Saturday, July 31, 2010

How rich is your heritage?

On Heritage Day, think of those events in the indefinite past that brought us to this point in history. What a great reason for a long weekend.

Take a look at your civic heritage. As communities enter their second century we already have a rich civic legacy in buildings, infrastructure and stories we can tell about our cities. One hundred years, however is young for a city.

If you look at cities in eastern Canada cities become much older, and then if you look at Europe or Asia they become much older still. Thousands of years. Cities learn, adapt, and slowly forget their stories as generation after generation enjoys the spotlight.

Then there is your ethnic and cultural heritage. This provides a grounding in a certain code of ethics and way of making a living. We have learned how to live with each other. This is encoded in things like the food we eat and the holidays we celebrate. As we become a global culture, the cuisine of a variety of ethnic heritages is becoming widely available. You can eat Chinese, Mexican, or Italian food at restaurants and supermarkets everywhere.

We also have a rich biological heritage, which you see as you look back at your family tree and figure out what your grandparents' parents must have been like, and which genetic traits were passed on to you.

Sequencing the human genome will provide a tremendous amount of information about who you are and what your prognosis for health looks like many years in the future. Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) knows he has a predisposition for Parkinson's Disease and though he still doesn't have any symptoms, he's working towards finding a cure and taking preventative steps now.

The richest heritage of all, though, is our ecological heritage. Over millions of years, every plant, animal, and insect has become highly adapted to it's particular niche. The specificity and detail of these practical innovations and adaptations is so rich, and the web is so interwoven that removing any one species is a devastating loss which we can never recover.

The web of life is like a fishing net. If you cut some of the strands, the net will still catch fish, if you cut some more, it will still work for a while, but once you cut too many the net becomes useless. Keeping the natural systems healthy will be important as we take on our role as the alpha species on the planet.

As we reflect on how we got here and what makes us who we are, remember the ecology of the planet and the web of life we rely upon completely.

We have a rich heritage. Let's take care of it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Creative task? Rewards lead to worse results.

Traditional thinking about rewards is backwards. Rewards don't work unless the task is primarily physical or mechanical. If the task needs any creative thought, rewards will impair performance.

This is opposite of what you'd expect. Typical expectation would have larger rewards lead to better results, but it turns out that the opposite is usually true. Larger rewards lead to poorer results.

Why? The reward narrows your focus on what's possible. For mechanical tasks, that's no problem - and you crank harder. For tasks involving creativity, it narrows your exploration of possible solutions.

The practical upshot? Don't try to offer rewards or competitions for creative tasks. They're counterproductive. Not only do they not work, they give you a result that's worse than if you hadn't started meddling.

Then what works? According to Drive by Daniel Pink, three things drive engagement in a task: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their lives. For tasks, give the employees control over what they do, when they do it, how they do it and who they do it with. That doesn't sound like traditional management at all, but it will engage the staff. After all, you want results right?

Some progressive workplaces are moving towards a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). Just like it sounds, we just want results. Get the work done. We don't care where, when, or how. It means people are less distracted by putting in time at work and more focused on accomplishing the task. It also reduces staff turnover because they love the flexibility of being able to control their schedule.

Mastery: People want to be good at what they do. Some things, like musical instruments or sports, people play with no intention of making a living at it. They do it because it's fun. Progressive improvement makes things interesting. It keeps people coming back.

Purpose: People want to work on things that make a difference. Be clear about the larger purpose of what you're doing. If others buy into the purpose, even if it's a boring task, people will enjoy it more and perform better.

Being conscious of how you engage people will improve your results.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Use rainwater in your yard

Using chlorinated tap water on soil kills the beneficial microbial life in the soil. Use rain water instead.

Tap water typically contains a small amount of chlorine. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant which keeps bacteria from multiplying in the municipal water system and becoming dangerous to our health.

The soil is alive with all sorts of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. Plants need these microorganisms in the soil because they make it possible for the roots to obtain the nutrients and minerals they need.

If you water your garden or your lawn with tap water, you're applying chlorine to the soil, which kills the beneficial microorganisms. This makes life harder for your plants, because they can't get the resources they need.

Chlorinated irrigation water locks you into a downward spiral of needing fertilizer, so that the nutrients can be absorbed along with the water. It can make your plants look nice, but the soil is dead, and you're stuck fertilizing forever.

The better approach is to use rain water collected from your roof as irrigation. It doesn't contain the chlorine that will kill the life in the soil.

There are two approaches here. Swales and tanks.

Swales: If there's land available, plant your water. Dig a shallow level ditch or swale. If you want to use it as a path as well, fill it with 3/4 crushed gravel. Run a downspout from your house over to it. When it rains, it will fill up with water, then slowly infiltrate that water into the soil. The ground will stay nice and moist without you having to intervene.

Make sure that the swale is big enough for a heavy rain event, or that it has someplace intentional that it can overflow to, so that it doesn't flood during extreme events. Irrigating trees this way is great, because they can use lots of water.

Tanks: Water tanks like rain barrels accomplish a similar thing, but with less landscaping. Adding rain barrels to your downspouts will collect the rainwater off the roof allows you to store the water and use it when necessary. Once established, you need to manually use the water by filling up watering cans with it. Tanks with a drip line irrigation system are an effective way of watering a garden with rainwater.

If you can't use rainwater, then your next best option is to let the tap water sit uncovered for at least 24 hours. That allows the chlorine to leave the water and then it will be better for your plants.

Don't kill the life in the soil. Use rain water instead of tap water.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Change comes from the inside

There you are, sitting in your chair, thinking about work. Budgets need balancing, resources need allocating, costs need cutting, staff needs managing and the work still needs to get done. It's hard, and it's all on you. That's why they pay you the big bucks. You've been doing this for years. And you're good at it.

All of a sudden somebody tells you that you're doing it wrong. That's not likely to go over very well. You're doing it exactly right, thank-you very much.

If instead, you discover how you could do it better thanks to a conversation, a book or a presentation, that's just you keeping an eye out for ways you could do things better. That's the regular improvement you expect from a top notch performer like yourself.

Both of these insights have the potential to improve your end result, but only one of them will. Why? It matters who initiates the change.

The difference between starting with a receptive state of mind and starting as if you already know it all is a big one. So is the difference between choosing to make the change yourself and having it imposed on you.

When you decide to improve something, you recognize that you could be better, and that's something you'd like to do.

However, when someone tries decides to improve you, even if they have the best of intentions, it's a tacit attack on what you've been doing so far, which makes you want to defend yourself.

Think instead of the Aesop's fable about the North Wind and the Sun. The North Wind couldn't blow the cloak off the traveler. Faced with the warmth of the sun however, the traveler removed the cloak on his own.

Do you think that trying to force change will get the results you want? More likely they will dig in and try to stop you. Persuade, don't force. Don't try to change others, help them change themselves.

And if you're still in your chair, keep an eye open for ways you could be better. You already have an idea of what those ways might be. What's more, someone could be helping you without even knowing it. Grab those ideas that make you better and run with them.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Are you a crisis junkie?

If things are comfortable, our motivations for action make it tough to change even when the alternative could be so much better. Small problems flare up into big problems, and we find ourselves bouncing from one crisis to the next.

Imagine if you're sitting in a conference room with a bunch of other people, and the speaker says the other room has better lighting, better acoustics, and $100 bills on the chairs. Some eager people might move, but most would stay behind, comfortable with their spots and the upcoming lecture.

If on the other hand, someone at the back were to call your attention to the room being on fire, the room would clear out instantly.

Most of us are not motivated by the pursuit of pleasure as much as we are by the avoidance of pain.

This is why it's so easy to get stuck in ruts and putting out fires. As individuals and as a society, we are reluctant to deal with big problems until they become a crisis. We're great at dealing with heart attacks, but we're terrible at dealing with cancers.

Take the financial bailout in the U.S. for example. It was fairly straightforward for them to commit mindbogglingly large amounts of money to prop up the economy because of the financial crisis.

On the other hand, they've had a predictable and growing problem with social security for years, but they won't solve it. Solving it would involve reducing senior citizen's benefits which is politically unpalatable, but fiscally necessary. Slow growing major problem? Kick it down the road.

It's easy not to do anything, and it takes a lot of pain to get most of us over the hump towards action even when the benefits of taking action are clear. Diet and exercise come to mind. We know they're good for us, but are we doing all we should?

Elections favour the incumbent. Businesses favour business as usual, and often convince you to favour it too. The companies selling you gasoline don't have much incentive to sell you bicycles or electric cars.

There are major costs to failing to address our energy and climate problems, and major benefits to society, the environment and even the economy if we can get moving and make the changes we need in time.

Don't get caught thinking you can kick the problems down the road. That just makes them worse and harder to solve. Don't be a crisis junkie.

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