Beneath the Magic

Despite how long ago it was, my university education was still an expensive proposition. Part of my financial aid package was an on campus job. In my freshman year, that job was working as a janitor in my dorm. Dealing with the bathrooms on Sunday mornings was not a pleasant experience. 

My second year, I moved on to much better pastures, working as part of the tech crew at McCarter Theatre, just off the southwest corner of the Princeton campus. I worked as a stage hand, carpenter, and electrician. 

McCarter is a Broadway-scale theater built in 1930 to house the Princeton Triangle Club’s operations. It stages multiple productions and concerts throughout the year. I built sets, hung lights, loaded touring shows in and out, ran follow spots, and pretty much anything else associated with the nuts and bolts of making the magic happen. A very blue-collar education taking place in parallel with the classical liberal arts education happening across the street on campus. There, I was studying Shakespeare alongside Regression Analysis.

This juxtaposition of manual and cerebral, art and engineering, practice and theory shaped my perspectives. Perspectives plural being the primary lesson. Classrooms have the luxury of taking narrow and precise focus on a question. A working theater is a laboratory for balancing and mixing competing claims and priorities to bring about moments of magic.

My first question after experiencing one of those moments is “what did it take to make that happen?” Seeking those answers enhances the experience. Finding answers leads to creating better experiences the next time.

Like may lenses ground in experience, I tend to look through them without noticing what they sharpen and what they distort. It’s worth taking a look at this particular lens as it applies to gaining a better understanding of doing knowledge work more effectively.

I find it useful to break this analogy between the players and the production.

The playwright and the audience bracket the collection of roles that contribute to creating an experience. Depending on the complexity of the piece, the number of participants in the chain can become quite long; 

  • producer 
  • director 
  • designers of multiple stripes (sets, lighting, sound)
  • performers (actors, dancers, musicians)
  • builders (carpenters, tailors/seamstresses. painters, electricians)
  • stage crew (grips, props managers, electricians, audio technicians)
  • front of house (box office, ushers)
  • marketers
  • managers (stage managers, crew chiefs, tech directors, business managers)

If nothing else, this is a reminder of how much collaboration goes into producing a designed experience.

There’s an equally complex mix of artifacts that can surround a piece of work. 

There is the script itself. But scripts do not spring forth from the brow of Athena or anyone else. Nor is a bare script enough if our goal is to create an effect or response from an audience; something too often overlooked based on the accumulation of dust gathering on ignored documents piled on shelves. 

Getting to a script is a journey of notes, outlines, drafts, notes, and revisions. Transforming a script into a production spawns multiple streams of subsequent artifacts. There are design artifacts, management schedules, calendars, plans, budgets, and more. These trigger the creation of still more artifacts; sets, costumes, props, promotional items, and more.

The risk of any analogy is to push it too far. If I step back from the precipice there are core elements that I keep in mind as I turn this lens on knowledge work. First, the goal is to elicit a response from an audience. The work doesn’t exist for itself, it exists for what it accomplishes. Second, you’re not alone; potential collaborators are everywhere, in multiple forms.

Finally, when the curtain goes up, what you get is what you see. There’s no point in painting the back of a set that can’t be seen by the audience. If the set collapses in the middle of the first act, however, you’ve got a problem. 

Make Your Own Space

Have you learned to have a healthy suspicion about “the way things are supposed to be”?

While I was in elementary and high school, my mother encouraged a certain fluidity about rules and regulations. She would happily grant me periodic “mental health days” if I thought a break was in order.

While I was in college, there was a lovely home about a ten-minute walk from campus. It belonged to the parents of a sometimes girlfriend; always and still a friend, occasionally something closer. I adopted them as a set of spare parents, more readily available than my own a thousand miles away. Over the years, I would take refuge there from time to time. No questions, no expectations, always welcome. Without models to guide us, we worked out arrangements fit to whatever moment we were in. 

This is on my mind as I try to work something out. I’ve noticed how often the advice I encounter about life and work has a certain implicit message of “everything you’ve been doing is wrong, here’s the right answer.” Whatever method or practice or tool or system is being pitched, the framing is that this is the solution to your problem. 

What’s missing from all of this advice is that your job is not to select from among the hypothetical solutions on offer. Your first task is to ignore the canned solutions and their canned definitions of the problem and work out your own definition of the problem. 

If it’s helpful, you are free to examine the solutions on offer, but what you want to do with those purported solutions is explore the underlying model of the problem they were built to solve. That can serve as additional input as you work to better define your problem. 

The key here is that knowledge work doesn’t fit into standardized models. How you solve a problem differs from how I attack the same problem. This is the fundamental promise of knowledge work. It is a search for the unique answer to the unique question at hand. If there were an off-the-rack answer, then we’re talking about standard operating procedures not knowledge work. 

There is an essential design component at the outset of any knowledge work effort. What features of the problem are salient? What tools and techniques are already at hand? Can you reorganize and redeploy the existing tools? Do you need to add in a new tool or technique (and figure out how to use it effectively in this context)?

There’s a hypothesis coming into focus for me here around the notion that any knowledge work effort begins with a design step. Analogies about work tend to be anchored around factories. The problem is that you design a factory once and run the same things through it over and over. 

I’ve spent considerable time in factories but I’ve spent more time in a place that provides a better analogy for knowledge work–the theater. No two productions of _Hamlet_ are ever the same; even with a known script the goal is to create something new and possibly unique.

Staging a production is a much more complex creative task. You start with an empty stage and you transform it into a magical space. That transformation may start with a script but it opens up to encompass sets, lights, sound, movement and more. Designing for knowledge work needs to be similarly expansive. It will require multiple perspectives and, often, multiple collaborators. 

Let’s see where this might take us.

Start at the Beginning

“I always get the shakes before a drop.”

That’s the first line of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which I’ve probably read 20-30 times over the years. In science fiction circles, that line is the equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

I was probably about twelve or thirteen when I read it for the first time. There’s a problem with vacuuming up books that you’re too young to fully grasp. The folks around you are more pleased that you are precocious than aware that much is going well over your head. 

For the longest time, I naively assumed that the people who made up these stories started with the first line and simply plowed ahead until they reached the end. They had some magical talent that seemed far out of reach. It never occurred to me to voice my theories and my teachers were focused on issues of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

I had fallen victim to the “blank page” fallacy; the notion that the starting point for any writing project was an empty sheet of paper. It’s a myth that gets perpetuated in multiple forms. In school you deal mostly with toy problems; exercises that fit the constraints of lesson plans and grading. Examination books are nothing more than a collection of blank pages. 

It’s possible that you can move on to a world where you never run into a problem that’s big enough to reveal the limits of blank pages. A world of email and bullet points. 

More likely, you will eventually encounter a task that’s too big for a blank page. That’s when you need to see that the blank page is not the beginning; it’s a repeating phenomenon. It’s one of a series of blank pages to be covered with marks; words, phrases, arrows, boxes. 

Getting to a final deliverable (novel, consulting report, or something else) is a process. It’s your choice whether you design and manage that process or wing it. Regardless, it’s a process. The larger the deliverable, the more important the process. 

It’s helpful to separate thinking about the final product and the process of bringing it into being. One stream is about creating, the other is about managing. Two very different modes of thought, but you need both if the final destination is big enough or far enough away. 

Figuring out that first line could easily turn out to be the last thing you do.

Instigating Questions

It was the prototypical professor’s office. Book lined shelves, stacks of paper on most horizontal surfaces, ivy-covered walls visible across the courtyard. The day before, we had paid a visit to a potential case site. I was a newly-minted case writer meeting with my boss, Professor Cash. I was a former student and had left a lucrative consulting job In a quest to obtain a doctoral degree. 

Professor Cash would eventually become my thesis advisor, but we weren’t there yet. Cash had confidence in me; the admissions committee was more skeptical. Let’s just say that my academic transcripts displayed a significantly wider distribution of grades than they were accustomed to seeing. The compromise was to work as a case writer for a year and the admissions committee would take another look then.

We were meeting that morning to review our visit to the case site and discuss how to approach writing my first ever business case. As I student, I had read and analyzed on the order of 2,500 cases. This was the first time inside the sausage making. 

“Where’s your trip report?” was Cash’s opening question. The stupid look on my face would have terrified the admissions committee; Cash was more forgiving.

What he expected was to see my semi-legible, incomplete, and partial notes transformed into a coherent narrative of the previous day’s interviews. After spot checking my first few trip reports, Professor Cash didn’t bother to read them. They were for my benefit. If I was to create a case study that would work in the classroom, I needed to get my thinking out of my head and available for inspection.

This was the moment when I first began to grasp that thinking wasn’t something that happened exclusively inside your head. Most of the signals and clues we encounter encourage the notion that thinking occurs between your ears. Think of the penalties for referring to your notes during most examinations. 

The most powerful counterexample comes from a biography of Nobel-laureate Richard Feynman by James Gleick

[Feynman] began dating his scientific notes as he worked, something he had never done before. Weiner once remarked casually that his new parton notes represented “a record of the day-to-day work,” and Feynman reacted sharply. “I actually did the work on the paper,” he said. “Well,” Weiner said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper. Okay?” James Gleick Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

If Feynman depended on thinking outside of his head, it’s probably a sound strategy to adopt if you aspire to do meaningful work. 

Planning and Doing

A few days back, I left us on a bare stage. 

Part of my college experience, that was hugely formative, was taking a Broadway-scale musical comedy on tour over several Christmas holidays. Taking a show on tour is a set of daily lessons on the scripting and improvisation it takes to pull off a satisfying performance. Each one-night tour stop starts with a bare stage and a puzzle to solve; what mysteries are hiding that will threaten to disrupt tonight’s performance? 

On this tour, I was the production stage manager, responsible for cast and crew. Along with the Tech Director and Lighting designer, we were on the hook to make whatever stage we landed on work for that night’s performance. As part of our advance planning we asked each theater for details of their environment and facilities. The high school theater we were headed to in Chicago hadn’t responded to our queries; our plan was to skip that night’s cast party and fly ahead to scout the terrain. 

A perfectly reasonable plan. And one of my first lessons in the maxim “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Our plan did not provide for a snowstorm shutting down the Cincinnati airport that night. We spent the night sleeping on the floor by the gate where the first flight was scheduled the next morning. We eventually reached the theater in Chicago just as the bus with the well-rested cast and crew was pulling into the parking lot. The mystery theater turned out to be modern and well-equipped. Set up ran smoothly as did the final performance. 

Was our contingency planning wasted effort? The next city, the next client, the next project always contain an element of mystery. This is the lure that attracts certain people to careers in consulting, technology, and other domains that call for innovation. 

All places are mysterious when you first encounter them. What you do next depends on how you feel about mystery. 

One strategy is to crush it; to impose planned order on whatever you encounter. This is the world of industry and mass production; level the field and start cranking out Model Ts. Plans reign supreme and nothing is done outside the boundaries of the plan. 

It’s impossible to do creative or innovative work this way. You have to embrace and accept a level of mystery that gradually reveals itself. Plans can look only so far ahead and must be open to revision based on what is discovered in the doing. 

The industrial, mass production, large organization model sharply separates planning and doing. Executives and managers plan; workers do. This is effectively impossible in the realm of knowledge work. The agile software development movement accepts this impossibility; it is built on a much more interactive linkage between planning and doing. Plan a little bit, do a little bit, adjust the plan, do some more. This is foreign to those raised in an industrial context. It’s messy. It’s not orderly. 

Let go of the factory image. Return to a bare stage. Visualize planning and doing dancing with one another. 

Who’s in Charge Here?

We all carry around a fairly standard mental model of a classroom; podium and black/whiteboard in front, neat rows of desks facing the teacher. Progressive schools break the rows up into pods; college lecture halls put the seats on a slope. Drop us in a classroom and we know what to do. 

The main classrooms at the Harvard Business School are different in some subtle but very important ways. You can find a brief history of Aldrich Hall and its design process here. 

The room is designed as a U-shaped amphitheater. There is still a focal point at the front with a low table, not a podium. Student seats are on swivels so that students can interact with one another in the course of case discussion and analysis.

This image provides a good overview of the room’s features.


During my time as a case-writer and doctoral student I was able to observe faculty teach in these rooms without the burden of having to prepare for class (other occasions when I hadn’t prepared constituted a different sort of burden). A professor at the board or in the pit still occupied the position of power and authority. What was fascinating to watch was how professors roamed about the entire space and managed the power dynamics accordingly. 

They might stay at the board and make pronouncements ex cathedra. They might get close to a student to help them tease out a point. They might get right up in a student’s face to shut off a rambling comment. Or, they might wander up one of the aisles and gradually remove themselves from a discussion between students taking on a life of its own. And reassert themselves from the back by directing attention to a relevant point on the boards at the front. 

Teaching as performance art is scarcely a new thought. But teaching is also a kind of knowledge work intent on creating shared understandings. And that depends on more than the simple exchange of words. Shared understanding gets built in shared space. Thinking about the complexity of a teacher’s performance calls attention to how little thought we give to all the levers of performance we can draw on when doing knowledge work with collaborators. 

This is certainly aggravated by a pandemic forcing our interactions into flat video environments with poor lighting and erratic audio. On the other hand, the pandemic is also accelerating an existing trend for moving more knowledge work into virtual environments. The lesson here for me is that like teaching, knowledge work is performance art. The more elements of performance we incorporate, the more effective our results are likely to be.

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?

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.

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.