Learning to navigate the middle

I was a decent track and field athlete in high school. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. In particular, I was a sprinter. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

Craft and technique in sprinting is pretty minimal. If you’ve been gifted with the right fast twitch musculature, it mostly boils down to a fast start and a good kick to finish.

That strategy can take you surprisingly far off the track as well. How many all-nighters did you pull in college? String enough sprints back to back and you can get pretty far.

Eventually you reach challenges that won’t yield. You have to work out how to navigate the middle. Once it comes into sight, you can work out a way to get to the finish line. What keeps you moving when you’re somewhere in the middle of the desert or forest and there’s nothing to suggest which direction to move in, much less how far off the destination might lie?

The realm I am focused on right now is writing, although I think this problem crosses multiple forms of knowledge work. What does the middle look like here? As I think about the writing advice and lessons I’ve encountered over the years, this middle feels overlooked. Or, at least, not spoken about in a useful way. Lots of advice to be found about how to defeat the blank page. Anne Lamott is all in for shitty first drafts but says very little about what comes after draft number one. John McPhee acknowledges that Draft No. 4 exists. Maybe Steven Pressfield’s Resistance is his answer to navigating the middle.

Right now, I am at the point where I believe that there is leverage to be found in looking more carefully at the middle. I suspect I’ve been there before when the starting point is somewhere behind me and the finish is yet to come into sight. What lessons are waiting for me here?

Making Knowledge Work Observable

“You can observe a lot by just watching.” – Yogi Berra

A fundamental problem with today’s knowledge work is that you can’t watch it unfold. On a factory flow you can make very educated inferences about what is happening with a few moments of watching. You can’t say the same in your typical office or your average Starbucks.

You can’t manage what you can’t see. Frederick Taylor created the whole of Scientific Management simply by watching how laborers went about their jobs, recording what he observed, and asking “what if we changed X?”.

Before we have any hope of making knowledge work more productive or more effective, we have to make it visible. The problem is that we’ve spent the last several decades making knowledge work invisible. Not the outputs. The process.

How much of your work and the work around you takes place at a keyboard in front of a screen? When I first started writing, the process involved pen and paper and index cards. Those objects surrounded me as I hammered out drafts and outlines. Then the manuscript (or the hand-sketched slides) went off to a typing pool or the graphics department. Corrections got made in margins and cutting and pasting involved actual scissors and glue. Today, it is all digital.

I have no desire to go back to those days.

What I have learned is that it pays to think about ways to make the thinking that I do to get from germ of an idea to a final deliverable visible and observable. This draft is being written in one window on my laptop screen. To its left is another window containing my notes and what passes for an outline. Below that is a window with a time-stamped log of what I’ve been up to over the course of the day.

Is this the best way to manage my self? I have no idea. But it works well enough for the moment. My practices continue to evolve as new tools become available, new ideas and approaches surface, and my understanding of my own mind improves (we’ll talk about neurodivergence another day). But the starting point is to make it possible to watch so that I can observe.

What’s wrong with wanting to be productive

Forty years ago, I was in charge of a project to set up a data center to support software development for client projects for what is now Accenture. A third of the way into the project, I identified a problem that was going to occur a few months down the road. I went to my boss, Mel, laid out the problem, and argued that we needed to notify folks up the line about the problem and the solution,

Mel told me to sit on the analysis and the solution. I did not understand. But I was smart enough to hold my tongue and listen. When the issue did start to reveal itself a few months later, we had a complete analysis and an instant solution in hand. That play bought us credibility and future resources we would never have gotten otherwise. And I learned a critical lesson in managing innovation.

We’re conditioned to be productive and to make good use of our time and talents. Admirable goals. But the language of productivity is built on a metaphor of factory work. Factories are for robots and robotic behavior.

The producing economy is about making copies of stuff—cars, clothing, iPhones. The knowledge economy is about creating the originals. Thinking about copies rather than originals leads you to ask the wrong questions and wrong questions never yield right answers

If your work is to create originals, how do we get at questions that might lead us to better answers? There are three short phrases I keep in mind;

  • make work observable
  • navigate the middle
  • solve for pattern

I’m going to leave those as a tease for now. We’ll come back to them over the next few days.

Pursue effectiveness not productivity

The Magic of Theatre

One of the many hats I’ve worn over the years is that of “Production Stage Manager”. Backstage is a wonderful vantage point to learn how what happens behind the scenes connects to what the audience sees and feels.

If an element of a set is out of the audience’s sight lines, it more than likely will remain unpainted. During rehearsals I will sit in the auditorium with the set designers to verify what can and cannot be seen.

By the same token, we will spend hours working out the colors and intensity of the lighting changes on a single singer in a three minute number. I might be responsible for coordinating dozens of lighting cues during that number to ensure that we enable the singer to deliver the director’s intent.

It is meaningless to discuss (or even think about) what it would mean to be more productive at executing those lighting cues.

Knowledge work is more theater than factory

The work that distinguishes success from failure in today’s economy is knowledge work. We make a mistake when we think the important word here is “work” and look to the factory for insight. Yet this is where most of the thinking I see about the doing of knowledge work starts.

The lesson from the theater points in a better direction. One choice could be to embrace the arts metaphor fully and displace the factory for a stage. But that would likely create its own limitations.

Let’s go a layer deeper.

What makes the analogy between knowledge work and theater interesting is that effort and outcome aren’t correlated. No one asks or cares what effort went into delivering an art experience. They judge based on the experience not the effort.

I want to explore this shift in perspective. No one switched to a Macintosh computer based on how hard the development team worked. They switched because they sensed an opportunity to somehow be more effective at accomplishing their goals.

I’ve been nursing what Steve Johnson calls a “slow hunch” for a while now that “effectiveness” is the right organizing metric for knowledge work. Over the next month I’ll be digging deeper into that hunch to see where it takes me.

Limits to learning from success

It’s more effective to learn from failure than success. Possibly more painful, certainly more reliable.

I had early success as a sprinter. Strategy is simple at 100 yards. Drive out of the starting blocks, stay in your lane, don’t look left, don’t look right, run as fast as you can, run as smoothly as you can, focus on the finish line. Repeat until you lose.

If (when) you do lose, tweak something until you win again. Don’t even think about looking to your left or right. Try a new pair of shoes or spikes. Run through the finish line. Lean a little more. A little less.

You learn from what you repeatedly do. Run a bunch of sprint races and you learn that set of lessons. You can see that this might not produce the life lessons you need. Not that you can appreciate it at the time. If you take these lessons into the rest of life, you’re setting yourself up for trouble.

Very little in life is as simple as a sprint. But you can fake a lot of life with the simplicity of sprinting. If it’s the only strategy you know and you generally get away with it, it can take a very long time to recognize that there might be easier or better ways to get the same results. Or possibly even better results. But the first thing you need to see is that there are other options. All or nothing is appealing in its binary way. But it closes off as much as it opens.

The problem with these lessons, however, is that they are embodied. They operate at a level deeper than lessons from books or wise counselors.

You’re told “life is a marathon not a sprint.” But running a marathon is a lot of long and hard work. And training that is equally long and hard. You nod politely and continue to compete by sprinting. You can actually run pretty far just by sprinting if you’re okay with breaking things up into bursts of effort coupled with equally short bursts of recovery.

But you aren’t building other capacities that you will need later. Worse, you can’t yet see that there are capacities you are missing. You have to trip over limits to see that they exist. Real learning requires failure as well as success. Probing for limits takes courage that I’ve sometimes refused to summon. Why try a new strategy when one more sprint might save the day?

Maybe saving the day should no longer be the goal.





Does it need to be slow and steady wins the race?

“It’s a bit unorthodox, but it will speed up your rehab.”

This was nearly sixty years ago, so consider this a reconstructed version of a conversation in the Emergency Room with my first orthopedic surgeon.

It was late January and I had spent most of the last twelve weeks in casts. I had broken my femur in a football collision. During a practice no less, so no sympathy from the sidelines. The first cast was a body cast that started at my ribs and went down my right leg to my toes. That was then replaced with a leg cast from hip to toes. That cast had been removed ten days earlier and I was learning how to walk again.

If you immobilize a joint for twelve weeks it’s going to freeze up. You’re also going to lose muscle mass. You go to physical therapy to rebuild the muscle mass and restore full range of motion to your knee and ankle.

You also start hobbling around to get back into the rhythms of regular life. A few hours earlier, I had gone to watch my classmates playing basketball. As I was leaving the gym, I limped onto a patch of ice in the parking lot and fell.

Two things happened. I broke my fall (and my wrist) by reaching back as I fell. I also twisted my leg underneath me. Now, I was back in the Emergency Room to discover whether I had done any new damage to my leg.

What I had done was to break loose the adhesions in my knee, restore full range of motion, and compress weeks of rehab into a few seconds. Scarcely the recommended plan of action. But effective in its own warped way.

The danger here is to confuse good fortune with strategy and discipline. My internal sprinter was happy to cross this finish line ahead of schedule. That slowly maturing part of me that hates they very thought of a marathon wonders whether this was a missed lesson. The more often you get away with powering through, the longer it takes to develop sustainable habits. The longer it can take to recognize that you might want to invest in developing sustainable habits.

That’s where I now find myself. Working through the implications of adding more “slow and steady wins the race” to my well-grooved habit of taking the shortest path.

When Old Knowledge Gets in the Way of New Learning

My wife, Charlotte, and I love to dance. One of our big expenses for our wedding was to get the Lester Lanin Orchestra to play for us.

We moved to Cambridge a year later. We thought it would be a fun idea to take swing dance lessons to expand our moves. It nearly ended our marriage. Apparently, we weren’t doing anything the right way. What worked for us worked for us. And it looked just fine to our friends. None of it, however, was by the book.

We made a smart decision and dropped that class. Learning to do swing dance “the right way” wasn’t worth the stress and strain. That was forty years ago, so I think we made the right call.

Our younger boy was in the U.S Marine Corps for eleven years. When he started at age 18 straight out of high school, he had never handled a weapon of any sort. The Marines preferred this to someone who came in with a set of bad habits. Derek routinely qualified as an Expert Marksman, which is the Corps highest standard.

Last month, Charlotte and I attended our second session of Modern Bridge Bidding. I played back when I was in university and we’ve been playing with her sister and my brother-in-law over the last year. Bidding in bridge has evolved from what I half-learned fifty years ago and my old knowledge gets in the way of laying down new knowledge. The principles remain the same, but the details have shifted.

All of this has me thinking about learning and what I already know. More particularly, about how what I already know interferes with learning new things. There’s an oft-quoted observation from Alvin Toffler that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

It’s this notion of “unlearning” that’s on my mind. I think we’re in general agreement that we could all get better at learning. But, how do we handle the unlearning component? I took a brief look at half of this problem (no pun intended) when I wrote about the problem of learning, bodies of knowledge, and half-lives. There I was focused on the problem of old knowledge being displaced by new knowledge. The part of the problem I missed was that obsolete knowledge doesn’t conveniently flush itself out of memories and skills.

Obsolete or not, existing knowledge and skill insists on sticking around; often deeply wired into muscle memory. When I’ve designed courses, I spend time identifying prerequisites. What should students already know coming into class that we can build on. How did those Marine instructors handle that recruit who thought they already knew how to shoot a rifle?

As a teacher, how much do you need to understand about the wrong ways to do things in order to teach the right way? As a learner, how do you begin to see the things you know that are preventing you from learning something new?

The paradox here is that I now have a vein of new knowledge to mine about unlearning.

Fitting tools to brains

I was somewhere in my mid to late 40s when I worked out that I had ADD. At that point I had a degree in Statistics, an MBA, a doctorate in organizational design, and was a co-founder of a successful consulting firm. I was also seriously depressed.

The simplest explanation was that I was simply the latest example of the Peter Principle; I had finally been promoted to my level of incompetence. Even it that were true, it wasn’t a conclusion I wanted to accept. I sought professional help.

I had worked with therapists before over issues of the heart and my role in failed relationships. Now we were taking a look at performance. I began to dig into the literature and to work with therapists who specialized in ADD. We experimented with the common medications None proved helpful.

ADD/ADHD is a bit of an umbrella term. My issues are not with attention deficits, they are with attention management. I tend to oscillate between boredom and hyperfocus. These states are triggered by my own interests and priorities. I am often oblivious to social cues and constraints on what I ought to be focused on and when. Put me in the right environment and hyperfocus is a superpower not a handicap. In the wrong environment the situation can reverse.

I’m not going to change how my brain is wired.

What I can potentially manage is my environment. Some of that entails choosing environments with an eye towards how they interact with my wiring. Whether I suffered or thrived was a function of how well my brain meshed with my environment. By happenstance and circumstance I had stumbled through a series of environments that played to my strengths. Could I make that something more intentional than accidental?

What can I do to make any given environment a better match to my wiring? This is the real promise hiding in the ferment of today’s technology. I say hiding because the creators of technology are pursuing as large a market for their wares as they can imagine. The notion that any one neurodivergent brain might craft its own fit between brain and environment is foreign. You have to learn to ignore 99% of the marketing pitches, which are all about fitting yourself into the norm envisioned by some product manager.

Your task is to adapt the tools to your brain, not your brain to the tools.

Doing the work when the work matters


The hardware in my shoulder is now old enough to vote.

What was to have been a short bicycle ride turned into a year long rehab project. We were “training” for a cycling tour of Ireland to celebrate my wife’s 50th birthday. We were learning how to use cycling shoes locked into the pedals and had been told to expect some falls as we got used to the new equipment. My first, and last, fall occurred 250 feet from our house. After a trip to the emergency room, initial X-rays, a sling, a long weekend waiting to talk to my doctor, a visit with my newest orthopedic surgeon, an MRI, and still more X-rays we had a correct diagnosis. I had a “closed, comminuted, fracture of the right proximal humerus”. In lay terms, I had transformed my right shoulder into a jigsaw puzzle that now needed assembling.

One bit of good fortune was that I am left-handed. The other piece of good fortune was that the surgeon was able to repair the damage with a steel plate and a distressing number of long screws that put all the pieces back into proper alignment.

After the surgery, it took nearly a year of physical therapy to get back to about 90-95% of full range of motion and function. I’ve had enough encounters with orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists over the years that I understood that you need to be diligent about putting in the work if you want to get the results.

Physical therapy is one of those areas where you can effectively monitor and measure progress. And where the entire system supports the connection between effort and results. I’ve become skeptical about the apparent simplicity of this equation. We like to pretend that this connection between effort and results is universally true. Do the work, get the results. How do we tell that we’re in a setting where the equation breaks down? Where do we learn to see situations where we’re better served by taking a broader look? Can we do less work and get the same result? Better results? Different results we hadn’t even thought to ask for? Some people seem to have a talent for looking at existing systems and seeing new options. Is that a special talent or is it a perspective that can be developed?

The obvious answer is that this is the realm of innovation. And it is a realm that has attracted considerable study. But even here, we seem to want to celebrate effort. We’re very suspicious when someone tells us we’re working too hard. I’d be happy to get better at seeing times when I’m working harder than I need to. And learning to ignore the judgmental glances that hint that I’m not putting in the effort they deem suitable.

I want to get better at doing the work when the work matters. And not doing the work when it doesn’t.

Learning how to do what you already know how to do

Once upon a time I was the fastest kid in my school. I even had the trophy to prove it. Speed starts with being gifted the right kinds of fast-twitch muscles. Taking advantage of the gift requires work, of course, but it also depends on acquiring specialized knowledge. Knowledge that you are unlikely to discover through trial and error. What you need is someone with that knowledge and with skill at passing that knowledge along. Particularly to smart ass adolescents who already know everything. We call these people coaches and teachers.

When you run naturally, your heel strikes the ground first and then you push off the ball of your foot into the next stride. When you sprint, it all happens on the ball of your foot. Your weight is forward. It takes time to learn how to do this and to become comfortable. For a while, you have to think about how to do something that you thought you already understood.

Today, world class performance in a lot of fields starts with taking apart what you think you already know. Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump by wondering what would happen if you went head and shoulders over the bar first instead of feet first.

Innovation starts with inquiry.

It starts with asking what if? This is trickier than it looks. While there may not be any stupid questions, there’s a lot of evidence that there are stupid answers. Lately, I’ve become a bit more suspicious of questions as well. Questions have to be asked in good faith and you must be willing to accept the answers produced.

Here I try to keep Richard Feynman’s admonition in mind:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.