Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Tribute to My Friend, John Wicks, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Montana

It is often those we care about the most who elude us. Even now, when I look back on the Montana of my youth, I long to understand what happened there… and why. Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it…On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters. Norman Maclean – A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Regrets naturally occur over one's lifetime, but one of the greatest is the missed opportunity to see and visit with a friend one last time.  So it is with the recent death of my friend, Dr. John Henry Wicks. Dr. Wicks was an economics professor (a fixture, really) at the University of Montana Economics Department for well over 40 years and his indelible influence has infected many friends and students over that time.

I arrived at the University in the fall of 1976 a naïve, rambunctious and (perhaps at best) only half serious freshman.  It was the noxious seventies where the counter culture was still alive, an 18 y/o could drink legally, and the fallout from the Vietnam War was still fresh.  The campus social atmosphere was ripe for fun and like many of my peers I had few solid aspirations of what kind of work I might actually do when and if I graduated.

In the third quarter of my freshman year in March 1977, I found myself sitting in John Wicks’ Econ 201 class listening to the good professor digressing into all things economic.  I was more fascinated and mesmerized by his style and quirkiness than by the subject matter. I was especially amused by his insolence towards those who used the irritating idiomatic phrase “you know” at the end of spoken sentences.  He would simply say “Ding!!”  At first, I (and others) could not relate the phrase to his penal utterance, but soon it resonated with us and our amusement and delight grew with its frequency.  Of course, some of those victimized by the experience exhibited resentmen towrds himt, but the good professor never wavered.  Immediately, I found a growing fondness of him!

On the first Friday of class, John invited all students to FART.  You could hear a pin drop as he surveyed the class intensely and as I looked around, it was apparent that everyone was waiting for his follow-up punch line.  He appeased: “That stands for Friday Afternoon Recreation Time, which will start promptly at 4 pm at the Press Box Pizza and adjourn when in it is Pumpkin Time.”   “My god,” I thought, “I have to see this.” 

And so it was by accepting his invitation to FART that I commenced a friendship with this enigmatic man for the next 35+ years.  I was  increasingly intrigued and impressed by John’s ability to relate to everyone and to make economic principles relational to almost everything in life.   For the next many Fridays that quarter, I participated in FART and came to know this man well.  Eventually, the weather warmed enough that we moved FART to the Clark’s Fork River on rafts in a version deemed “Sea Duty” where we routinely landed our rafts on “Wild Asparagus Island” near the UM campus (the name and discovery of said island attributed by John to Greg Ingraham) where all who needed to exercise biological relief could do so among the island's high weeds. To my knowledge and John's, wild asparagus was never actually found on the island.

Ironically (and perhaps subliminally on purpose), I received a D in Econ 201 that quarter.  I did retake the class the next school year from John and received a B, much to John's pleasure. I then took a number of other Econ courses over my tenure at the school from the good doctor.  Our friendship evolved over that time and we shared a passion for hiking and fishing.  I stayed in Missoula the summers before and after my senior year and John and I took numerous outings to some of his favorite fishing haunts.  We always rode in John’s “empirical cruiser” – an early 70’s Chrysler if I recall correctly.  His peculiar habits always made me smile – one was to tap the horn as he was passing another car, noting to me that such a signal was part of the law of the Montana Code Annotated (which I confirmed years later.) 

My last class in college was the incomparable 2-credit “Edible Wild Plants” (in which, incredibly, I received a B.)  For my class project, I brought in John’s home brew he christened “PP” (its origins traced to John’s stint at Western Colorado College.)  This was 1980 and home brewing was certainly a rarity.  John brewed PP in a garbage can in his kitchen and it tasted…well, rather bitter to be polite.  But, it was a novelty and a hit with all in the class except the instructor, which is probably why out of 20 students, only one B was given and the rest received A’s. However, John beamed in pride at the warm reception given to PP by the class.  Seeing his pleasure was worth the B.

After I (surprise!!) evntually graduated, John and I stayed in touch.  I set off to become a Major League umpire and I lived and worked in Missoula for a few weeks in the fall of 1984.  I frequented FART again, this time as an alum, and I enjoyed hearing familiar things I had heard 8 years earlier. and John and I also managed a couple of weekend fishing excursions.  I saw John intermittently over the next dozen years after that – mostly at Grizzly homecomings - and we always traded Christmas cards where hs affinity for riding trains was a persistent theme in them. 

I never saw John after 2001 when I stopped  in Missoula and visited briefly with him on my way moving from Seattle to Bloomington, IL.  I never returned to Missoula thereafter. but we emailed each other occasionally and always traded Christmas cards.  Children came into my life and the activities of family and the labor of work made time fly.  I mentioned to him in a 2009 email exchange that I had done some work at the University of Illinois and he was excitedly recalled to me that he had earned his PhD there some 47 years earlier. He also talked of still hosting “seminar” – an exploratory quarterly (later semesterly) independent study which he had perpetually held since the 70s (regrettably and despite his frequent invitation, I never participated in it.)

John will be sadly missed by many of us who called him friend.  Though he was a life-long bachelor and lived in the same small house on South Higgins the entirety of his life that I knew him, he was never without his many friends.  He was an anomaly at the University – politically conservative and almost absurdly practical and rational.  If economics did not satisfactorily explain something in life, then fishing, hunting or hiking (or something related to them) did.  However, personal differences never stood in the way of John liking someone and he liked most every everyone as far as I could tell.  I was never as close to him as people like Greg Ingraham, Bob McCue, John Bulger, Otis McCullough, Nick Kaufmann, and many others. 

Bob was there for John throughout his life and especially in his final days.  Their friendship represented the unending bond John formed with many students over his years.  Bob established a Facebook site for John, The John Wicks Club, and many people have been added to it.  I smiled when I read that a celebration of John’s life will be held on April 28 at the Doubletree in Missoula.  I suspect that was planned intentionally to give people sufficient time to find the time, plan their travel, and find reasonable airfares.  It helped me and I will be there. 

A few professional tidbits about JW (a fairly detailed profile was done about John in the summer 2011 UM Dept of Economics newsletter.)  His “Official Biography” in 2004):

John Wicks  is Professor Emeritus in the Economics Department of the University of Montana. During his career, he has specialized in household economics and state and local taxation. Wicks received his undergraduate degree in Government from the University of South Dakota in 1957 where he graduated summa cum laude and was a Phi Beta Kappa member. He received his masters and doctorate (1962) from the University of Illinois in Economics. Professor Wicks has taught at Augustana College, Western State College of Colorado, Ohio State University, and since 1964 at the University of Montana. Although officially retired, he may be found at his university office and teaches undergraduate and graduate seminars in empirical research design each semester. He has been an author of nearly 50 publications, primarily articles in academic journals such as the National Tax Journal and the Review of Income and Wealth. In addition, he has been president of the Western Social Science Association and the Missoula, Montana City-County Planning Board and a director of First Citizens Bank of Polson, Montana. When not working, he rides trains on as many lines as possible throughout the world. Like most Montanans, he also hikes and fishes a lot.

Field Of Study: Household Production and Leisure
Published Works Include (partial list):
·         “An Application of a Stated Preference Method to Value Urban Amenities” Urban Studies, 2010, vol. 47, issue 2, pages 235 - 256
·         The Marginal Effects Of Consumer Characteristics On Internet Channel Choice” Journal of Applied Business Research  2007 Volume 23, Number 1 pages 43 – 54
·         Mothers' time spent in care of their children and market work: a simultaneous model with attitudes as instrumentsApplied Economics Letters, 2006, vol. 13, issue 8, pages 503 - 506
·         How Much Is Leisure Worth? Direct Measurement with Contingent ValuationReview of Economics of the Household, 2004, vol. 2, issue 4, pages 351 - 365
·         "Valuation of Household Production at Market Prices, and Estimation of Household Production Functions," Review of Income and Wealth, June 1996, 165 - 180.
·         "Market Valuation of Household Production," Journal of Forensic Economics, 5(2), 1992, 115 - 126.
·         "Measuring the Value of Household Output: A Comparison of Direct and Indirect Approaches," Review of Income and Wealth, June 1990, 129 - 141.
·         "An Empirical Comparison of Government and Private Productive Efficiency," National Tax Journal, December 1974, 653 - 656.
·         "Administrative and Compliance Costs of State and Local Taxes," National Tax Journal, September 1967, 309 - 315.
·         “A Model of Commercial Bank Earning Assets Selection” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis
1966, vol. 1, issue 02, pages 99 - 113
·         “Discussion” Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, 1966, vol. 1, issue 01, pages 53 - 55
Your friends are what will matter in the end and when you die, if you’ve got five real friends, then you’ve had a great life.

John had many friends. RIP my friend

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Where Does This Track Take Us??? Transformational Change in Today's World

When I was a teenager growing up in Montana, we occasionally would set out on Saturdays with our .22 rifles to “go shooting.”  That usually meant adventure and fun and we were responsible enough that we resisted the temptation to shoot road signs and other illegal targets (including each other.)  One destination was to walk railroad tracks, and like in the movie Stand By Me, we would whimsically dreamed of having to dodge a train or perhaps of finding something really cool (besides a dead body.) 

Nothing so dramatic ever happened, but on one excursion, we did find a train tunnel and ventured into it.  Naturally, it was dark and foreboding and we had no flashlights, but none of us would admit to any cowardice or dare shy away at the taunt of a peer, so we foraged forward into the black abyss.  The tunnel curved slightly, so at one point we lost sight of the light at our entrance and we also could not see the light at the other end.  That was the point where our fears confronted our bravado face-to-face.  Fear, or perhaps its second cousin, common sense, prevailed and we turned around.  It’s odd how long even a rather short train tunnel seems when one is faced with the prospect of walking some portion of it without either egress being visible.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, I know a company that is metaphorically going into this kind of tunnel of change right now and without any light.  The company initiated a huge program late last year on which it is pretty much betting its future and that work will encompass several years.  The “light” that is needed is “working differently” according to its management.  The senior manager of the IT department recently wrote about it and used Eastman Kodak’s recent bankruptcy filing as a springboard for his message: Technology enables us to revolutionize the way business is done. Technology can help us leapfrog the competition. It can also be the way we are taken out of the game altogether.

He then reiterated an oft-heard mantra (even now considered a bit of a platitude around the organization): to make this change happen we need to work differently.  The change of which he writes is vague and in my discussions with various people in the organization, many express that there has been little clarity offered about the meaning of working differently.  Of course, they offer their speculations and opinions about what that phrase might mean, but the fact is that there has been little guidance from management, especially senior management, about what they believe it means.  One thing that does resonate across the workforce is that management does not appear to be working or behaving any differently than before this edict and the sense is that workers are being demanded to do things differently, but not management.  That doesn’t bode well for either the workers or the management.

Whatever the term change actually means to the management (and it is critically important that management have a common understand of what it means), change in this context will involve what author Robert E. Quinn calls transformational change, described in his acclaimed book, Change the World – How Ordinary People Accomplish Extraordinary Result.  Quinn describes this kind of profound change as a body of principles based upon seed thoughts of masters of transformation that reflect the simplicity from the other side of complexity. 

He contrasts this revolutionary change with normal (aka incremental) change that occurs almost constantly in organizations.  This change gives rise to another frequently used cliché variation: the only constant in our business is change. The difference in the change types is that Incremental change is actually “normalized” in that it typically conforms to or at least does not disrupt the behaviors, norms, and culture of the organization.  It is rarely very disruptive and it often occurs as the result of management decrees and instructions.  This can also  be termed intrasystemic change because it is encapsulated in within the culture that is organic to the organization’s system. 

Transformational change is typically catalyzed by a person (or sometimes persons) who become the masters of the transformation.  This kind of change is extrasystemic because it is often seen as very radical and a perturbance to the status quo.  Quinn uses Ghandi, King, and Jesus as examples of people who were masters of transformational change. They were catalysts of great change that endured beyond their lives. 

Normalized change tends to come about from telling people they need to change through reason and argument and by forcing change (where the presumption is that people usually resist change and must be told to do it.)  This actually formulates into a 2-step process for incremental change: first, communicate the reason for change and then force the change if the target audience resists and fails to adopt it. This kind of change will fail if it is significant - i.e. transformational.  The company of which I speak has taken this approach so far.

Transformational change requires a participative strategy where people collaborate and embrace change on its merits.  They do so because it will be good for them, for others, and for the institution.  The US civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war movements, India’s independence and the end of apartheid in South Africa are all examples of successful transformational change that resulted from collaborative activity.  Such change events are often termed ‘movements” because of the change brought about enormously impactive change.  While violence can be associated with such societal change, equivalent organizational change rarely involves violence.  However, the change is still enormously uncomfortable for many people and they often actively and passively resist it because it threatens the entrenched culture and authority and related norms, behaviors, conformity standards, power structure, etc.

Quinn goes on in his book to describe the framework that can enable transformational change based in eight transformational seeds:

1.    Envision the productive community
2.    First look within
3.    Embrace the hypocritical self
4.    Transcend fear
5.    Embody a vision of common good
6.    Disturb the system
7.    Surrender to emergent process
8.    Entice through moral power

Interestingly, much of what Quinn describes is also part of the calculus for Steve Denning's radical management as described in his book, The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management - Re-inventing the Workplace for the 21st Century.  Denning describes seven work principles that organizations can leverage to do well in the modern economy:

1.    Focus first on delighting the customer
2.    Utilize “real teams” that self-organize and self-direct
3.    Deliver value quickly to clients through incremental delivery of product
4.    Involve the customer directly in the development of the product
5.    Make the organization and its work transparent
6.    Apply kaizen in all aspects of the organization – a culture of continuous improvement
7.    Communicate directly, succinctly and effectively (apply crucial conversation skills)

Near the end of his book, Denning talks about implementing such change if these principles are not already embedded in the organization.  For many companies, that change will be wholly transformational.  It won’t come from edict, cajoling, or coercion.  It will require masters of transformation.  Those will be ones that put light in the tunnel so everyone can collaborate and make such change realizable and magnetic.  There has been much discussion about Steve's book and about how people might go about helping an organization undertake such radical management change.  A group met in Stoos, Switzerland about it in January.  Out of that gathering came the Stoos Network. An examination of the list of attendees reveals some familiar names in the agile community. Leaders of that gathering, Peter Stevens and Steve have collaborated and created a workshop to help people search and discover ways to change.  They have workshops scheduled through May.

The company has a mantra about being remarkable in its service.  It describes remarkable as simple, personalized, and caring.  That is exactly how it should approach this change it seeks.  That will mean transformational change for the management, and the master change agents have to step up to the plate.  Simply writing about it won’t suffice; it has to be demonstrated and involve the active participation of everyone.  Open Space events would be one robust approach to involving many people, especially those who care.  Such change will require relinquishment and abandonment of the rather tired management principles and practices of old.  What was learned in business school 20, 15, or even 10 years ago is insufficient today.  But, who is going to step up and turn the light on in this train tunnel?  Do they even know they need to do that?  Those and other questions are burning right now. 

In the future, I’ll talk about how the traditional change models are inadequate today and we need to leave ADKAR at home in favor of models such as those embodying the family therapy principles of Virginia Satir.