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.

Understanding and explaining the magic

Skokie Benefit Rehearsal 2003The place where technology, organizations, and people come together has been a continuing focus of my work. That interest was birthed in stories of the wonders and dangers of fantastic new inventions. Like a lot of future scientists and engineers I was raised on the stories of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C . Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

Somewhere in my early, unsupervised, reading I encountered Arthur C. Clarke’s “Profiles of the Future,” long before I was mature enough to grasp much of it. I’ve since returned to it multiple times over the years. One thing stuck from the earliest, Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

That notion gestated in the back of my mind as two strands played out. First, I encountered and learned about technology in multiple manifestations; mathematics, physics, carpentry, programming, electricity.

Second, I created magic in the form of live theater. Group effort focused on creating illusions that touched the heart observed from a spot where all the illusion was exposed. It’s an odd experience to watch a singer bring an audience to tears while listening for the key change that is the cue to dim the lights and adjust their color; all of which reinforces her voice  and triggers those tears night after night.

Where this has taken me is showing people that the magic is understandable. Revealing the technology that creates the magic gives people power to create their own magic and power lets you solve problems.

There is a moral question of whether you hoard or distribute power. I land on the distributing side; the problems we face need all the power we can collectively muster. Hoarding crimps the flow of total power we need.

You transform magic into technology in stages. The first is to shift perspective and take people behind the scenes. That involves telling the story twice; once from the magic side and again from the technology side. Next, you break down the experience into its component parts and reveal the seams. Finally, you help people learn to create and assemble their own designed experiences.

The venue for this transformation can take multiple forms. It can be as simple as a telling of the tale from the right perspective. Or, it can be a guided tour. With enough time and resources, the best choice can be a “build your own” experience with a veteran guide at your side.

Goals and journeys

Saints John and James Church - FergusonMy dad is 96. He’s never been a big talker, but there is one story that I’ve often retold. It wasn’t one that I learned until I was probably in my thirties.

Dad served in the Navy during WWII. He had to cheat on his pre-induction physical because of his eyesight; he memorized the eye chart while standing in line. He ended up stationed in San Diego, pretty much as far away from his home in Delaware as you could get and still be in the country.

After the war, Dad went back East and got a degree in mechanical engineering on the GI Bill. In 1950, he packed himself into his car and started west to return to San Diego. If you’ve seen both Wilmington, Delaware and San Diego, you can understand the attraction.

Around about St. Louis, he ran out of money, found a job, and started going to the local parish church, while saving up to resume his journey. One Sunday after Mass, he asked the parish priest if there were any nice Catholic girls he might get to know. It turned out to be seven children and nearly forty years before he finished that trip to San Diego.

Goals are important. They set you on your way. But, what you learn on the journey is equally important. It’s trite. I know. I don’t like trite. But I need to be reminded that it is the shared human experience underneath the trite that is important. I am distracted by bright, shiny, objects all of the time. For me, this story is a reminder and a warning to worry less about the particulars of my plans and keep the human goals top of the list.

UPDATE: With the help of some of my cousins, I was able to track down a photo of the church where Mom and Dad were married, Saints John and James Catholic Church in Ferguson.

Thirteen years

Still holding down this outpost on the web. My life and the world seem to have gotten more complex over that interval. When I started this, Facebook, Twitter, etc. did not exist. A few pioneers like Dave Winer seemed to have it well in hand and I felt as though I was late to the game. Guess that was a bit naive. 

This has been a source of continuing learning and a entree to a richer network than I would have ever imagined. More than reason enough to keep the experiment running.

Knowledge is a sobering thing

I sometimes wonder whether the thing that scares people about knowledge and science is how it can make you feel small and insignificant. This image is a visualization of the newest knowledge about where we on Earth fit in the universe. They’re calling it “Laniakea.”

It’s a very long way from when we thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. For me, it engenders a sense of awe; what reaction does it trigger for you?


The video walks through the data analysis process that went into establishing our extended universal address. It’s a good example of Big Data and analytics at work. 

If you’re interested there are several good articles discussing this work:

Our Place in the Universe: Welcome to Laniakea

This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe

Twelve years at McGee’s Musings

Still here. Not so many posts here over the past twelve months.

Working on making that change.

When I started this, blogs were pretty much the only way to share your thinking. A lot more choices today, although of late the emphasis seems to have shifted more toward ‘sharing’ than ‘thinking’. Both make the world a better place; striking the balance isn’t magically easy. 

Two efforts have cut into my capacity to share here. Each is moving into a phase where the balance is shifting to a more even split between thinking and sharing. Each will generate footprints here.

The first was finishing and publishing Think Inside the Box: Discover the Exceptional Business Inside Your Organization (WCG Press, 2013). This was a joint effort with my friend Tim Nelson.

My favorite (i.e. most ego gratifying) bit of feedback so far came from Richard Koch, author of The 80/20 Principle, in a review in the Huffington Post. Here’s what Koch had to say about the book:

I’m really excited! I’ve just stumbled across the best new technique for boosting the performance of any business. And guess what — the method is brilliantly retro. But even trend-setters and worshippers of the new new thing can’t afford to ignore the technique. Quite simply, it’s the best strategic display since the BCG Growth Share Matrix.

Richard Koch, Author of The 80/20 Principle:
review in the Huffington Post  – 08/05/2013

You can learn more about the book and the work behind it at Insidethe8020box.com.

The second effort has been work on developing a business/service concept called Collaborating Minds. It’s an effort to create a hybrid between what we know about large technology-augmented groups and high-performance teams. 

So, stay tuned. 

Eleven Years and Counting at McGee’s Musings

Yesterday marked the eleventh anniversary of the first blog post on McGee’s Musings in 2001.

In two weeks, we’ll practice the American version of democracy, choose a President, revolution will not occur regardless of who wins and, despite the rhetoric, life will go on. We (the U.S. and the rest of the planet) will still face a variety of wicked problems. 

Getting smarter about how we work as individuals, teams, crowds, competitors and the like remains a priority. My efforts in that regard haven’t yet worked their way to visibility here, but they will. Being part of the conversation is important. Listening is half of the process (maybe more). 

As always, my thanks to all of those who’ve been part of the interesting conversations that have taken place over the past year.