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.

Developing Design Perspective

Monteiro, Mike. Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. Mule Books.

We live in an artificial world; most everything we interact with has been designed by another human. In Ruined by Design, Monteiro explores this territory from the perspective of a professional designer. His quest is to make the case that designers have an obligation to think beyond the immediate demands of making some idea come to life and to ask “why” questions that are going unaddressed. His claim is that

A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.

He builds a compelling case but I want to take his argument further. Asking why is a design skill. It is a design skill that we should all develop.

It is a powerful step to ask why. Children know the power of this line of inquiry. It is a power to develop not suppress, whatever the temptation as a weary parent.

Too much of our educational and organizational energy is devoted to fighting the power of “why” instead of developing and strengthening it. Monteiro’s concern is that designers have abdicated their responsibility. Mine is that we all have.

We live in a designed world. That makes all of us designers. Every choice we make about what technologies to use and how to use them is a design choice. Montiero’s target audience is professional designers; you are part of that audience.

Knowledge work effectiveness not efficiency

I started this blog in the earlyish days of blogging. I was teaching a course at Northwestern’s Kellogg School about strategic uses of information technology. The blog offered a way to share thoughts with my students. I quickly plugged into a community of like-minded bloggers in education and in knowledge work in general. In time, that network connected me to Buzz Bruggeman, CEO of ActiveWords. Buzz being Buzz, we connected and have remained friends and colleagues since. That is another story in itself.

ActiveWords is a Windows utility program. On the surface, it is a text substitution tool. Type “aw,” for example and the program will produce “ActiveWords” on the screen. It does much more than that, and there are comparable products on both Windows and Mac. When I was a Windows user, it was one of the first programs I installed on every new computer. I now use equivalents on the Mac.

But this is not a software review.

The default marketing strategy for this category of tool is to emphasize efficiency.The tools invariably come equipped with tools to calculate how much time you save by typing “aw” in place of “ActiveWords.” If you are, in fact, a reasonable touch typist, those time savings are modest. Frankly, they aren’t that great for poor typists. Yet, the people who do adopt these tools often become vocal fans and evangelists. Are theses fans simply horrible typists or are they on to something more interesting?

The marketing from efficiency argument is simple to articulate and deeply rooted in an industrial mindset. Tools are good if they make workers more efficient; Frederick Taylor opined on the size and shape of shovels to improve the efficiency of strong-backed men moving stuff from pile A to box B. Knowledge workers aren’t shoveling coal. None of us work in typing pools.

These tools and their effective (not efficient) use are better understood from the perspective of augmentation laid out by Doug Engelbart. Saving keystrokes isn’t the point; redistributing cognitive load is.

Software developers figured this out long ago and designed programming languages to handle the tedious aspects of building software so that developers could focus on the tricky bits. Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin wrote Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, so that they could focus on setting up the finance problem to be solved and let the computer take care of the arithmetic.

There is a conflict here to be managed between knowledge workers and conventional managers. If you are stuck in an efficiency world, you must resist the temptations to cram these approaches into an industrial frame. In an assembly line, the tools are part of the line; everyone uses the same pneumatic tools in the quest for efficiency.

Effectiveness calls for a more personal perspective. You might get away with mandating a standard set of tools —Buzz would be quite happy if Microsoft put a copy of ActiveWords on every Windows machine. But you can’t impose a standard set of abbreviations, for example, on every knowledge worker in the enterprise. That process has to be tailored to each knowledge worker’s individual needs.

Let me offer a simple example. Every time I decide to use the word “individual, ” I have to stop and think about how to spell it. That interferes with my train of thought. So, I’ve taught my Mac to transform “indv”into “individual.” The program I happed to use for this, TextExpander, will happily calculate how much time I save by typing 4 keystrokes instead of 10, but I don’t care. Maintaining my train of thought is something far more valuable than 6 keystrokes.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead captured this calculus long before I learned to type. He observed that:

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

What this does call for is learning to observe our own work and look for the speed bumps and other opportunities to redistribute the cognitive load.

Leading self-managed experts

Uniform cap

Twenty-some odd years ago, I had an opportunity to listen to Colin Powell speak. The event was small enough and I was senior enough that we had a useful conversation after his talk. The question I had was “how can you benefit from the experts working for you without some understanding of what they actually know and do?”

Secretary Powell’s response was that you had to rely on your ability to judge people on a human level and trust that the enterprise you were part of was able to maintain a level of quality in how it recruited, developed, and advanced its experts. I wasn’t happy with his answer then and I’ve only become more unhappy since.

In most enterprises, for most of their history, the nature of work changed slowly. In Powell’s case his job was the same from the time he was a young 2nd lieutenant until he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; defend the U.S. against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Only the scope changed.

That world was gone when we had the conversation twenty years ago. How do you manage a sales force using Salesforce when your selling days were built around a Rolodex and a DayPlanner? How does experience interpreting focus group results prepare you to extract insight from clickstream data? Pick your domain and the flood of new knowledge obsoletes old technique and overwhelms your capacity to evaluate results on the basis of merit.

There’s a dilemma here. You can’t manage what you don’t know. You can’t know everything you need to know. What you need to know changes faster than you can keep up.

Organizations exist to solve problems that exceed the capacity of any individual. We tend to think of that as a hierarchical process. An entrepreneur hires people to carry out their vision and design. Those people are there to execute work on behalf of the entrepreneur but the implicit assumption is that the entrepreneur could do all the tasks given sufficient time.

This was Colin Powell’s world. He might not know all the details of his subordinates work but he could. He was willing to trust their recommendations because he trusted the system. What if he can’t understand the recommendations? Or the alternatives?

The military sidesteps this problem with a useful workaround—commander’s intent. Commanders share the reasoning and goals being their orders. That allows subordinates to make local decisions applying their expertise to accomplish “commander’s intent” even if that might mean ignoring or contradicting the specifics of the commander’s orders.

In our expertise saturated environment, we need to create a bilateral form of commander’s intent. Knowledge intensive work in a volatile environment comes with the requirement to teach others how to understand and make sense of your work.

“Trust me” is not an option in either direction. Success depends on getting meaningful conversation to take place about the competing claims of all the stakeholders.

Contributing to this conversation places different demands depending on your role.

If you are an expert, you must understand the organizational decisions your expertise bears on. You must then be able to articulate the assumptions and limitations that constrain your options and your recommendations. The A/B testing of copy on your e-commerce site tells you nothing about the people who never visit your site.

If you are a leader, your goals need to include sharing the reasoning behind the answers you seek. In fact, you ought to stop thinking of experts as the people who provide answers. In time-stressed settings, it is always tempting to seek focus and clarity by seeking to confirm your intuitions. Executives ask for answers to their immediate problems. The counterintuitive yet more useful strategy in volatile environments is to collaborate with your experts to articulate and explore questions you have not thought to ask.

Design Insight Continued

Synchronicity is real.

It’s always more rewarding when you discover that your thinking is in the same general vicinity as someone smart. Turns out Nancy Dixon has also been thinking about how to learn from experience. Her predictably excellent post focuses on pragmatic guidance on what it takes for an organization to be able to learn from its experience together with some very practical techniques to do so. Central to her analysis is the role of continuing conversation among peers and the importance of generative questions in those conversations.

Nancy’s advice is neutral with respect to what those conversations should be about, which was the thread I was trying to work out in my previous post.

The accelerating rate of change expands the focus of what you seek to extract from experience. We’ve grown accustomed to a simple equation that treats experience as templates or patterns to be copied onto new situations with minor tweaks and modifications. This is the world of startups seeking to be the “Uber of X” or the “Amazon of Y.” It is the world of countless copycats of Henry Ford all seeking to do what Ford did only better, faster, or cheaper.

The glib analysis of accelerating change is that experience is irrelevant to innovation. The Ubers and Amazons and Googles of the world all spring forth independently of prior experience. Stated baldly, this is nonsense. But it does leave us with figuring out how experience might play a role and brings us back to peer to peer conversations and generative questions.

My conjecture is that experience must be unpacked and fed into design processes that will lead to new processes and practices. The concrete particulars of experience will need to be actively abstracted into design principles and patterns. Experience then becomes the fuel that drives new innovations and practices.