Distinguishing Maps and Territories

It was September of 1971. I was on a bus leaving the Port Authority Station in Manhattan heading into New Jersey. My day had started in St. Louis. I was traveling with a friend from high school who claimed he knew what he was doing. Our destination was the campus of Princeton University.

In those days you didn’t visit multiple campuses before deciding where to go so I had no idea what to expect. Kevin’s plan was to fly into New York and take the train south to Princeton. I seem to remember that in addition to my suitcase, I had a new typewriter and a tennis racket. I don’t recall that I had ever actually played tennis so why I had a racket seems a bit suspect.

We flew to LaGuardia Airport and took a bus into Grand Central Station where we discovered that the trains from Grand Central went north. Southbound trains to New Jersey left from Penn Station. The ticket agent pointed towards a corridor and told us we could simply walk a few blocks underground to change stations. New York City was not a welcoming place to a couple of naive teens from the Midwest. We wandered through tunnels in the heat and humidity. Eventually, we somehow stumbled our way into the Port Authority Bus Station and bought a bus ticket to Princeton (it was several years later before I ever set foot in Penn Station).

The bus to Princeton travels through the Lincoln Tunnel, through the streets of Newark (a city I knew only as a place that had seen riots three years earlier in 1968), past oil refineries, and onto the New Jersey Turnpike. This naive child from the suburbs in the Midwest was on sensory and emotional overload. I was fingering the dime in my pocket and formulating the call to my mom to come rescue me.

Eventually we left the Turnpike and turned onto Route 206 which winds through the farmland that gives New Jersey its nickname, the Garden State. Route 206 turns into Nassau Street and the bus dropped me at the entrance to the Princeton Campus. The image above is Nassau Hall, my first impression of where I would spend the next four years. The dime stayed in my pocket.

“The map is not the territory” was a dictum offered by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish scientist/philosopher who developed the field of general semantics shortly before WWII. It’s a reminder that expectations and reality rarely coincide and you would be well-served to check how, where, and why they differ.

That day was a series of collisions between expectations and reality complicated by the confounding factor that I didn’t recognize how many unexamined expectations I was carrying in my head. Traveling that territory that day planted another seed in learning how to draw better maps and in recognizing that map-making was a tool I could use deliberately to make sense of the new territories I was trying to travel.

Clever trumps diligent

Efficiency and effectiveness aren’t terms you stumble upon in your typical youth. You have to look for the ideas before you’ve learned the words.

I must have been about 15 or 16 early in my high school career. For reasons that I have no memory of, I signed up (or was signed up) for an after school activity called Junior Achievement. The premise is to learn how business works by starting a small company with a group of other students. You choose a product, make it, and sell it. A gentle introduction to capitalism.

As I said, I may have been pushed into this more than choosing it for myself although that runs very contrary to the way my parents worked.

How I got there isn’t really the point.

I did it for two years.

In the second year I was somehow in charge of our little company despite being younger than most of the other participants. Our product was jumper cables to sell to car owners to restart dead batteries. We had to obtain the raw materials and parts, cut cable to size, assemble and package the cable sets, and sell them to prospective customers.

The salient memory for me is how we managed to sell our products. The implicit premise of this whole endeavor was to imitate all of the functions of a typical small business. In the mythology of American small business that included selling door-to-door. An activity meant to build character and grit I’m sure. Also an activity that terrorized an introverted young teen boy.

I have no memory of whose idea it was. Unlikely that it was mine. Doesn’t matter. We chose to approach local fire and police departments and sold to them in bulk to equip their fleets. For a little bit more effort we got a lot more result. We ended up at or near the top of all the other companies in the program that year.

The lessons baked into the Junior Achievement program were meant to be about the value of hard work, cooperation, and diligence. All good lessons. But the seed planted was the value of thinking problems through before charging ahead.

We encourage diligence. It’s easy to see and evaluate and promote.

But the real payoff goes to clever.

Dethroning productivity: becoming more effective

There’s an itch I’ve been picking at for some time. Everyone wants me to be more productive. All I need to do is listen to their podcast, buy their book , install their software, or implement their system. I’ve spent too much time and energy chasing those promises with limited return.

Productivity metrics are appealing because they’re easy. Count the number of notes you’ve captured to your personal knowledge management system. Plot the number of words you wrote today. Reward the programmer who wrote the most lines of code last week.

Productivity matters if you’re turning out cars or cellphones. Not a great metric if you’re in a more creative line of work. Einstein wasn’t lauded for how many papers he wrote. Picasso wasn’t praised for being prolific.

We appreciate this distinction in clearly creative realms. We haven’t managed to transfer that appreciation to less obviously creative spaces. More importantly, we haven’t grappled with the reality that we now all operate in creative realms.

Peter Drucker made a step in this direction when he wrote The Effective Executive (see Effective executives are design thinkers for my review). Although Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”, he didn’t extend his analysis of effectiveness to them. But we knowledge workers now drive the economy and we don’t have good ways to sort out how to manage ourselves appropriately.

I’d like to spend the next few weeks taking a deeper look at what it might mean to shift from thinking about efficiency to thinking about effectiveness. Can we think and talk about effectiveness in ways that can better shape how we go about doing our creative work?

Becoming a More Reflective Practitioner

It’s been nearly six months since I last posted here. That post was a look at dealing with baggage in the context of knowledge work. So I think the following image is fitting to account for the gap.

multiple bags of luggage in airport arrival area
Arriving at Lisbon Airport

That’s me in the Lisbon airport on September 1st with fourteen bags of most of our worldly possessions. A few hours later, Charlotte and I would begin unpacking them in Nazaré, Portugal, our new home for the next chapter in our story.

While the move has been in the works since the early days of Covid, most of the execution has been packed into these last six months. We sold the house, sold the car, rented an apartment, bought a car, closed accounts, opened accounts, said goodbye to friends, started making new friends, and started learning Portuguese (a constant reminder of my general lack of decent study habits and a likely source of future blog posts about learning challenges in my dotage).

The closing graf in that earlier post was

If your value depends on making sense out of the collision between the present situation and what has come before you have to manage your understanding of both.

There’s an intuition there that I am still trying to unpack.

Donald Schön’s notion of reflective practice is central to understanding knowledge work. Experience is the raw material that fuels practice. Your practice improves as you process experience and make adaptations and changes. Schön’s argument was that the more intentionally and mindfully you process and make sense of experience, the better your practice gets.

There’s a scale problem here. Maybe more than one.

The first is the basic problem of information overload that faces all knowledge workers. The second scale problem is that more of us are knowledge workers. We’ll table that problem for another day.

Richard Saul Wurman wrote about information overload in the late 1980s in Information Anxiety as did Vannevar Bush in 1945 in “As We May Think”. Moreover, it’s an exponential growth problem that has nearly always exceeded the capacity of available coping strategies (willful ignorance doesn’t count as a coping strategy no matter how often it is chosen).

The spate of new PKM tools are the latest attempt to address this scale problem. It’s encouraging to see some recommended strategies for deploying the tools. What I would like to see is even more case studies of how we are all learning to leverage available tools.

I was about to add that I’ve made a mental note to work on case studies of my own practice. But, in point of fact, I’ve just finished capturing that “mental” note as an actual note. Stay tuned.

One aspect of the information overload problem I want to investigate is the metaphor of the blank sheet of paper. Sometimes it’s explicit. More often it’s hidden in the assumptions of new tools and new practices. Everyone wants to pretend that you start clean because it simplifies their problem. Dealing with whatever mess of prior systems and practices you’ve cobbled together over the years is your problem.

Which it is.

But it really helps to be aware that it is your problem and that it exists. Taking some time to see what is already on your sheet of paper is the first step to becoming a more effective reflective practitioner.

Choosing to Learn New Tricks

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

This cliche has been on my mind lately, particularly as an old dog myself. How much of learning new tricks as an old dog starts with figuring out how to deal with history; with the cumulative baggage of what has come before?

This is in the context of the new wave of attention to personal knowledge management. It’s also in the context of an email I got this week from a consultant at Gartner Group reminding me of a column I wrote in 2005 on Why You Need a Personal Knowledge-Management Strategy

Time was when most of the value/baggage in history was “encoded” in your experience. Grey hair was a marker that you knew things and your cumulative experience expressed itself as informed judgment. Even if you had the files it wasn’t worth trying to mine them for value.

Today we have the opposite problem. All the history is there hanging like a weight over your head. You now need a strategy and practices for leveraging that history without letting it paralyze you. This is the dilemma of building a second brain marketing promises. It’s the digital equivalent of the professor’s office buried in stacks of paper and yards of shelves.

But most of us aren’t professors and haven’t been at this long enough. We haven’t accumulated enough digital stuff to trip over the looming problem. In analog days, only the most compulsive types were troubled by the steady accumulation of material. In a digital world, you have to actively fight the accumulation. Declarations of email bankruptcy make for good copy but miss the point. Warnings to beware of the collector’s fallacy also miss the point.

If your value depends on making sense out of the collision between the present situation and what has come before you have to manage your understanding of both.

Scope the Problem First

Some of my colleagues have objected to my disparaging connecting the dots thinking. They think I’ve caricatured the strategy to make my point. They’re probably right.

What I am really criticizing is a particular form of laziness. The kind of laziness that always wants to cut to the chase, to skip to the last chapter where we discover who the killer was, that just wants the answer.

We all want to skip over the boring parts. We get in trouble when the important insights are hiding in the boring parts.

There’s the classic joke about the hikers who encounter a bear in the woods. One stops to put on running shoes. The second hiker scoffs that “you can’t outrun a bear”. The first hiker answers “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems. Few would argue that point. What’s harder to address is the pressure to ignore the complexity in a problem when there’s a tempting simple solution at hand. How much of the sales copy and sales pressure that we encounter consists of efforts to label the problem at hand as one that matches the solution being offered?

Curiously, this tendency cuts both ways. My initial conversations with prospective clients often begin with the client telling me what the answer is. “We need a mobile app”, “we need to move to the cloud”, “we need a CRM system”. The specific answers evolve over time, but the pattern persists.

“What problem are you trying to solve?” is the starting point I strive to move the conversation to. Some cynics will interpret it as an attempt to extract more fees from a simple situation. But, it’s essential if you want to get an answer that ties to the right questions.

Don’t Forget to Play: Solving for Pattern as an Infinite Game

I keep criticizing connecting the dots thinking as overly narrow. It’s just now occurred to me that my fundamental objection is that connecting the dots is a finite game when we need to be playing an infinite game.

Finite vs. infinite games is a distinction philosopher James Carse makes in his book Finite and Infinite Games. A finite game is a game with a clear set of rules and boundaries that you play to win. An infinite game, on the other hand, is a game you play with the primary goal of continuing to play. Carse makes a compelling case that infinite games are far more interesting and that we should be looking for opportunities to transform whatever game we are playing from finite to infinite. If you haven’t read it, go find yourself a copy now and read that.

Converting a connecting the dots situation into a solving for pattern exercise is a perfect example of converting a finite game to an infinite game. Rather than seeking the picture cleverly hidden in a series of disconnected dots, solving for pattern opens up the game to the exploration of multiple possibilities and options.

There’s an old joke about baseball umpires discussing calls after a game;

Umpire #1 – I call them as I see them
Umpire #2 – I call them as they are
Umpire #3 – They aren’t anything until I call them

The point about infinite games and about solving for pattern is that you are playing the game and making up the rules as you play.

Learning To Solve For Pattern

Isaac Newton is credited with the observation that “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (which he actually appears to have borrowed from 12th Century philosopher Bernard of Chartres. see (Standing on the Shoulders of Giants). Computer scientist Richard Hamming was a bit less gracious, and perhaps more relevant, when he pointed out that “In computing, we mostly stand on each other’s feet.”

Both men were clear, however, that progress builds on the work that came before. This is an axiom in academic disciplines. Becoming an effective academic starts with long apprenticeships centered on immersion in the context of a field. You don’t get to play until you can demonstrate that you are familiar not just with the forms but the substance of what has come before.

Familiarity with context and history has not been so axiomatic outside of ivy-covered halls. For much the industrial revolution, the story has been about what is new, different, and innovative. Men of action were rooted in the now and facing tomorrow.

As more economic activity depends on those who think for a living, that equation has been changing. The old canard “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” has lost much of its currency. At the very least, we need to stop standing on one another’s feet.

Claiming that your new product or service is new and different is easy to do if you don’t bother to look around you. Too many careers have been built on confident assertions without evidence. I suspect that the continuing popularity of connecting the dots arguments is partly anchored in the hope that confidence will out.

Solving for pattern, on the other hand, starts with accepting that you don’t, and can’t, know everything. While there won’t be a specific picture hiding in the data, there will be fragments and familiar elements that can be discerned, however incompletely. Your job is not to match what you see against a standard, it is to construct a plausible story and make sense out of what you think you are seeing. There is no passive role to adopt.

Stop Trying to Connect the Dots

Connecting the dots is a fun children’s game. It’s a lousy strategy for making sense of complex phenomena.

As a game, it’s fun to see a picture emerge as you drag your pencil from dot to dot. When it’s used as a metaphor for sensemaking in the real world, there are a set of hidden assumptions that are particularly pernicious because they are hidden. In the game, you start from a picture, select and number a collection of dots, and then erase the rest. You simplify a complex image into a subset of data points and a prescribed sequence for connecting the dots.

This is not a reversible process. You cannot collect a set of dots, connect them as you choose, and then claim that the image was sitting there all along. Nor can you criticize an analyst for failing to collect or connect the necessary dots in advance. It’s lazy language and lazy thinking.

While lazy thinking, it’s also rampant. Cast your mind back to your university days. It’s a safe bet that you had a course syllabus with extensive verbiage about academic integrity and the perils of plagiarism. And expectations for preparing terms papers laden with correctly formatted references to the literature you consulted as you did your research. Fail to include the proper incantations in your submitted work and you were at risk of dire punishment.

All of which encourages connecting the dots thinking and discourages developing the more robust skills of solving for pattern that you are going to need to tackle the open-ended and complex problems you will encounter.



Forcing Functions To Understand Complex Work

From time to time, I get invited to speak to groups of executives. I’ve even gotten paid to do so and been invited back for repeat performances. What I haven’t done is develop an inventory of stock speeches. That can be an effective and lucrative path for those who opt for it. But, that path is premised on having a message you want to share widely. It’s more about preaching and I am more interested in teaching.

Here’s an example from about a dozen years ago that might tease out the distinction. A software vendor I’d worked with asked if I would keynote their annual users group meeting. They were (and are) a player in the corporate knowledge management space. As a former Chief Knowledge Officer for a growing management consulting firm, I was trying to work out why certain efforts had failed and others succeeded only modestly.

I treated the invitation as a forcing function; an opportunity to work out some thinking with an audience who might have insights to share. Consider it a segment in the longer process of solving for pattern.

A persistent problem in corporate knowledge management efforts was getting knowledge workers to share their work more broadly. Various incentive and control systems didn’t appear to have much effect. The premise behind these solutions was that people were reluctant to share their work for reasons unknown.

I used this event to explore an alternate hypothesis; sharing knowledge work was hard to do because technology made the doing of knowledge work invisible. Work that had been visible in the movement and flow of paper or the flipcharts and whiteboards in conference rooms had disappeared behind the keyboards and screens of workstations, personal computers, and laptops. Solving the sharing problem was not about incentives, it was about visibility. Make knowledge work observable and sharing becomes more natural.