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The Quiet Mind

June 14, 2013

My friend, the things that do attain
the happy life be these, I find;
The riches left, not got with pain,
The fruitful ground, the quiet mind…    Henry Howard, after the Roman poet Martial.

I have come home to the farm and find my mind all unquieted as I struggle to fill the MIT void. The day after commencement, I hung my diploma on the wall right under my doctorate. For the next several hours, I busied myself with many little nothings, sending emails, scanning legal documents, preparing for my staff meeting, each task helped me to avoid facing my life after MIT.

I once read a Buddhist author’s musing that the ultimate anxiety is to lie upon the ground and stare up into the nighttime heavens on a clear and moonless night, losing oneself in the innumerable stars and immeasurable blackness of space until suddenly and with a great start one senses at the very core of one’s soul that ultimately one is entirely alone in the Universe. The few days after Commencement were a close second on that anxiety scale.

I thought it would be much different and more relaxing, but as the routine of the last 20 months dissolved last weekend,  I found myself  unprepared to doing anything of value and completely incapable of simply relaxing. I rechecked my diploma  a half-dozen times, just to reassure myself that I had indeed graduated. I wish I was making this up, but it’s  true. Graduating has been too surreal of an event for me to accept; even as I write this, I still have the nervous sense that there’s another reading, another assignment, another team project that somehow I’ve forgotten to complete. It can’t be over.

I’ve had a recurring dream for the last 20 years in which someone discovers that I didn’t actually complete some high school mathematics course, which somehow invalidates all of my college degrees unless, like Billy Madison, I return to high school and pass the course. I’m sure that I’ll have some MIT-induced inadequacy nightmare wherein I dream that I have to return to Boston because I didn’t use all of the frameworks in my Go-Lab report, or I forgot to take Ops II, or that all my Systems Dynamics loops were reinforcing, any of which somehow invalidates my MBA.

There’s a certain absurdity to the academic routine, which I know all too well, having spent nearly my entire adult life with at least one foot continuously in a University. Education is a neatly packaged good with a curriculum and a schedule. Clear objectives, relatively clear assignments, and grades to indicate degrees of success. I’ve come to believe that most education programs work because they offer a introspective retreat that allows us to tap into the more creative recesses of our minds… Nelson’s blue box, as it were.

My problem right now is that I don’t really want to leave MIT’s blue box behind, in fact, I’d like  to move my blue box stuff into my red box. I’d like to see the lessons that I learned at MIT become habitual in my daily work. That’s an enormous challenge. As Nelson says, change is incredibly difficult because real change requires us to form different habits. To quote Nelson’s Law:

Organizational change efforts don’t produce change unless someone in the organization actually does something differently. – Nelson Repenning 

Nelson’s Law finds its roots in the Book of Isaiah, which we all remember from our religious studies as the central tome of ancient change management:

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 48:19

Isaiah is a bit more of elegant than Nelson, but the sentiment is the same. To be fair, Isaiah did get published in the Bible, which is pretty much the ultimate peer-reviewed article, especially given the incomparable poetic beauty of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Maybe it would help if Nelson shouted “Behold!” while holding a grizzled staff high overhead immediately before quoting his law. “Behold” is at once captivating, authoritative, and declarative, but somewhat out of style, though I do think that Nelson is the Nixon who could go to that China, so there may be some hope of seeing that kind of retro-Testament in a post-modern Song of Sloan.

“Remember not the former things…”

So, I’m working to form new work habits that will methodically draw every relevant lesson from MIT into my work flow and, by extension, into my company. I’ve started with a new EMBA habit that I call the MI3. Each time I take on a new work task, I start by looking for at least three lessons from  MIT  that I can put to use. The old work habit was to dive into each task and try to finish it as quickly as possible. The MI3 work habit will be to reflect on the EMBA tool set that now resides in my mind and try to identify three skills, frameworks and / or approaches that will deliver a better outcome, more efficiently… then dive in. Here is a secular example.

I am negotiating a contract with a new client for Disruptive’s healthcare subsidiary, BluPanda. In the week leading up to Commencement, I sat back and reflected on what I learned in the EMBA program that could help lead to a better outcome for both BluPanda and this client.

First, I drew from lessons in 15-s09 Advanced Communications for Executives with Neal Hartman. I took a survey at the beginning of the course that helped to identify my natural communications style, which is the Innovator style. The insight for people with this style is that we tend to be very good at defining and describing a Vision, but lacking in communicating exactly how that vision will be achieved. The prescription for Innovators is to work on developing so-called Producer communications skills so that we are better able to answer the client’s bottom-line-oriented How questions.

This particular issue came up because I kept hearing my client champion tell me that the client’s management team didn’t understand how we would produce results, how our robotics technology worked, how we approached the problem… lots of how questions. I realized that this was related to my communications style and that I could apply Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle to write a short, structured paper that answered many of these questions. In writing this paper, I gained a lot of insight as to how the client thinks about adopting our technology… these insights are now spilling over into some rethinking about how we can deliver our products in ways that require substantially less effort on the client’s part. Nicely done, MIT.

Second, I reviewed my notes from 15.712 Power, Influence and Negotiation. This course provided several measurements of my personal negotiating style that helped me to understand my strengths and weaknesses. I know what I do well, and what I tend to do poorly. I thought about how those issues would affect the upcoming negotiation and what I could or should do about it. This was enormously helpful, as it created a set of personal negotiating goals. Just as importantly, I reviewed my notes on the negotiating process and developed a framework for BluPanda to use to help guide us through discussions with the client. Without revealing the specifics, basic concepts like focusing on enlarging the pie prior to discussing how to divide it, seeking compatible interests and looking for logrolling opportunities will all help to avoid positional negotiating. In this last week, I’ve spent a lot of time with my counter part negotiating the rules for the negotiation in ways that, thus far, we are  finding mutually beneficial.

Third, I’m going back to the basics of finance and project NPV in building a cash-flow model to use in the upcoming negotiation so that I can calculate the impact of each negotiating point. This is clearly not something that I would have known how to do before the EMBA program and I like it especially because it grounds the negotiations in rational financial terms, which should be very helpful in understanding the costs and benefits of each term and the conditions under which we should just walk away, while preventing ego and emotions from overtaking the talks.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

The promise of the MITEMBA is that it transforms already successful executives. To date, I have written primarily about the experience of the MITEMBA program itself: what it was like to apply and attend the program, the impact on my family, and the transformation that I experienced during that 20 months of my life. But the real story of the program should be about what MIT helps me to accomplish with my company, Disruptive Robotics, as our team works to apply advanced robotics technologies to Improve the Human Condition. I think that we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us with BluPanda’s robotic management platform for healthcare… and the story of how the MIT experience contributes to what promises to be an enormous social impact is yet to be told.

As my mind begins to Quiet, I promise to continue to share the MIT experience with you. Let’s see how truly Disruptive and transformative this Sloanie can be.


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