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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 8 February 2013

Transitioning Queen's Park Staff

Politics is much like a movie - what you see on camera or in the headlines is but a fraction of what goes on behind the scenes.  Politicians are supported by countless volunteers, stakeholders and of course, political staff.  While there is no one way into jobs in a Minister or Member's office (nor really any training once you get there), few positions you can have are more rewarding, draining, inspiring and all-to-often thankless than working in those back offices.
In addition to the challenges of doing The People's business, the Party's business and ideally, learning and contributing some of your own content in support of a shared vision, there's the constant uncertainty of employment (or perhaps, certainty of eventual unemployment).  So much of your job stability is dependent on factors completely removed from your actual performance; as Ministers get shuffled or Parties go in or out of favour, some positions simply vanish.  
With so many A-type personalities in politics, personality conflicts play a role, too - if you're associated with someone (or conversely, not seen as "one of XX's people") you can easily be painted with the same broad brush as a current or even former political boss or seen as inconsequential for not having the right connections.  Knowing which position to favour or not favour, or which of several competing direction-givers to follow can lead to analysis paralysis, which then actually does impede performance.
A sad consequence of this uncertainty is that some of the folk on the employer side of the equation are often in places where they simply can't keep the team together.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from having to let good people go sometimes results in a confabulated, comforting stance of "they were never that valuable anyway" being assumed by those holding the hammer.  These sorts of sticky situations result in a lot of bitter feelings, well expressed by Warren Kinsella's farewell tribute to Dalton McGuinty's outgoing staff.
In a recent conversation with a friend who worked on Team Pupatello, I mentioned that those who would be out of work were in for a rude awakening.  As this comment was first interpreted as meaning "those people have never had it so easy" I clarified thusly - the dedication, multi-tasking and ridiculously long hours worked in support of a cause, not a profit, doesn't translate as easily as one might hope to the private sector.  Figuring out how to frame your skills, experience and connections into a tight package that makes it clear what value you can add to a firm is far from intuitive.  Given the tightening restrictions around government relations, all the easy avenues are gone.  With a tipsy economy and an expanding pool of available labour, employers are defaulting to what (and who) they know instead of seeking to expand their operations or offerings in out-of-the-box ways.
The stress of the uncertainty, the loss of income and sudden inability to manage existing responsibilities, the mounting challenges and steadily increasing pressure in finding something new and the gradual loss of both financial resources and personal confidence can take a heavy, heavy toll.  These pressures can manifest themselves through things like anxiety, depression, substance abuse and damaged personal relationships.  It's not a pretty picture.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
When the Liberals were returned to Queen's Park with a minority government in 2011, it was an unfortunate reality that staffing levels would have to contract, significantly.  How to handle this situation in an appropriate manner became a topic of discussion among some of "The Centre" folk.  Although I've never been on anyone's insider list, I've been in politics long enough to know some of those who are; while talking with one such staffer at a reception, I volunteered to create a staff transition strategy that would help The Centre train and point outgoing staff in useful directions.  This offer was accepted. 
To me, Liberals aren't about throwing people into the deep end or buying them oodles of flotation devices - it's about teaching them to swim with the tools and training that makes the most sense for them and their context.  This "teach a man to fish" model became the basis of my plan; the opportunity presented by the election, I felt, was to put into practice the values that bind Liberals together.  Of course, in addition to helping political family members leave the nest under their own wing power, supporting staff who end up being tomorrow's stakeholders makes strategic sense.  Plus, it's an inevitability that your turn will come; we all know how karma works.
I called my staff transition strategy Moving Forward Together, with the implication being that moving forward together means leaving no one behind.
You can find it here.
For my part, I consider many of the people who now face employment uncertainty friends.  I get that there was some polarization that happened over the leadership, just as their was friction when the number of chairs on the deck were reduced in 2011.  That shouldn't matter - we are either all in this together, or we're not. 
There are ways to help the team find success that won't break the bank; they just take time, commitment and active communication.  You also have to care enough to invest yourself in the process.  But the same applies to governing, doesn't it?  If we don't believe we have what it takes to nurture and accomodate people with the tools they need to succeed, then we're in the wrong business, or maybe the wrong Party.
Move Forward Together - it can't be just a tagline, it has to be a value statement, a mission. 
But we have to believe it's possible for us to make a difference.  Not them, not you - us.
So - do we?

Shades of Grey - Billy Joel

 Good song, this:

Shades Of Grey Lyrics
Album:  River Of Dreams
Some things were perfectly clear, seen with the vision of youth
No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed the corner on truth
These days it's harder to say I know what I'm fighting for
My faith is falling away
I'm not that sure anymore

Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Black and white is how it should be
But shades of grey are the colors I see

Once there were trenches and walls and one point of every view
Fight 'til the other man falls - kill him before he kills you
These days the edges are blurred, I'm old and tired of war
I hear the other man's words
I'm not that sure anymore

Shades of grey are all that I find
When I look to the enemy line
Black and white was so easy for me
But shades of grey are the colors I see

Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out
And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts
Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they're for
I won't be righteous again
I'm not that sure anymore

Shades of grey are all that I find
When I look to the enemy line
Ain't no rainbows shining on me
Shades of grey are the colors I see

Shades of grey wherever I go
The more I find out the less that I know
Ain't no rainbows shining on me
Shades of grey are the colors I see

Patrick Brazeau: Canary In the Competitive Coal Mine

Patrick Brazeau was a young, brash leader - and was rewarded for those traits.  Any time his behaviour slipped into questionable territory, Stephen Harper covered for him - ostensibly to protect his Party's brand.  In so doing, he encouraged more of the same in an escalating pattern.  Never once was the question asked, "how can we stop this from happening again?"  More than a few people have suffered as a result - including Brazeau himself and I would argue, Stephen Harper's Conservative Party.
Rob Ford has been exactly what he advertised himself as - a brash, blinders-on, elbows-up leader.  The results have been exactly what one would expect - messy.  But we got what we asked for, didn't we?
The focus at all levels on competitive confidence has seen a sharpening of the political point, but leaves less and less room at the top for people to stand.  Functional fixedness if failing us, which we should have seen coming.  Haste and beating The Other comes at the expense of meaningful deliberation and collaborative responses, which is no small part of why we're in the deficit situation - fiscal, social, democratic - we face today.  It's almost like there's a pattern forming.
More hopefully, there's another trend possibly emerging - in Ontario, the Liberal Party has picked a leader skilled in mediation over one known as a political scrapper.  In relation to the afore-mentioned Brazeau, there have been voices raised among the general populace questioning the validity of lines in sand and throwing stones when we all live in glass houses.  Could it be that winning is starting to take second place to achieving?
One can only hope - because the only way to move the mountain of challenges in front of us is to all pull together in the same direction.


Kool, Topp & Guy Public Affairs: Teaching Clients to Fish?

Smart people of different opinions pooling their resources and perspectives together, collectively providing advice to clients on how to fish for partners and support?
This is notable.  And quite possibly encouraging.  We'll see where this trend leads next...

FURTHER: As this piece is suddenly quite popular, here's where I think we're going wrong with selling public services in a quasi-capitalist model and an idea or two, conversation starters really, on how to capitalize on expanded knowledge of how people behave and new technology to nurture a more empowered, sustainable system.  A healthy society, as it were.

UPDATED:  This piece seems to be getting a lot of attention of late, which I will take as a positive thing.  So, for those interested in learning more about the "teach to fish" model of doing business, be sure to check out Swerhun Facilitation as well.  They make more than enough money doing what they do (amazing facilitation) to allow for them to dedicate staff time to their core objective of putting themselves out of business.

Yup, you read that right.  The Swerhun folk (special props to Bianca and Yulia) want everyone - politicians, community groups, residents - to have the capacity to facilitate as well as they do.

They know it won't happen in their lifetime and even if it did, they're smart enough to find something else to get paid doing.

Empowering others - is there a future business model in this?  Flies in the face of traditional capitalism, so we'll see.  I remain hopeful.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Our Growing Comprehension of Stress and Cognition

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

Platon for The New York Times
Students at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 25, the day before they took the SAT or SAT math subject test. Clockwise from top left: Elana Ross, Linda Fan, Aryanna Jones, Sasha Rae-Grant, Patrick Reed, Jeremy McMillan. More Photos »


Noah Muthler took his first state standardized test in third grade at the Spring Cove Elementary School in Roaring Spring, Pa. It was a miserable experience, said his mother, Kathleen Muthler. He was a good student in a program for gifted children. But, Muthler said, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ” In fourth grade, he was upset the whole week before the exam. “He manifests it physically,” his mother said. “He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school.” Not a good sleeper anyway, Noah would slip downstairs after an hour tossing in bed and ask his mom to lie down with him until he fell asleep. In fifth grade, the anxiety lasted a solid month before the test. “Even after the test, he couldn’t let it go. He would wonder about questions he feared he misunderstood,” Muthler said.

So this year, Muthler is opting Noah out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, using a broad religious and ethical exemption. Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”
Muthler understands Noah’s distress; more mysterious is why her son Jacob, who is in eighth grade, isn’t the least bit unnerved by the same tests. He, too, is in the gifted program, but that seems to give him breezy confidence, not fear. “You would think he doesn’t even care,” Muthler marveled. “Noah has the panic and anxiety for both of them.” Nevertheless, she will opt out Jacob from the tests, too, to be consistent.
Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn’t what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report — but this test is going to find out how smart you really are. Critics argue that all this test-taking is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children.
But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.
Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.
Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to — or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.
The test is incredibly difficult; answering the multiple-choice questions requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. “Many students go to cram school almost every night to study all the subjects on the test,” says Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University. “Just one or two percentage points difference will drag you from the No. 1 high school in the local region down to No. 3 or 4.”
In other words, the exam was a perfect, real world experiment for studying the effects of genetics on high-stakes competition. Chang and his research team took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score.

The researchers were interested in a single gene, the COMT gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. “Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.
Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.
In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks — computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests — and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better. This advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education.
The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well.
On that score alone, having slow-acting enzymes sounds better. There seems to be a trade-off, however, to these slow enzymes, one triggered by stress. In the absence of stress, there is a cognitive advantage. But when under stress, the advantage goes away and in fact reverses itself.
“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.
Other research has found that those with the slow-acting enzymes have higher I.Q.’ s, on average. One study of Beijing schoolchildren calculated the advantage to be 10 I.Q. points. But it was unclear if the cognitive advantages they had would stay with them when they were under stress outside the security of the lab environment.
The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?
It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.
“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”
As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.       
Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.
In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.
A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military. Researchers at Brown University have been studying COMT’s connection to post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School, is studying how the gene correlates with pilot performance. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is part of a consortium of researchers called the OptiBrain Center, where he is interested in COMT’s role in combat performance and well-being.
While the studies are ongoing, the early results show those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. In Kennedy’s sample, almost a third of the expert pilots were Worriers — a larger proportion than in the general population.
Kennedy’s work is particularly revealing. She puts pilots through a series of six flight-simulator tests, where pilots endure turbulence, oil-pressure problems, iced carburetors and crosswinds while landing. They are kept furiously busy, dialing to new frequencies, flying to new altitudes and headings and punching in transponder codes.
Among recreational pilots with the lowest rating level — trained to fly only in daylight — those with Warrior genes performed best. But that changed with more experience. Among recreational pilots who had the next level of qualification — trained to fly at night using cockpit instruments — the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.
What this suggests, Kennedy says, is that, for Worriers, “through training, they can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”
So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.
There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.       
A similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has done a series of experiments that reveal how the labeling of stress affects performance on academic testing.
The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”
Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.
At first blush, you might assume that the statement about anxiety being beneficial simply calmed the students, reducing their stress and allowing them to focus. But that was not the case. Jamieson’s team took saliva samples of the students, both the day before the practice test to set a base line, and right after reading the lines about the new science — just moments before they started the first question. Jamieson had the saliva tested for biomarkers that show the level of activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response. The experimental group’s stress levels were decidedly higher. The biological stress was real, but it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.
If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different biomarkers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.
At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.
Jamieson is frustrated that our culture has such a negative view of stress: “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited — I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain. ”

As the doors to the test center open, the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.
Armando Rodriguez graduated last spring from Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles, but he is waiting until next fall to start college. He is not taking a gap year to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s recuperating from knee surgery for a bone condition, spending his days in physical therapy. And what does he miss about being out of school? Competing.
“It’s an adrenaline rush — like no other thing.” He misses being happy when he wins. He even misses losing. “At least it was a feeling you got,” he said. “It made you want to be better, the next time.” Without a competitive goal, he feels a little adrift. He finds himself mentally competing with other physical-therapy patients.
Rodriguez recorded a 3.86 G.P.A. his senior year of high school and was a defender for the school soccer team. The knee injury happened during a stint on the school’s football team: his doctor had warned that it was too risky to play, but “I just had to try,” he said. He used to constantly challenge his friends on quiz grades; it’s how they made schoolwork fun.
But when he took the SAT last year, he experienced a different sensation. “My heart was racing,” he said. “I had butterflies.” Occasionally, he’d look up from his exam to see everyone else working on their own tests: they seemed to be concentrating so hard and answering questions faster than he was. “What if they’re doing way better than me?” immediately led to the thought, “These people are smarter than me. All the good schools are going to want them, and not me.” Within seconds, he arrived at the worst possible outcome: his hopes of a good college would be gone.
It might seem surprising that the same student can experience competition in such different ways. But this points to what researchers think is the difference between competition that challenges and competition that threatens.
Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.
High-stakes academic testing isn’t going away. Nor should competition among students. In fact several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy.
David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.
In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.
Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.
It may be difficult to believe, as Jamieson advises, that stress can benefit your performance. We can read it, and we can talk about it, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be practiced, perhaps for years, before it can become a deeply held conviction.
It turns out that Armando Rodriguez was accepted at five colleges. He rallied that day on the SAT. It wasn’t his best score — he did better the second time around — but it was not as bad as he feared. Rodriguez had never heard of Jeremy Jamieson. He had never read, or ever been told, that intense stress could be harnessed to perform his best. But he understood it and drew strength from it. In the middle of his downward spiral of panic, he realized something: “I’m in a competition. This is a competition. I’ve got to beat them.”
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of ‘‘Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.’’
Editor: Vera Titunik

The Pot's Boiling Over on Ontario's Mental Health Crisis

Political campaigns, among everything else, are pressure cookers of stress.  There's lots of moving parts, little time to make them gel and constantly changing environments.  Everything is high-stakes, because small slip-ups can be fatal when they trickle into the grand arena.  As such, campaigns offer a fascinating opportunity to see how people react under high pressure over long hours with little food, sleep or even breathing space.  Some crack entirely - others quit, or tune out, or become bitter.  The vast majority of campaigners adapt to the unsustainable nature of campaign politics, leading to uncomfortable wind-down periods when the campaign is over.  The real world simply doesn't function at that high level - it couldn't.
It couldn't - but it's starting to.  There's a slow creep of demand for more, faster, better, constantly.  Employees are being kept at their jobs for longer hours and bringing not just work, but colleagues and bosses home via cell phones and personal computers.  The bar for academic success keeps rising - marks alone aren't enough, successful students now need a host of extra-curriculars to meet the standard, which kinda means the extras are now necessary.  Pressure is on parents to be all things to all people, including transportation hubs.  Accountability has bled into personal life - you now are judged by every action you make on social media in addition to work performance. 
It's all enough to drive you to distraction - or to drive you nuts.
Fortunately, when a window drops on your fingers, it sometimes shakes open a door.  We're beginning to understand stress better.  Turns out that it's a bit like fat:
Fortunately, as we start to wrap our head around mental health and mental illness, we're also starting to branch out into mental fitness and broader environmental impacts, like at the workplaceWhen even Tim Hudak starts talking about mental health in terms of social support and proactive accommodation, you know that things are changing.
The change required is massive, though and requires collaboration at all levels - and a bit of courage at the political level.  Leaders have to be willing to forgo quick partisan wins at the expense of collaborative change, because we can't afford to dally much longer with the structural transformation needed.
No pressure, though - we're all in this together; we can only move forward successfully when we leave no one behind.

A Machiavellian Lesson for Stephen Harper

If you're loved, not feared, you won't face an insurgency - instead, your people will provide you with an opportunity.  To maintain that love, however, you must respect your people - and to do that, you have to know them.  That's part of the difference between an autocratic prince and a democratic Prime Minister.

What approach you take depends on how you view yourself.

Machiavelli’s Paradox

So here’s how I open my seminars on the French-Algerian War: is it better to be loved or feared when combating an insurgency? Inspiring this question is Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s counsel, tendered in Chapter XVII of The Prince. At bottom an insurgency is a contest over political legitimacy. It’s a fight over who has the right to rule.To overcome an armed group disputing its authority, the governing regime must defeat that enemy while preserving or winning the allegiance of a critical mass of the populace. The counterinsurgent must deploy some mix of force and socioeconomic development in order to prevail, and thereby sustain its rule. The latter-day prince must get the proportions right between force—the implement for vanquishing foes and inspiring fear in prospective foes—and nation-building measures that buttress his legitimacy vis-à-vis the populace.
Machiavelli’s commentary on statecraft explores the art of founding and maintaining regimes. He took the subject to heart owing to hard personal experience. Florence alternated during autocratic and republican rule during his lifetime. Indeed, a regime change sealed his fate as a statesman. A leading official in the Florentine Republic, he was tortured and exiled from the city when its first family, the Medici, regained power and purged the servants of the republican order. Addressed to the city’s new, old masters, The Prince represented Machiavelli’s effort—a vain one, as things turned out—to ingratiate himself with the Medici and return to public office.
So much for the capsule biography. Back to fear and love. For Machiavelli, knowing when to use cruelty and how to use it well—swiftly, surgically, and thus, in his view, more humanely—was central to statecraft. He observes that new princes “cannot escape a reputation for cruelty, since newly acquired states are filled with danger.” The long-established prince who faces no armed revolt might evade such a reputation. But what about the established prince who confronts a mortal challenge? Because he must use armed force to uphold his rule, the incumbent—like the upstart he faces—presumably cannot escape the need for harsh measures. He too must deploy cruelty judiciously, smashing his enemies while arousing fear in others who might stand against him. Fear 1, Love 0.
What about love? Machiavelli maintains that it’s better to be both feared and loved, “but as it is difficult to combine love and fear, if one has to choose between them it is far safer to be feared than loved.” Why? Because fear is under the prince’s control. People can withhold their love, as they’re apt to do because “they are inconstant and ungrateful, simulators and dissimulators … hungry for profit and quick to evade danger.” Their love is flimsy and ephemeral. Fear, by contrast, “is held in place by a dread of punishment.” And punishment is something the prince can apply at his own discretion.
So Machiavelli would likely advise the counterinsurgent to assign force pride of place in his strategy, on the logic that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Inspiring dread among the insurgents and those inclined to join them sets the prince on the path to victory, creating space for measures that bolster the security and welfare of the populace. Fear leads love more than it replaces love on the prince’s menu of strategic options. But here’s the rub: Machiavelli warns the prince not to overuse fear as an instrument of statecraft, lest he sow hatred. For instance, he must resist the temptation to live by plunder, forcibly seizing property from its rightful owners. He must never execute an offender without “adequate justification and a manifest cause.”And so forth. Prudence imposes bounds on the use of cruelty—however necessary harsh measures may be to protect the regime.
No long-dead Florentine can supply all the answers to 21st-century strategic problems. Still, he can help statesmen and military commanders—the latter-day equivalent to his prince—ask the right questions. Forget Field Manual 3-24. Crack open that copy of The Prince.

If We Can See Science as a Service - Why Not Politics?

Here's a thought - what happens if you looked at politics as a service?  Say, a public one?

Science as a service

What happens when you apply software-as-a-service principles to science?

Software as a service (SaaS) is one of the great innovations of Web 2.0. SaaS enables flexibility and customized solutions. It reduces costs — the cost of entry, the cost of overhead, and as a result, the cost of experimentation. In doing so, it’s been instrumental in spurring innovation.
So, what if you were to apply the principles of SaaS to science? Perhaps we can facilitate scientific progress by streamlining the process. Science as a service (SciAAS?) will enable researchers to save time and money without compromising quality. Making specialized resources and institutional expertise available for hire gives researchers more flexibility. Core facilities that own equipment can rent it out during down time, helping to reduce their own costs. The promise of science as a service is a future in which research is more efficient, creative, and collaborative.
Outsourcing isn’t a new idea. Contract research organizations (CROs) appeared on the scene in the early 1980s, conducting experiments on a contract basis. Industrial science, especially pharmaceutical research, has been increasingly reliant on CROs; spending on CRO-run research increased from $1.6 billion in 1994 to $7.6 billion in 2004, and is projected to hit $20 billion in 2017. Alongside that trend is a corresponding decrease in the percentage of clinical trials run at academic centers — 63% to 23%. In big pharma, there has been a “strategic push away from the traditional strategies of Mergers & Acquisitions and licensing, toward partnering and outsourcing to acquire new drug candidates.”
Despite the steadily increasing involvement of CROs in industrial research, many academics and smaller researchers have found using outside labs to be cost prohibitive and opaque. For those researchers, the process of outsourcing a study involves googling to find service providers with specific expertise, contacting the provider to determine suitability and cost, and then going through a time-consuming reference check and quality verification process. Some simply don’t know what’s out there; they aren’t sure where to start the googling. For many university scientists, there’s an added layer of complexity in the form of purchase approvals for each facility. This process frustrates the scientist. It also results in many core facilities remaining underused.
Frustration has led a recent crop of enterprising startup founders — many of them scientists themselves — to apply IT “best practices” to science. Their goal is to disrupt the slow-moving pace and high cost of research. To do this, they’re applying innovative business models traditionally used by B2B and B2C startups — everything from the principles of collaborative consumption to decoupling service workers from their traditional places of employment.
One of these startups is Science Exchange, a marketplace that aims to increase transparency around experimental service provider cost and availability. Founded by a biologist, Science Exchange helps researchers source facilities or expertise that is unavailable in their own labs. The providers on the site offer everything from microarray analysis to microgravity experiments aboard the International Space Station. Customers search for a service, request an estimate, and pick a provider from the quotes that come in. Science Exchange handles purchase orders and payment transfers, and provides a project-management dashboard. Through the structure of the site, researchers become aware of new facilities, and providers may suggest new technologies. The relationship has the potential to be more collaborative than a typical provider-client relationship.
Science Exchange is the glue in a unique and developing ecosystem. Some of the providers on the site are themselves startups offering scientific experiments as a service. 3Scan, for example, offers a cutting-edge form of 3D microscopic scanning that produces high-resolution images in a fraction of the time of other methods. Researchers in need of this technique needn’t buy their own knife-edge scanning microscope; they can simply reserve the service.
Some SciAAS startups aim to disrupt CROs. Transcriptic, which describes itself as a “meticulously optimized, technology-enabled remote lab,” is working to change traditional wet lab biology by getting rid of infrastructure overhead. They’ve started with molecular cloning and are focused on reducing the time cost and error rate associated with running protocols by hand. Assay Depot has been called the “Home Depot for biology and medicine.” A researcher specifies the experiment he or she would like to see done, and labs submit bids to perform it.
The promise of applying big data technologies to biological research has led to SaaS data analysis tools built specifically with scientists in mind. SolveBio, a computational biology platform, enables researchers to have access to the latest in data-processing technology without having to maintain computing infrastructure or learn cumbersome tools. Collaborative Drug Discovery (CDD), which spun out of Eli Lilly, is a data platform that was built because the founder believed that the future of drug discovery would involve collaboration across specialized channels. Researchers can store and analyze their data with sophisticated tools, and can also open parts of their repository to others. The Gates Foundation and Novartis have been users. Benchling, a platform for life science data management, is also incorporating IT best practices via version control, aiming to create a “GitHub for biology.”
E-commerce principles underlie new marketplaces for scientific equipment. P212121 is helping SMB suppliers of chemical and laboratory reagents to bring their wares online. Their platform uses software to search and curate tens of thousands of products, and focuses on transparent pricing. Enabling labs to bypass behemoths such as Sigma and Fisher allows them to save money.
Startups are also tackling the problem of expertise by facilitating collaboration. Zombal is a job marketplace for contractors who need experts to meet freelance scientists. By outsourcing areas that are not core competencies, more resources are freed up to focus on what’s needed.
These facets of science as a service are just some of the ways that IT principles are being applied to the realm of research. There’s also exciting activity happening around crowdsourced science, open science, and crowdfunding for scientific research. If you’re a scientist, lab head, or SciAAS startup founder who’s reading this, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the changing face of scientific research in the comments below.

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Is the Future of Talent in Clusters?

The Future of Talent Is in Clusters

An effective team is a powerful thing. Many of us have participated on teams where the members complement each other, trust each other and find ways of working that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. For teams like this, performance is typically much higher than might be expected of the sum of individuals.
And yet while teams often are where the real work gets done, most businesses don't value or manage them well. Many businesses aren't skilled in talent management or team nurturing. Team management, in particular, is often a scarcely recognized activity.
What's more, most employees don't work in high-performing teams for long periods — team members move on, projects finish, and other pressing needs come to the fore. While it's part of the normal course for organizations, disbanding well-functioning teams is actually a value-destroying activity, eradicating the "team capital" built and stored in the team. Because businesses don't fundamentally recognize such teams as entities beyond the activity they are performing, this value destruction seems inevitable.
But what if there was another way? One in which organizations capitalize on the inherent value of a well-functioning team? One where the organization evolves its management style to let teams self-manage to preserve their culture and value?
A New Kind of Team: Clusters
Clusters are a radical alternative to our traditional notion of teams. They are formed outside a company context, but are hired and paid by companies as a unit, as a permanent part of the company. They manage, govern and develop themselves; define their own working practices and tools; and share out remuneration. Technology trends and tools like the cloud, and collaboration suites, are evolving to make this more and more workable.
The business or agency treats the cluster as an atomic unit of resource and it hires, fires and positions the cluster as a unit. Likewise, each cluster appears as such a unit in the business's organization chart. Clusters plug together like Lego bricks to achieve the business's goals.
A cluster is not the same as a consulting model. The main difference is that clusters will typically be hired permanently by a business with a mutual intention to commit for the long term. As such, a cluster can be considered a real asset of the business, just as high-performing staff members are today. Also, the cluster model puts extreme emphasis on teams that learn how to work well together and determine their own tools and work practices. This is not always true of consultancies. An individual can be in different clusters over time, and possibly in multiple clusters at once, similar to a conventional part-time work model. Similar approaches can and should be applied to consultancy models.
Clusters Manage Themselves
A cluster typically consists of five to eight people, is hired by a business with a clear scope of work, and remunerated based on outcomes. Clusters have already established shared values, work practices, tools, and roles, such as who is good at what. Balancing team roles can be particularly important to avoid the Apollo effect, where every team member needs his or her idea to dominate and the team is unable to come to a consensus. Clusters actively seek the variety of skills, talents, and personalities necessary to create a high performing team (see the Belbin model for a good example of nine discrete team roles.)
While there are close equivalents of clusters in a few corners of the working world (elite military teams, medical units, and TV and film crews), this model could and should pervade much further into the working world, possibly and ultimately for all operational and project work, and sometimes even for leadership teams. I would project that by 2020, 30% of work will be performed by permanently employed, self-managed clusters.
The cluster manages itself by finding, hiring and firing members; governing itself and resolving conflicts; creating and sustaining work practices and tools; and managing its engagement with other clusters, teams, people and organizations in order to fulfill its direct business goals and to nurture itself.
In short, a cluster is an extreme version of a self-managed team. It is extreme because the enterprise only has a formal legal and financial relationship with the cluster, not its members. Note that while a cluster is self-managed, it is not typically a self-directed team. Self-directed teams define their own goals, whereas clusters agree on outcomes with the businesses for which they work.
Clusters Create More Value
Clusters offer four main benefits:
Higher levels of business performance through higher motivation. The cluster model, when executed well, addresses known performance drivers such as purpose, autonomy, and mastery (see Daniel Pink's book Drive for more on these).
Higher levels of business performance through a custom work environment. Clusters can create and sustain leading-edge electronic work environments since they are less burdened by bureaucratic decision-making and the need to serve the diverse needs of many types of teams and individuals.
Talent management in the right place. The cluster model removes the burden of team and individual performance management from the business — where it typically sits uncomfortably and ineffectually today — to the cluster. The cluster knows its own members, contributions and development needs much better.
Higher levels of personal happiness. Clusters are sufficiently small for members to genuinely know and care about each other, and they are stable and autonomous enough for members to support each other's long-term personal development.
Clusters Have Risks, But They Are Manageable
For the cluster model to work well, with businesses hiring, firing, positioning and remunerating clusters as atomic units, considerable changes are needed in the macro work environment, to HR and payroll, recruitment agencies, legal, financial, and real estate. Even if these macro changes are made, there are two main real and perceived risks with the cluster model: the formation of mini silos, and the inability to retain clusters or their loyalty. The key to success is to ensure that the cluster's agreed-on scope of work includes appropriate levels of commitment to, and multiple interfaces with, broader corporate goals and initiatives.
Eventually, wherever the cluster model is adopted, businesses will need to work hard at managing and leading them well, just as they have always done for their emerging talent assets — ensuring that the best are motivated to stay, the worst are inclined to go, and those in the middle are motivated to improve.
More blog posts by Dave Aron
Dave Aron

Dave Aron

Dave Aron is a vice president and Gartner Fellow in the Gartner CIO Research group, focusing on IT leadership issues. His work on clusters is part of a Gartner Maverick research project, which examines high-impact future scenarios as they emerge.

Accomplishment as Motivation - Why Dan Pink loves IKEA

If you're a manager, an employer or even a teacher, this is huge
Gold star rewards place the recognition above accomplishment, meaning the product - a test, a project, etc - will be done in a manner that secures the reward.  Cash incentives work the same way - you're going to produce the work you think will encourage your employer/boss/manager to give you an external reward.  That means trying to produce a copy of the mental model communicated, however effectively, by the boss.  Here's where the problem begins - few bosses are Steve Jobs.
When managers start to assume a "we're smart, they're dumb" attitude, they are effectively closing themselves off from external, potentially innovative ideas.  This process worsens under pressures like those facing our economy today.  Ironically, it's when the old approaches are demonstrably not working (creating social stresses like we're facing on multiple fronts now) that we defer to confidence and simplicity, rejecting the bold solutions that can shift us into a new direction.  When the people at the top assume they're the only ones not the problem, they reject ideas they don't get and reward those they do, they are essentially discouraging innovative solutions - because their people recognize there's no reward to be had for thinking outside the box.  Sound familiar?
It's all well and good for the 1% to say they admire those with the tenacity to push their ideas forward no matter the obstacles, but that's assuming great ideas and pig-headed resolve are linked at the hip, which they aren't.  In fact, some of the brightest thinkers tend to be those riddled with self-doubt.  Some of the most promising ideas of today are being developed right now by people who have put accomplishment ahead of wealth, but as such aren't always connecting with the capital holders at the top.
As Dan Pink has pointed out, we're motivating our cognitive labour in the wrong way to achieve the results we seek.  It's counter-intuitive, perhaps, but we'd be delusional not to see this.  If we want to grow our social potential in the Knowledge Economy, we need to change the way we think about incentives.  If you want your employees to build widgets, by all means, offer more money.  If you're hoping your employees will add value, however, you need to free them from basic concerns so that they can focus on the work, create a community of belonging so they feel inspired to participate and then reward them with accomplishment and ownership.  Provide basic accommodations and then teach them how to fish and they'll not only love you for it, but they'll take pride in their products and constantly push to make them better.
None of this is possible, however, if you as a leader aren't willing to let go of a consumer-based understanding of your HR and empower your employees to own the fruits of their labour.  You want to tell your employees that you didn't build that - if they own it, they'll make it even better.
Which brings the question full circle - as a leader, what matters most to you - what you can consume, or what you leave behind?