Have I seen this before

A few years back I got a call from a software firm I had done work with. A large NGO has asked them about a consulting project need. This was outside the software firm’s expertise and they wanted to know if I was interesting in talking with the NGO about their problem.

Later that afternoon I was on the phone with Bobby, who was the internal project manager at the NGO. They were looking for help on updating their strategy for knowledge management and were still looking for more bidders. The only problem was that it was now Wednesday and final bids were due by close of business on Friday.

Bobby sent me a copy of the RFP and we arranged for a phone conference for Thursday morning. I started reading and outlining some questions and ideas. We spoke the next morning at length and I spent the remainder of the day and Thursday evening cranking out a basic letter proposal. It was a pretty vanilla proposal given the tight timeframe; Understanding of the Situation, Core Lessons/Current Best Practices, Approach to the Work, Credentials, Estimated Fees.

The tricky part was settling on a bid. I hadn’t worked with this organization before, I had no idea who else was bidding, and no sense for the budget. The only thing I could fall back on was something I had learned from the late Gerry Weinberg; something he called the “principle of least regret”. Set the price so that you feel okay win or lose. Given all the uncertainties, I doubled my estimate and sent in my bid before the Friday deadline.

The following Tuesday morning, I get a call from Bobby. Mine is the winning proposal. How soon can I start.

Maybe I could have bid higher. Not a problem. I was happy with the result even if I had underbid.

Here’s the curious thing. Midway through the project, I had a chance to debrief one of the decision makers who had awarded the work to me. I was the high bidder. Enough so, in fact, that the decision had to be bounced up a couple of levels in the bureaucracy to get approval to exceed the planned budget.

Mine was the only proposal that had devoted any time and energy to demonstrating an understanding of the client’s situation.

Fundamentally, I was saved by my own habits, my patterns of practice. It would never occur to me write a proposal that started anywhere other than “understanding of the problem.”

There is constant pressure to get on with it. To trot out an answer before you’ve finished listening to the question. Speed is so often rewarded that learning when to move slow takes a conscious act of will. It is as simple and as difficult as transforming

“I have seen this before” to “Have I seen this before?”.

I’ve seen this story before

There’s a plane that takes off every 90 seconds from San Diego airport and every 90 seconds I wish I was on it

That’s the line that I can still recall from my younger son’s first letter home to us when he was in basic training at MCRD San Diego. There wasn’t anything I could do about it and subsequent letters were much more positive. Over a decade later D is a Staff Sergeant in the Marines about to return to civilian life.

There are plenty of cliches and stories about military life and training. As an educator and a student of high performance organizations I am arguably more knowledgeable than average about what my boy was experiencing. Doesn’t make it any less painful. But it has led to many an interesting conversation. There was the time I asked what he could do for me based on his training. What do you say to “Well, if you have a sucking chest wound, I can keep you alive”?

Maybe all these odd conversations feed into my curiosity about making sense of patterns. I always bristle when I hear people talk about connecting the dots. The emphasis on the flash of insight or inspiration illuminating what was already there to be seen.

How do you make sense out of all of the training, rehearsal, and practice for a moment that will never play out in real life the way that you practiced? They say that you “fight the way you train”, that when the moment comes you fall back on your training. In the moment, you can only improvise.

Here is where the language of “solving for pattern” comes into play. If you’ve practiced enough variations and processed the experience in enough depth, then you’ve laid down patterns of situation and response that let you recognize what is familiar, what is new, and craft a response appropriate to the moment.

This is something very different from standard operating procedure. The task is not to select from a menu of pre-defined responses. It is to invent a unique answer in the moment that is a solution to the underlying pattern.


Learning to see the magic

Your ticket says the performance will begin at 8PM. At 7:57 the house lights dim. At 7:59 the house lights go out and the orchestra begins to play the overture. At 8:02 the curtain rises, the lights come up, and the performance begins. You’re lucky and a magical performance unfolds over the next two hours.

Wind the clock back to 7:30. Behind the curtain, just offstage, is the stage manager, dressed in black jeans and a black turtleneck. He speaks into a headset, “call is half hour”. The message is relayed and acknowledged by actors, stage hands, electricians, sound techs, props manager and others. The House Manager calls from the lobby; it’s a full house.

Energy is building.

At 7:53, the stage manager steps over to a small podium holding a 3-ring binder with the stage manager’s cue book illuminated by a small lamp. The magic making is about to begin.

7:55 – “call is 5 minutes”
7:57 – “Places. House to half”
7:59 – “house out”
“stand by 1”
The overture begins
“Go 1”
8:02 The stage manager gives a hand signal to a stage hand to raise the curtain
“Stand by 2”
“Go 2”
The lead makes her first entrance up stage center

Two hours later, two hundred lighting and sound cues successfully executed, lines performed, the curtain comes down.


Curtain calls.

Most of us are content to enjoy the magic. Some wonder how the magic gets made. Some want to be part of making the magic.

You can’t guarantee that the magic will happen. What you can do is bring the pieces together, practice, observe what happens, adjust, and repeat. What separates the magical from the banal is the quality of observing and adjusting.

What can you learn to see? How finely can you learn to adjust?

You are always part of the system

A lifelong reading habit and skill with numbers meant that standardized tests were relatively easy for me. That plus marginal social skills helped me handle the first several hurdles in formal schooling with relative ease. I ticked off a succession of steps in a name brand educational resume and equally name brand early career stops. Come my early thirties, my new bride and I decide to shift from the corporate ladder climb to the academic path. I reach out to a favorite professor and apply to a doctoral program in business.

This is a qualitatively different process and experience. Instead of being one of hundreds or thousands competing to fill one of a thousand spots, I’m one of dozens seeking a handful of openings. To this point, the question has been “do we think you will turn out to be a representative example of the product we turn out?” Now the question becomes “do we want to let you into our club?”

Perfect scores on standardized tests are common. Transcripts with failing grades are not. Now, a relationship with a favorite professor takes on greater significance. To an admissions committee I am a potential risk. With an advocate, there is a compromise path. Leave your consulting position and take a position as a case writer working for your advocate. Prove to the admissions committee that you can produce quality work and they will reconsider in a year.

I did and they did.

What this became was an early step and an exemplar experience in a journey from connecting the dots to solving for pattern. An experience I lived through before I had the vocabulary to describe it.

Rather than rattling off answers to a standard question or teasing out a picture already concealed in a set of existing dots, I was learning a new process. One of formulating and posing questions to see what they might reveal.

A crucial aspect to this change in perspective is that you need to account for yourself when you are solving for pattern. You are part of the system you are trying to understand.

Exploring how to better solve for pattern

Over the next several weeks I’m taking a deeper dive into a phrase that’s held my attention for some time—”solving for pattern“. It’s from an essay by Wendell Berry. Berry was writing about farming as an exemplar of complex systems. What I know about farming is largely courtesy of Berry; complex systems, however, have been at the core of my work for decades. The systems I pay attention to are embedded in organizations; comprised of people, processes, and technology. 

Solving for pattern is a more powerfully evocative phrase than the one I more often encounter “connecting the dots.” Connecting the dots is trotted out as a way of simultaneously claiming cleverness and suggesting that everyone else is slightly stupid. Solving for pattern suggests a more appropriate degree of complexity and depth to the process of understanding. 

I’m planning on cheating a bit to get this exploration underway. Over the next several weeks I plan to piggyback off of a set of prompts provided by Megan Macedo. Megan organizes and coordinates a writing challenge about this time each year. She collects an eclectic group of writers and doles out a set of prompts over the course of the next several weeks. I’ve folded this into my calendar each of the last five years. This year’s overarching topic is about “letters and correspondence.” 

I think I can see a way to hijack that to my purposes. 

Organizational systems are built on top of conversations that have history and unfold over time. Sometimes those conversations lead to deep insight; sometimes they devolve into chaos. Let’s see whether we can keep mostly to the insight side of the ledger. 

Personal knowledge management and body of work

Got an email from my old colleague, Chunka Mui, this week that read

Here’s an out of the past question — do either of your archives have a copy of that HBS case study that included the Andersen AI work on FSA and Eloise? I got a message from an old colleague looking for it.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request.

Surprisingly, I was able to track down a copy. How that played out, however, is worth reviewing for what it might reveal about personal knowledge management in the real world.

The case study is a piece of my body of work. I wrote it in 1986, early in my doctoral studies. It’s out of print as near as I can discover. A digital copy, if it still existed, would be in Microsoft Word 2.0 format, predating Windows.

I was pretty sure that I had kept a physical copy. But that was five addresses and two downsizings ago. It wasn’t in the one file cabinet that was on the third floor. Eventually, I did find a hard copy in a stack of articles and file folders up on a shelf in a closet in my office. All of my old case studies are in that pile. At some point, I pulled them together with every intention of scanning them.

So. Is this a win, loss, or draw for my personal knowledge management system? It’s a win for Chunka. He got his answer in less than a day.

I got him that answer in less than a day. But it doesn’t feel like a win to me. Is that an indictment of my system or of my assessment? What I feel should have taken a few minutes turned into an hour or more spread throughout the day. All dependent more on my memory than on anything systematic in my practices. Plenty of room for improvement.


Review: Brief History of a Perfect Future

A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the World We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050. Chunka Mui, Paul Carroll, and Tim Andrews. 

Full disclosure, I’ve known and worked with the authors for over twenty five years. I’m biased. Largely because I have first hand knowledge of how smart they are and how deeply they think. 

In A Brief History of a Perfect Future, they take an old observation of Alan Kay’s–“the best way to predict the future is to invent it”–and turn that into a planning process you can apply yourself. 

When the goal is invention not prediction, you want to understand what you have to work with. You’d like to work with what is cheap and readily available. Today, computing power qualifies. Thirty years ago that wasn’t the case. Fortunes were made by those who recognized that trend and acted accordingly.  We’re still learning how to think about what’s possible with essentially free computation. 

Mui, Carroll, and Andrews extend that line of thinking into seven “Laws of Zero,” These are factors of production on similar improvement paths; computation, communication, information, genomics, energy, water, and transportation. What becomes possible when you can anticipate thousand and million-fold improvements in price and performance in any one of these elements? When they improve in concert? 

The authors play out potential scenarios in the next section of the book. What futures might we invent for ourselves? None are foreordained. None are impossible. The scenarios provided here are provocative and plausible. 

The point, of course, is not whether these particular futures come to pass. We’re not running a race on a fixed track. We’re building new roads to new destinations. Much more fun and rewarding than chasing someone else on their road. These are traveling companions worth getting to know.

There is no physics of human systems

An occupational hazard of acquiring a Ph.D. is adding lots of fancy new words to your vocabulary. Too often, these new terms devolve into weapons in status games. Sometimes, however, they clarify assumptions you didn’t realize you were making. “Nomothetic” and “idiographic” are terms you don’t pick up in casual conversation. They represent two distinct perspectives on making sense out of the world that explain a journey I’ve been on for years.

Let’s start with how the terms are defined;

  • nomothetic – relating to the study or discovery of general scientific laws.
  • idiographic – relating to the study or discovery of particular scientific facts and processes, as distinct from general laws.

Physics is all about the nomothetic; E=mc2 is true regardless. Economics aspires to be nomothetic, experience with trickle-down economics notwithstanding. Understanding Amazon or Apple, however, depends very much on the particulars of Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs.

My own intellectual journey has been from the nomothetic to the idiographic. I was comfortable with mathematics and the hard sciences. Identify the problem, select the appropriate equation, crank the numbers and pop out the one right answer. 

I thought I would study psychology as an undergraduate but opted for statistics instead. I told myself this was because I was more interested in studying people than pigeons or rats. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to accept that the messiness and particularity of human behavior as something you could study as a scientist.

Computer programming and systems design were holding actions trying to cling to the general and the universal. Debits and credits worked for all organizations and all situations. I could treat the vagaries of individual executives as mere noise within a larger system of order and predictability. 

I might have held onto that illusion if I hadn’t garnered a spot in the MBA program at the  Harvard Business School. Now I was at the center of the case study universe; the particulars anchored every discussion. I still didn’t have the words in my lexicon but I had begun the journey from the nomothetic to the idiographic; from the general to the particular. 

My comfort with individual courses correlated closely with where they fell on the spectrum from conceptual to concrete. Economics and accounting made sense, so did operations and finance. Marketing was a puzzle. Organizational behavior was mystifying; why did people insist on doing irrational things? 

My personal life was largely irrational at this point. Courtesy of wise friends I was getting professional help for that, but I still clung to a fading vision of systems and order. I went back to consulting and systems design. There were right answers to be developed and deployed. Resistance to those right answers was an aberration (if not an abomination) to be suppressed and eliminated. 

I could have pursued a classic strategy of accumulating enough power to impose my answers over the objections of weaker players. I’ve watched “my way or the highway” work (for certain values of “work”). I chose another path. I went back to sit at the feet of people smarter and more knowledgeable than I. What more could I learn from those who started by accumulating stories and case studies? I’ve written about this before 

This was where I finally learned of the distinction we’ve been talking about between nomothetic and idiographic. It’s comforting to discover that you are not the only one engaged in an important struggle. 

How we come to know things isn’t a conversation that happens in the average business context. In a world dominated by knowledge work and innovation, however, it’s a conversation that needs to move center stage. 

Organizations push for standardization and uniformity – this solves problems that organizations have to deal with. In the realm of knowledge work we have been too quick to assume generality before we’ve gathered enough data and insight about the richness and variety of actual practice.

In Ph.D. speak, nomothetic claims about human systems have to be filtered through an idiographic lens. 

That isn’t a sentence I would want to utter in a boardroom. What I would advocate instead is to drop one common phrase and substitute another. 

Stop talking about “connecting the dots.” Buried in that phrase is an assumption that there is already a right answer hiding in plain sight. The only work to be done is correctly recognizing the picture that exists. The particulars of this situation, in this moment, are mere noise obscuring what should be readily obvious. 

If you’ve come to hold the particulars in higher regard, then you will be better served to frame your task as that of “solving for pattern.” I’ve written about this shift of perspective before

There are no equations that we can plug data into and expect a clear answer. But for all the particulars in any new case, there are regularities and patterns we can use in shaping effective responses.

Increasing Knowledge Work Discipline

I stumbled across an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post recently; want kids to learn math? Level with them that it’s hard. Learning to do knowledge work, like learning to do math, takes disciplined work. Tiago Forte is one of the people putting in the necessary work and sharing what he’s learning with the rest of us. In this piece, Forte turns to the kitchen and the realm of professional chefs for insight. Particularly, their obsession with order and preparation; mise-en-place.

Knowledge work lessons from the kitchen

Forte explores the following mise-en-place practices for relevant parallels to knowledge work 

1. Sequence

2. Placeholders

3. Immersive vs. process time

4. Finishing mindset

5. Small, precise movements

6. Arrangement

“Sequencing,” for example, looks at how decisions about the layout of tools and ingredients aids or hinders the flow of execution. You don’t want to be rummaging around for a whisk when you need one. Thinking through the process before executing will surface opportunities to sequence work to your advantage. 

Forte’s riff on “immersive vs. process time” may be the most interesting. Forte maps immersive time to Cal Newport’s deep work distinction. Process time on the other hand encompasses settings with a time component that runs independently of your attention and focus. In cooking, process time might be the 15 minutes it will take for rice to cook regardless of when you start the process. It may only take a minute of your attention to launch that cooking process but you want to take that minute of focus when it will do the most good. Start the rice now and it will be ready when you need it later. Wait, and you delay the entire process while you watch the rice cook. 

There are times when the back burner is the right place for the rice to be cooking while you pay attention to something more important. In knowledge work, the example that springs to mind is Stephen King’s advice to stick a freshly finished manuscript in a drawer for six weeks while you attend to something else. Doing that is taking advantage of your subconscious mind’s capacity to work on creative tasks without your input or attention. 

A sticky sequencing problem

Forte has been developing and sharing his system for managing knowledge work for several years now. His Building a Second Brain training course is highly regarded. Although I haven’t sprung for the course, I do pay for access to his other materials and have read his books. I’m picking on Forte here in much the same way that Alan Kay once described the Mac as the “first personal computer worth criticizing.” Whatever it’s flaws, his analysis sparks responses that move the entire argument forward. 

There’s a bit of a sequencing problem in his own analysis, here, because he’s invested so much time in his own systems. His analysis of mise-en-place is unavoidably influenced by the design decisions he’s already made and internalized. 

Here’s an example of where Forte’s current thinking distorts his analysis of mise-en-place. Talking about the role of sequencing tasks, Forte asserts;

Once we realize the importance of sequence, it becomes apparent that not all moments are created equal: the first tasks matter much more than the later ones.

I will grant the first part of his claim; all moments are not equal. It does not follow, however, that “first tasks matter much more than the later ones.” Forte wants to make a point about the importance of first tasks; that’s pretty conventional wisdom in multiple traditions and settings. But I think it is a hill too far to make a blanket assertion that first tasks always matter more than later ones. In fact, Forte contradicts his own point a bit later when he talks of the importance of a “finishing mindset.” 

You encounter ideas in the order you encounter them. The best you can hope for is to be cognizant of that and temper your assessments and enthusiasms for related ideas as you discover them.

A more troubling flaw in the argument

There is a lot to like in Forte’s exploration of mise-en-place. There’s a critical step in his argument, however, that I object to. Forte turns to the world of professional chefs because

It’s time that we had a working system for the mass production of high-quality knowledge work

“Mass production of high-quality knowledge work” is a nonsensical proposition. As a diner in a restaurant, my serving of Coquilles St. Jacques Provencale had better well be identical in all important respects with my dinner companion’s. But don’t try to hand me the marketing strategy you just prepared for my chief rival. Balancing Uniqueness and Uniformity in Knowledge Work has to drive the design of knowledge work practices and methods.

There are things to be learned about doing better knowledge work from contemplating mise-en-place. Knowledge work that makes an impact is more about inventing new recipes than about being more efficient and productive in churning out known recipes for tonight’s diners. You do want a solid mise-en-place set up before you embark on experimenting with recipes. You want your environment set up and tuned so that you can focus your attention and creativity on inventing some new and wonderful delectable. But if the lunch rush is at the door, you’re not doing knowledge work, you’re doing production work. And you need to be clear about the difference.