Archive for December, 2012

Priority 1.A.i.a…

December 30, 2012

Listening to the “Meet the Press” interview of President Obama this morning brought back a few memories from working at Alcatel/Rockwell International/Collins Radio Company.

The interviewer was asking a multitude of questions about priorities – questions were coined in the sense that something was important, and another thing was important, and another, and another, too… The President discussed his highest four priorities in his administration, and the interviewer asked, “What about gun control?” The President hadn’t included gun control in his top priorities, and begged off by explaining that he needed input, and that there needed to be a “conversation” about this topic in light of the Connecticut tragedy before his priorities could change. Yes, a political answer… There are priorities, and there are PRIORITIES.

I recall my boss almost thirty years ago coming to my office to tell me that a particular something was my highest priority. An hour later, he returned to tell me to drop everything and get on something new – that something new was now my top priority. I explained with some frustration in my voice at the time that “…without staff resources, I could only do a few things at once.” He explained that there were no resources he could bring to me – that I was the only qualified person to work on these problems. “When are the tasks due?” His answer was, “As soon as possible.”

This behavior repeated itself over the course of the week until on Friday, the boss returned to ask what progress had been made on the first task. I explained that I was working on the new task given to me the just the day before when I was asked to “drop everything”. I asked, “Which task is really my top-most priority?” My boss answered, “Well, they all are.” I followed up with another question that I hoped would clarify his direction, “Which one is genuinely the number one top priority – Priority 1.A.i.a?”

His answer was dumbfounding, “They are all Top Priority 1. There is no second priority, and they are all due today.” So, I realized at that moment that my boss had been put in an impossible position by his boss. By the end of the day on Friday, I had completed the last task given to me the day before to the degree that I could in 24 hours, and the first task given to me on Monday. In my judgement, it was better to finish something than half finish everything (and finish nothing at all).

Before getting back to the President’s conundrum, I want to remark about how my boss came to me with direction – there were few boundaries to frame the deliverable – worse, there were few details to express the pertinent elements in the problem – just a conversation with someone who did not comprehend the problem at hand very well, nor the shape of the possible solutions. I had an epiphany that Friday – my boss was genuinely clueless about my work, and so was his boss (and his boss and so on). And none of these tasks were critical to the success of the company, or they would have come with resources beside my own time. Worse, I realized that the leadership directly above me was strictly focussed on the politics of the problems I was working on, and not on the business impact of the solutions I was asked to provide.

I realized then – in that week, that it was not only critically important to define complex problems properly, but also the deliverable, and also the business impact of the forthcoming solution. Without this detail, it is impossible to prioritize a problem in a field of problems demanding time and resources, and it is impossible to justify the resources necessary to solve a problem, and it is impossible to judge the adequacy or completeness – the quality of a solution. My boss gave me none of this critical information, and I failed to fully accomplish what his boss was demanding of him (and me). Over that weekend, I recall completing the second task given me during the week, and I estimated the business impact of the remaining five tasks given me that week along with other standing tasks in process awaiting completion, and the business impact estimates set the priority of all the remaining tasks I was working on.

That week was a significant lesson in leadership for me:

  • Describe a problem with some detail – eek out nuances of the problem. People must know that YOU understand the problem even if they do not.
  • Estimate the impact of the problem – if left unsolved, and if solved – the opportunity cost and also the return on the investment. You need numbers, and not just subjective language. Combined, this is the total impact. Make it clear that problems are attacked in order of their total impact.
  • Issue a deadline and define the deliverable. Set out critical elements of the solution necessary to gauge its quality.
  • Monitor the progress in a visible way. Your boss needs to see clearly that something is a priority, and also that there is progress being made.

Today, this is all just a matter of common sense for me, but at the time, it was an epiphany.

So, on to the President. What is his Priority 1? I don’t think it is simply the “Fiscal Cliff” – that is far too short-sighted a priority for a president – far too limited in scope and total impact. I think President Obama’s Priority 1 is improving the employment rate and the overall prosperity of the middle class – so that we can all spend our money in our economy – more money than we are spending today. The positive impact of improving the real prosperity of the middle class by more than 2% is about the same as the negative impact to the middle class of “going over the cliff” (also about 2%). No one has put that nuance in public view – only the impact of going over the cliff has been explained to the American people. It is so disappointing that the fiscal cliff seems to be the Priority 1 of Media and Congress, and not the prosperity of the people.

I give barely passing marks to our politicians for explaining the problem, failing marks for presenting the total impact, passing marks for setting a deadline (but for the wrong problem), and failing marks for visibly monitoring progress. Our leaders in Congress don’t  seem to be very good leaders on the whole…

And this past week, Federal employees got a pay raise of sorts when all Federal salaries were “unfrozen”. As unpalatable as this action might be to the average American, it will increase the prosperity of the middle class employees of the largest employer in the country by more than 2%… That might be pretty smart in the grand scheme of things, but it does’t look that way when middle class families are struggling to make ends meet and put dinner on the table, and no one has explained the total impact very well, much less the real problem and its real priority.

Done rambling!

The Future – It is ALL about Education

December 24, 2012

My recent trip to Taiwan was an eye-opener. Ever been to Taiwan? No? Well, you should go! There are two passions obvious in Taiwan that I don’t see here in the US to nearly the same degree:

  1. Children – children are everything in this society. Children are the future. Children are every parent’s future – after all, when the parents are retired and in their old age, they will be living with one of their children, and the more successful those children are, the more comfortable the parents will be in their old age!
  2. Money – after the child, money is everything in this society. If you aren’t earning money, you are wasting your time. If you aren’t making as much money as your neighbor, well, you must be doing something wrong. In two generations, Taiwan has progressed from 3rd-world to 1st-world, and money is the most tangible element of comparative success. Money – Money – Money…

Getting there… It is a long flight… Take EVA Air across the ocean. EVA Air is an excellent airline with high standards.

Getting around… Taiwan’s mass transit is efficient – the bus, subway, MRT train, HSR high speed rail. Where ever you go, it is inexpensive and efficient. Signs and ticketing systems are in Chinese and English. Most signs throughout the country are in Chinese and English. You’ll have no problem getting around. GO – have a good time there!


In Taiwan, every school ranks students in every subject. Go to a school, and you will find the student rankings on a bulletin board somewhere near the main entrance. Parents cluster around these lists looking for their children to be near the top of the list.

During the top grade of every public school, a National standardized test ranks students nationwide. Coming out of Middle school, this ranking determines which high school you can attend, and every parent hopes for the best high school for their child. Coming out of high school, and the next National test ranking determines which college you can get into. And again, every parent hopes – and hopes – for the best college for their child. The better the school, the better the job, and the more money. It is ALL about education!

We had dinner with a number of friends while in Taiwan. The children came to dinner with school books in hand, and they studied seriously while we ate and talked among ourselves. When a child asked for help, conversation stopped until the child’s question was answered and they were back studying.

As this post title says, it is all about education in Taiwan. It was clear as a bell. Walk out on the street in any large city, and you will see test prep centers on many street corners: “CRAM” Center, Math Skills Institute, Tutor Center, English Coach, etc. Taipei had an entire street dedicated to test prep centers near the central train station. Schooling is a national industry in Taiwan. EVA Airlines even owns a franchise of test prep schools.

Where were we taken by our friends when they showed us around? Their best local schools and universities were among the destinations. The schools and universities were busy on every Saturday with extra classes and competitions.

What favor was I asked at dinner? “Could you help my child with his English?” “Sure,” I said. I was glad to.

There are 165 universities in Taiwan at last count.

It is ALL about education in Taiwan, because education is the key to a good future with security and prosperity and some prestige. Education is The common thread for children and money – those two passions I mentioned above.

Compared to the commitment to education in the US where budgets are being slashed, hours are being cut back, school years shortened, activities are being cancelled, children are tuned out by parents who decline to help with homework, entertainment (TV and video games) takes precedence over homework, and critical thinking is all but missing not only at school but also at home, Taiwan is leagues ahead. I would place my bets for the future on Taiwan and not the US.

The Future – It is ALL about Education! We can look to Taiwan for a success story with a few take-aways for us to learn from here in the US. Parents – you can do much, much more to participate in your child’s education.