What will the new year bring?

The time between semesters has turned into a bit more of a hiatus than I would have predicted. I’ve been doing a good bit of writing for myself but not in a way that unpacks easily into posts worth sharing more widely.

I’ve always been in the school of “how do I know what I think until I see what I say.” Often, when I say it for the first time, I’m still not sure I know what I’m thinking. I try to avoid inflicting those moments on everyone else.

There’s a quote that’s been on my mind lately. It comes from an interesting novel by Cory Doctorow called Homeland. In it, one of the characters observes:

Start at the beginning,” he said. “Move one step in the direction of your goal. Remember that you can change direction to maneuver around obstacles. You don’t need a plan, you need a vector.

When we get to the end of a journey, it’s always tempting to revise the story to make the journey seem more straightforward than it ever actually is. We’ll pretend that we knew where we were going all along; the goal was clear and the plan was good.

Doctorow’s formulation is more modest. A vector is movement and a direction. Movement without direction may be walking in circles or worse. Direction without movement is no more than gazing at some vague and hazy shadow on the horizon.

What I find intriguing about the notion of a vector is how it directs my focus away from that haze on the horizon to the terrain in front of me.It’s the terrain that throws up the obstacles that call for maneuvering.

The terrain that holds my attention is the space where technology innovation and organizational inertia interact. It’s tempting—and certainly simpler—to pretend that you can limit your focus to one or the other. But that requires lying to yourself about the world as it is. Never a wise approach. Nor an approach I intend to adopt.

Building systems intuitions

Heroes always need a Sancho Panza. Not for comic relief but for essential logistical support.

In high school I found my way into the theater, not onstage but in the wings. I had a friend who persuaded me to audition with her for her school’s upcoming production. I was horrible. That disaster became a path to working on the tech crew where I learned how much work went into creating the magic.

Even a one-person show has a multitude working out of sight. There are directors, producers, set designers, lighting designers, carpenters, electricians, stage hands, ushers, ticket takers, publicity managers, and the list goes on. I financed a chunk of my college education working in those roles. I met my wife working backstage in community theater.

The role I gravitated to was stage manager, which sits at the intersection of several streams. It is where the design work, preparation work, and backstage efforts come together to support the performance on stage. The insight I gained from that perspective was that excellence depended on blending all of the elements in play. You could get acceptable results from focusing on any one to two elements. But the best outcomes depended on taking advantage of all the components interacting.

They way I would explain that today is that excellence flows from systemic performance. For all that we talk of systems in today’s organizations, developing a true systems perspective runs counter to most of our intuitions. Russell Ackoff remains a source for replacing those intuitions with more principled understanding. The following video is longish but more than worth the time to work with and understand:

Insight on Project Planning and Management: Review of Start Finishing

book cover imageStart Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done . Charlie Gilkey

I suspect that diet books are the only non-fiction category with more titles than time management and productivity. Perhaps I would be better served if I shifted to reading diet books.

Like diet books, I once read these books in quest of the perfect system; the answer that would guide me waking and guard me sleeping. What I seek these days is much the same as I do with Compline[add link] ; reassurance that I am not alone in my struggles and the possibility of insights I can fold into my practices. Charlie Gilkey’s Start Finishing offers both in good measure. I think what got me hooked this time was this point of tangency with my thinking:

Most of what I read didn’t hit the target, though. The personal productivity literature was too nitty-gritty and focused on tasks, and the personal development literature focused on principles and big ideas. But my problem was in the messy middle where creative projects live.

I’ve been exploring this messy middle myself for some time. It’s where I keep running into trouble. There’s a scene in The West Wing where Leo shares the following story with Josh:

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’

Gilkey has solid insight and advice for finding the way out.

The two most useful elements of his approach are guidance on breaking projects down into manageable chunks and an interesting way to think about blocks of time at different scales. Gilkey repeats the fairly conventional advice that chunks of work are best described with a crisp combination of  verb and object; “analyze customer data,” “identify key competitors,” “draft report outline.” What he adds is a scheme for classifying action verbs in terms of the time span they imply. “Email” or “call” suggests a 15-minute task while “Research” or “coordinate” suggests an activity that might consume a week. I’m copying his lists of action verbs into my crib sheets.

Gilkey extends this notion of organizing actions by timescale to advice that you stay clear about what timescale you are thinking through at any moment. Are you thinking about blocks of time that you map into a week of work or are you thinking in terms of month or quarter long projects on the path to larger goals? Becoming mindful about which timescale is relevant and moving up or down timescales as you plan work are practices I intend to fold into my work.

There’s plenty of other useful perspective and advice throughout Start Finishing. This will be by my side as I work on my next round of planning efforts.

Design and Craft

There’s been a recent cluster of articles on the productivity benefits realized from capping working days and working hours. Earlier this week Cal Newport penned an op-ed in The NY Times picking up on this theme.

Newport has been arguing that current approaches to complex knowledge work are poorly conceived. He argues for the importance of learning how to do “deep work” and advocates for the value of digital minimalism. Here he turns to a well-worn comparison. Manufacturing work did not realize meaningful productivity gains until Henry Ford made the transition from craft approaches to a carefully designed and engineered assembly line.

All too often the next move in this argument is to immediately conclude “craft bad/engineered process good.” I doubt that Newport would support that conclusion but this short circuit occurs often enough that I want to slow down for a moment and focus on it.

Concluding “craft bad/engineered process good” is the wrong answer to the wrong question. The lesson to be drawn from the Henry Ford is not that Ford found the right answer, it is that he found a better question.

That better question was “How do we design a process that will produce consistent, quality results?” His answer, in a stable and predictable environment, was an engineered process operating within tight tolerances to produce standard products of uniform quality.

We do not operate in “a stable and predictable environment.” Nor are we expected “to produce standard products of uniform quality.” How do we begin to answer that design question given those constraints?

We don’t do it by copying Ford’s answer.

I continue to believe that developing new answers starts by thinking in terms of craft. Recognizing that the goal is no longer “standard products of uniform quality” is a first step. I’ve talked about it as balancing uniqueness and uniformity.

The harder question is how to think about process without falling into the trap of engineered rigidity. I think getting answers to that questions needs to start in the field, watching how effective knowledge workers practice and think about their craft. I would like to get something more concrete than the classic consultant’s response to any request for advice of “well, it depends…”

McGee’s Musings turns 18; still curious, still exploring

This experiment is now old enough to enlist. Pretty sure that wasn’t something I anticipated.

The blogging software I was using at the time asked for a tagline to describe the blog. I chose a quote from Dorothy Parker that I always liked and that seemed to fit the spirit of blogging at the time:

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker

I found it an interesting bit of serendipity that the New York Times ran an op-ed on Sunday titled “Why Aren’t We Curious About the Things We Want to Be Curious About?.” The core argument is that:

Across evolutionary time, curious animals were more likely to survive because they learned about their environments; a forager that occasionally skipped a reliable feeding ground to explore might find an even better place to eat.…But it’s good to know about your environment even if it doesn’t promise a reward right now; knowledge may be useless today, but vital next week. Therefore, evolution has left us with a brain that can reward itself; satisfying curiosity feels pleasurable, so you explore the environment even when you don’t expect any concrete payoff.

The article offers insight into the mechanisms of curiosity, their payoffs, and a little bit of guidance about nudging curiosity into less frivolous paths.

It’s pretty clear to me that the environment we inhabit is increasingly in flux. Unsurprisingly, I’m in the school of thought that believes that curiosity about what is new and what is different is more relevant and important than ever. Hence, I continue to explore. I share traces of that exploring for two reasons. One, it forces me to make sense of what my curiosity dredges up. Two, it connects me to other explorers and their perspectives.

What’s the value of proven systems in a roll your own world?

I’ve often railed against the standard marketing trope of “here’s our proven system for solving problem X.” Proven systems pitches classify problems as simple to solve and, by implication, those with problems as either ignorant or lazy. My objection is that this offers little help for hard problems and we live in a world with lots of hard problems.

Suppose your interests lie in attacking hard problems? Call them wicked problems or management messes, these are the problems that constitute more of our agenda.

One answer is to acknowledge that answers to hard problems have to be custom crafted, with solutions tailored to the environment and the circumstances. Can we glean some value from the “proven systems” hawkers even as we recognize that our problems of interest don’t fit their premises?

MacGyver provides the essential strategy here. The point is to treat a proven system as design input to crafting a custom solution. To do this effectively, the first step is to reverse engineer the proven system. First, to understand the assumptions about the problem structure and environment driving the system design. Second, to extract the components and subsystems comprising the system. Third, to pattern match between the problem characteristics of the two systems—those of your problem and those built into the assumptions of the proven system. Fourth, to adapt and apply the subsystems that apply.

This approach depends on recognizing that you own the problem. That means rejecting an implicit premise of the proven systems perspective that you can transfer ownership and responsibility to the system.

Systems thinking and Improvement

A systems lens is one of the primary ways I seek to understand the world around me. No surprise, ten, that I’ve long been a fan of the work of Russell Ackoff. Here’s a short video of a talk by Ackoff on systems and improvement. He does two things here. One he provides a better description of a system than I typically do on my own. Two, he then shows why improvement programs in organizations generally disappoint because they fail to use that systems lens.

Well worth the fifteen minutes it will take you to find and watch.

Matching tool to task: mindmaps and project design

I’m fundamentally lazy so I’m always looking for tools to simplify whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. I’m currently teaching a course in project management and we’re working through how to build good project plans. In project management circles, there seems to be an infinite set of options for software tools to support project execution. Tool support for earlier stages receives less attention.

Most project management tools presume that you already have a plan to manage; how you create that plan is an exercise left to the reader. The tools treat the capture of phases and tasks as a data entry problem not a creative one. I see a project plan as an outline of tasks arranged and organized into a sensible order.

Creating that sensible order, however, is not an orderly process. It’s a thinking and writing task that of necessity proceeds in fits and starts, where order emerges only gradually. You don’t write a project plan starting at step one and marching along to step n anymore than you write a novel by starting with “It was a dark and stormy night…” and plowing ahead.

My preferred tool for the creative stage of project design and planning is a mindmap. Back in the day, I drew the initial maps by hand. Today, we’ve got software tools to make the process of creating and evolving plans smoother. I work primarily on Macs these days; my tools of choice include Scapple, Xmind, and MindManager.

There are plenty of other choices on every platform. Any of them is better than jumping straight into a tool built to manage project execution. And any of them is better than limiting yourself to a word processor or text editor.

I don’t worry about whether I am following the “rules of mindmapping” or have found the one perfect mindmapping tool. The key payoff is that I am using a tool whose fundamental design principles match the problem I am trying to solve.

Balancing short and long term thinking in knowledge work

The Fall term is settling into its rhythm. I’ve shared my usual story of my own academic transcripts containing at least one of every possible letter grade. I was a natural, but undisciplined, student. I paid attention to meeting prerequisites for subsequent courses and meeting the requirements of my major but I didn’t think about the practicalities of how what I was learning flowed from one course to the next. More broadly, I gave little thought to the connections between what I was studying now and what I would need to know later for any value of later beyond the final.

My unexamined assumption was that whatever I learned in one class would somehow stick in my brain to be drawn on in the next class or in the future. Notes were what you did to pay attention during class and had no evident value once the exam was done. I suppose textbooks had some value in my mind as I kept those for a while. On the other hand, I don’t think I ever did much to refer back to them in subsequent classes or in the workplace.

Now, it could simply be that I was lazy. There are those who would argue for that hypothesis. Maybe everyone else was more organized and more disciplined than I and I failed to notice their better disciplines. But I suspect not.

I’ve written about the general problems of the shrinking half-life of knowledge. What’s on my mind today is the question of how to cope with that world. We have access to better tools and more processing power than I ever did in my student days. What strategies and practices for leveraging that power are possible that work in both the immediate context of a single class or a single project and contribute to knowledge that’s valuable in the longer term?

There are examples that address this question of continuity beyond the problem at hand:

Doug Engelbart’s seminal work on augmentation ought to bear on this as well. But my sense is that Engelbart doesn’t directly address the question of continuity. Time for another reread—which is itself indicative of the problem.

I’m still at the agenda setting stage. Stay tuned.

The 80 IQ point move: knowledge work as craft

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Kay. We met twenty five years ago as we were building a consulting firm that blended strategic and technology insight. One of Alan’s favorite observations is “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Choosing a better vantage point on tough problems is time well spent, especially when there is pressure to get on with it.

I’m not sure I can count the number of times I’ve heard or said that we live in a knowledge economy. That we are all knowledge workers who live and work in learning organizations. Yet, we continue to celebrate the industrial revolution in those organizations. We celebrate scale and growth and control. We worry about the problems of accelerating change but assume that working harder and longer will suffice to keep pace.

There is a better vantage point. It is to treat knowledge work as craft work in a technological matrix. Craft work integrates materials, tools, and practices to create artifacts that simultaneously embody the skill and expertise of crafters and meet the practical and esthetic needs of patrons.

Examining each of those elements from a craft perspective illuminates what it takes to become effective as a knowledge worker and remain so as change continues to accumulate. It’s our 80 IQ point move.

Materials – make them visible to make them manageable

Industrial work is built on repeatability; my iPhone 6 Plus is fundamentally identical to yours; any differences are cosmetic. Give me the same consulting report you prepared for your last client and we have a problem. The output of knowledge work derives value by being unique.

Knowledge work produces highly refined abstractions; a financial analysis, a project plan, a consulting report, a manuscript, or an article. A piece of knowledge work evolves from germ of an idea through multiple, intermediate representations and false starts to finished product. Today, that evolution occurs as a series of morphing digital representations which are difficult to observe and, therefore, difficult to manage and control.

A pre-digital counterexample reveals the unexpected challenges of digital work. I started consulting before the advent of the PC. When you had a presentation to prepare for a client, you began with a pad of paper and a pencil and sketched a set of slides. Erasures and cross outs and arrows made it evident you were working with a draft.

This might be two weeks before the deadline. You took that draft to Evelyn in the graphics department on the eighth floor. After she yelled at you for how little lead time you had given her, she handed your messy and marginally legible draft to one of the commercial artists in her group. They spent several days hand-lettering your draft and building the graphs and charts. They sent you a copy of their work, not being foolish enough to share their originals.

Then the process of correcting and amending the presentation followed. Copies circulated and were marked up by the manager and partner on the project. The graphics department prepared a final version. Finally, the client got to see it and you hoped you’d gotten it right.

Throughout this process, the work was visible. Junior members of the team could learn as the process unfolded and the final product evolved. You, as a consultant, could see how different editors and commentators reacted to different parts of the product.

Today’s digital tools make the journey from idea to finished product easier in many respects. When knowledge artifacts are digital, however, they are hard to see as they develop.

So what? Only the final product matters, right? What possible value is there to the intermediate versions or the component elements? Let’s return to the bygone world of paper again. Malcolm Gladwell offers an interesting observation in “The Social Life of Information:

”But why do we pile documents instead of filing them? Because piles represent the process of active, ongoing thinking. The psychologist Alison Kidd, whose research Sellen and Harper refer to extensively, argues that “knowledge workers” use the physical space of the desktop to hold “ideas which they cannot yet categorize or even decide how they might use.” The messy desk is not necessarily a sign of disorganization. It may be a sign of complexity: those who deal with many unresolved ideas simultaneously cannot sort and file the papers on their desks, because they haven’t yet sorted and filed the ideas in their head. Kidd writes that many of the people she talked to use the papers on their desks as contextual cues to “recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay” when they come in on a Monday morning, or after their work has been interrupted by a phone call. What we see when we look at the piles on our desks is, in a sense, the contents of our brains.”

I have friends whose digital desktops have that look about them but this strategy doesn’t readily translate to the digital realm. The physicality of paper gave us version control and audit trails as a free byproduct.

Digital tools promote a focus on final product and divert attention from the work that goes into developing that product. “Track changes” and digital Post-It notes provide inadequate support to the process that proceeds the product. Project teams employ crude naming practices in lieu of substantive version control. Software developers and some research academics have given thought to the problems of how to manage the materials that go into digital knowledge artifacts. Average knowledge workers have yet to do the same.

Visibility is the starting point. Once you make the work observable, you can make it improvable. Concepts like working papers, and audit trails, and personal knowledge management can then come into play.

Tools – Every Day Carry and Well-Equipped Digital Workshops

Where craft matters, so do tools. That got lost in the industrial revolution. Tools were carved out and attached to minute pieces of process, not to the people who wielded them with skill. Meanwhile, the raw materials of knowledge work–words, numbers, and images–did not call for much in the way of tools other than pencil and paper. Mark Twain was an innovator in adopting the typewriter to improve the quantity and quality of his output. But the mechanical tools for aiding knowledge work came to be seen as beneath the dignity of important people.

There was a time when “computers” were women charged with carrying out the menial tasks of doing the calculations men designed and oversaw. It was not that long ago when executives thought it perfectly sensible to have their email printed out and prepare their responses by hand. These attitudes interfere with our abilities to be fully effective doing knowledge work in a digital world.

There’s the old saw that to a child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a skilled cabinet maker, every problem suggests a matching hammer. A well-equipped workshop might contain dozens of different types of hammers, each suited to working with particular materials or in specific situations.

If our materials are digital, then our skill with digital tools becomes a manageable aspect of our working life.

There’s a useful distinction between basic and specialty tools. A basic tool in hand beats the perfect tool back in the shop or office. I’ve carried a pocket knife since my days as a stage manager in college. Courtesy of the TSA I have to remember to leave it behind when I fly or surrender it to the gods of security theater but every other day it’s in my pocket. There is, in fact, an entire subculture devoted to discussions of what constitutes an appropriate EDC—Every Day Carry—for various occupations and environments.

In the realm of knowledge work, Every Day Carry defaults to an email client, calendar, contact manager, word processor, and spreadsheet.  For most knowledge workers, tool thinking stops here. Other than software engineers and data scientists, few knowledge workers give much thought to their tools or their effective leverage. Organizations ignore the question of whether knowledge workers are proficient with their tools

If you are judged on the quality of the artifacts that you produce, you would do well to worry about your proficiency with tools. If you have control over your technology environment, set aside time to extend your toolset and learn to use it more effectively. Invest time and thought into how to design, organize, and take advantage of a knowledge workshop filled with the tools of your digital trade. Plan for a mix of EDC, heavy duty, and experimental knowledge work tools.

Practices – Design Effective Habits

Process thinking built the industrial economy. To deliver consistent quality product, variation is designed out and all the steps are locked down and controlled. If your goal is to craft unique outputs suitable to unique circumstances, industrial process is your enemy.

Where then are the management leverage points if industrial process is not the answer? McDonalds is not the only way to run  restaurant. In a knowledge work environment, both design and management responsibilities must be more widely distributed and shared. Peter Drucker captured this when he observed that the first question every knowledge worker must ask is “what is the task?”

Answering that question entails understanding the materials and tools available. From there, knowledge workers can design approaches to creating the necessary unique knowledge artifacts. Habits, routines, rituals, and practices replace rigid processes. In a fine restaurant, the day’s fresh ingredients set the menu and the menu guides which preparation and cooking techniques will be called for that evening. Line cooks, sous chefs, and chefs collaborate to create the evening’s dining experience.

The building blocks for constructing suitably unique final products are learned over years of practice and experimentation. They are passed on through observation and apprenticeship. In a volatile knowledge economy, they must also be subject to constant evolution, refinement, and innovation.

Learning as a craft practice

In the pre-industrial craft world, learning could be a simple process. Find a master and apprentice yourself to them. Time would suffice to transfer expertise and skill from master to apprentice.

We do not live in that world.

In an industrial world, learning was focused on fitting people to the work. Open-ended apprenticeship was replaced with narrow training programs to learn the specifics of where humans fit into a larger, engineered, process design.

We do not live in that world.

Integrating a craft point of view with the pace of the technological environment that now exists makes learning a craft practice to master.

We are all permanent apprentices. We are also all permanent masters of our craft. Apprenticeship must become conscious and designed. Mastery will always be temporary. Our understanding of materials, tools, and practices will always be dynamic. Learning and performing will be in constant tension.