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.

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.

Insight on Project Planning and Management: Review of Start Finishing

book cover imageStart Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done . Charlie Gilkey

I suspect that diet books are the only non-fiction category with more titles than time management and productivity. Perhaps I would be better served if I shifted to reading diet books.

Like diet books, I once read these books in quest of the perfect system; the answer that would guide me waking and guard me sleeping. What I seek these days is much the same as I do with Compline[add link] ; reassurance that I am not alone in my struggles and the possibility of insights I can fold into my practices. Charlie Gilkey’s Start Finishing offers both in good measure. I think what got me hooked this time was this point of tangency with my thinking:

Most of what I read didn’t hit the target, though. The personal productivity literature was too nitty-gritty and focused on tasks, and the personal development literature focused on principles and big ideas. But my problem was in the messy middle where creative projects live.

I’ve been exploring this messy middle myself for some time. It’s where I keep running into trouble. There’s a scene in The West Wing where Leo shares the following story with Josh:

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’

Gilkey has solid insight and advice for finding the way out.

The two most useful elements of his approach are guidance on breaking projects down into manageable chunks and an interesting way to think about blocks of time at different scales. Gilkey repeats the fairly conventional advice that chunks of work are best described with a crisp combination of  verb and object; “analyze customer data,” “identify key competitors,” “draft report outline.” What he adds is a scheme for classifying action verbs in terms of the time span they imply. “Email” or “call” suggests a 15-minute task while “Research” or “coordinate” suggests an activity that might consume a week. I’m copying his lists of action verbs into my crib sheets.

Gilkey extends this notion of organizing actions by timescale to advice that you stay clear about what timescale you are thinking through at any moment. Are you thinking about blocks of time that you map into a week of work or are you thinking in terms of month or quarter long projects on the path to larger goals? Becoming mindful about which timescale is relevant and moving up or down timescales as you plan work are practices I intend to fold into my work.

There’s plenty of other useful perspective and advice throughout Start Finishing. This will be by my side as I work on my next round of planning efforts.

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.

Twyla Tharp on the Practice of Collaboration

Book cover for Twyla Tharp The Collaborative habitThe Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Twyla Tharp. 2009. T

Collaboration is fundamentally an artistic process. That is easy to lose sight of in the organizational exhortations to be more collaborative and the mass of marketing literature touting the collaborative goodness of some new piece of software.

If you agree that attacking today’s wicked problems depends on effective collaboration, then the arts are a good place to look for insight. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp has done us a great service in reflecting on and sharing her decades of experience as creator and collaborator in The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. This is a book I’ve revisited many times since it was first published in 2009. I’m still learning from it.

Tharp concludes with the following advice:

In the end, all collaborations are love stories…Honesty and bluntness, but not to the point of pain. Mutual respect, but not to the point of formality and stiffness. Shared values, so the group’s mission can carry it over the inevitable bumps. And, of course, actual achievement, so the group is supported by an appreciative community.

This is not counsel that fits into a motivational poster in a conference room or into the menus of a new software application or service. Collaboration is a practice built over time out of snippets of behavior and interaction anchored in a supporting context.

Tharp shares the stories of her collaborations with fellow artists, institutions, and communities. As an aside, it is clear from her stories that Tharp has always been a reflective practitioner. Her earlier book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, contains insights into her processes and how she documents them; it is equally worthy of your time and attention. The richness and grounding of her observations reinforces her point that collaboration and creativity are work; rewarding work but work nonetheless.

When we observe the end products of creative and collaborative efforts, we admire the grace and beauty of the art and the artists. By taking us back into the process and behind the scenes, Tharp reminds us of the intense work and discipline it takes to make it look easy. She also reinforces the essential truth in an old cliche that “the work is its own reward.”

Review – Alan Alda on Communications and Improv

Book Cover imageIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alan Alda

I’ve been working through a line of thought about the growing importance of improv thinking to dealing with organizations and innovations in the current environment. In this book, Alda lays out  advice on how we might do a better job of communicating in our work and improv plays a central role.

Alan Alda’s rumination on communications grew out of his work as the host of the PBS series *Scientific American Frontiers*. As the host, Alda was faced with helping deeply technical experts explain what mattered about their work to mere mortals. Alda brings a perfect mix of a curious layperson’s perspective and a trained actor’s craft at communications. It’s also an entertaining and illuminating mix.

A naive view of acting and of communications is that the work involves learning and delivering a script. We learn our lines and recite them when the moment arrives. Alda dispenses with that illusion immediately; 80% of his advice involves listening and observation skills and techniques. The remaining advice talks about story telling, but that advice is rooted in how to tell stories that take advantage of how we expect stories to play out and not mislead the listener or reader. In other words, how do we put stories together that anticipate and raise the questions our readers will have.

Alda, of course, is a consummate story teller himself. There is no blinding flash of insight or advice that is startling or unexpected. What he provides instead is an artful example of how well his advice works in the hands of an experienced pro.

Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes

Cover Image - how to take smart notesAhrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

It’s always exciting to discover a book that generates a cascade of “aha” moments. I certainly didn’t pick up Sonke Ahrens’s *How to Take Smart Notes* expecting that result.

I’ve kept notebooks and journals in various forms for decades. They’ve contributed significantly to the quality of the work I’ve been able to do. Nonetheless, Ahrens convinces me that I have left a lot of value on the table. More importantly, he makes the case that I can recover and extract much of that value with a change of perspective and some manageable adjustments in my practices and workflow. I don’t need a wholesale reengineering of my systems or infrastructure and I don’t face a massive conversion of previous work. I do face adjustments and the usual discomfort of building new habits, but on a clearly manageable scale and timeframe.

Notes as first class knowledge assets

The first aha moment is the notion of thinking of some notes at least as a permanent and evolving knowledge asset. Ahrens argues that there are three categories of notes:

1.   Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2.   Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3.   Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

The first and third categories have been a part of my work practices for as long as I can remember. It is this middle category and the approach to building and maintaining it that I find intriguing and promising. It promises a solution to some enduring frustrations. Those frustrations may not be evidence of limits imposed by my ADD or fundamental moral failures. Instead, they result from some missing ideas and practices those ideas enable.

During my doctoral student days and consulting years I kept chronological notebooks as part of my work practices. I did that based on the advice and example of Jerry Pournelle and Jerry Weinberg, both of whom turned out prodigious amounts of quality work and were gracious in reflecting on and sharing elements of their work practices. As computing technology became personal and portable, I began to do much of my note taking and writing development at the keyboard. As part of that practice, I used WordPress to create a blog as a commonplace book on my local computer. These notebooks and their digital equivalents have been useful enough that they have remained components in my current work.

A corpus of notes is its own knowledge asset

If the notion of a permanent note is the first aha moment, the second is to view the growing body of notes as a separate knowledge asset. Until now, specific projects have provided my primary organizing structure. Blogging is a step in the  direction of a prospective knowledge asset, but only partially so. Blogging is a kind of ongoing project whose outputs I have thought of and treated as final deliverables.

I’ve struggled with what to do with ideas that are still “cooking” and don’t yet have an obvious home. I’ve used various tools with varying levels of success but tools don’t dictate good practices or how best to use raw materials.

Maybe I missed school that day, but I never encountered good examples of how the leap from random ideas to finished product might work better. Way back in the day, people talked about index cards and cutting manuscripts into little pieces to be rearranged. Never made sense to me. Later, text editors and word processors made the mechanics of writing easier. I became and remain a fan of outliners and mindmapping tools but they didn’t offer guidance about how to think about the contents they contained.

What I lacked was a good data model. One of my advisors in my doctoral days talked about journal articles as “bricks” in the wall of knowledge. I never got what went into making a brick much less where it went on the wall. Ahrens concept of a permanent note is derived from the  paper-based system of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann he labeled a Zettelkasten. Luhmann developed an interesting system for maintaining and working with his ever-expanding corpus of notes. There is, of course, a thriving Internet sub-culture devoted to divining the whys and wherefores of this strategy and adapting it to a technological world–it’s easy to see how a Zettelkasten maps naturally into a world of hypertext.

The risk to avoid is the tempting rabbit-hole of experimenting with new tools and debating the arcana of indexing and branching strategies. Seeing a note as a permanent and fundamental knowledge “particle” is the aha moment. It’s certainly a more fine-grained level that now exists in its own right. These notes are not a temporary container that is only useful until the final product is finished. A collection of permanent notes becomes a thinking tool to work out and develop new thoughts and lines of thought.

As such, notes can’t simply be pointers back to a piece of secondary research or the barest sketch of an argument to be fleshed out in the draft of a larger deliverable. Permanent notes “are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.”

If I still kept physical books, this one would already be dog-eared. Instead, I’m developing and exercising new skills for extracting the thoughts from this container and using them to expand my own thinking. Right now, I’m clumsy and unskilled but I can see how to get better.

Review: Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness

cover photo -Curse of BignessThe Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. Tim Wu

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School, probably best known for coining the term “network neutrality.” In The Curse of Bigness, Wu turns his attention toward the growth, concentration,  and accumulating power of a handful of global corporations. He makes an argument that this growth is not an unalloyed good, that market forces by themselves are insufficient to counter the negative consequences of amassing power, and that current government policy is aggravating these consequences rather than ameliorating them.

Wu’s approach is to revisit an earlier era of rapid growth and power accumulation in the U.S.—the Gilded Age at the beginning of the 20th century. That era and its excesses provoked a compensating government response in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the policy decisions on how to interpret and enforce it. Wu is no fan of the Chicago School’s legal or economic reasoning. Here’s one example that captures Wu’s point of view and demonstrates his skill with language to boot;

Jumping from theory to reality in a novel way, the Chicago School then asserted that that which did not exist in theory probably did not exist in practice. Robbing banks is economically irrational, given security guards and meager returns; ergo bank robbing does not happen; ergo there is no need for the criminal law. Exaggerated only slightly, this premise has been at the core of Bork-Chicago antitrust for more than thirty years

Income inequality and increasing concentration of wealth has been a topic of much debate. The Curse of Bigness offers a brief and compelling argument that these results are not an outcome of natural law but of decisions about how and whether to enforce actual laws. I wish that he had some more reassuring thoughts about whether our current political processes can bring about that change in perspective, but this is worth your time regardless.

Review – Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

brown-daretolead-cover Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Brene Brown

I’m a latecomer to Brene Brown’s work. “Dare to Lead” is her most recent book and the first I’ve had the chance to read. My loss and easily correctable.

If you go to Amazon, limit your search just to books, and enter “leadership,” you get over 70,000 results. An evergreen topic to be sure and, as a student of organizations, one I’ve been tuned into for decades. This entry is worth your attention.

Brown starts with a definition of a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Leadership is about how you act.

I found it particularly interesting that she deems curiosity to be an essential and central element of effective leadership. Leadership is a willingness to pick a direction and walk into the unknown. Brown draws on work by Ian Leslie who makes this observation:

Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.

This is a take on leadership that may not mesh with conventional cliches. But Brown builds a persuasive case.

She has practical advice as well. Leadership is a skill that develops with practice; learnable, probably coachable, likely not teachable. Among the many ideas Brown offers are two that I expect to add to my own practice immediately. The first is a call to “paint done,” which asks for more imagination than a more conventional “define what equals done.” I can see how I would tackle that.

The second is a conversational gambit Brown calls “the story I make up…” The premise is that we are always making up stories to account for the behavior we see in others. Those stories are generally wrong on multiple dimensions—Google “fundamental attribution error.” Brown’s insight is that if we share the assumptions we are making and defuse them by acknowledging that they are just stories, we can get to a new, shared, story that will let us make real progress.

This is a book I will be returning to. Brown brings a rare blend of research skills and direct leadership experience to her work. Leadership is always in shorter supply than what the world demands.

Review – Measure What Matters

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs. John Doerr

I have a collection of T-shirts received as Christmas gifts from my wife. In that collection is one that expresses an all-too-common management practice, “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Most management books strive to offer better advice. Long-time venture capitalist, John Doerr, has been an evangelist for OKRs, an approach developed at Intel and in vogue across Silicon Valley. “Measure What Matters” is Doerr’s effort to package the approach for wider dissemination. It’s an approach well worth understanding.

OKRs is short for Objectives and Key Results. Doerr characterizes it as “a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams, and individuals.” Doerr and the other advocates for OKRs are engineers by training and temperament; they think in terms of elegant, interlocking systems. Well-designed OKRs are just that; the kicker is that “well-designed” is the hard part and it’s easy to miss that in the cheerleading.

Doerr defines the system as:

“A management methodology that helps to ensure that the company focuses efforts on the same important issues throughout the organization.” An OBJECTIVE, I explained, is simply WHAT is to be achieved, no more and no less. By definition, objectives are significant, concrete, action oriented, and (ideally) inspirational. When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking—and fuzzy execution. KEY RESULTS benchmark and monitor HOW we get to the objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable.

Who could object?

The rest of the book elaborates on this and walks us through a number of case studies of the challenges of putting the theory into practice. Doerr is quite explicit that the “regimen demands rigor, commitment, clear thinking, and intentional communication.”

He acknowledges that “ideas are easy—execution is everything.” Digging into the case studies and thinking about the richer stories that are compressed into the retelling is essential. Doerr tells us this if we are paying attention; “what’s neat about OKRs is that they formalize reflection.”

Today’s organizations and markets are too complex for a single mind to comprehend. You need to engage as many minds as possible to wrestle with the complexity. OKRs give you a process and a language system but success depends on the conversations that you have with the language.

Doerr only hints at the communications challenges that lurk underneath. How do you distinguish a “goal” from an “objective?” I’ve seen that conversation go in circles for hours. You can have theological debates about OKRs as well. It tempting to talk about the theology, but progress comes when you bring the conversation down to the level where you agree on specifics.

If you’re so inclined you may want to start with Doerr’s TED Talk but “Measure What Matters” needs to be on your reading list.