Sunday, June 17, 2007

Getting caught...

On friday, I got the following picture joke which I thought would be a good introduction to the topic of creative thinking and simplicity... (the pencil says Microsoft Word for Blondes 1.0).

I had forwarded to some of my friends an e-mail on the difference between focusing on solutions instead of on problems. One of the two cases in the e-mail was about the Space Pen used by NASA. I quote:

When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that the pens wouldn't work at zero gravity (ink won't flow down to the writing surface). To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million. They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C. And what did the Russians do...?? They used a pencil.

The above sounded very plausible until I decided to do some more research into the pen so that I could buy one to use as a prop. That's when I came across the fact that the above is a hoax and is simply not true. Both Scientific American and NASA's own web site had more information on the pen and the manufacturer (Fisher Pen Co.) who spent $1M of their own funds to develop and patent the technology.

I normally pride myself on doing cross checks to detect hoaxes and incorrectly attributed quotes/statistics. This time, I fell into the trap and forwarded the e-mail on. The real question is why? is it because we have been conditioned to accept that NASA (and other large organizations) are bureaucratic? or are there other causes at play?

In any case - to those I have sent the 2 cases - I'm sorry.

PS: Actually, NASA did good when it came to procuring the product having paid $2.39 for 400 pens (according to SCIAM). If you want to buy one today, you would have to pay around $50. This is pretty impressive given a new introduction of technology (even if one takes into consideration inflation from the late 60s to now).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

“A serving of ethics for them… please”

Meeting an old friend of mine on the train ride home, discussions turned from our common friends into what new we were doing. He informed me that he is now writing a column in a local newspaper and asked me if there are ethics in corporations as he will be writing on the topic.

My quick reply was a qualified “yes and no – ethics do exist in some corporations but in many cases they are used by upper management against employees”. We discussed shortly how leadership teams treats ethics as an enforcement tool but the train ride was too short to elaborate further.

As life would have it, the next day, I was catching up with another friend who has survived several downsizing activities in his company and had a new leadership team at the helm of the company for a short while. My friend told me about one of their Vice Presidents (Mr. Joel Hackney) who was accused of throttling a young lady after a basketball match (see Nortel exec admits assault).

During our discussion, we went over what was given in the ethics training they received for insight. In one of the videos they viewed, a man making a lurid suggestion to a woman colleague was considered grounds for firing since it was unethical. The comment made by my friend was: “I guess the physical assault and threatening of a young woman in front of his family is ethical… Mike Z (the CEO) messed up by doing nothing…”.

An interesting development which happened at the same time was the quitting of NT's Chief Ethics Officer (Susan Shepard). Ms. Shepard quit “for no really obvious reason” on Nov 6th 2006 (Mr. Hackney’s episode took place on Oct 13th 2006). One would hope that Ms. Shepard had some objections to the way the incident was handled internally by the leadership team. It is worth pointing out that the company had forced all of its employees to follow an ethics training course and sign off on it. Employees were told directly "if you do not sign the papers you should consider other employment". This is a strong message to all employees with a built in expectation that all in the company fall under it.

What came out of our discussion was the perception that there are two sets of rules which are applied to people inside the company: One for the executive team and another for the employees. This is manifested in many areas including compensation and how many executives earn their money. The forced ethics approach coupled with its flouting at a moment of truth negated even further all the messages from the top.

This mirrors what is happening in the political arena where most people perceive the ethical disconnect to have always existed and to be even bigger. Adversaries are held to different ethical standards (“Gingrich had affair during Clinton's probe”), promises are made and not held, statistics are manipulated to special means and laws are followed only when they suit the specific group in power. This is exemplified well in Henry Kissenger’s quote “The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer”.

For many, work was viewed as an area in which they could live their values. However, employees are having more and more difficulty building trust in corporations and their “hired” executives. This at a time when corporations face incredible challenges and need all the resources and creativity it has to survive in a competitive world.

The creation of Ethics Officer positions in corporations is welcome as long as ethics training and development is not used as a mind control tool for employees and is only used selectively when looking for an excuse to pressure or eliminate a person. Leaders are expected to live the principles they want their followers to espouse.

PS: after I wrote this posting, I went online to search for further information on the topic and found an e-mail from the CEO to his employees on the topic. It is for the reader to read it and see if it changes their opinion on the topic.