A Place for Thinking

Anonymous meeting roomIt’s a Saturday morning. I’m in an anonymous meeting room at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago, hosting a morning workshop as part of our monthly All Hands Meeting of Diamond Technology Partners. It was 1994 and we could still fit in a single medium-sized conference room. A few years later we would fill the main ballroom. 

That morning’s workshop was a seminar on software architecture and design with Alan Kay. If you’re in the world of software, you likely know who Alan is and you’ve certainly benefited from his work regardless. Alan was on our Board courtesy of a long concatenation of events that I had helped launch seven years earlier. This was the first time we met face-to-face. 

The workshop far exceeded my expectations. I’ve turned into something of a fanboy of Alan, his work, and his thinking. A search for his name on my blog will hint at my obsession.

What strikes me today is the contrast between the anonymity of the physical space we met in and the impact of the thinking space we collectively created that morning. 

Work and place have been tightly coupled; factories, shops, auditoriums, studios, garrets. We tell students to set aside a special place for studying. We design spaces to better fit them to the work to be done. 

How well do we do that design when the work to be done is thinking? When all the tools and material an individual knowledge worker might need are available through the keyboard and screen on their lap? When a team of thinkers have no need to meet in the same physical space?

Virtual teams have become popular in many organizations. Students and teachers have been trying to cope with these questions over the last year. But our knowledge base is still pretty thin. We don’t know how to translate the power of place from the physical to the virtual in any reliable or systematic way. 

There’s work to be done.

Environment and Effective Knowledge Work

A long time ago when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade–memory fades–I had an unfortunate encounter with the nun who was principal of my parochial school. I was dispatched to her presence when my classroom teacher discovered that I hadn’t bothered to do the work expected of me. Both teacher and principal were adherents of educational philosophies anchored in conformance and obedience. I’ve written about this before, but you can safely assume that corporal punishment was a core element of the solution.

Several years later, another nun helped push me into a private boys school. In this environment, being smart and clever was something to be nurtured rather than feared. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on the first path; boredom, drugs, running a gang to entertain myself. Fortunately, that dark path was avoided. 

Instead, I ended up on a path and in a series of environments built around a deeper and more positive theory of learning. Learning depends on taking risks and failing. A learning environment is effective to the extent that it allows you take those risks, fail, and not suffer horrible consequences. Think of flight simulators. Or watch new snowboarders on the bunny slopes. You have to learn how to fall first. Eventually, this path brought me to Roger Schank. Roger is an extreme advocate of the merits of learning by doing. Making that work depends as much on creating the right environment as it does on organizing the content; perhaps more so.

What differentiates knowledge work from turning out one more widget or Ford is that value depends on creating new things. New things implies that there is an essential learning component to all knowledge work. Which means there is also an essential element of risk. 

There are two levels to think about here. As a knowledge worker, you’d like to operate in an environment that offers some level of protection against failures and mistakes. If you can’t risk failure, there’s no chance of creating something new and valuable. As an individual knowledge worker, learning to fail takes practice in its own right. You need to find the bunny slopes in your environment.

There’s a second level here of how to develop an environment where this level of experimentation and failure can exist. If you’ve reached a level of influence and leadership within a knowledge intensive enterprise, how do you use that power to enable others to try those experiments?

Taking Credit and Responsibility for Knowledge Work

I’ve been writing for more than half a century now. One of the early outlets for my writing was the school paper. Most of that was on assignment and there were no bylines on stories. There was, however, one op-ed piece I wrote that did carry a byline. From my cumulative wisdom of 17 years, I opined that our headmaster should come back into the classroom and teach. Scarcely a rabble rousing call to arms but my schoolmates were convinced that I would soon be summoned to Fr. Timothy’s inner sanctum and suitably chastised. That never happened, although we did have a passing chat on the sidelines of a soccer game weeks later where Fr. Timothy agreed with my analysis but suggested I might lack some necessary perspective. 

This was probably the first time that my words and name were publicly linked. I didn’t give it much thought until recently. I thought about deadlines and assignments, but little about formal credit. 

As a consultant, I’ve written tens of thousands of words for clients. While my participation and contributions to this work were never a secret, my name is nowhere on the final deliverables. The finished work is tied to the firm and its reputation, not to individual contributors. 

Eventually, I began to write things for myself and put them out into the world with my name attached. There’s this blog, case studies, periodic columns, articles, and two books (so far). 

I thought this was about getting credit for my work, and that’s an aspect. More importantly, it’s about taking responsibility. Few of us want to attach our names to substandard work. (There’s another story to be told about learning to calibrate your standards to avoid the opposite problem of seeking unattainable perfection).

There’s a missed opportunity here for organizations that depend on quality knowledge work. Steve Jobs understood this when he had the design team for the original Macintosh sign their names on the inside of the plastic case. We talk of knowledge work products as assets to be managed. Each of those assets should also come with a provenance. 

Learning to Forget

Back in the days when I was a full time consultant working inside a firm, I wore two hats; Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer. The accepted argument was that there was value in capturing and organizing what we knew as an organization so that we could teach it to our consultants and they could do better work for our clients. Knowledge was property—intellectual property—and was as asset to be managed. Good manufacturing firms managed their raw materials. Ideas were our raw materials and, therefore, worthy of active management.

Such a simple analogy. We thought we were more clever than most by tying the knowledge management and learning elements together.

We forgot about forgetting.

Our efforts were all about remembering. There was no attention to the need to make room for new and better ideas. We adopted a scholastic view of knowledge, not a scientific one.

Organizations can be haunted by obsolete ideas as they are held back by failing to remember what they already know. We neglected forgetting practices to go along with remembering ones.

This can be tricky business. Memory hooks are largely about stories; compelling stories make things memorable, even for abstract ideas. It’s hard to simply replace an old story with a new, shiny, story. It’s one of the things making organizational change so hard. The old stories are tightly knit into the fabric of the organization or discipline. The new story, however shiny, can’t compete against the weight of the entire tapestry.

We need to bury old ideas. Celebrate them if we must, but be careful about trying to dig them up when the result is more likely to be zombies than secret treasure.

Make Yourself at Home

I’ve always been fond of Robert Frost’s line “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” While not an Army Brat by any means, I did go through a series of moves in my early years that left me with a sense that there wasn’t a single place that counted as home. Feeling home became a psychological state that I could achieve in multiple ways.

Losing myself in a book was and still is a reliable way to feel at home anywhere from the couch in my living room to a train car en route from Princeton to Wilmington, Delaware. Over time, I found other couches. One was in the home of a girlfriend’s parents. I adopted them as a spare set of parents and treated them as casually as my own for the next forty years. Read my share of books there and had the full range of random and serious conversations any son might have with parents and siblings. Another is a former one-room school house in Vermont that belongs to my sister-in-law and serves as a Christmas retreat in non-pandemic years.

How do you make an arbitrary place feel like a home? Over time, you can attach memories to places, of course. Can you speed that process up or shape it intentionally? If you don’t have a couch handy, what can you do to make some otherwise sterile place less so?

Why would it matter to do so? Comfort is a reasonable payoff all on its own. If we shift our focus just a bit toward working effectively, however, there’s a bigger payoff. Feeling at home frees up emotional energy and lowers barriers to creative thinking. If your value to the enterprise lies in the arena of creating new insights and innovation, then we have motivation to become adept at making ourselves at home.

As an individual knowledge worker, you can focus on tinkering with and shaping your local environment. Choose the apps that appeal to your mode of working. Slap some stickers on your laptop. Rebel against the furniture and cubicle police just as you might push back against an over-controlling parent.

If you’re in a position of authority, push against the control regimes. The real promise of technology for knowledge work is to make it possible for everyone to have highly customized portals into shared work. Create safe spaces that allow for flexibility that enables greater creativity. It will most likely demand more work from those running the infrastructure, but the payoff in greater effectiveness should more than offset the additional complexity. It’s not a home if only authorized staff can go into the kitchen in search of a snack.

Out of place: finding a place to stand

Cannon Green Princeton University“Where did you prep?”

A simple question posed by another freshman taking in the sight of a thousand other freshmen (3/4s of them men) scattered about Cannon Green on the campus of Princeton University.

Four simple words, yet I wasn’t able to process them.

“Where did I prep?” Prep for what? This get acquainted picnic among a thousand strangers? This college experience I was setting off on?

It dawns on me that the question was about which exclusive prep school I had attended on my way to gracing the ivied halls of one of the best universities in the world. For my questioner, there were only a handful of correct answers; any other point of origin marked me as irrelevant in his universe.

A few days into my college experience and I was irrelevant.

Until that point, I thought I was defined by what I had done. Now I discovered there were a host of external markers defining me in the eyes of others. What town did I live in? What subdivision? What street was my house on?

Classic ways of differentiating people; all new to me. So much for being a valedictorian; I was profoundly ignorant of things that apparently mattered. I’m in a new place, a thousand miles from home, and feel profoundly out of place. Have I been out of place all along and only come to see that now?

I’d never thought about myself as a kid from the Midwest until I was among people to whom the middle class Midwest was a foreign land. It was disorienting. I had grown accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. Now, I was in rooms where everyone was as smart or smarter. And smart wasn’t the pertinent metric. There were entire realms of competition and measurement I couldn’t see even as I fell short.

Working out the implications of this has mostly involved time with various therapists. Not terribly interesting in this context. But coping with disorientation turns out to be a good way to prep for the future we live in now. Unpacking a question like “where did you prep?” turns you into an anthropologist in your own environment.

There’s a line in Shaw’s Caesar And Cleopatra that’s relevant here;

Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature

I was a barbarian forced to recognize customs as simply that. This put me on a path to make sense out of institutions and organizations and the people inside them.

Organizations are ostensibly about what you do. But what you do is filtered and interpreted by where your office is located; how big it is; what you hang on the walls; where you sit in the pecking order. Over the course of a career, you learn to send, receive, and interpret these signals. You learn your place. You learn to establish your place.

The past year has accelerated a long simmering trend toward shifting work from physical space to virtual. For teams and groups that have a working history to draw on this transition is mildly disruptive. For newly assembled teams, however, all the cues and clues that were readily available to work with in a physical encounter aren’t available in the virtual. If we want these virtual groups to succeed and flourish we now have to think about things that were just there in the background.

When you foreground these things they create different effects than in the background. Making an explicit point that you went to Princeton or Harvard is quite different than a diploma on the wall or a discrete reference/object on a shelf in the corner that might trigger a question or open up a conversational gambit. There’s no easy conversation opener about someone’s Starbucks order or lunch. No reference to some object of interest in the place where you are interacting.

One of the reasons we’re finding ourselves exhausted in this new virtual world is that we are now having to do the work that our places did for us.



Lost in place: how knowledge work splits mental space from physical space

It once was only poets and storytellers who spent time occupying spaces that weren’t there in front of you. The rest of us were anchored to a plot of land, a cobbler’s bench, or a stall in the market. 

Over the past year, we’ve all been forced to split the mental space we work in from the physical space we inhabit. We’re struggling with the disconnects without quite knowing what’s causing the struggle. As someone who identifies as a knowledge worker, however, this split between mental and physical has been unfolding for a long time. All the pandemic has done, in that respect, is to make the split more visible and observable. As something we can see, we can now examine and explore it.

That’s what I intend to do over the next four weeks. How do the ways we talk and think about place interact with how we talk and think about how we work? 

I’ll be doing this with help from someone I’ve worked with over the last four years and have never met face-to-face. Megan Macedo

is an Irish writer and entrepreneur. She runs a marketing and storytelling consultancy in London where her work is about helping people be themselves in their professional lives. Megan writes and speaks about authenticity in marketing and taking an artistic approach to business (Megan Macedo — Be Yourself, Tell Your Story, Do Something That Matters)

Megan runs writing challenges about this time every year where she gathers an eclectic group of fellow explorers to investigate a theme. This year’s theme is place. 

While we’ve never met IRL, it turns out that Megan and I actually have a connection rooted in place. My paternal grandparents were both born on a tiny island off the North coast of Ireland in County Donegal, Inishbofin. We haven’t nailed down the exact relation yet, but we are connected via my grandmother, Grace Coll (1882-1951). About as clear an example of small world and place as you could wish for.  

Managing in a knowledge economy

There’s a rich field of corporate irony in the collision of mindsets between engineers and executives. It’s paid Scott Adams’s bills for decades. This humor wears thin, however, as more and more of the people creating value in organizations think like engineers. 

Regardless of their academic training or background, knowledge workers in organizations think like engineers. Alan Kay recounted a tale from the early years of Xerox PARC that neatly captures this tension. 

Xerox PARC was situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, a continent away from Xerox headquarters in Connecticut. A team of executives was on site to review the work going on in Palo Alto. Alan and one of his team of software engineers walked through one of the research projects underway. Alan carefully explained that this was ongoing research; experiments were as likely to fail as to succeed and the goal was to learn something interesting that might lead to the next experiment. 

The suit from Stamford nodded along in approval. His closing remark was “I understand, but you’re only running the experiments that succeed, right?” In his universe, “failure is not an option” was not a motivational challenge, it was a risk to be avoided at any cost.

This disconnect is mostly amusing when innovation and invention is a small part of organizational success. For organizations where success is defined by industrial measures of predictable execution of processes, it can be enough to let a small handful of rebels color outside the lines and sprinkle in new ideas in carefully controlled ways. 

When innovation and invention is at the heart of an organization’s strategic design, the rebels are the system. Making the trains run on time is of secondary importance, at best, when success depends on laying new tracks or eliminating the tracks altogether. 

If rebels, the innovators and inventors, are the engine of the system, how does that change the managerial task? “Hire smart people and leave them alone” is no longer a viable approach. 

Hiring smart people is always a good strategy in modern organizations (Frederick Taylor was less of a fan of smart), but leaving them alone becomes an abdication of managerial responsibility. What you now must do is enable, empower, and employ the organization’s smart people.

The fundamental shift here is away from superior/subordinate to collaborator. Giving orders becomes explaining command intent. Plans and deliverables are jointly negotiated and designed not dictated. Organic mess replaces illusionary precision. Management control morphs into servant leadership.

Struggling to Improve Knowledge Work Practices–From Idea to Finished Product

I closed a recent blog post with the following observation

I struggle with advice about how to work at the level of ideas that haven’t found a home yet. This distinction of making a note promises to be a path into making more sense, more systematically, of that middle space and time before I know what the destination might be. (From Taking Notes to Making Notes)

It’s the sort of idea  the often surfaces as I work on a piece of writing that I’m developing into a prospective blog post. I’m now viewing it as an example of what I’m trying to sort out as I learn how to “make” notes. 

Right now I don’t know whether the struggles I am wrestling with are a function of fighting against the years of doing things a different way, a marker of individual flaws in the way my brain works, or some challenge inherent in the process. I study the advice and recommendations of others whose thinking feels compelling. And then I fight with it as I try to apply the advice as I understand it. 

My habits and practices are the accretion of years of doing what works for me. Most of that experience hasn’t been examined or explored in any systematic way. I encounter, read about, and seek out advice and suggestions from all sorts of sources. Some of it is intriguing enough to try out and experiment with. I run the experiments based on whatever partial understanding I’ve managed to take away from the advice. Some stuff sticks in some distorted version filtered through my assessments of those experiments. 

Let me try an example to make this more concrete. Many years ago, I came across Peter Elbow’s work. I don’t recall whether I stumbled across Writing Without Teachers or Writing With Power first. Doesn’t really matter. I had a new technique to play with–“freewriting.” Get stuff out of your head and onto paper (or a screen) where you can see it. Don’t strive for the perfect sentence or turn of phrase in your head. 

But there were elements of Elbow’s recommended practice that didn’t work for me. Elbow assumes you are doing freewriting by hand. Word processors were not household items when he formulated his process. He advises writers to push on at all costs; keep making marks on paper, don’t stop to review, write nonsense if you find yourself getting stuck. Elbow’s goal is to help you find a state of flow, to suppress your inner critic. 

Elbow never saw my handwriting. Achieving flow doesn’t help if you can’t decipher what you wrote a few hours earlier. Sometime before the arrival of word processing, I got the advice to learn to create at the keyboard. I wrote drafts of consulting reports at a typewriter well before I had access to word processing. My poor handwriting was the impetus, but the more important benefit for me was that I can type faster than I can write. Which meant it was easier to capture thoughts before I lost them.

At a typewriter, going backwards doesn’t make sense so you’re not faced with the opportunity to correct on the fly. With a word processor, you can go back as easily as forward, so now you have a choice about whether to do so. More often than not, I will correct typos if I see them in the moment. I don’t hold to a hard and fast rule; rather I do whatever feels least disruptive to my flow. So, now I’ve violated another “rule” in the method I am trying to adopt.

I also discovered Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and she granted me permission to write shitty first drafts. They had been shitty anyway, but now I had someone explain that that was okay and merely a step along the path. 

That path is well worn but not paved. There’s a discernible evolution from 

  • random notes to 
  • something that feels like an idea worth exploring to 
  • the emergence of a potential outline or roadmap to 
  • snippets of a draft to 
  • something that might qualify as a shitty first draft to 
  • rounds of editing and polishing to
  • finished product

This is a rough snapshot of the process that has worked for me through decades of writing. Laying it out like this makes it look more systematic than it actually is and I don’t feel that it looks all that systematic. 

What surfaces for me here is how much of my practice is driven from a deliverable of some sort; there’s a consulting report, a speech, a class session, a column, a blog post looming somewhere in the distance. I am working toward an endpoint, however dimly perceived.

Until I can see an endpoint, I struggle with what to do next. Once I do see an endpoint, or have one imposed by external forces, I start shaping material to fit that endpoint. Generally, I think that is a good thing, but it does mean I have to be willing to scrap things that won’t fit. That becomes easier with practice.

As you learn to care about your craft, you are always on the prowl for potential improvements. For the past 22+ months that has led to a focus on how notes might play a more central role. Most recently, that has been working to understand the distinction between note-taking and note-making, which was the trigger for this post. 

Having that distinction is only a baby step; the challenge is to work out what it means to incorporate the distinction into day-to-day practice. There’s new terminology, of course; ephemeral notes, permanent notes, atomic notes, evergreen notes. Still only another baby step; working out how to create these artifacts has been a bigger, still unfinished, step. These new artifacts don’t obviously map to what I produce in my current workflows.

The challenge that I am attacking now is that it’s hard to find worked examples of these techniques. You can find advice and recommendations on what various proponents and experts believe works for them. But these ideas are new enough that there aren’t well established practices to emulate. You’re left with trying to reverse engineer and interpolate practices from what you can observe. 

Most recently that has had me following the work of Andy Matuschak. He’s a software developer in this space who has been sharing what he describes as his working notes. He’s also attempting to offer a window into his practices. His observations on Evergreen note\-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work and on Executable strategy for writing have both proven valuable as I work to improve my own knowledge work practice. 

Two asides here. One, I’d be thrilled if more of my finished products were as well thought out as his working notes. I’m telling myself that this is one key reason to investigate his work. Two, Matuschak is experimenting with Patreon as a means of supporting his research. I judge it an excellent return for a modest investment. 

There are also several online communities working these vineyards. Fellow travelers can make a difference. I’ve been monitoring;

If getting better at knowledge work is one of your objectives, look for your own companions and watering holes.