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.

Taking the Stage

LecternI got involved in theater early on in my high school days. I was quite happy working backstage in various capacities. There was a production that a friend, Kathy, persuaded me to audition for with her. It was terrifying, a disaster softened only by being mercifully brief. Clearly, I was not cut out for the stage; I wasn’t brave enough.

My teachers had another agenda. They expected me to do readings at the lectern during Daily Mass. That led to being voluntold to deliver a brief talk on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That led to a Science Fair project that required me to present my work to judges multiple times as I gradually worked my way up through the statewide competition and eventually a trip to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Through all of this I was absorbing lessons about knowledge work, although I didn’t have that vocabulary at the time. First, public speaking isn’t about courage so much as it’s an exercise in rehearsal, repetition, and practice. Second, curiosity is an excellent driver of energy that can be channeled into sharing what you’re learning. Third, it’s hard to make an impact without sharing.

Knowledge and knowledge work exists to be shared. It won’t share itself. If you want what you learn to make a difference, you have to take the stage.

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. 

Remember When or What’s Next – Choosing a Perspective

We rolled the last road box up the ramp and onto the truck. We were done. The truck was on its way to Chicago, our next stop. The stage was now bare, empty of the sets, lights, and cast that had filled it a few hours earlier. I had one last task as the Stage Manager before heading off to the cast party now in more than full swing.

My last responsibility was to make sure that the “ghost light” was on. The theater is replete with custom and tradition. You never wish a cast member “good luck,” it’s “break a leg.” It’s “The Scottish Play” never “Macbeth.” And, you never leave a stage dark; there’s always at least one light left on over the stage. They’ll tell you it’s a safety thing; you don’t want someone to walk off the edge of the stage by accident. But, it’s really to keep the ghosts away.

The thing about a bare stage is that it exists between an ending and a beginning. There are old stories to be told and new stories to create. Either is a worthy task; it’s a choice of perspective. 

Economist Joseph Schumpeter developed the notion of “creative destruction;” the idea that innovation depended on getting rid of the old to make way for the new. It’s easiest to see in the demolition of old factories to make room for new ones. It’s harder to suss out when we’re talking about shedding obsolete ideas. 

This seems to be a relatively unexplored aspect of knowledge work. While we talk about the half-life of knowledge and the speed with which new knowledge proliferates, I can’t think of any advice about how to effectively mark the ending of dead ideas. While we want to learn from history, we also want to avoid being trapped in it. Better to adopt the iconic question from The West Wing, “What’s Next?”

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?

Taking Credit and Responsibility for Knowledge Work

I’ve been writing for more than half a century now. One of the early outlets for my writing was the school paper. Most of that was on assignment and there were no bylines on stories. There was, however, one op-ed piece I wrote that did carry a byline. From my cumulative wisdom of 17 years, I opined that our headmaster should come back into the classroom and teach. Scarcely a rabble rousing call to arms but my schoolmates were convinced that I would soon be summoned to Fr. Timothy’s inner sanctum and suitably chastised. That never happened, although we did have a passing chat on the sidelines of a soccer game weeks later where Fr. Timothy agreed with my analysis but suggested I might lack some necessary perspective. 

This was probably the first time that my words and name were publicly linked. I didn’t give it much thought until recently. I thought about deadlines and assignments, but little about formal credit. 

As a consultant, I’ve written tens of thousands of words for clients. While my participation and contributions to this work were never a secret, my name is nowhere on the final deliverables. The finished work is tied to the firm and its reputation, not to individual contributors. 

Eventually, I began to write things for myself and put them out into the world with my name attached. There’s this blog, case studies, periodic columns, articles, and two books (so far). 

I thought this was about getting credit for my work, and that’s an aspect. More importantly, it’s about taking responsibility. Few of us want to attach our names to substandard work. (There’s another story to be told about learning to calibrate your standards to avoid the opposite problem of seeking unattainable perfection).

There’s a missed opportunity here for organizations that depend on quality knowledge work. Steve Jobs understood this when he had the design team for the original Macintosh sign their names on the inside of the plastic case. We talk of knowledge work products as assets to be managed. Each of those assets should also come with a provenance.