Laying Down a New Rhythm

Many decades ago I was a pretty fair track and field athlete. Not world class, but competitive within my environment. Put a finish line in front of me and I would often be the first to cross it.

I was a sprinter. The promise of a finish off in the distance wasn’t good enough. I needed to see the finish line.

There was craft and technique to learn and to practice. I can still remember my father’s lessons in how to make sure my energy was focused and directed on moving forward rather than wasted in extraneous movement. And coaches helped break down the components of a race, from getting out of the blocks to running through not to the finish line. But the essence was to attack the goal in front of my eyes.

This simplicity took me a long way on the track and much of my professional life as well. As long as I could see a finish line, everything else was easy. As the world and my life got more complex, I was able to find suitable finish lines to focus on. And to seek out environments and coaches to help with craft and technique.

That simple strategy has run out of track. I’ve always hated the adage “it’s a marathon not a sprint.” I still long for sprints but it’s long past time to take a deeper and broader look at how to run the races that I now face. Starting with the recognition that race is the wrong metaphor to build on. It’s too thin a slice of all that is going on.

Rhythm and cadence are the words I’m thinking about now. What can or should I be doing to establish a cadence of doing the things that will more consistently lead to outputs and results that please me? Over the next several weeks, I’ll be placing myself in an environment to help me work through these questions.

The goal is not simply to cross the finish line of this particular race. It’s to engage in the first few iterations of what I hope will become a sustainable rhythm.

You never start with a clean sheet of paper

A clean sheet of paper is an oft-invoked image during design efforts of various stripes. Ignore what is happening now and imagine that there are no constraints on what you seek to create. Sometimes this strategy is explicit; often, however, it is hidden in the press to unveil the latest new, new thing.

If I’ve got a product or service that solves a real problem, I want to emphasize how good it’s going to be once you’ve put it into practice. If I spend any time at all on what you’re doing now, it’s only to highlight your pain and persuade you to get a move on to the promised land. If i’m fair to middling honest, I might acknowledge that you’ll have to put in some work to realize the benefits I’m promising.

For all that this is a default sales and marketing strategy, I think it is misleading, and possibly dangerous, in the realm of knowledge work. People with something to sell want you to start from a clean slate because it makes their job easier, not yours.

If you are turning out knowledge work on some consistent basis, then you already have some form of system or practice in place. You likely are all too well aware of your system’s warts and blemishes. The temptation to wipe everything clear and start over can be strong.

What is it, however, that you would be wiping clear? What you have now is a collection of practices and a body of work. Both contribute to your capacity for producing new work. Together they constitute a complex system that works.

This is a time to proceed with caution. Consider the following piece of advice that I encountered in Jerry Weinberg’s excellent Weinberg on Writing

It is always easier to destroy a complex system than to selectively alter it”
R. James

Both the practices and the body of work you have now evolved over time; they constitute a complex system. You are engaged in craft. Much of that craft may have been acquired by osmosis through multiple apprenticeships.

However acquired, you aren’t starting from a clean sheet of paper. However appealing new practices and techniques may sound, they have to be evaluated within the context of your existing practice and environment. Which means you need to invest in understanding your practices and your environment in some detail.

The question is never “am I doing X (building a second brain, linking my thinking, creating a Zettelkasten) the right way?”. The question has to be “how can I adapt this idea to my circumstances?”

You cannot function as a consumer here; you must accept your responsibility as a designer.

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.

A shaky reminder about ground truth

I haven’t posted here since before the Summer started. The simplest excuse (and it is an excuse) is that we’ve been traveling quite a bit.

Earlier this month, we were in Morocco in Bin El Ouidane. That put us 200 kilometers northeast of Marrakesh when an earthquake struck another 120Km to the southwest in the Atlas Mountains. We felt it where we were but much less intensely. There was some chatter in the hallways but things seemed to settle down pretty quickly. Woke up the next morning to news coverage about the earthquake “near Marrakesh”, which was our destination for that day. Our group met for breakfast and discussed what our options might be. Meanwhile our guide was not responding to messages or to a knock on his door. Mustafa eventually surfaced to let us know that we were still going on to Marrakesh, although we would be shifting to a hotel outside the Medina and likely adjusting some of our other scheduled activities.

Driving into Marrakesh, we saw families camped out on the median out of concern about aftershocks. That was the only evidence we saw as we pulled into our new hotel. The hotel seemed equally unscathed. The images on the news were much more disturbing. The next morning, we got to see for ourselves. We drove along the outskirts of the Medina and could see damage along the walls encircling the old city. We then walked into the main square and could see a damaged mosque in one corner. What we could also see that the news reports didn’t show was how concentrated the damage was and how tightly framed the shots were to highlight the damage.

The rest of our day played out much the same; a mix of concentrated damage and surrounding normalcy. Meanwhile, we were responding to anxious messages from family and friends who were hearing only one part of the story. From their distance, we seemed in the middle of a tragedy. From where we stood, the tragedy was still distant. That tragedy was still 120 km further away in the Atlas Mountains. We were mildly inconvenienced. People in the mountains died.

All of this has had me thinking about stories. Telling stories is always about perspective and framing; what do you highlight, what do you leave out. So too with consuming stories; what has been left out and why. Through it all, what you’re trying to tease out is ground truth.

Improving the Odds of Project Success: Review of “How Big Things Get Done”

I’ve taught project management for the last six years. I’ve been a project manager in one way or another for over fifty. I’m somewhere better than average but nowhere near the best project managers I’ve known and worked with.

If I were to teach the subject again, How Big Things Get Done would be required reading. Very little of it is about the tools and techniques that occupy the standard texts. Looking instead at success and failures in well-known, large-scale projects, Flyvbjerg and Gardner provide insight into how to navigate the organizational and political contexts that surround any effort to create something new and consequential.

While it can be more fun to read about the failures, the deeper lessons fall out of understanding how the successes happened. The lessons aren’t hugely surprising;

  • Time invested in planning is a lot cheaper and more effective than rushing into doing.
  • Going with a proven team eliminates many risks and sets you up to handle the risks you can’t dodge.
  • Iteration is your friend. Never depend on getting it right the first time.

The hardest part of their approach is the search for modularity; to find the basic building block that you can organize the effort and the plan around. Their closing chapter is titled “What’s Your Lego?”. Here’s their closing bit of advice:

Get a small thing, a basic building block. Combine it with another and another until you have what you need. That’s how a single solar cell becomes a solar panel, which becomes a solar array, which becomes a massive megawatt-churning solar farm. Modularity delivers faster, cheaper, and better, making it valuable for all project types and sizes. But for building at a truly huge scale—the scale that transforms cities, countries, even the world—modularity is not just valuable, it’s indispensable.

If projects are part of your portfolio, How Big Things Get Done belongs on your reading list.

Case Research of Knowledge Work Practice

You can observe a lot by just watching.

Yogi Berra

I’ve long argued that invisibility constitutes a major impediment to improving the practice of knowledge work. What we need is to see more practice.

So, I’m setting out to collect and develop stories and case studies of knowledge workers doing their work. Right now, this is exploratory research to discover categories and concepts that might prove useful. My conjecture is there’s an underlying set of skills and practices common across multiple instances of knowledge work.

Further, I suspect these commonalities aren’t immediately evident or obvious. They are “hidden” within the craft elements of different knowledge work jobs (e.g. reporter, consultant, systems analyst, programmer, data scientist, media planner, teacher). The initial goal is to figure out productive questions.

A starting point is to examine accounts of knowledge workers who have shared their journeys in ways that we can extract insights about their methods and practices. For example, Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain presents his solution for a personal knowledge management environment. He does so by sharing a good bit of how he got to his answers. Regardless of whether you find his destination suitable to your needs, you can learn from his journey. Supplement the book with the materials he has shared elsewhere online and we can craft a useful case study.

There’s a decent collection of knowledge workers (authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.) who have shared enough about their methods and practices to form an initial sample from which we can develop the outlines of a theory of knowledge work. Once that exists, we can reach out to other knowledge workers to explore their practices and elaborate a richer model.

Learning to do learning by doing better

I’m a believer in learning by doing – both as a learner and as a teacher. As a learner I’ve largely been content to hack away at things in the belief and lived experience that I do figure something out eventually. I’m a bit more disciplined and intentional when I put on my teaching hat. There, I make a more mindful effort to design doing with the intent of nudging learners to do things I expect will impart the lessons I intend.

If learning by doing is a powerful strategy, shouldn’t we make an effort to develop that skill? What might happen if I bring more of my teaching strategies to my own learning by doing?

Let’s start with one learning by doing strategy. “See one, do one, teach one” is a strategy that’s long been effective in medical education. While typically deployed in the context of a broader curriculum where you can make assumptions about prerequisite knowledge and coaches to keep the learners in bounds and out of trouble, can I adapt it to my individual needs?

My hunch is that that “seeing” is the trickiest part in this equation. I’ve asserted that one of the fundamental problems of knowledge work is that it is largely invisible. What can we do to make it easier to see our own work?

One prior element in making my work easier to see was to worry about the naming of things. Which helps at the later stages of knowledge work. How about earlier stages? I think this is the potential within the world of note-taking/note-making apps and environments.

Ideas are rarely so accommodating as to show up fully formed. Sometimes they arrive as a phrase or as a handful of words. Sometimes as a sentence or two. They’re often rude enough to intrude when I’m half asleep without a writing implement nearby. I’ve had to accept that many will escape before I can write them down. However, I have slowly gotten better at capturing a reasonable percentage before they disappear.

Way back when, I did much of this capturing by hand in notebooks. Now, I capture these evanescent items in Obsidian. I don’t generally know what I will do with an idea at that point. But, bits are cheap and better to have a record and decide to throw it away later than miss collecting a gem. (One of these days, I will have to do a piece on why I am suspicious of the notion of the collector’s fallacy).

Gradually, I’ve been building a collection of my ideas that I can “see” from something resembling a single vantage point. It includes everything I’ve posted to this blog since 2001, everything I’ve highlighted on my Kindle (via the excellent Readwise Reader), and my journals going back to 2019. It leaks. And, there are remaining pools of thinking and ideas worth integrating over time. For now, the view is still fuzzy and incomplete but it’s moving in a good direction.


Moving from Tools for Thought to Thinking as Craft

The notion of “tools for thought” is undergoing a resurgence from niche topic to something approaching a fad. Everyone’s got a new tool for making notes or a course on how to optimize their Zettelkasten. Too few of them seem familiar with the prior art fueling their work. You might want to start by adding Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology to your reading list.

The problem is that we mostly get trapped talking about tools in isolation. The folks marketing and selling tools focus on what sets their tool apart from others. People looking at a new tool are seduced into comparisons between individual tools. Discussion threads revolve around narrow questions of “how do I force this tool to behave like the tool I already have” or “how can I import my collection of left-handed, Gregorian chant, meditations”. We don’t appear to have a principled way to talk or think about how a new tool might fit into a collection of tools and how tools (plural) enable and support the craft of thinking. We slide past the phrase “tools for thought” without giving much thought to where that might take us.

There’s more to quality work than any individual tool. 4.0. My wife is a photographer. If you want to irritate her, suggest that she must use a very expensive camera. She takes better photos with her iPhone than I can with $10,000 worth of equipment.

The eye behind the lens matters more than the camera. Or the mind at the keyboard.

Talking about tools is easy. Thinking about craft is hard.

Working out how tools enable better craft is the nub. George R.R. Martin still writes with Wordstar. Anne Lamott was pushing yellow legal pads in a recent workshop. John McPhee was rearranging index cards on the floor. I don’t take any of this as recommendations to adopt their tools. But it does make me wonder how I ought to think about how tools and craft intertwine.

A starting point is to turn Sturgeon’s Law into a working strategy. Sturgeon’s Law asserts that “90% of everything is crap.” Churn out a lot of output and learn to distinguish the 10% from the 90%. Becoming a better photographer consists of throwing away most of your shots. Same for writing. Step one in getting better is producing something to critique. Over time, you can begin to wonder about producing things worthy of critique. To start, focus on pure production.

Two things become possible once we’re producing something. One, we can begin to compare our outputs with one another and with similar outputs out in the world. Two, we can pay attention to how we’re going about our production. Both of these can work as individual practices. With a bit of confidence, you can expand your comparisons to others.

I’m an average photographer at best. I haven’t put in the reps that my wife has. She’ll take a dozen shots of a scene and throw eleven away to get an image worth keeping. Most of what she throws away put my efforts to shame. Slowly, I’ve learned there’s a body of knowledge about what separates a good shot from a mediocre one.

I’ve put in more reps at writing than I have at photography. This blog post is about 600 words at this point. There’s another thousand words of notes in the window next to this one and I’ve probably thrown away another 1500-2000 so far. There’s an extensive body of knowledge about blogging in particular and writing in general. I’m familiar enough with both to know the rules and to be comfortable breaking them when it suits my purposes.

I’ve got plenty of output that I can assess and evaluate. The second development path to explore is the production process. The tools I employ are pretty easy to identify. Teasing out the process is trickier. Discerning where improvement opportunities lie is harder still. It is most definitely a work in progress.

I’m on record that knowledge work should be treated as a craft. Lately, I’ve been lamenting that there aren’t enough case studies of knowledge work in action for us to learn from. Let’s see if we can start to generate and collect some to see what we might learn from one another.

Do You Need a Second Brain

There’s a lot to like about Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain if you are a knowledge worker of any sort. In today’s world that’s most of us. Like any ambitious work, it’s a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Understand the limitations and take advantage of the wealth of good ideas and advice.

The book grew out of Forte’s own efforts to cope with the flood of information that we all swim in. That led to a course/coaching practice to share his insights with others wrestling with similar challenges. Add a growing online platform and you end up with a book deal. As some wags have put it, Forte is trying to lay claim in the Personal Knowledge Management space to the position that David Allen grabbed in the personal productivity realm a few years back.

If you opt for the conventional publishing model, you’re bound by the current assumptions and expectations of that model. Yes, you can compress much of the value of the book into a handful of blog posts or articles. Yes, you will be expected to insert a collection of anecdotes about the famous or important people demonstrating elements of your system in their work. Blame that on Malcolm Gladwell. Forte is working within the constraints of the market that exists.

You have a different set of questions as a potential reader. Does this particular package suit your constraints for adding to your knowledge base? Perhaps you would do better seeking out those blog posts. Or, your time/value tradeoff makes a course environment a better choice. Having good ideas available in multiple formats and environments is a feature not a bug.

I’m not a particular fan of the Second Brain metaphor. Unfortunately, it’s hot right now and marketing momentum takes precedence over actual relevance. If it appeals to you, great. If it doesn’t, focus on the examples and general discussion of PKM issues and principles.

In point of fact, I first encountered Forte’s ideas in his online environment. I paid for access to his online writing. I chose not to invest in his online course. The cost of adding the book itself to my knowledge environment was trivial. The cost of my time and attention to work through the book (a couple of times) was significantly less than the value I’ve realized.

I’ve taken the time to walk through this tradeoff analysis because it makes a point about PKM; you are in control and it is your responsibility to be in control of your knowledge environment. I’ve been advocating for PKM since at least 2005 ([Why You Need a Personal Knowledge-Management Strategy). I might be envious that Forte is seeing traction for these ideas that I never dreamed of, but the universe is a better place for it.

The principal value of Building a Second Brain is as an extended case study/example of one successful strategy for establishing and working within a PKM environment. Forte is at this strongest when he shares and works through examples of how his system works for him. When he tries to meet the Malcolm Gladwell expectations, he has a tendency to reach a bit farther than he should. For example, at one point, Forte claims that

every change in how we use technology also requires a change in how we think. To properly take advantage of the power of a Second Brain, we need a new relationship to information, to technology, and even to ourselves.

I think you can safely ignore that claim and still get full value out of the book. I’ll close with the best advice that Forte offers

As your needs change, give yourself the freedom to discard or take on whichever parts serve you. This isn’t a “take it or leave it” ideology where you must accept all of it or none of it. If any part doesn’t make sense or doesn’t resonate with you, put it aside. Mix and match the tools and techniques you’ve learned in this book to suit your needs.