Dealing with the messy middle; accepting the wisdom of improv

A number of years back my thesis advisor retired and I made the trip to Boston to join in the celebration. One of the observations that has stuck with me was that the curtain was going up on Act 3 of my advisor’s career.

The reason it hit me was that I was being forced into a similar transition but not by choice. The metaphor of the curtain coming up on another act was a lot more empowering than the feeling of the curtain falling to end the performance. That helped me switch from licking my wounds to contemplating what to make of the next act.

Two things have become more clear as this act has unfolded. First, this act has called for me to step from the wings onto the stage. Not all the time, there is still work to be done from the wings, but I have to step into the light. Second, it turns out that there is no script for Act 3; Act 3 will be improv.

Now, the truth is that life is improv, but it can feel safe to pretend that there is a script. If you’ve been pretending there is a script, then making it up as you go feels like you must be cheating somehow.

There was a time when I ran the training function for Diamond Technology Partners, the consulting firm I co-founded with nine other partners and fifteen staff. When we had grown to several hundred professionals a few years later, one of our staff came to me with a proposal. Rik had been an actor before he became a consultant and convinced me that any consultant would be a better consultant with some basic improv training.

We ran the experiment with help from Second City in Chicago—a world class improv company. I joined in the initial sessions myself; much easier to evaluate an experiment from the inside than from the sidelines. It was a success but seen as a bit too threatening to the conventional wisdom by people with the power to say no. I was pushed out shortly after for other reasons and that is a story for another day.

But the improv perspective was a demarcation point in my thinking that only became clear in retrospect.

One of the mistakes that made me uncomfortable taking the stage was believing that you had to have your lines memorized to perform. I had learned one level of truth in the quest for expertise; experts were people with knowledge and answers. You wanted to find the person who wrote the book to get the best answers. If you wrote the book, then you’d better have the answers.

With two books written so far, you would think I would have also learned some deeper truths as well. But, having head and heart out of balance makes certain lessons slow to sink in. Thinking about the differences between scripted performance and improv was one of the elements in getting back to a more balanced place.

Among the fundamental principles of improv are the notions of accepting what is happening in front of you as the only meaningful starting point and of subordinating your personal agenda to letting the collaborative process play out.

What that translates into for my work is that the process is about exploring questions and digging into uncertainties not about starting with predetermined answers. That may seem trite and trivially obvious but honest inquiry is tremendously hard to do inside most organizations. The most powerful demonstration of true expertise is to be comfortable not knowing and trusting that the answers will appear after you’ve worked through the questions.

The essential part of that journey is working through the mess in the middle. There are powerful forces and temptations to rush through that stage. Developing and maintaining the strength to resist is a continuing demand.

The Magic of Theatre

Girl sitting on a swing“Can we fly six of the chorus girls during the 2nd act opening number?”

Directors always have crazy ideas. That particular idea took a week of design work, rigging, and rehearsal to pull off. The one technical detail you need to know is that the key safety issue was properly balancing the rigs while the dancers got on and off the playground swings they were sitting on.

The rig was balanced for two dancers, one on either side of the stage. When they were both on the swings, a stage hand could raise them 15 feet in the air with one hand. Before getting off the swings, we had to replace their weight with sandbags clipped to the rigs offstage. That kept the system safely in balance. We had rehearsed the switch multiple times; it was a complex piece of offstage choreography in its own right involving nine stage hands and six dancers.

Opening night, the scene runs smoothly, the curtain comes down, and one of the dancers hops off her swing early before the sandbags have been clipped on. As her counterpart starts what is about to be a very rapid ascent into the rafters, I see Mark, the stagehand at the rail controlling the rig, reach up about two feet, grab the ropes, and use his bodyweight as a temporary counterweight. The sandbags were clipped on, dancer number 2 came safely back to the ground, and the show went on without interruption. My heart restarted several minutes later.

The audience saw none of this. The director delivered his moment of magic. The crew got a story to talk about at the cast party.

Most people seem content to simply enjoy the magic. I find the magic more compelling when I understand how it is made. Making magic takes work; the more you understand of the work, the better the magic you can make.

We live in a world that appears magical. But it has been built by designers and engineers and carpenters and stagehands. If you leave the magic to the experts you are bound by their imaginations. If you are prepared to come backstage and invest in learning something about how the magic is done, then you can become another collaborator in imagining and creating new magic.

Perspective

“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points” – Alan Kay

If you’ve interacted with me for more than a few minutes, there’s a good chance you’ve heard me quote Alan Kay. If not, it’s a pretty safe bet that you have no idea who Alan is, even though you are probably reading this on a device that can trace its roots back to Alan’s work.

Alan is a computer scientist who was one of the original members of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Both the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows are built on work that Alan did first. If you Google Alan be prepared for a long list of articles to read and videos to watch. It would also be time well spent.

I first learned of Alan’s work by way of a consulting project I did for Andersen Consulting while I was in graduate school. They were interested in whether they should take deeper interest in the ideas of object-oriented programming. Since Alan is generally regarded as the father of object-oriented programming I learned of his existence. That work led to a working relationship between Accenture and Alan and I went on with my studies.

Jump forward about ten years. I’m moving to Chicago to join Diamond, a new consulting firm that I am founding along with former colleagues from Andersen. Diamond’s CEO, Mel Bergstein, was my client at Andersen and cut the deal with Alan based, in part, on my earlier work. Mel asked Alan to serve on Diamond’s Board.

I got to transform my arms length knowledge of Alan into a working relationship. Alan worked with us in client settings and internally. I invited Alan to talk to our consultants in various workshops and I got to watch Alan interact in multiple client settings. I went from professional admirer to full-on fanboy.

Alan is a polymath and has a collection of awards that constitute a resume in their own right. On paper, he is the definition of “scary smart.” In person, he is not immediately intimidating. Watching him think on his feet, however, is a master class in focused inquiry.  He’s also, first and foremost, an engineer more interested in how to make something work than anything else.

That pragmatic focus drives Alan to the middle space that bridges the gap between blue sky concept and picayune detail. Moreover, his engineering point of view values solving problems so that they stay solved. This is not always the perspective you encounter with managers and executives; they are often under pressures that favor things that look like rather than are solutions. Watching Alan think provides lessons in managing and manipulating points of view to gain extra IQ points and discover answers that are both practical and enduring.

Managing credit and rewards

Triangle LogoThere’s a letter in my files dated May 31, 1974. It’s on the letterhead of the Trustees of the Princeton University Triangle Club and signed by Peter Putnam. Class of 1942, then the Graduate Secretary of the Trustees. In it Peter says.

An axle or a stage manager is not a showy part of a vehicle, but without one, a car won’t go, and without the other, a company does not perform.

I was that stage manager.

That bit of praise from one professional to another sits at the heart of my career. I know I need to revisit it to discern what comes next.

There are two basic questions that interest me.

The first is about searching for the essential parts that make things go. I’ve sometimes talked about this as the messy middle. What are the critical connections between grand goals and effective execution?

The second question has to do with what it takes to make a living operating in those non-showy, essential, places. Particularly in a world that extols and rewards stars.

There’s an old adage that shows up in motivational posters and gets attributed to various sages. One version is “there is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.” A laudable sentiment but the reality is that getting things done requires gathering and distributing resources and credit.

What can you do with a stage manager temperament in a world that sees stars?

I don’t quite know what I mean by that yet but I’ve learned to trust the turns of phrase that pop into my head.

Expert learning

stacks of booksBack in the earliest days of my third cycle of higher education, my advisor commented that this was the last opportunity I would have to invest in building my store of intellectual capital. I think this was his way of justifying the two books a week he was assigning in his doctoral seminar, the 50-page reading list in our organizational theory seminar, and the comparable workloads in industrial economics and research methods.

I did ultimately earn the piece of paper certifying me as an expert. But my advisor was wrong about that store of intellectual capital. Neither of us correctly factored in the half life of knowledge in the technology, data, and information realms we inhabited. You can’t build an academic career mining the work you did in graduate school. In today’s world, you can’t build any kind of career mining what you used to know.

This creates a new kind of learning problem. How do you approach learning if you’re already an expert? How do you manage the process of acquiring new knowledge when you are creating it at the same time?

I want to figure out what it means to do expert learning. I suspect the answers will look more like exploratory research than like taking a class from the designated expert. Your task isn’t so much to follow a curriculum as it is to design one in real time.

Perhaps what I’m working out here is an expanded definition of being an expert. We talk about SMEs—subject matter experts. Being a SME implies that you possess a particular knowledge base—a body of knowledge—plus knowledge of deeper principles and themes that aren’t readily apparent to the less expert.

Experts also know who the other experts are and hang out with them. We call these communities of interest and practice when we’re trying to impress people.

Finally, there has to be another layer of skill/expertise. You need a collection of methods and practices for updating, extending, and refactoring your existing knowledge base. There also needs to be a level of mindfulness about this layer. Maintaining and extending expertise has to be an explicit and deliberate practice.

I used to think it would be cool to go to school permanently. Turns out that the modern world requires it. Everybody has become a lifelong student. The part that got left out was that we are also expected to be lifelong teachers as well.

Temporary technology limits shouldn’t become design patterns

Things are the way they are because they got that way

– Ken Boulding

This is a quote attributed to Boulding by Jerry Weinberg in his excellent Secrets of Consulting. My students will tell you that I am fond of bringing it into many a class discussion. It’s somehow more useful to me than trotting out Santayana’s observation about learning history.

We’re all hot for the new, new thing and innovation is always better when it’s disruptive. For all that, when thinking about new technology we would do well to spend time and thought understanding how we got to the current situation. Predicaments today grew out of decisions yesterday that made sense when they were made. If we want to leave fewer predicaments for our successors, we need to understand how those earlier logic trains derailed.

For example, consider the Y2K issue of the late 1990s; the transition from 1999 to 2000 raised the threat that computer programs might fail because of the common practice of storing only the last two digits of the year in computer files and databases. That common practice grew out of technology limits with storage and data access. There was also an unexamined assumption about the likely longevity of the systems being built in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Why worry about a problem that was decades in the future; surely the programs would be replaced long before then.

There seems to be a deeper issue at work that is troubling me. Design is always driven by constraints and requirements; what limits exist on what you hope to do. We fail to appreciate how technology constraints evolve very differently from other constraints. We treat certain limits on our designs as if they were integral to solving the problem at hand when they are actually temporary speed bumps in the technology. We solve the immediate problem—the dates in our files fit the space available—at the expense of creating a bigger problem later.

We talk of “technical debt” but I don’t think the notion works with less technical decision makers. Debt suggests you trade future interest payments for a solution now. What we do instead is lock the organization’s future within boundaries that disappear and make us look stupid to those who designed smarter.

Organizational decision making is often hampered by shortchanging the future. We don’t seem to have good methods for avoiding these mistakes in technology. Temporary technology limits become design constraints which become design assumptions that get baked into design patterns and then outlive their usefulness.

Project management, rocket science, and donuts

time to make the donutsDunkin Donuts ran a legendary ad campaign in the 1980s—“Time to Make the Donuts.” You can still find the ads online. They celebrated commitment to doing the work. What they ignored was the need to manage the work. In fact, they reinforced the idea that work and management were two distinct things.

For making donuts or widgets or Toyotas this is possibly a useful distinction. For the work that most of us do today, it does more harm than good. In the donut world work is about following recipes and management is making sure that workers follow the recipes. There’s a lot that can go into following and managing recipes; how accurately do workers follow the recipes, how fast, how many per shift.

But where do the recipes come from?

If you’d prefer to remain in a worker/manager universe, they arrive by innovation magic. Some mysterious, creative process serves up new recipes and processes to be plugged into the existing system. Perhaps there will be some change management pain and disruption to be absorbed. Perhaps you will turn to some specialist or consultant to carry out this odd work. Then, everyone can get back to work.

I think this explains something I always struggled to understand when pitching consulting projects or proposing change efforts within organizations. Decision makers always seemed to object to the project management line item and tasks in proposals and plans. For that matter, project team members weren’t keen on the process of managing the work; they wanted to focus on what they saw as the fun part of the work.

It all makes sense if doing and managing are two separate activities. But you can’t do that when they are intertwined. When the doing shapes what needs to be managed and the managing calls for picking your way through the doing then you are much more tightly coupled than the mythology of workers marching forward as managers point to the goal in the distance.

I’ve been fascinated by NASA’s recent flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons Mission. If you’re interested, I’d recommend a recent Nova broadcast, Pluto and Beyond. One thing that struck me was that project management isn’t rocket science but successful rocket science certainly depends on effective project management.

This all matters because the work we are all doing these days is a lot closer to rocket science than it is to making donuts. We’d better start acting as if we believed that.

You can’t separate learning and doing

If I’m not careful when I introduce myself, “Jim McGee” gets heard as “Jimmy.” Curious as that was what I was called growing up. Outside of family and a few cousins, there were only two people who regularly called me “Jimmy” One was the director of the college theater group I was in. The other is a friend and colleague I worked with during my doctoral studies.

Although it’s a pretty common name, I take a certain perverse pride in laying claim to “jimmcgee” or “jmcgee” as a user name in places like gmail and twitter. It’s a marker of being an early adopter on multiple technology platforms.

You learn stuff by playing with it. But learning and play are suspect activities in most organizations. Outside of schools, the presumption is that you’ve learned what you need to know on someone else’s dime. Even in schools, you pay for the privilege of not knowing and being a learner.

This model works in a stable or slowly-evolving environment. There are places where you learn and places where you do. If you are in a doing place and the learning places are lagging, you might find it a good idea to create a private learning place to bridge the gap. But the idea of doing and learning remain separate.

I could argue that this is fundamentally wrong for all organizations and all times; that the separation of learning and doing is an artificial distinction that only works with the right confluence of factors and only for limited periods. We’re no longer in one of those periods.

We’ve been living through an extended period of accelerating change; it’s become an empty cliche. This is a cliche that you ignore at your peril. The half-life of what we know continues to shrink.

Half-life is a notion borrowed from nuclear physics. Radioactive elements and isotopes transform at a predictable rate; the transformation of Carbon-14 into Carbon-12, for example, is one of the facts that tell us that the world is more than 6,000 years old. The time it takes for half of the Carbon-14 in a sample to decay into Carbon-12 is the half-life and is a fixed and measurable rate.

Shifting back to knowledge and knowledge work, much of what we knew from our school days has decayed in similar fashion. By some estimates an engineering degree has a half-life of less than 10 years.

If you maintain the fiction that learning is something that occurs in learning places and is separate from doing, then you hire young computer scientists, move a handful into management, and replace the rest on a regular basis. A stupid management strategy, even it is appears to be a common one.

In work with a university research lab that was dealing with growing pains, I found the phrase “smart people doing smarter work” a helpful entry point toward a more effective response. There’s been a trend in knowledge intensive organizations toward hiring more people with Ph.D.s. At first glance, this can be viewed simply as seeking out people with more recent expert knowledge. The deeper truth is that a Ph.D. is someone who lives at the boundary of learning and doing; someone who understands that it is not, in fact, a boundary.

When I was a student, teachers were the people who had answers. If you had questions, you found the expert who had answers. When I was a consultant, I was an expert. When I reached the edge of what I knew, I looked for the next expert. Eventually, I reached a point where I ran out experts who knew. Since I was still operating from a learning and doing are separate things perspective, I went back to a learning place.

What I discovered was a community of fellow explorers who introduced me to a new practice, which was to say “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I was at the place with the half-life of knowledge problem was being created and attacked in parallel.

It’s certainly possible to treat this spot as just another place for experts. You can choose to be an expert at the edge, asking questions and passing answers back the chain to others who desire answers. What’s more interesting is to ask how to respond in a world where all of us operate closer to the edge of “I don’t know, let’s find out.” What if we looked to those already operating at the boundary between learning and doing as guides for traveling in this strange territory? What tools, practices, and habits of mind can we adopt to travel more effectively and safely in an environment where change is a feature not a bug?

Process and Ritual

ring of fireWhile there’s no obligation to explain your process to anyone, working it out for yourself does matter. There’s an observation from Aldo Leopold that’s pertinent:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

In my previous post, I spoke about the broad spine of my process. There are aspects that feel important although I’ve yet to fully understand their fit and there are other elements whose purpose escapes me but I’m reluctant to set them aside. Learning, for example, appears in multiple non-obvious ways. I allocate substantial amounts of time to reading, of course; the world moves too quickly to rely simply on the accumulation of experience. I also try to have some topic I’m learning that is new to me; as a teacher, I want to always know what it feels like not to know something.

My writing practices have evolved over the years. I’ve gradually become more comfortable with letting writing evolve. When I wrote my first book, Ernst & Young provided us with an editor to work with us as we developed the manuscript. One day, John met me in my office. As I handed him the draft of my most recent chapter, I had to take a call from a client. As I spoke with my client, I was puzzled as John flipped past the first three pages and began reading the draft at the top of page four. When the call finished, I naturally asked John why. He gently explained that he had learned that I had a habit of clearing my throat for several pages and burying the lede; page four turned out to be a fairly predictable first place to look. I’ve gotten better at discovering my lede without outside assistance and putting it where I think it belongs intentionally.

Some find writing by hand a useful element of their process; my handwriting is both too slow and too illegible to help in that regard. What I have learned, however, is that it is valuable to capture snippets of ideas and phrasing as they occur to me. Technology makes that a more reliable process. What warrants further improvement is moving from snippet to finished product.

One practice that has helped at the outset of new projects is to write a “memo to self” that outlines a storyline of the effort as a whole. This is something other than a project plan. A project plan focuses on the sequence of tasks; the storyline is an attempt to find the intellectual thread that will connect facts, insights, and conclusions into a path forward.

I can’t necessarily explain why this works. But I treat it as a form of ritual. Whether you understand the ritual doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you commit to the practice. The open question is how to make these elements more visible to the people I am working with.

Quest for the organizing thought

crystallizationI thought of starting this piece with an observation that talking about my process risked spiraling out of control until I realized that feeling was, in fact, a part of my process. The most satisfying part of my work is bringing new things into existence. An essential step is generating enough raw material to ensure that something good and pleasing is likely to emerge

The process is about designing new capabilities. The domain is technology use to support organizational performance. The process and the domain combine to define a practice but it’s helpful to treat them separately.

My process has evolved over the years based on my exposure to other thinkers and on the lessons learned over multiple iterations of the cycle. In today’s vernacular, I would call it a process of design thinking. It starts with someone declaring that a problem exists. What follows is a classic problem-solving process;

  • searching out the facts to tease out a picture of “ground truth,”
  • immersion in the stew of ground truth and the broader context, adding new morsels and tidbits until there is a super-saturated solution,
  • flashing on a crystallizing phrase or formulation that causes insight to precipitate out of the super-saturated solution
  • elaborating the implications of the crystallizing formulation for what the next world needs to look like
  • bringing the next world into being in thought and deed

The process works in multiple environments. It has to be coupled with domain expertise and local environmental insight to be practical

There are two elements of this process that have proven to be important for me, although I haven’t seen them talked about much. This could be a hint that there’s something to be developed further, or it may simply reflect my idiosyncratic perspective. The first has to do with the step I’ve described as “immersion.” I think of it as a deliberate practice of staying in the question rather than pushing on quickly to old answers we find comfortable.

The danger of staying in the question, of course, is that you never move on; something that others warn against as “analysis paralysis.” This leads to that second element. My signal to move on in the process is when I hit on a short phrase that encapsulates my take.

For example, I was working with the director of a university research lab who was wrestling with the problem of how to better manage a group of professors, post-docs, and research analysts that had grown rapidly. After an initial round of interviews, I was reviewing my raw interview notes to see what I might have learned. The phrase that popped into my head was that the Lab Director was asking how could we help “smart people do smarter work.” Nothing exotic and certainly nothing Pulitzer Prize worthy, yet it was a signal to me that I had found a thread I could now work with.