Learning from those who ‘did’

chips reading the star wars incredible cross-sections book to nick - _MG_9778 on flickrLast night, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show on the Travel Channel. I’m a fan of Mr. Bourdain’s…I read (actually listened) to Kitchen Confidential (amazon affiliate link) and really enjoyed it.

I’ve watched many of the No Reservations episodes and have always come away from each show with some new-found piece of of knowledge and/or appreciation about a new part of the world.   Anthony does great work on No Reservations.

The episode last night was different than usual.  The episode, titled “Into the Fire“, places Bourdain back on the cooking ‘line’ in his old kitchen as a cook.  No longer is Tony the ‘Executive Chef’…he’s a line cook responsible for delivering many (many) dishes throughout the lunch and dinner shifts.

Throughout the episode, Bourdain is able to keep up but you can tell he’s not quite up to par as he was when he was a younger chef working the line.  It was obvious that he was out of practice as he was scrambling around trying to find ingredients and pans and trying to remember what orders he had ready or not ready.

It was an excellent episode.

For one, it showed just how tough it really is to be a line cook.

But even more importantly, to me, was the fact that Bourdain, a well-respected chef, author and TV personality, had trouble doing a job that he used to be able to do extremely well (according to him).

Now….given enough time, I’m sure Bourdain could get back up to speed as a line cook but the point is – he couldn’t just waltz in after years of not being a line cook and be a good line cook.

I have a point. I really do. Read on….

Tony used to be a good line cook. In fact, he used to be a great line cook (he says…and I believe him).

But…he stepped off the line years ago to be an Executive Chef. He’s been making menus, ensuring there are enough supplies to run the restaurant, etc etc.  He’s even stepped away from that job lately and has been a TV star and author.

So…what made him think he could step into the line and be a cook again? I’m sure part of it was for TV…and it made a really good TV show.  But…I wonder if he thought that he really could step in and be as good as he used to be?

That said…if Tony stepped into any kitchen in the world and told the line cooks how to do their jobs better, wouldn’t those line cooks listen?  I’m sure some would see him as some ‘old dude’ and not pay attention, but the smart cooks will pay attention and try to learn from that ‘old’ dude.

Regardless of whether Bourdain can still cut it as a line cook, he’s still someone worth listening to, no?  He still has a great deal of experience and can provide some great insights that might help a young line cook in their career.

So what’s the takeaway from my rambling?

How many times have you been in a meeting and the CEO, CIO, VP or even a senior IT professional try to step into your role and tell you ‘how things should be done’?

In many instances, I see eyes role or glaze over. I see the ‘young’ IT professionals snicker and joke around about how things are different now in 2011 (or whatever year it is).  Maybe there’s an age different between you and the CIO or older IT pro’s, but they’ve been in your role and have seen most of the things you’ve seen.

Just like Tony had a hard time stepping back into a line cook role, a CIO might have a hard time stepping into the role of a Systems Administrator – but that doesn’t mean her insights and experience aren’t valuable.

Learning from those who ‘did’ or ‘used to do’ is important.

Just because someone isn’t doing a role any more doesn’t mean they aren’t worth learning from.

Image Credit: chips reading the star wars incredible cross-sections book to nick – _MG_9778 on flickr

Ambiguities of Experience – Book Review

The Ambiguities of Experience (Messenger Lectures) While on vacation last month, I saw a review in US Airways‘ magazine for The Ambiguities of Experience by James G. March (affiliate link).

The review was a short one but peaked my interest as it points out March’s main question presented in the book.  The question is a simple one…but has a very difficult answer.

This simple question is:

What is, or should be, the role of experience in creating intelligence, particularly in organizations?

Simple question right?

Now…I’ve always been of the mindset that experience is a good thing.  I’ve argued before that I’d normally hire someone with experience over education.  This book makes me rethink that approach in some ways. I’ll still hire for ability over experience any day though.

The book is a short one – only 120 pages of content in a 5″ by 8″ book.  While short, there’s quite a bit of ‘stuff’ in it.

As mentioned above, the main focus of this book is to question whether experience really is the best teacher.    In this book, March argues that experience can be a good teacher if that experience is used as a means to build context for stories and models of history.

The problems with ‘experience as teacher’ is that these experiences can be easily warped, misconstrued and interpreted in many ways.

March does agree that experience can be a good teacher, but isn’t always the best teacher.  Using experiences alone as a learning mechanism can lead a person / organization down the wrong path.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was that there were no answers put forth by the author.  March realizes that the issue of experience as teacher is a difficult one and there is no ‘right’ answer on how to approach using experiences as learning method.

One caveat  before you run over to Amazon or your local bookseller, know that this book is a bit difficult to read.  It is written much like an academic paper and, as such, as a lot of academic language in it.    Not a bad thing…but it isn’t necessarily a book that you’ll breeze though.  You’ll have to work at reading this book.

That said, I like this book and have added it to my bookshelf to bring down and read again in the future.

The Fifth Discipline

OK…I probably don’t have to review the The Fifth Discipline.  It’s a classic…everyone has read it.  Bas de Baar had an excellent review of this book recently…mine won’t begin to approach his in length or quality but I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I read the original edition quite a while ago (in college actually) and didn’t get much out of it…but this time around I did.  I knew I was going to enjoy the book when, in the Introduction to the Revised Edition, I found this gem:

…the prevailing system of of management, is at its core, dedicated to mediocrity. It forces people to work harder and harder to compensate for failing to tap the spirit and collective intelligence that characterizes working together at their best.

The book outlines Five Disciplines that must be adopted in order to become a learning organization. These Five Disciplines are:

  • Systems Thinking – a conceptual framework that has been developed over the last fifty years to make patterns clear
  • Personal Mastery – the discipline of continually clarifying and deepining our personal vision, focusing our energies, developing patience and seeing reality objectively.
  • Mental Models – deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations that influence our picture of the world
  • Building Shared Vision -involves the skills to create and/or unearthing the shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment
  • Team Learning – when teams are learning, they (and the members of the team) are able to produce tremendous results.

The book can be summed up in a few sentences…but they don’t do the book justice.  Peter Senge states that in order to become a learning organization, the Five Disciplines must be adopted with the Systems Thinking discipline being the most important.  He argues that Systems Thinking allows people and organizations to see the deeper issues of problems.

I’m not going to dive any deeper into the book or the five disciplines here (go read Bas’ post for some interesting commentary) and there are plenty of other detailed discussions of this book around the web (see here, here and here for starters).

In addition, I want to share some excellent quotes from the book that I thought highlight the underlying purpose/meaning of the book.

The first passage is:

It is vital that the five disciplines develop as an ensemble. This is challenging because it is much harder to integrate new tools than simply apply them separately. But the payoffs are immense.

This is why systems thinking is the fifth discipline. It is the discipline that integrates the disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of theory and practice. It keeps them from being separate gimmicks or the latest organization change fads. Without a systemic orientation, there is no motivation to look at how the disciplines interrelate. By enhancing each of the other disciplines, it continually reminds us that the whole can exceed the sum of its parts.

The second passage is:

A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality.

And this wonderful nugget from Edwards Deming in the introduction:

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people.  People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.  The forces of destruction begin  with toddlers – a prize for the best Halloween Customer, grades in school, gold stars – and on up through the university.  On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom.

These are but a few of the great passages from this book.   There is a great deal of information in this book that will probably require several readings to fully take in….i may put it back on the book shelf to read again later in the year.

I really enjoyed the book a great deal.  A friend of mine pointed me to the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook as a more implementable version of the book…I’ll be taking a look at it over the next few weeks.

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