Learning to See

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

The updated version of an older quip; “I’ll believe it when I see it.” A study of human perception or any familiarity with today’s media environment, however, should convince you that “I’ll see it when I believe it” is more accurate and more illuminating.

When I was about eight, I began to complain that I couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard. The nun’s simple response was to move me up a row in the classroom. When I continued to complain after reaching the front row, someone finally thought that a trip to the optometrist might be a good idea (this was circa 1961 when routine vision screening wasn’t the norm in elementary school). A few weeks later I had my first pair of glasses with a strong prescription.

I recall marveling on the drive home. It had never occurred to me that you were supposed to be able to read street signs from inside the car. The wider world wasn’t fuzzy after all.

I was doing just fine in school. If I hadn’t mentioned something, who knows how much longer it might have taken to discover my weak eyes. Nobody could see the problem until they believed what I was saying.

Although I was doing fine, I was working harder than I needed to. I was overpowering the problem rather than solving it effectively. Can’t see the board, move closer. Still can’t see it, move closer still.

What’s been on my mind lately is what lessons did I take away from this experience without seeing them at the time.

There’s the obvious lesson that effort is rewarded. Most of our systems hammer this lesson home. I think there’s a second, more subtle, lesson. If the results are good, then the effort was well spent. Because effort is worthy it’s hard to ask what can be accomplished with less effort. Powering through is an easy strategy to understand and to implement. “Working smarter” makes for a nice slogan but is much more difficult to put into practice.

I’ve certainly been guilty of trotting out the slogan. I suspect I still have a lot to learn about putting it into effective practice. I did take a look at this quite a while back with a look at how we might go about balancing diligence and laziness. Perhaps it’s time to take another look at the question of how to put in less effort.

McGee’s Musings turns 22

This time last year, we were just getting settled in our apartment in Nazaré, Portugal. In ten days we head to Durham, NC for the next chapter in our adventure.

McGee’s Musings continues to be one thread of continuity. I’ve always viewed it as an experiment of sorts. Back then, having a blog was what the cool kids were doing and it fit with my teaching work. Then it became a habit. Like most of my habits, I practice it in fits and starts.

A deeper habit that grew out of this experiment was of “narrating my work,” which I picked up from watching Dave Winer (Scripting News). I now do that primarily with Obsidian. That morphs what ends up here. Most of what I write these days starts out in notes to myself. Getting from something that works well enough for my own purposes to something coherent enough to share with the world is a different problem than targeting a public audience from the outset.

So, I continue to learn. And, I will continue to share.

Let Stories Flow

Word reached me that Larry Prusak passed away ten days ago.

We coauthored our first book (Managing Information Strategically - Google Books) together. At the time (this was thirty years ago), we were working at the Center for Information Technology and Strategy, which was a think tank in Boston sponsored by Ernst & Young. I got listed at the first author courtesy of the alphabet. As the junior member of the effort, I also took on project management responsibilities for the effort.

Larry’s gifts as a storyteller were clear even then. But they weren’t showing up on the page. His initial drafts tried to capture everything he knew and everything he had previously read. For those of you who knew Larry, you will know that this was approximately everything that had ever been written on the subject.

We needed a different approach.

What we did was to limit Larry to a short outline of bullet points, put him in a conference room with an audience and a tape recorder, and let him tell stories.

I don’t know that he actually needed the outline, but it made me feel more comfortable. The resulting transcripts gave us what we needed with a bit of editing and rearranging.

Larry taught me a lot. I will miss him. But, I’ll always have the stories.

Making Art Happen

In high school I started to do some work in theater. It was a way to meet girls. At an all boys school, there wasn’t any way to do that in the halls between classes. There were, however, joint productions with a sister school. I was much too shy to attempt any performing roles but there’s always a need for people willing to work backstage.

I got to Princeton in the early days of coeducation there. Perhaps three quarters of the students then were guys. During Freshman Week I was enticed into a performance of the Princeton Triangle Club by a cute blonde passing out flyers outside McCarter Theater. Knowing one end of a hammer from another made me more than qualified to join the tech crew.

Four years later, I had done pretty much any backstage job that went into putting on a live performance. From stagehand to electrician to production stage manager I learned what went into making art happen on stage. And what supported that art offstage.

There’s very little about staging a play that’s efficient. I’ve stood behind a set piece on stage to keep it from falling during a performance. Don’t be seen and fix it later. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

“The show must go on” is a real thing. Internalizing that sets you up to keep your wits about you in the midst of chaos. Turns out that’s a pretty important set of life lessons and skills.

Racing ahead to what?

I went to an exceptionally good high school. That was courtesy of a nun in my parochial school who recognized I wasn’t being sufficiently challenged in the school I was in. That school got me into Princeton University. Moreover, it got me credit for enough college level work that I was on track to graduate in three years. I opted to major in Statistics on the theory that I could use that to pursue a graduate degree in any number of fields.

This seemed like an excellent plan for a kid from the Midwest on a mix of scholarships, my parents digging deeper than I ever appreciated, and work study jobs (including one as a dorm janitor). Going into my second year, I found better jobs as an electrician and stage carpenter at the university’s McCarter Theater. I also made time to get involved in student theater, so I wasn’t just grinding away at classes. Sleep was occasionally hard to come by but that was more about enjoying the experience than about working.

Midway through my second year I started to ask what was next. Not whatever argument I had made to get permission for my three year timetable but what was I actually thinking would happen when I did graduate. In my quest to move through the process as efficiently as possible, I had given no real thought to what that efficiency would buy me. I was approaching a finish line to one race with no real sense for what the next race was going to entail.

Nor did I have any words or concepts to bring to bear on these questions. My father had gone to college on the GI bill after serving in the Navy during WWII. He was the only one of his siblings to get a college degree. I was the first in my generation to think of college as a path to follow. My cousins were baffled; why would anyone spend the time and money for college when there were good union jobs to be had?

There was a huge amount of tacit knowledge I lacked. I was so ignorant I wasn’t even aware that I was ignorant.

Fortunately, I did something sensible despite my ignorance. I hit the pause button. I dropped back to a four year timetable. Slowing down was a necessary step. It bought me time to start figuring out the questions I needed to be asking.

McGee’s Musings turns 21

I’m pretty sure that I would never have predicted that I would be writing this post from Portugal. Certainly not as an open-ended decision to relocate here.

When I started this experiment, I was beginning my time on the faculty at Kellogg. I did end up victim of the contingent faculty phenomenon and just recently wrapped up teaching at Loyola University in Chicago. It was a good gig, but the adjunct faculty game mostly suffers from all the problems that others have documented. The only saving grace for me is that this occurred at the tail end of my professional career and I was less affected by the downsides of adjunct work.

I expect to continue posting some of what I read and think about here. I am giving serious thought to shifting from a basic blog structure to more of a digital garden. We’ll see how that thought grows and evolves from a passing thought into an intention and, I hope, changes that become visible to the broader world.

Just because it’s cliched doesn’t make it bad advice

My time learning to be a stage manager contained my first lessons in managing something bigger than myself. If there are 40 people you can see dancing on stage, there were at least as many behind the scenes making it happen. Everyone has a very specific set of tasks to perform, it all has to sync up moment to moment, and it all has to serve a singular artistic vision.

This was during my university years, where I was usually at a rehearsal or work session when I should have been in class. Everyone in the group was a student with three exceptions. We paid for a costume designer, a choreographer, and a director. In my role, I worked with all three, but it was our director, Milt Lyon, who was the sources of the most lasting lessons.

Milt had been working with the Triangle Club for at least twenty years when I arrived. His job was to tease out the core of the artistic vision from the writers and composers and help the performers bring that to life on stage. Mine was to handle all of the mundane issues of time and space: rehearsal schedules, rehearsal rooms, copies of script updates, meeting schedules, agendas.

The details of the incident are lost to me but I had screwed something up that was throwing off the schedule and, therefore, messing up the plans and focus of a hundred other people. I was fumbling through an explanation of how we had gotten into this mess, which included the reasons for why it wasn’t actually my fault, when Milt held up his hand:

“Jimmy…Stop”

Milt was one of the three people on the planet who called me Jimmy.

“I’m not interested. Are we ready to start now? Good, then let’s get going.”

Afterwards, Milt did take a few minutes to talk me through ways to avoid the problem in the future.

Since then, I’ve acquired an expensive and extensive education in how complex organizations work. I’ve had business cards with C-level titles on them and budgets to match. But that moment remains one of the touchstones of my thinking. I’ve come to see it as one of the first moments where I saw what it meant to be a professional.

Are we clear on the goal?

Are we all in agreement about the goal?

Is there something in our way?

Deal with it.

Keep moving.

Eyes forward.

What will the new year bring?

The time between semesters has turned into a bit more of a hiatus than I would have predicted. I’ve been doing a good bit of writing for myself but not in a way that unpacks easily into posts worth sharing more widely.

I’ve always been in the school of “how do I know what I think until I see what I say.” Often, when I say it for the first time, I’m still not sure I know what I’m thinking. I try to avoid inflicting those moments on everyone else.

There’s a quote that’s been on my mind lately. It comes from an interesting novel by Cory Doctorow called Homeland. In it, one of the characters observes:

Start at the beginning,” he said. “Move one step in the direction of your goal. Remember that you can change direction to maneuver around obstacles. You don’t need a plan, you need a vector.

When we get to the end of a journey, it’s always tempting to revise the story to make the journey seem more straightforward than it ever actually is. We’ll pretend that we knew where we were going all along; the goal was clear and the plan was good.

Doctorow’s formulation is more modest. A vector is movement and a direction. Movement without direction may be walking in circles or worse. Direction without movement is no more than gazing at some vague and hazy shadow on the horizon.

What I find intriguing about the notion of a vector is how it directs my focus away from that haze on the horizon to the terrain in front of me.It’s the terrain that throws up the obstacles that call for maneuvering.

The terrain that holds my attention is the space where technology innovation and organizational inertia interact. It’s tempting—and certainly simpler—to pretend that you can limit your focus to one or the other. But that requires lying to yourself about the world as it is. Never a wise approach. Nor an approach I intend to adopt.

McGee’s Musings turns 18; still curious, still exploring

This experiment is now old enough to enlist. Pretty sure that wasn’t something I anticipated.

The blogging software I was using at the time asked for a tagline to describe the blog. I chose a quote from Dorothy Parker that I always liked and that seemed to fit the spirit of blogging at the time:

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker

I found it an interesting bit of serendipity that the New York Times ran an op-ed on Sunday titled “Why Aren’t We Curious About the Things We Want to Be Curious About?.” The core argument is that:

Across evolutionary time, curious animals were more likely to survive because they learned about their environments; a forager that occasionally skipped a reliable feeding ground to explore might find an even better place to eat.…But it’s good to know about your environment even if it doesn’t promise a reward right now; knowledge may be useless today, but vital next week. Therefore, evolution has left us with a brain that can reward itself; satisfying curiosity feels pleasurable, so you explore the environment even when you don’t expect any concrete payoff.

The article offers insight into the mechanisms of curiosity, their payoffs, and a little bit of guidance about nudging curiosity into less frivolous paths.

It’s pretty clear to me that the environment we inhabit is increasingly in flux. Unsurprisingly, I’m in the school of thought that believes that curiosity about what is new and what is different is more relevant and important than ever. Hence, I continue to explore. I share traces of that exploring for two reasons. One, it forces me to make sense of what my curiosity dredges up. Two, it connects me to other explorers and their perspectives.

Learning the obvious

This past weekend was Groundhog Day in the States—an odd custom that seeks to predict the arrival of Spring. It is also one of my favorite movies of the same name. In it Bill Murray repeats the events of the day countless times until he learns the lessons the universe has set for him. There have been times in my life when I’ve had lessons repeated until they sink in.

A divorce, several job/project failures linked to missed organizational clues, and a career change to avoid both a second divorce or more job failures mark the genesis of my deeper exploration of the organizational ecosystem.

My initial launch out of college appeared perfect and decidedly upwardly mobile. Married above my station, promoted rapidly, accepted into Harvard Business School. Followed by a spouse opting for a different path, confusion and erratic results in school, and a reentry into work that was a flattened trajectory at best. I might not have been drowning but I was barely treading water and did not understand why.

Reconnecting to the offstage side of the theater was the first stroke back to shore. I met and married my second wife, now of thirty five years, and sought to understand the causes of my other failures. Once again, I was observing from the wings while others performed but now I started thinking about observation and performance more broadly.

Actual stages and wings made the distinction easier to see. I began thinking about onstage and offstage behavior as something to look for elsewhere. Where others moved naturally and fluidly, I needed more explicit markers to guide which behavior was appropriate in which settings.

For example, I recall an internal project I was managing. I discovered a problem looming in the near future and went to my boss with suggestions on how to eliminate the problem while it was still tiny. I was puzzled when he tabled my proposal.

I was smarter now and asked him to share his reasoning. If we solved the problem my way, we would get no organizational credit for eliminating a problem that no one else had yet seen. On the other hand, if we waited to present a complete solution just as others were seeing the shape of the problem, we acquired organizational stature and credit we could draw on later.

There were intricacies and layers to moving within the organization that I hadn’t learned to see. I suppose most managers develop their ability to see these things through the accumulation of experience. I needed more help and more structure. I needed to do more than continue as an apprentice to someone with mastery of one organizational environment. I saw that I needed to acquire and develop craft intentionally. I needed to find masters and mentors who made the world of organizations their vocation.

On the surface, this looked like another round of schooling and credentialing. On a deeper level it was a search for a conservatory where I could develop new craft under the tutelage of masters who knew both the craft and how to extend and transfer that craft.

I did find that place and did ultimately acquire another credential. More importantly, I developed new craft and the capacity to extend and transfer that craft myself.