Idea Management as an Abundance Problem

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

 Linus Pauling

I suppose it’s fitting that I have struggled with this blog post far more than most. It began with a desire to improve the rhythm and cadence of completing and published writing deliverables. Having just passed nineteen years writing this blog, you would think I was beyond fits of teenage angst. Maybe the onset of blogging adulthood is more daunting than I realized. 

I’ve always liked the Pauling quote. Having lots of ideas has never been a particular problem for me, so I’ve trusted that some reasonable portion of them would be good enough to share. For a long time, I attributed my occasional struggles to focus on a particular train of thought on my ADD. Bright shiny objects always promise a dopamine hit, but I’ve felt like I’ve been able to keep it enough under control. 

It occurs to me, however, that my ADD simply serves as an early introduction into a world that we all now live in. We all swim in an overwhelming abundance of ideas. Our training and practice focuses on turning individual ideas into a desired deliverable, whether that is a blog post, a client presentation, or a spreadsheet analysis for our boss. 

While there’s much to be learned about that idea to deliverable evolution, there’s another layer of knowledge work practice that we must tackle. That thread of idea to deliverable is one element of a collection of threads and you have to manage the collection as something distinct from any one thread. 

Simply splitting the problem into two layers is a step forward for me. I have a reasonable handle on the first layer; I know how to take an idea,  develop it, extend it, and polish it into a deliverable. As a creative task, however, that process is rarely linear. Ideas are not widgets, you can’t simply plow ahead from idea to deliverable. You often need to set things aside and let them cook. 

Which is where the second layer comes into play. What do you pick up when you set the first idea aside? Presumably another idea that you set aside earlier or a new idea trying to seduce you. You now have a management problem as well as a creation problem. 

The management problem is about selecting ideas, monitoring progress, switching, sequencing, timing, and cadence. This is operating at a different level of abstraction from the creation process. 

At small scales, you can likely manage organically. There aren’t so many threads that you can’t keep most or all of the management issues in your head. With time and the accumulation of a body of work, it’s worthwhile to externalize the management problem and not try to rely on the limits of memory. At the same time, the management process must be subordinate to the creative process. 

Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve been gradually retooling my baseline creative practices around a more disciplined note-centered practice. Like any retooling, this has led to a temporary drop in output. As committed to improvement as I may be, there’s still muscle memory to be overcome. Even bad habits are still habits that require extra energy to break down and replace. Some markers of this journey that have risen to things worth sharing include:

Early on, what management of the process I did was on the proverbial back of an envelope. Keep a list of ideas as they came to me and pick something off the list when I sat down to write the next piece. Look back at the last few blog posts and write a follow up piece. Do this for any length of time, however, and the envelope gets pretty full

My next thought was to take the list off the back of the envelope and formalize it. I dug into the approaches of other writers who’ve gone through this evolution. Among the appealing approaches I ran into were:

These approaches, however, don’t scale well. As your body of work grows, you risk spending more time maintaining the management control system than you do creating new work. That misses the point entirely. 

Some Zettelkasten advocates claim that the necessary tools and structure emerge as you gain more experience and grow your collection of notes:

This hasn’t played out for me. Setting aside the hypothesis that this simply reflects my personal limitations, what’s missing? 

This comes back to the distinction between creating and managing. Most of the discussion and advice I’ve been able to review is focused almost exclusively on creation. It either ignores managing the process as a whole or presumes that what needs to be managed is trivial relative to making creation work more smoothly and reliably. 

To manage the overall process you need to get above the details of individual work in process (WIP) items. You want to collect just enough data about each item to not have to read the entire piece while you are trying to manage a collection of multiple WIP items. And you need to track the status of each piece of WIP relative to its transition from WIP to final deliverable. Is this item a new idea? A draft? In need of editing? Ready to publish? Published? There’s a life cycle to be defined. This is the metadata you need to make informed decisions about the overall process. Do you have enough WIP to feed your deliverable goals? How does the mix of materials look?

This is a classic data management problem that would seem to call for a simple spreadsheet as DBMS solution. Or a multi-column outline of some sort. Both of those approaches failed relative to the goal of keeping the management system subordinate to the creative system. As I continue the transition to a note-centric creation system, the challenge is to embed the pertinent metadata in the individual notes and create some method of querying the metadata to generate the schedules and lists that will help me manage the creative process. Now that I’ve got a handle on the basic requirements for managing my WIP, the next step is to discover or create the reporting tool. 

Leading from the bench: Abby Wambach insights on leadership

Wambach, Abby. 2019. WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game. Celadon Books.

I am not the ostensible target audience for this book. Abby Wambach, one of the all-time best soccer players in the world, wrote Wolfpack following her commencement address at Barnard College in 2018;

She’s talking to women about leadership.

But I would be stupid not to take advantage of wisdom wherever I find it. I stumbled across Wolfpack courtesy of Brené Brown ([Brené with Abby Wambach on the New Rules of Leadership) who puts it on her “top five must-read leadership books.” She’s right.

Wolfpack is a short book. That’s because there isn’t any padding. The book resembles the game Wambach played; competition and cooperation stripped to its essentials.

She draws her title from the tale of how the re-introduction of wolves restored the ecosystem of Yellowstone Park. It’s a story about the complexity and simplicity of systems. I’ve written about it myself before; (Learning to see systems \- wolves and rivers). It’s worth your time to check that story out;

Wambach packages her advice in a handful of rules. One that stood out for me was “lead from the bench.” Perhaps it resonates with my experience as a stage manager operating in the wings. While I’ve had my share of leading from in front, I’ve seen the power of leading from wherever circumstances have put you. Wambach’s particular story stems from her transition from starter to substitute during the 2015 World Cup competition. Here’s her take on that moment:

You are allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. If you’re not a leader on the bench, don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.

Wambach understands that leadership isn’t about the individual. One powerful statement of that level of insight shows up in this TV commercial with her;

One more quote from Wambach;

Leadership is not a position to earn, it’s an inherent power to claim. Leadership is the blood that runs through your veins—it’s born in you. It’s not the privilege of a few, it is the right and responsibility of all. Leader is not a title that the world gives to you—it’s an offering that you give to the world.

This is leadership worth emulating.

McGee’s Musings turns 19 today

McGee’s Musings turns 19 today. I started this outpost on the Web nineteen years ago while I was on the faculty of the Kellogg School. It was a way to share ideas with my students. It also grew out of my abiding interest in doing knowledge work effectively.

Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in how to best apply technology to knowledge work. Some of this is about developing software tools. More interesting to me has been a set of new ideas about how to use tools. Notes, for example, have taken on new roles and new importance. What does it mean for a note to be “atomic” or evergreen?” Why is that a useful distinction?

What is a Zettelkasten? Should I care? How about a “digital garden?”

One of the key concepts I’ve been working out for myself has been the idea of making knowledge work observable. This spot has been one element of that ongoing effort.

I’m beginning to work on how to improve this experiment both for myself and those who’ve been following along. There are two key questions I need to address. The first is where to draw the line between what gets shared and what isn’t yet fully baked. When in the creation process does it help to reveal the current state of progress to make still more progress? That’s largely an emotional decision about how exposed I want to feel.

The second question is what other elements should be part of the design of this place? What would make this site more useful for you? What’s missing? I’ve got some ideas. I’m researching others. What would you recommend?

Identifying Knowledge Work Practices

I’m continuing the quest to understand and improve my work practices. Several terms/ideas have been holding my attention and I’d like to work out how they might fit together;

After some iteration, I put them together in the following diagram;

Let’s start with signals and noise. Noise is a problem in pretty much any communications environment. Social media of late is an environment with a lot more noise than signal, for example. Claude Shannon pretty much invented the field of information theory in his work at Bell Labs in the 1940s. There might have been a point when I understood the math back in my youth. Today, I’m content to settle for a metaphorical approach and think about my work as uncovering or creating signal out of noise.

I’ve been running up against the limits of deliverable and working backwards. Over-focusing on deliverables limits your thinking when you are early in the process and don’t yet have clear notions of deliverables. I’ve found the notions of sensemaking and solving for pattern effective ways to counterbalance that focus.

Another notion I am playing with is a distinction between Intake and Pre-Intake. I appreciate the warnings of some in the Zettelkasten crowd about the “collector’s fallacy,” but not enough to stop my picking up shiny things. I value my magpie tendencies and I’m reluctant to trade faux-productivity for creativity.

As I thought through this broad flow from initial inputs to deliverables, it occurred to me that it was worth thinking of process/practice management as a layer distinct from the working layer I typically operate within. One hypothesis I’m exploring is that there is a useful distinction to be made between process and practice. “Process” feels a bit too rigid for most knowledge work; practice seems to better capture an appropriate degree of flexibility and adaptability.

Regardless of how the process/practice distinction evolves, separating the managing layer from the doing layer is helping. It allows me to investigate activities and practices that may be missing from my current repertoire. As a first approximation, I’ve identified several practice management elements to investigate:

Some of the pieces exist–reference management, archive management–and could stand improvement. What is most evident to me is that I don’t have effective practices for managing WIP and reading. Now, I’ve got some shape on what to work on next.

Building A Bespoke Knowledge Work Environment with Off-the-Rack Tools

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I’m still slogging through the mess I spoke about last time. I just checked and I’ve written over 10,000 words since then; none of which yet rise to the threshold of being worth sharing. Some will before too long, I hope.

One of the thoughts that leaked out of my fingertips during that time is the seed of an idea that provoked this post.

As a knowledge worker, one permanent task on your to do list is to build a bespoke knowledge work environment using the off-the-rack tools  available.

I am in the midst of unpacking that idea for myself and decided it would be useful to share that process. I won’t expose all of the mess; the daily journal entries where snippets of this post first surfaced, the list of previous posts that I searched out and reread, the bullet point outline I am working from right now. But I will try to reflect the essentials.

I’ve organized this around the following four questions:

1. Why do you/I need a bespoke environment?

2. Why are most of us constrained to leverage off-the-rack tools?

3. Why is this perspective useful?

4. Where should you/I start?

Why do you/I need a bespoke environment?

Off-the-rack is a concept that didn’t exist before the industrial revolution. All products and services were bespoke. If you needed a new shirt, you made it yourself or had someone make it just for you. The industrial revolution and the industrial era were built on a different promise; accept some level of standardized product in exchange for a huge leap in average quality and a proliferation of choices. This has been such a successful strategy, that it’s easy to forget that it is based on a tradeoff.

Knowledge work and the products of knowledge work return us to a bespoke world. Value in knowledge work is correlated with uniqueness. I’ve written about this before (Balancing Uniqueness and Uniformity in Knowledge Work). If your goal is to pursue unique insights and contributions, you will want to tweak and tune your work environment in any and all of the ways that contribute to achieving that uniqueness.

Why are most of us constrained to leverage off-the-rack tools?

Inventing and building new tools is an order of magnitude more difficult than using existing tools. We tend to forget this when we reach for tools in an existing environment; you aren’t likely to think about what it takes to make a carpenter’s hammer as you pick one up to drive a nail.

Until recently, the fundamental tools of knowledge work were simple and readily available. Paper and pencil, blackboard and chalk, can take you far down the path of creating a knowledge work artifact of value.

Knowledge work, however, is fundamentally symbol manipulation in various guises. Communications and computing technologies are power tools for manipulating symbols. And, they are complex artifacts in their own right. You would no more think of writing your own word processing tool than you would think of forging your own hammer.

That does not, however, absolve you from learning how to choose and use available tools effectively.

Why is this perspective useful?

Adopting the perspective that the goal is a tailored environment and the available building blocks must be selected from what’s available sets up a tension that can be used to drive the design process.

Perhaps most importantly it provokes a recognition that simply picking tools is the least challenging task before you. That should establish an appropriate degree of skepticism about the blandishments of tool vendors and tool enthusiasts.

I took a look at this problem some time ago (Building Your Knowledge Workshop). That advice still applies. Your goal is an effective work environment, primarily for yourself. Individual tools come and go in your knowledge work environment much the same as tools accumulate and evolve in a conventional workshop. You need to grasp the work you are doing and the materials you are working with. And you need to learn what each tool can and cannot do in support of that work.

Where should you/I start?

There’s a decision to be made at the very outset of this process. It’s a choice about attitude or approach. You can elect to treat tools the way a new apartment dweller might. Get a starter set of basic tools assembled by some marketing intern at Home Depot and call the building super when you run into trouble. Or, approach the problem like a homeowner with a strong do-it-yourself bent. Investing in and learning to use professional tools for the most part. Knowing when to reach out to more experienced experts from time to time. Or, finally, you can offload your problems to a collection of experts and their tools. This increases your costs and leaves you beholden to the expertise and ethics of the experts you rely on.

I’m an advocate for the middle approach. That starts with getting a better handle on the work you do, followed by more diligently investing in learning how to use your existing tools. We don’t encourage either step in most organizational settings. Software development seems to be the only arena where practitioners routinely think about and invest in their tooling and practices.

Embrace the mess if you want to do better knowledge work

I’ve been deeply immersed in the recent profusion of new ideas, apps, and initiatives in the knowledge work  space. I’ve been working to make sense of a host of terms and concepts and discern their relevance to my own work. A partial list of those concepts (with some pointers to good entry points) includes:

There’s also a recent uptick in applications and services offering a path to implementing these ideas. These new apps are also fighting for mindshare with a set of existing apps. A very partial list (basically those apps I have experimented with or use with some regularity) includes:

Software developers, entrepreneurs, and evangelists of all stripes have to make the spine of their application, service, or approach clear and compelling. You’ve got to be a believer if you’re going to put in the time and effort to build something new. Early adopters also tend to be believers.

I tend to be an early adopter in many settings. But I’m also an old fart, so I’ve been jilted many times. Scar tissue provides perspective.

One of the drivers behind this surge in new work is the inexorable shift to knowledge work. Knowledge work is different from so much of the work that organizations have learned to manage and control. No matter what the bean-counters and compliance managers would like, knowledge work is inherently messy.

There’s a distinction in the world of early AI research that is useful in this context. The early world of AI research broke into two camps on the nature of intelligence; the “neats” and the “scruffies.” I took a look at this argument a number of years back in an earlier blog post on the realm of knowledge work–Knowledge management: the latest battle between the neats and the scruffies.

I once aspired to being a “neat”–business school is fundamentally targeted towards those who cherish and desire to impose order. The reality, linked no doubt to my ADD, is that I will always be a “scruffie.”

Fortunately, the world now aligns more closely with my “disorder.” You can’t get to “neat” without traveling through “scruffie.”

The challenge is that nearly all of the evangelizing and advice about new ideas is packaged as though that journey is over or, at least, easy. We get a “neat” picture of the destination. The journey is left as an exercise for the reader.

Even if the developers and early adopters acknowledge that there is a journey to be made, they gloss over the messy parts. If they share any details of the necessary hero’s journey, they offer just enough of the ugly parts to burnish their story. Preparing you for what you will encounter just gets in the way of the next chapters of their stories.

The absolutely essential step if you want to travel the path to being more effective as a knowledge worker is to accept that you have to walk the path for yourself. Seeking out more honest accounts of those who have traveled before you can help. Finding guides who can walk with you and help you avoid the quicksand and tar pits is even better.

But you’re still going to get dirty.

Choosing to say yes inside the organizational hairball

MacKenzie, Gordon. 1997. Orbiting the Giant Hairball : A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving With Grace. US: Viking Pr.

I first encountered Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball during my time growing Diamond Technology Partners. I decided to revisit it recently. I’ve picked it up from time to time over the intervening 23 years (we’ll return to that notion in a bit). It wasn’t something that neatly fit my typical reading patterns. But it deals with a problem that has been central to my work. How do you reconcile creativity and organizations?

Maybe it was the image of large organizations as “hairballs.” MacKenzie’s point about larger organizations was that they accrete rules and standard operating procedures over time. Mostly, that is a good and necessary thing. You don’t want every worker on the line to decide which tires to attach to the axles today. But if you spend much time inside organizations, you learn that rules and rule-making can impose their own perverse logic. How many items in the standard operating procedures or the employee manual reduce to “never, ever, let Joe do that again?” Organizations are suspicious of creativity and people are full of it. A volatile combination.

MacKenzie worked inside Hallmark; he was a creative leader in an organization that depended on its creativity. Even there, the forces working to suppress creativity were powerful. MacKenzie puts it succinctly, ” it is not the business of authority figures to validate genius, because genius threatens authority.” His solution as he gained authority within Hallmark was appropriately creative. Genius is hard to discern before the fact. MacKenzie’s answer was to default to saying “yes.” If someone or some team approached MacKenzie with a proposal to try something, he gave them permission. He didn’t ask or worry whether he had any authority to do so. This mildly subversive act was often just enough to shake loose resources or convince others to let an experiment proceed. I adopted this strategy to good effect.

Fundamentally, Orbiting the Giant Hairball is about this tension between order and chaos. The proponents of order are loud and powerful. But the world depends on the balance between yin and yang. There are more than enough forces working against creativity in organizations; the creative spirit needs champions too.

One final observation. I pointed out at the start that I had elected to reread this provocative little book, Lately, I’ve been encountering a lot of well-argued, and certainly well-intentioned, advice about the importance of improving efficiency in processing new information. We’re assaulted with new inputs. But efficiency is the wrong metric. Managing inputs effectively should dominate efficiency. But effectiveness is much harder to assess. Many items on my reading list are worth no more than a single reading; some turn out to not be worth that. But the other tail of the distribution also matters. Certain books yield new insights when you revisit them with further experience. Don’t let a quest for temporary efficiencies block access to that additional value.

Building knowledge work toolsets

Swiss Army KnifeI first encountered the notion of “affordances” in Don Norman’s excellent The Psychology of Everyday Things (which was renamed The Design of Everyday Things a couple of years later).  From the world of design, an “affordance” is a characteristic of an object that offers clues about how to use or interact with that object; the design of a chair tells us it is something for sitting on, a pitcher is for holding and pouring things. Affordances can be difficult to design in a world of more complex physical objects; they can be nigh on impossible in the design of software tools and applications. One of the things that made early computer systems so confounding was that they offered no affordances to latch onto. Graphical user interfaces were a huge step forward in making software user friendly (or at least not overtly user hostile).

Affordances and the design thinking that goes into crafting good ones are rooted in the physical world; dexterity, reach, visual acuity, strength, all factor in to design. This is the world of ergonomics or human factors. Transferring that knowledge to the abstract world of software and the objects in our environment with significant software elements is no simple task. You need only think of the remote control for your DVR and set top box or the user interface of your bank’s ATM to appreciate how difficult this design work can be.

One failure (limitation?) of modern application design is affordances that run out of steam before users grasp the full capabilities of an application. If all chairs looked like a Shaker chair, how would we ever figure out what to do with a BarcaLounger; or the pilot’s cockpit seat in an F-16? The menus and window layouts of your typical desktop application (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook) get everyone up and running quickly, but they do nothing to hint at, much less reveal, any deeper capabilities or opportunities. So, for most users, most of the time, those opportunities go unrecognized and the capabilities never get exercised.

What separates power users from the rest of us, then, is a willingness to dig into users manuals (RTFM as a career advancement strategy) and to experiment and play with their tools to figure out what is possible. Otherwise smart people take marketing hype about “easy and intuitive” software seriously and judge themselves deficient when good software tools are often neither. The opportunity wasted is tremendously sad.

So, what do we do to help more people get more value out of their software? My specific interests happen to be about knowledge work. What can we do to help knowledge workers push their tools farther and better? Put another way, why do we settle for knowledge workers leveraging such limited subsets of the tools they already use or avoiding tools or techniques that might unlock significant new insights and outputs?

Although I’ve been talking about affordances I don’t think the blame or the answer lies exclusively with software designers. More realistic claims from software marketers wouldn’t hurt although I’m not holding my breath. As software users, one thing we can do is invest time to suss out more of the design models in the heads of the software developers who build the tools we are seeking to leverage.

Word processing software offers examples of what I’m thinking about.

Microsoft Word is likely the dominant word processor on the planet. You can find it installed on most any desktop or laptop computer you encounter. It ushered in the world of WYSIWYG computing where one goal of the interface was to represent your work in as close to final form as possible. Implicit in that design was that the “final form” was a printed page.

A consequence of that design choice was that you now had one tool that spanned what had once been a series of discrete stages in the process of bringing an idea to the printed page. Writing, editing, design, and layout are quite different cognitive activities. In a pre-WYSIWYG world, each of these steps had its own set of professionals, its own set of standards and practices, and its own set of tools. With Word you now have a single tool that can serve at all stages (at least for 80% of cases).

Whether that is a good thing is another question. Having one tool makes it more difficult to see that the activities in each stage are quite different. When you’re working out the structure of an argument, there’s little point to be worrying about what typeface and font size works best for a section heading. But a single tool blurs that distinction and boundary. You can be enticed into playing with those problems or thinking they are important to deal with now while your fundamental argument or storyline is still a mess.

A tool that is suitable across all these steps may be valuable within an organization. But at the price of obscuring the differences between different process stages. You could manage that problem if you made an effort to make the different stages of the process more explicit. But now the organization and its people need to work at cross purposes to the tools. You have a single tool obscuring the differences in the process while you try to highlight those same differences as you manage the development and evolution of any particular deliverable.

Scrivener is a popular word processing tool, especially among authors dealing with longer form writing projects. Its user experience embodies a very different model of the writing process than Microsoft Word. Scrivener makes the various stages of writing–drafting, editing, design, layout–visible and identifiable in its user interface. In particular, WYSIWYG is a secondary or even tertiary goal in the user experience.

Moreover, Scrivener was designed in a time when the printed page is only one of many target forms for final deliverables. It also supports multiple formats for electronic books, PDF files, and the web. To that end, the design of Scrivener separates the activities for structuring a draft output from formatting it for final output.

For users accustomed to the WYSIWYG model embodied in Microsoft Word this is a source of frequent confusion. Learning how to invoke specific functions and features in Scrivener isn’t terribly helpful until new users grasp the fundamentally different process model embedded in the design of the application.

Software marketers don’t like to acknowledge that software users require multiple individual software tools to handle the complexities of modern knowledge work.It is not their job to figure out how to fit multiple tools together to get work done.

This is an element of your job description that hasn’t been acknowledged or addressed in the average organization. You will likely be issued a starter set of basic tools. But don’t expect useful guidance on how to use them in concert to accomplish the work expected of you. It is yours if you hope to be an effective knowledge worker.

Review – Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

Image of Intertwingled CoverMorville, Peter. 2014. Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything. US: Semantic Studios.

Intertwingled is not a practical book. It is not intended to be. Unfortunately, that will discourage those who could most benefit from its message and perspective. It’s an extended reflection by its author, Peter Morville, on the deep challenges of making information more easily accessible and impactful within organizations. Morville has written several of the essential books in the world of information design and architecture (Information Architecture,  Ambient Findability). Intertwingled is a more reflective exercise; an attempt to pick a broader vantage point on understanding both the technological and organizational environments we inhabit. Morville opens with an observation from Ted Nelson:

People keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable, and sequential when they can’t. Everything is deeply intertwingled.  – Theodor Holm Nelson

I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “intertwingled” – probably because I am generally suspicious of coining “cute” new terms. Ted Nelson, on the other hand, seems drawn to the practice. Nelson’s books, Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary Machines, were hugely influential in luring me into the field and Morville seems to have been similarly enticed.

I don’t think Morville makes me any more comfortable with the term, but the book and his arguments and observations are still  worth the time.

It’s beyond cliche that we live in an information economy. It’s easy to be distracted by the shiny stuff– apps, devices,  platforms, technology. Morville’s focus is on the peculiar notion of information. Information is a surprisingly slippery term and we are all well served by efforts such as Intertwingled that make us think about that slipperiness. Morville observes that

Access to massive amounts of conflicting information from myriad sources creates filter failure. We don’t know what to believe. So we fall back on simple ways of knowing. We trust experts and those in authority. We follow doctor’s orders. Or we reject expertise completely.

Lately, it seems that rejection has become the go to strategy in many settings. This is not, in fact, a new problem. Morville, for example, offers the following observation from computer scientist Calvin Mooers published in 1959:

Many people may not want information, and they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information. Having information is painful and troublesome. We have all experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain.

Morville’s goal with Intertwingled is to make you think. He succeeds admirably. Enough so that this will be a book I expect to return to.

Competitive strategy and market failures

Mike Porter's 5-forces modelI finished my MBA 40 years ago. Courtesy of the current pandemic, I won’t be having the reunion I was looking forward to. But, I have been thinking back to lessons from those days.

One of the hottest courses my second year was “Industry and Competitive Analysis.” Professor Mike Porter was putting the final touches on what would become Competitive Strategy : Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors and we were the beta testers for what would become the bible of corporate strategy. Because Harvard is committed to the case method, there wasn’t much explicit discussion of theory as theory. You absorbed the theoretical essentials in the course of applying the tools and techniques to the case examples.

Fast forward several years. I’ve left the world of consulting and come back to school one more time. I’m now writing cases instead of reading them. And I’m soaking up formal theory in multiple subjects. One of the courses I take is a course in Industrial Economics from Richard Caves. Industrial Economics is the study of markets and competition from an economist’s perspective. Caves was Porter’s thesis advisor when Porter was getting his Ph.D.

When economists study markets and competition, their driving question is “why do markets fail?” Economists believe in markets and their theories presume perfect competition. Deviations from perfect competition are anomalies to be understood and explained. What gets in the way of the theoretical ideal of Adam Smith where sellers compete on price and features to meet the needs of well-informed buyers. The catalog of things that cause markets to be less than perfectly competitive is long: monopoly power, monopsony power, barriers to entry, barriers to exit, price fixing, collusion, are only a partial list. Economists then seek potential solutions to prevent or eliminate these sources of market failure.

Midway through the course it dawns on me. Porter’s genius in competitive strategy is to recognize that an economist’s market failure is a CEO’s strategic coup. Your goal as a CEO is pick your markets and shape your organization’s behaviors to maximize the probabilities of market failures that work in your favor. I’ve found that to be a very powerful lens for understanding how business strategy plays out in practice.