Crossing the between: building more human organization in a digital world

“But, you’re not an asshole!?”

A client I was working with had just discovered that I have a Harvard MBA.

More recently, I’ve taken over a course from a colleague and I’m starting with his slides so that I can focus on delivering the material and not get bogged down in the details of course design. He had an opening slide with his academic credentials and I copied in mine. It’s causing the annoying problems I could have predicted.

I don’t hide my background but I’ve become guarded about what and when I reveal facts about myself. That guardedness causes its own set of problems.

I used to think the explanation was about belonging; about being on the inside or on the outside. I got into Princeton and Harvard because I did well on tests and in classrooms but I came from a different world. Big family, Midwest roots, Catholic boy’s school, technologically adept, socially awkward; not quite Eliza Doolittle but not a bad approximation.

Skip ahead several decades and the rough edges have become reasonably polished.

Belonging isn’t the right way to think about it.

It’s about being between; of sitting within the overlap of a Venn diagram and working to make the shared space bigger. Not just for me but for everyone. Making the between bigger is about building bridges, creating shared language, and committing to learning about the other circles in the diagram.

The primary circles that draw my interest are organizations where humans band together to pursue human goals and technology where tools amplify human capacities. I believe that there is an enormous amount of overlap to be found there. The counter-belief feels more like warring camps in trenches with a shell-pocked no-man’s land in between.

I know from personal experience that the overlap is real. What I intend to explore over the next several weeks is what it might take to traverse the between safely.

Knowledge work and stable intermediate structures

There’s a story of the two watchmakers that Herbert Simon tells in The Sciences of the Artificial to illustrate the relevance of intermediate structure and hierarchy. Here’s the story

There once were two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus, who made very fine watches. The phones in their workshops rang frequently and new customers were constantly calling them. However, Hora prospered while Tempus became poorer and poorer. In the end, Tempus lost his shop. What was the reason behind this?

The watches consisted of about 1000 parts each. The watches that Tempus made were designed such that, when he had to put down a partly assembled watch, it immediately fell into pieces and had to be reassembled from the basic elements. Hora had designed his watches so that he could put together sub-assemblies of about ten components each, and each sub-assembly could be put down without falling apart. Ten of these subassemblies could be put together to make a larger sub-assembly, and ten of the larger sub-assemblies constituted the whole watch

Simon uses the story to illustrate why structure and hierarchy emerge in complex systems. Or why good designers build  intermediate structure into their systems.

One interesting aspect of this fable is that Simon talks of two levels of intermediate structure. This suggests that there are criteria to invoke when making design choices about the size and complexity of intermediate structures.

I’ve been thinking about intermediate structure lately in the context of how to be more effective in doing knowledge work. I’ve touched on working papers recently and I wanted to revisit the topic from the perspective of stability and intermediate structures.

I’ve been blogging for a long time and writing at multiple lengths–blog posts, teaching cases, articles, books. I use or have used all sorts of tools in the process

  • mindmaps (both by hand and by software),
  • outlines (again, both by hand and by software)
  • word processors
  • text editors
  • bibliographic/reference management software
  • wiki software
  • specialized note taking tools (Evernote, nvAlt, etc.)

The space between glimmer of an idea and finished product is what draws my attention now. Although I’ve been nibbling around the ideas of working papers, most of what I’ve discovered and examined has talked about writing process. Freewriting, shitty first drafts, mindmapping techniques. What’s starting to come into view is the structure side of the question.

For the longest time, I’ve worked and thought in terms of deliverables and working backwards from some vision of an end product. That works well enough for blog posts and most client reports. At the longer scales of a book, on the other hand, working backwards breaks down. You know that the outlines and mindmaps are  necessary but they morph as the process unfolds and as your understanding of the deliverable evolves.

The notion of a permanent and evolving collection of notes and treating those notes as “first class objects” that should be designed to stand on their own is a new to me. When I started blogging the idea of a commonplace book was one idea for an organizing container for developing ideas and lines of thinking. Jerry Weinberg’s Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method is an approach that I’ve worked to understand and adopt. I’ve certainly recommended it to many colleagues. More recently, Sonke Ahrens’s How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking drew me into the subculture of Zettelkasten.

All of these new ideas still focused mostly on process advice. They fell short on offering insight into the structure of the data and information that you created through the processes. They slide past the data half of the equation and I’m only know coming to see how that has been holding me back.

A collection of permanent notes is a handy thing to have around. But, without attention to intervening stable structures we are still fighting the problem of building a 1,000 piece watch in a single step.

There are some hints scattered in what I’ve found so far. The Zettelkasten sub-culture references the notion of special forms of structure notes, for example. In my own work. I’ve started to recognize the emergence of recurring themes and am trying to develop techniques to capture and track them.

I feel I am at the stage of recognizing that there’s a problem to be addressed. I can see the gap between a collection of random notes and the organized flow of a final deliverable. Now I’m looking to design or discover stable structures that can serve as waypoints where I can pause before I have worked out what the final deliverables might be. Is this a problem that others have also encountered? Are there concepts and structures I can learn and adapt?

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.