Forget about vulnerability: let’s talk about shamelessness

My life has been a speeding train lately, and oh, how I’ve missed my blog! My emerging leaders and I are working on self care for the next few weeks, so this post indulges in quite a bit of navel gazing.

Let’s get to my thoughts on vulnerability and shame that I promised almost a month ago—but first: hat tip to Brené Brown, who has really pushed the discussion on authenticity forward by speaking openly about her own vulnerability and shame. My two cents on this revolves around how shamelessness resonates with me much more than vulnerability, and how letting go of shame is one of the kindest and most empowering gifts I’ve given myself. Continue reading


What is the #slowbrood?

The slow brood is a notion that Brian (aka, Cartesian Faith) and I have been toying with here at Chez Guevarowe for a while now. Slow brood is an intentional riff on such catchphrases as slow food, slow brewed, cold brewed—things that are good because they require a significant amount of time and preparation. Brian may write about his own take on the slow brood, but here is mine.

The slow brood is a habit of mind I bring into my business life from academia, where ideas naturally have a long gestation period. The slow brood resists some of the trends that make me uncomfortable about business, specifically within the lean startup industry. Let me be explicit on this point: It’s not that I think that lean principles are fundamentally incompatible with social enterprise, or that lean startups don’t have the potential for spectacular growth and impact. What I take issue with, rather, is a very particular application of the methodology and the culture it fosters.

While I subscribe to the principle that fledgling enterprises should curb their ambitions and start small (I went through a lean startup for social good course myself), the way the method is taught in lean startup workshops can lead practitioners into the realm of the ridiculous. I refer to weekend bootcamps where participants are organized into teams, and each team must “develop its problem hypothesis, solution hypothesis and a series of assumptions which are core to the success of the business.”

Now consider the inspirational anecdotes we hear during these workshops. The general narrative goes like this: Oops, the “problem” we wanted to solve turned out not to be a problem for anyone at all! So what’s next? Pivot, pivot, pivot, ’til…bingo! Not only is the service/product we ended up launching totally different from what we initially planned (that can be a good thing), but the very problem itself has changed. So, ultimately, it’s not the need of your customer that you care about. In this model, who your customers are and what you’re trying to help them accomplish matter much less than finding customers with an actual problem you can solve. Continue reading

YAB Project Management Boot Camp

YAB bootcamp

   Credit: Lindsay Adamski

If you want an inside look on how I develop my material and roll out new workshops, here is a case study. Last Sunday several members of NYFC YAB, accompanied by Lindsay Adamski (a.k.a., ladamski), joined me at AlleyNYC for a four-hour project management bootcamp. (Yes, you read that right: four hours on a Sunday. It was their suggestion. They are intense, these folks.) The aim was to finish the work that we started at the retreat back in August on the YAB Project Management Manual, which like their constitution, is co-authored by YAB and me. My model for this was the OCFS Handbook for Youth in Foster Care, which incorporates the voices of young people in care in every chapter. I especially liked how the handbook defines terms using the words of youth in foster care.

YAB does a terrific job of referring to a printed copy of their constitution during their meetings, and the manual is definitely supposed to act as a guide for every step of the project management process: brainstorming, project selection, planning, execution, and ending (termination, completion, and administration). Each section has handy tools and tips for success. We’re also making it available in digital format, however, because the manual is intended as a living document that they can edit over the years by modifying, clarifying, and elaborating on the existing material (e.g., working out their own ground rules and processes for each of these stages). There are exercises sprinkled throughout, so it also served as a workbook at the retreat and at the Alley bootcamp.

Full disclosure: the first project management workshop was a little rough. In a strict sense I wasn’t disappointed, though, because as with any new workshop, I was prepared for some kinks. (It’s always tough to time new activities.) Furthermore, it was the last workshop on the final day of the retreat, the youth were kind of restless and burnt out from all the work and running around we’d already done, and the creepy cabin we used as a classroom (the “dead animal room”) was not conducive to thoughtful dialogue. I’d assumed that we would finish the chapter on brainstorming rather quickly, but it took us an hour to get through the material. Nothing was too trivial for debate, and in my effort to write down everyone’s opinions, we lagged behind schedule.

It was clear that I had to recalibrate my approach (in business parlance, “pivoting” after “failure”!) for the follow-up session. This was a team effort. Lindsay got feedback from YAB about what they thought could be improved for next time, and the two of us met to discuss some tactics. Here are the ideas we all came up with: Continue reading

The importance of witnessing failure

There is so much I still have to process about the Conference on Emerging Adulthood, including how very different a social science conference is from all the literature conferences I’ve ever attended. Most striking of all was the lack of poor manners and bad behavior, and second to that was the fact that every grad student was accompanied by a research mentor.

I got into a conversation with one such pair following Corey Keyes‘s lovely keynote speech on happiness and mental health, during which he confessed to speaking openly with his students about his own struggle with depression. We were talking about how instructive it is for graduate students to hear their professors talk about struggling, making mistakes, and outright failing at things. The faculty supervisor was telling her student that during one internship she got to witness the top psychologists in the world hold therapy sessions. What was most illuminating for her were the instances when those big-name therapists failed to connect with their clients, missed things that she picked up on, or completely messed up in their responses. In my program, by contrast, our professors did little to dispel the myths that surrounded their ascension to academic stardom. I am not the only one who wondered how I would ever cross the bridge from project-less grad student to tenured professor.

Very late in the game, my advisor finally started to get it. We were sitting in his office, I was very close to tears over a chapter I was struggling to write, and he very gently observed, “I think that what you need from me isn’t academic direction, but a life coach.” By that time, however, I was already so dispirited and embittered, that no amount of comfort could change my mind about leaving academia after graduating. It’s amazing that I ever finished. The first of three times I seriously considered dropping out of my program, a professor I greatly admired met me for coffee and talked me off the ledge, saying that I was precisely the type of student NYU should work to retain and cultivate. For a period we enjoyed a certain kind of intellectual closeness, regularly trading emails with each other at four in the morning. But when she came up for tenure, it was as if that intimacy between us had never existed. Thus began my years- (years!) long search for another faculty mentor.

It’s a sweet little postscript that I now happen to be helping to strengthen the mentoring initiatives at NYU through its diversity and inclusion task force. As a casualty of grad school, I am committed to pushing for social and emotional supports for doctoral students. Research skills can be easily acquired. What isn’t readily learned are the skills necessary to cope with the long road to intellectual autonomy. More seasoned scholars would do their students a huge favor by being more transparent about the vicissitudes of their own professional journeys.

Getting the most out of failure

NOTE: I am a guest blogger at Minds On Fire. I write at Cartesian Faith about mathematics, data analysis, and management science.  Sometimes I post pictures as well. My focus here will be about applying analytical thinking to improve life skills, such as decision making and interpersonal interaction.

I read a quote the other day that said “if you are always succeeding, then you aren’t pushing yourself enough”. I think this quote captures perfectly the idea that to improve yourself, you need to go outside your comfort zone. Doing this forces you to accept that failure can occur. Few people are naturally good at everything, so it takes practice to excel. This is true of playing sports, games, writing, speaking, networking, business, etc. So go ahead and try something new. It’s not a big deal if you fail.

But wait, overcoming the fear of failure is only half the solution. Practice without learning and failure without reflection will just result in more failure. The key is to not hold yourself back due to fear of failure, while simultaneously doing what is necessary to minimize the chance of failure. This past winter I went ice climbing, and our guide was discussing the safety of knots, pointing out good knots and bad knots. He was adamant about safety and used this rule of thumb to serve as the final arbiter of safety: if I die doing this, will people say it was a freak accident or that I was stupid and careless?

While a bit extreme for every day life the same principle applies to other forms of failure. In essence did you fail despite your best effort or did you fail because you were unprepared and careless? The key to effective failure then is about preparing (education) beforehand, staying cool and observing during the activity (feedback), and thinking about what worked and didn’t work (reflection) afterward. Following this approach will reduce unnecessary failure. If you think in terms of “practice makes perfect”, the point of failure is to achieve success. Failure without improvement just leads to more failure and discouragement. So be fearless, and also be smart about failure.

We Grow When We Tackle Challenges

“The best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure.” (Paul Tough, p. 85).

All of the reading that I have done these past few weeks has made me think of my own approach to risk and failure. In my personal and professional life I have a strong tendency to play it safe. I am guilty of letting my fear of falling on my face hold me back from trying something new.

A great friend of mine visited last weekend and this topic came up during one of our marathon conversations. She teaches third grade and her vision for her classroom is “We grow when we tackle challenges.” These third graders are extremely lucky to start learning this at a young age (and to have such an amazing teacher). But I think this motto is powerful at all ages. It’s scary to take a risk, but it is the only way to stretch ourselves to achieve new and original success. Reflecting on this theme has led me to some very interesting books (like this one) and a greater awareness of my own hesitancy to step outside the box. Posting on this blog is one (minor) risk and has opened me up to what I hope will be many more as I grow in my career.

Thank you, Ysette, for the chance to share on your blog and welcome back!

Adaptive leadership in health and human services

The latest issue of Child Welfare Matters is devoted to explaining why and how organizations in health and human services should consider adopting the tools and processes of adaptive leadership. Child welfare and health care alike are fields overwhelmed with daily urgencies and challenges—a reality that can easily cultivate a reactive environment. Adaptive leadership, by contrast, urges organizations to take a step back and consider their challenges strategically and empower professionals on the frontline of the work to come up with innovative ideas for change. It requires the folks higher up in the organizational hierarchy to literally step out of the room and encourage social workers to brainstorm, experiment with solutions on a small scale, and adapt if and when those initial ideas fail.

Adaptive leadership is appropriate when organizations wish to build on existing strengths but go beyond business as usual. For a child welfare agency, for example, that would mean adding the promotion of “well being” to its mandate of ensuring safety and permanency. Likewise, a health care agency looking to serve the “whole person” would do well to turn to adaptive leadership because there is no immediately obvious technical solution that the organizational machinery can easily plot out and implement. (How does an organization define and promote “well being”?)

This won’t be an easy sell, but Child Welfare Matters reminds us that resistance to change is often a fear of loss—of competency, autonomy, responsibility, etc., when staff are required to work outside their typical roles and take initiative in a bold way. Being proactive about identifying potential “losses” will help.

The gains from adaptive leadership should outweigh any perceived losses. CW Matters lists a few solutions directly resulting from adaptive leadership initiatives. One child welfare agency addressed the problem of administrative silos by building teams across organizational units to share responsibilities and decrease miscommunication. Social workers at a health care agency took on the task of coordinating customized teams of health care providers (including nurses, specialists, and health coaches) who could all talk to patients about their lifestyle and health.

To read more about how one child welfare agency has been using adaptive leadership visit the website of the NM Piñon Project.

Re-evaluating program strategy

I’m realizing more and more that this project with YAB does not entail an intervention-style strategy of helping them build a foundation that can simply be handed over to them; it requires, rather, a more gradual process of independence-building. (Given everything I have learned about nations transitioning to democracy, it’s a bit embarrassing that i didn’t understand this from the start!) Here is a cautionary tale that will hopefully have a happy ending: Continue reading