Building two bridges between technology and practice

Parallel bridgesI got hooked on the theater in high school. The gateway was a stint as props manager for a local community theater production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” At the same time, I was a science and math geek in class. I was immersed in the Two Cultures debate long before I even knew that it existed. As much from being shy as for any positive reason, I spent my time in the wings and backstage where I learned about all of the technology it took to make the art happen on stage.

Because theater is live, techies and actors intermingle. There’s rivalry, but it is friendly; the need to work together is obvious. In my college theater group, the tech crew had an award called the “golden crescent wrench.” It was awarded to the cast member who did the most to support the crew. I don’t recall that there was an equivalent award from the cast to the crew, but you know how actors are.

You might think that the divide between techies and performers is narrower in the world of organizations; the interdependencies are just as critical to success. But we see that isn’t the case. Where a theatrical production has a performance to focus everyone on their joint contributions, there is no equivalent in a business. Performance is a continuing process, not a discrete event. Continuing processes push organizations in the direction of increasing specialization, organizational barriers, and silos.

Fewer and fewer people are positioned to view and understand the whole and the multiple magics required to deliver that whole. Technology is something that happens deep in the engine rooms, not nearby in the wings. There is narrow communication and certainly no fraternization between the different specialists.

This has been a long standing problem in organizations. It becomes more pressing as technology becomes more and more visible; as it becomes more of the performance. Our theater analogy suggests that there are at least two problems to address. Techies must learn to appreciate performance and performers must develop some sense for what art becomes possible with each new technological advance.

Dilbert notwithstanding, getting techies to appreciate performance may be the simpler task. A look back to theaters may help. Every theater has a history and that history includes the technological assumptions that were made at its inception. Sometimes those assumptions can be baffling; the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago, for example, has a loading dock that is fourteen feet off the ground and requires a forklift to load in sets for a show. Old theaters accrete new capabilities in layers as technology evolves and budgets ebb and flow. Wishing that a particular constraint didn’t exist is a waste of time; history sets limits on what is easy, hard, and impossible. None of those constraints matter, however, unless they interfere with a particular artistic goal. Understanding the performance goals is the central step in taking advantage of the technological possible.

Developing a meaningful grasp of the technological possible appears to be the more challenging task. Arthur C. Clarke captured this challenge in his third law; “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If all technology looks like magic to a performer, how can they make sensible choices among options? The answer lies in the practice of stage magicians. They start with the illusion they wish to create and a deep understanding of human psychology. They add a good helping of knowing how technology has been used in the past to create particular effects. Then they proceed to experiment with what might be possible next.

What this becomes is a very grounded approach to innovation. You start with where you are. This includes a sense for what has gone before. You imagine where you hope to take your audience/customers. Only then do you explore what can be done with new technology to fulfill your vision. This exploration does require that performers develop a sense for technology, its history, and its edges. That might require some fraternization with the technologists in the organization.

High velocity conversations and communications breakdowns

conversationI was a smartass for the longest time. I’m an eldest child who was a rule follower and well suited to classrooms. Classrooms were arenas where victory went to the quick. The tortoise and the hare was not a fable about slow and steady wins the race; it was a cautionary tale to keep moving. I ended up in—and sought out—environments where brains were honored and rewarded. Most of the rewards went to those who were quick witted and glib. Many of the natural corrective counterbalances were missing.

This led to frequent episodes of “engaging mouth before engaging brain.” I still experience lapses. I’m certain there are still people I annoy. I hope there are fewer that I hurt. It was a long time before I learned that conversation was a group activity, not a solo. The smartass in me would happily point out that this is self-evident from the Latin roots of the word.

I have a friend who is a little bit older and a great deal wiser than I am. One of the things that makes our relationship fun is something he labels “high velocity conversations;” He’s a jazz musician and I think these conversations must feel something like good improvisation. Instead of plodding from A to B to C and on, we leap from A to G to T and know that each of us is keeping pace. When it works, it’s an energizing experience.

What occurs to me is that it isn’t simply the actual velocity that makes these conversations work. It’s also matching velocities. That requires hooking your ears into the circuit as well. And, more often than I might like, it requires routing conversations through your heart as well.

Two things make this harder in today’s organizational environments. First, the default velocity of conversation in organizations has been increasing. “TL;DR” is a rude response to one-sided conversations arriving faster than you can handle. But how to be civil and slow the onslaught of incoming messages remains a riddle. For most of us, the response seems to be grim determination and less sleep.

Second, new conversational channels interfere with both conversational rhythms and emotional content. I can’t monitor and manage an online class discussion with the same fluency I can bring to a physical classroom. Slipping in and out of conversations at a cocktail party or on a coffee break is a skill honed through decades of practical experience. Picking up the thread in an ongoing discussion forum is a different skill and one that lacks easy models to emulate.

The interaction between these two makes it harder to navigate the communications landscape. If I lack the signals and cues available in a face to face conversation, I am pushed toward strategies that aggravate the problems I’m looking to avoid. For example, if my audience is going to read my message later rather than listen to me now, I will be tempted to anticipate and build in all the context and background that might be relevant rather than sort that out on the fly. I’m increasing the risk of provoking a TL;DR response—which is a perfect example of the problem. Can I assume that my reader can translate “TL;DR” into “Too Long; Didn’t Read”? Guess right and I move the conversation along; guess wrong and I irritate someone I may be hoping to persuade.

Our emerging communications environment demands more empathy and sensitivity to our conversational partners at the same time as it strips us of the tools we’ve learned to depend on to make that communication work.

Culture is marked and shared in the middle

Christmas 2011

The photo is from Christmas 2011. Our younger son, Derek, had recently completed training as a U.S. Marine and naturally acquired his first tattoo. As a surprise, my wife and I also got tattoos and the big reveal came that Christmas morning. (His older brother vowed that he wouldn’t join us unless and until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series—we’re still waiting to see that tattoo.) Having a tattoo is an occasional source of street cred when my students learn about it. It is also something we chose to do to mark a particular shared moment.

Markers of belonging are a central element of culture. Visible markers like tattoos or uniforms have a certain attraction, but it is the invisible ones that hold power; especially in organizations.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a phrase that pops up in organizational development circles with some regularity. More often than not it is attributed to Peter Drucker, although that appears to be unlikely. Regardless, culture is the way things work in an organization that won’t be found in employee handbooks or process maps. With a strong culture, everyone will do the right thing in the unanticipated moment. Put another way, culture defines what constitutes the right thing in the face of the new; accept it, reject it, play with it, deny it.

How does culture get reinforced and passed along if it can’t be found in the handbooks or the rules?

Today Derek is a sergeant responsible for the development of younger marines.  If you study organizations you learn about sergeants. Having one in the family levels up those lessons. Sergeants are the primary caretakers of organizational health and culture. This isn’t something they talk or think about explicitly. It is the essence of the role and plays out in the way they carry themselves and in the stories that they share.

I was struck by the conversations we had at the end of his basic training. They were filled with stories of the history and traditions of the Corps. Huge amounts of time and effort were spent on why and how to be a Marine. It was designed into the experience. As Derek went off from training into the Fleet, these stories and experiences continued to be dispensed, primarily by sergeants.

We see this aspect of culture in the military and in the foreign places we travel. What is less easy to discern is that culture is not something that simply exists and is laid down during the distant origins of a place or an institution. Culture can happen organically in the ebb and flow of activity and the stories that sergeants and their equivalents opt to share. What institutions like the Marine Corps reveal is that strong cultures can be built and transmitted by design. They need to be anchored in the actual activity and experience of the organization; but we can choose which experiences are deemed worthy of emulating. As leaders we decide which markers to pass along.

Leading from the middle by getting out of the way

Angels and SheepI’ve been involved with my church’s annual Christmas Pageant for twenty two years. Early on, I helped our youth minister wrangle the hordes of young kids. We lost her to cancer twenty years ago and I was asked to step up and take on the whole show the following year. I now own the production and there is no escape. I get an email each November from our director of youth ministries asking if I will do it again. The request is a polite fiction; there is only one possible answer.

Somewhere in the last fifteen years, I found a better way to lead by getting out of the way. I asked a couple of our high school students to help me out and work with the younger kids on individual scenes. I was simply trying to cope but something more interesting happened. One of my “assistants” would find me and ask “Mr. McGee, we think the shepherds should fall down when the angels appear; what do you think?” I quickly learned that the best answer was always “Yes.”

Now the pattern is set. I’ve always got more than enough high schoolers ready to help. The younger kids listen better to the high schoolers than they ever would to me. And my job is to say yes. The biggest question we ever deal with is who will play the Baby Jesus this year; last year’s Mary played the Baby Jesus about a dozen years back.

This microcosm has become a laboratory that shapes my approach to leadership. “It’s complicated” is an appropriate response to most organizational issues that surface in today’s environment. Yet, you still must act. None of us have the capacity to keep it all in our heads; the broad vision, the players, the sequence of events that must be orchestrated. It’s why organizations exist; to do more than we can as individuals.

The fundamental task of leadership is to create the environment where everyone can contribute. What’s surprising and difficult is how much of that depends on your ability to get out of the way. There are lots of ways to get in the way. Getting out of the way turns out to be more difficult. Get too far out of the way and you create a vacuum. Simply articulating a grand vision leaves too much space for others to get in each others way.

Where is that middle space that shapes without dictating? My claim is that it revolves around distributing responsibility and listening carefully as everyone works to interpret the vision and make it real. The listening is where you learn how well the vision is understood. You say “yes” far more often than not because the questions are coming from those who are better positioned to grasp how the vision, the action, and the environment are interacting.

Slowing down to navigate fuzzy boundaries

aerial view of shorelineI’ve been thinking about the space between strategy and tactics for a long time. It seemed at one time to be a very sharp and well-defined boundary. Some folks worked on strategy, others executed a collection of tactics to make the strategy happen. Sharp boundaries make for simple academic disciplines, neat organizational boundaries, and simplistic management practices.

The real world doesn’t respect sharp boundaries. Straight lines and sharp edges are human creations; they rarely appear in the natural world. That should have been a clue that we picked up on a lot earlier. Machiavelli understood this. A handful of the smartest thinkers did too.

But the forces that want to simplify are strong. Simple stories fit on PowerPoint slides. Simple models fit into spreadsheets.

The world always insists on complexity, but for the longest time it was possible to look past the complexity. The most interesting threads of the last decades are those that force us to reexamine the belief that there is a knife-sharp edge where I end and you begin. These threads are visible at all level of inspection. One of the hot topics in human biology today is the role of the microbiome; the line between me and not-me is muddied with intestinal bacteria and internal cell materials that are essential to life but are not part of our DNA. At the other extreme, there is the impact of human activity on the global climate. It takes a conscious effort of will to cling to simple explanations.

Simple explanations do support the temporary preservation of the status quo. “It’s complicated” or “it depends” are never popular conversational gambits. But our anxieties are triggered and amplified as reality continues to insist on being messy and complicated.

These anxieties are a clue that we can pay attention to.

I was teaching my class on organizational development this morning. We were looking at a collection of readings that talked about and around the challenges that individual knowledge workers and leaders must struggle with in today’s world. What is the role of emotional intelligence inside organizations? Why is resilience becoming more important even as efforts to pursue efficiency and optimization erode that very resilience? When does skill interfere with learning?
What struck me as I was trying to orchestrate the discussion was that the common thread connecting the diagnoses and the advice across these readings was speed. Speed drove anxiety. Figuring out ways to slow things down enough to make sense of them was that unifying thread.

For all that we celebrate speed, it separates us. We know this in the realm of personal relationships; they strengthen when calm displaces the frenetic. That chance in speed is subjective; to an outside observer that pace might still look rapid. On the inside, the principals have found methods and practices to move in sync. To use a phrase from Donella Meadows, the late thinker on dynamic systems, they have “learned to dance with the system.”

Preparing to be bold in the moment

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria

Avoiding risks can be a sneaky head game. I started McGee’s Musings as part of a class I had designed at the Kellogg School. The class routine created a rhythm for the blog that gradually led to maybe 1500 subscribers and a smidgen of internet visibility. But then I let it languish. I was in a new environment with different rhythms, there were fixes and improvements that I ought to make before I wrote the next post. Habit killers. Risk avoidance masquerading as good intentions.
The argument is that you must summon your courage, be bold, and face your fears and your risks.

Maybe.

But it might be easier to cheat; to arrange your circumstances and your environment so that boldness becomes the path of least resistance.

In my second year in college I was the stage manager for a large musical play, written and performed by fellow students. The group had hired a professional director from Off-Broadway. Tony was probably in his late thirties or early forties. I was twenty.

It was 7:30, the curtain was going up in 30 minutes for an invited audience to the final dress rehearsal before opening night. Behind the curtain, was what looked like chaos. Carpenters were putting the finishing touches on one set piece and repairing another that had broken. Electricians were on ladders tweaking the focus of one of the lights. Costume designers were fixing a hem. Tony was standing center stage with hammer in one hand, nails in the other, screaming that we weren’t going to be ready. I was trying to do my job which was to make sure that the curtain did go up on time. Without conscious thought I walked up to Tony; “Tony. You’re not helping. If the curtain doesn’t go up at 8, then you can fire me. Until then, get off of my stage.” Tony dropped the hammer, tossed the nails aside, and stormed off.

I was bold and the curtain went up on time, right?

The curtain did go up on time, but it’s a mistake to think that I was bold or brave. You can choose to describe it that way afterwards, but that misses something more important. I did what I did because it was my job. Said so right on the business card I didn’t have—stage manager. Ages of theater tradition backed me up. It was MY stage and it took no boldness to lay claim to it.

If bold action is called for, then strategy must design for it in advance. To know what behavior will be called for and to build that into the environment and the structures where the action will transpire. It is not enough to simply paint a picture of the desired future; the strategist must understand the journey well enough to prepare and equip the team for the obstacles that will arise. You can’t simply prepare for any and every contingency. Nor can you rely on an inventory of particular skills and knowledge, “just in case”.

The management challenge is to delve into this middle space of the journey. Pointing at the peak looming in the distance translates into breaking the journey down into daily treks, rest and replenishment stops, forays into the next leg of the terrain. Imagining the journey in that next level of detail is where you anticipate decisions that might have to be made and options to be weighed. Understanding the likely terrain and the possible options is where you prepare now to do what will look like bold then.

Reflections on reflection

When I was in high school, the most revelatory book I read was whatever I had just finished. Its insights were my insights and I shared them with whoever was in my vicinity. This annoyed my father for certain and likely most of my classmates, friends, and family.

As I acquired a bit more life experience to go with the words on the pages passing before my eyes, my assessments became more cautious. Any book can produce a moment of insight. What I’ve come to value is a book whose influence is more lasting and pervasive. This influence reveals itself as I find myself adopting new frames and pushing a title on my friends and colleagues. When a book gives me a new lens on the world and I find myself looking through it more routinely, I know that I’m on to something.

On that score “The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action” by the late Donald Schon ranks among my top ten. I stumbled on it in the late 1980s during the early days of my Ph.D. studies. The title caught my eye in Wordsworth, a bookstore that occupied a prominent spot in Harvard Square and in my household budget. It offered a label for what I was becoming and provided a bridge for a gulf I was trying to cross.

The essence of Schon’s argument is that professionals operate by building theories of practice of how their corner of the world works. Like good scientists they test their theories against the real world they operate in and on.
The best professionals do this explicitly and mindfully. They make the time to both do their work and to reflect on their work. Reflective practitioners acquire experience and actively engage in making sense of that experience.

This process allows two things. It offers a way to introduce new knowledge and ideas into practice. New ideas and theory become important when we aren’t satisfied with accepted practice. Second, it makes clear that what happens in practice determines whether new knowledge and ideas stick. Reflective practice is a way to achieve both/and possibilities instead of treating theory and practice as an either/or question.

This notion has become a unifying thread in my own work and practice since then. We generally get better at whatever we do through the accumulation of experience. Rather than simply accumulate experience, however, we are more effective if we develop parallel skill at actively making sense out of our experience.

From systems building to systems thinking

I once believed in systems. I believe in systems now. It’s what happened in between that I want to look at.

I started my career building information systems; after summer jobs as a programmers, I knew that I wanted to be a consultant. I didn’t understand what that meant, ignored wise advice about what I ought to do, and talked my way into a job with the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co.—long before it morphed into Andersen Consulting and later Accenture.

I designed and built information systems that massaged accounting data and produced reports meant to lead to better management decisions. I became pretty adept at annoying my supervisors with questions about how my programs connected to the broader business. It’s possible that some of the information my programs produced may have contributed to marginally better analysis and decisions by some middle managers. I was absorbed with the intricacies of making computers do what I told them to do.

That led to an MBA on the theory that what I needed was to understand the big picture; how did all of the pieces fit together? If I wanted to build more effective information systems, I needed to understand business as a system. How did strategy and finance and operations interact? I jumped from the weeds to strategy and the CEO’s perspective. From there it was back out to the consulting world.

I now had the systems tools I needed to design solutions that would have real impact. The flaw in my brilliant plan was that the people I was designing and building systems for seemed to have little interest in actually changing how they worked or thought. I’m fundamentally a nerd so my solution was to go back to school again; clearly I had missed something in my previous studies. If the intended users of my systems insisted on being too dumb to recognize how clever my designs were then I needed to learn how to do better designs.

I started a Ph.D. program in management information systems. Fortunately, Ph.D. programs give you access to very clever people with lots of perspective. They began to gradually eliminate the stupid and replace it with some deeper insight. The first order analysis, of course, was that thinking of users as stupid wasn’t a winning strategy. I was young—younger anyway. The second order answer was to build a knowledge base in organizational theory. The quest since then has been to develop a better synthesis; exactly of what is an evolving target.

This isn’t a new quest. It’s often framed as an either/or choice between people and technology. A more intriguing path is one of both/and. That isn’t a new thought either. But it is worth a revisit.

Exploring the messy middle

Why is the middle ground between strategy and tactics so difficult to travel? Over the next month I will be writing about and around that question.

Trying to understand my successes and mistakes in this middle ground is the through line for much of my life. While I’ve chipped away at it, I haven’t done a sustained push to make sense of the journey or its trajectory. That kind of push needs some help, hence this exploratory visible effort.

What is this middle ground? In college I was part of a theater group that wrote a Broadway scale musical from scratch and staged it in the Spring. I was the production stage manager, which meant that I coordinated all rehearsals for the director and worked with the set designers, lighting designers, technical director, and musical director to make sure all of the pieces came together for opening night. I was also a student studying mathematics and taking a course about the math underneath managing complex projects.

Perfect opportunity.

I could take what I was learning in class, apply it directly to my extracurricular life, do less work, and get myself an easy A. You can guess where this ends. I squeaked out a C by admitting that I couldn’t figure out how to apply the technology to the creative chaos of producing an original show. And the curtain went up on opening night with the collective efforts of all of the cast and crew.

That was an early step on an exploration of how you mix people, processes, and technology to go from a germ of an idea to opening night. Opening night might involve actual curtains; it might also involve launching a new information system or an entirely new organization. What holds my attention is that middle space between the idea and its realization.

What I’ve learned is that there is a middle in this middle.

We know a lot about big ideas; we call it strategy in business and organizational settings.

We know a lot about the details of user interfaces, and writing code, and designing procedures, and arranging finances, and all of the tactics that go into a working organization.

In the middle, it gets fuzzy. As we move along that path from grand idea to final result, there is always an area of mysterious transition where we turn from grand thoughts to dirty work. We all know this. Some of us learn how to get across that transition; others seem trapped on one side or the other. Is there a way to eliminate or reduce the mystery and magic in the middle? This promises to be a messy but fruitful exploration. Stay tuned.

Review: WTF-What’s the Future?

Cover Image - WTF. What's the Future

WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us.  Tim O’Reilly

Tim O’Reilly has had a backstage pass to the technology change we have been coping with for the past three decades. WTF is his effort to make sense of what he’s seen and offer some counsel about what it may mean for the next decades we’ll be living through. While some cynics and skeptics might view this as no more than O’Reilly’s attempt to hit the speaker’s circuit, there’s value here to those of us with a more restrictive view of the show. Can O’Reilly offer the rest of us valuable insights even if he may have been mostly a combination groupie/roadie for the more visible performers on the stage? My assessment? This is one smart roadie with insights worth paying attention to.

What makes WTF work is that O’Reilly is an unusual blend of techie, communicator, and entrepreneur. In ethnographic terms, he’s been a participant/observer throughout this unfolding process. Most of those reporting from the new territories are one or the other; they are participants either too busy or too biased to offer dispassionate analysis or they are observers too removed from the action to see the really interesting stuff.

One of the early battles was between open vs proprietary strategies. Eric Raymond labeled this as a choice between the Cathedral and the Bazaar. Today it is evolving into the emergence of networked platforms as one of the next arenas being contested. O’Reilly frames this continuing evolution as a requirement to differentiate between value creation and value capture. Organizations that focus on capturing all the value that they create do not prosper as abundantly as those who focus principally on value creation. Those who focus on playing positive-sum games do better—both for themselves and for the rest of us—than those who choose to play zero-sum games. This is a countercultural if not a counterintuitive strategy. The rhetoric of Wall Street and VCs is anchored in a zero-sum mentality; the winners in this new world, however, are playing a deeper game.

What I find especially intriguing about this line of thought is how it makes strategy and organizational design tightly coupled and how it then shrinks the differences between how things work inside the organization and how they work outside. One of the curiosities of large, traditional, organizations is that they cling to the worst practices of centrally planned and managed economies internally as they celebrate the value of the free market outside their walls.

At heart, what O’Reilly is arguing in WTF is not only that this is a hypocritical debate but that it has become a dangerous mindset as well. As he puts it “Amazon Web Services was the answer to a problem in organizational design.” O’Reilly reports on an interview with Jeff Bezos talking through the origins of AWS;

“Four years ago is when it started, and we had enough complexity inside Amazon that we were finding we were spending too much time on fine-grained coordination between our network engineering groups and our applications programming groups. Basically what we decided to do is build a [set of APIs] between those two layers so that you could just do coarse-grained coordination between those two groups.”

Working through this logic is anything but intuitive. Learning how to do so consistently may be the central skill for thriving, or possibly even surviving, in what is to come. O’Reilly has come in for some criticism in his perspective on Uber and its evolving working relationships with its drivers. I think the criticism is overblown and misses the nuance that O’Reilly is attempting to call attention to.

This goes to the heart of what WTF tries to do. Looking at a sample of successes, failures, and yet to be determined experiments, O’Reilly is trying to understand the strategic logic of the world we are brining into existence in a way that would let more of us contribute to that logic. I’m less interested in whether he has worked out the answers than I am in learning how to think along similar lines.