision that transcends boundaries, wherever we happen to be. Whether we’re helping a company provide greater value to its customers, or helping a community provide greater value to its audience, we’re open to solutions that tap our connections and capabilities beyond our roles as employees or community members.

June 12th, 2014

Letting Go of Mental Models

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


What I particularly like about GIS mapping programs like Google Earth is that it’s just as easy to add a layer and take on a new perspective as it is to uncheck a layer and let go of my current perspective. If I bring up a satellite map of North America with the usual layer delineating countries and states, and then uncheck that layer, what happens? The differentiated concepts of country and state disappear. I see with new eyes as I rediscover an underlying substrate that is more continuous. I scroll through the jagged peaks of mountain ranges stretching across thousands of miles. I marvel at the unbroken expanse of flatlands. I drink in capacious inland bodies of water…

But what’s that right in between two of the biggest lakes? I can’t deny it. Michigan, like the claws of a wolverine, drags my jailbird mind back into the world of nations and states. I notice Florida as well, its peninsula as iconic to me as the ears of Mickey Mouse. Still, there is something different to this experience. These places, as distinct as they are, are more connected here than they were in the delineated map – they’re more like parts of the same whole. The more I stay present with this map free of external layers, the more I become aware of the internal layers which supply my continued impressions of “Florida”, “Michigan”, and other such things. Even if I can’t quite un-see them, their nature as constructs projected from my mind becomes more apparent and transparent.

The promise held out by this exercise is that we can gain more awareness of these inner layers/lenses that color and shape our perceptions, which we would otherwise see as the color and shape of the outside world.

To truly and freely let go of mental models, we need plenty of mental space. Without an abundance of mental space, and without a tolerance for its emptiness, we tend to fill the space vacated by one model with an equally cramped alternative. It’s like a corollary of Einstein’s observation that we can’t solve problems from the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. We can’t properly let go of mental models from the same bubbles of mental space in which we constructed them.

Take the well-known anecdote about the belief that the earth rests on a giant turtle. When challenged by the question of what that turtle stands on, the person with this belief responds “it’s turtles all the way down!” I find this particularly humorous, because it’s exactly what I do. When one of my turtle-models is undermined and I can’t tolerate letting go of the turtle, I rush to add more turtles – or elephants, or giraffes, or unicorns for that matter. Whereas when I have more mental space, the turtle doesn’t loom so large in my worldview. I welcome the opportunity to let it go, which enables me to be present with the question at a more im-mediate, essential level – both as conceived and as perceived.

One of the best ways I know to gain mental space is through meditation. There are various types of meditation techniques, such as the mental repetition of a sound (mantra); focusing on the breath or some other object; monitoring thoughts/feelings/sensations with equanimity; and others. All of these share a fundamental principle: the expansion of self-awareness. In meditation, when you become distracted by a thought, feeling or sensation, you gently return your attention back to the intention with which you started the meditation. Every such act of reaching beyond your current distraction is a micro-expansion of self-awareness.

The gentle aspect of this is important. Meditation is like shifting your car into neutral. When you realize that you have become distracted, it’s like discovering that your right foot is back on the gas pedal and your car is in gear. At that moment, forcefully suppressing the distraction is like putting your left foot on the brake. That creates more friction, and takes you away from meditation. Instead, the idea is to just let up on the gas pedal and shift back into neutral. The car may keep moving, but you’re not intentionally involved with that movement.

In meditation, you uncover many pressed gas pedals and brakes which you can release. All of this reduces internal friction and frees up mental space, which carries over into day-to-day experience. You find greater patience to listen to another person with an open mind, and to sit with a problem without the limitations imposed by a particular mental model. You can allow a holistically informed response/solution to naturally emerge.

June 4th, 2014

Reframing

Here is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.


Reframing, studied by neuroscientists formally as cognitive reappraisal, enables us to see the silver lining of a dark cloud, and to recognize that lemons can be turned into lemonade. We don’t deny or hide any of the facts of a situation, we just change our focus of attention and subsequent action. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock presents a key insight from Kevin Ochsner’s research in this area:

As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.” … Ochsner’s research finds that as people reappraise positively, there is increased activation of the right and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and a corresponding reduction in activation of the limbic system. … It turns out that conscious control over the limbic system is possible, not by suppressing a feeling, but rather by changing the interpretation that creates the feeling in the first place. [emphasis added]

(In the brain, the prefrontal cortex is associated with higher-order activities including prioritizing, decision making and problem-solving, and the limbic system is associated with a vast range of emotional responses and the formation of long-term memories.) Reframing can be enormously, sometimes magically, successful at neutralizing stress and freeing up energy. A minor shift in how we view a situation can make a major difference in how we feel.

Of course, psychologists and philosophers have been telling us this for quite some time. Take a minute to ponder this observation from Carl Jung:

You know, it is sometimes an ideal not to have any kind of convictions or feelings that are not based upon reality. One must even educate people…that their emotions ought to have a real basis, that they cannot swear hell and damnation at somebody on a mere assumption, and that there are absolute reasons why they are not justified in doing such a thing. They really have to learn that their feelings should be based on facts.

But to [develop further] one should unlearn all that. One should even admit that all one’s psychical facts have nothing to do with material facts. For instance, the anger which you feel for somebody or something, no matter how justified it is, is not caused by those external things. It is a phenomenon all by itself. That is what we call taking a thing on its subjective level. …

If you have reached that level…you have succeeded in dissolving the absolute union of material external facts with internal or psychical facts. You begin to consider the game of the world as your game, the people that appear outside as exponents of your psychical condition. Whatever befalls you, whatever experience or adventure you have in the external world, is your own experience.

Every time we re-frame, we break one mental frame and make another one. We undermine that absolute union of material facts with psychical facts. This is what I value most about reframing. It reminds me that situations cannot compel me to feel a certain way. Situations aren’t inalienably “upsetting”, “embarrassing”, “terrifying” or “frustrating”, or for that matter “joyous”, “heartwarming”, “inspiring” or “exciting”. All of those emotional responses are valid, can be empathized with, and can be witnessed and experienced as fully as needed/wanted. But they stem from the mind itself, and are not locked to external circumstances.

The more we practice reframing, the more we become comfortable with holding multiple frames of reference simultaneously. Holding multiple perspectives doesn’t hold us back in any fundamental way from making clear decisions. We just don’t assume that the loudest voice in our head is always the clearest one. We listen for quieter voices that may have important things to say. When we make a decision, it may well be the same (or even more sharply defined) as what we might have otherwise chosen. But there is less of our self-image trapped in the decision. If we end up winning at another’s expense, there is less of a need either to gloat or to feel guilty. And if we see wisdom in an opposing point of view, we can more readily change our mind without needing to save face.

What we gradually lose is the need to prove ourselves as being right, as well as the need to prove the imagined-or-real naysayers wrong. This opens us up to discovering deeper truths about ourselves and others.

March 18th, 2014

ETL at LOPSA-East 2014

I’ll be speaking about Enlightening Technical Leadership at the LOPSA-East Professional IT Community Conference on May 3rd:

http://lopsa-east.org/2014/lopsa-east-14-talks/

March 4th, 2014

ETL at the IEEE/ACM IT Professional Conference

I’ll be speaking about Enlightening Technical Leadership at the IEEE/ACM IT Professional Conference on March 14th:

http://princetonacm.acm.org/tcfpro/

December 11th, 2013

Enlightening Technical Leadership

I’m happy to announce that my first book, Enlightening Technical Leadership, is now available! You can download the ebook for free from my web site, and the paperback is available at amazon.com:

http://kartiksubbarao.com/enlightening-technical-leadership

February 7th, 2013

Open Source Presentation at IEEE Delaware Meeting

UPDATE 2/19/2013: Slides from the talk are now included below.

I’m presenting about Open Source at the IEEE Delaware section meeting on February 18th. Here is the abstract:

Open Source software grew out of the practice of freely and openly sharing source code across academia and industry from the early days of computer programming. It took off along with the rapid growth of the Internet. Nowadays, open source software runs most of the World Wide Web, as well as the majority of smartphones and supercomputers. Companies are increasing their use of open source, developers continue to adopt open source programming languages and techniques, and society as a whole is being transformed by the principles of open source collaboration at a number of levels, from education to government to popular culture.

What makes open source so compelling? How does it work? What are some ways that anyone can benefit from open source, wherever they happen to be? In this presentation, we’ll explore these questions and discuss the opportunities.

November 1st, 2012

Holding the Personality Type Map Lightly

Some lessons that I’ve learned from personality type, as well as thoughts on how we can apply these insights in the world of IT, published in the journal Personality Type in Depth:

http://typeindepth.com/2012/11/the-map-vs-the-territory-of-type/

Many thanks to Carol Shumate and Mark Hunziker for their insights throughout the editorial process!