The Magic of Theatre

Girl sitting on a swing“Can we fly six of the chorus girls during the 2nd act opening number?”

Directors always have crazy ideas. That particular idea took a week of design work, rigging, and rehearsal to pull off. The one technical detail you need to know is that the key safety issue was properly balancing the rigs while the dancers got on and off the playground swings they were sitting on.

The rig was balanced for two dancers, one on either side of the stage. When they were both on the swings, a stage hand could raise them 15 feet in the air with one hand. Before getting off the swings, we had to replace their weight with sandbags clipped to the rigs offstage. That kept the system safely in balance. We had rehearsed the switch multiple times; it was a complex piece of offstage choreography in its own right involving nine stage hands and six dancers.

Opening night, the scene runs smoothly, the curtain comes down, and one of the dancers hops off her swing early before the sandbags have been clipped on. As her counterpart starts what is about to be a very rapid ascent into the rafters, I see Mark, the stagehand at the rail controlling the rig, reach up about two feet, grab the ropes, and use his bodyweight as a temporary counterweight. The sandbags were clipped on, dancer number 2 came safely back to the ground, and the show went on without interruption. My heart restarted several minutes later.

The audience saw none of this. The director delivered his moment of magic. The crew got a story to talk about at the cast party.

Most people seem content to simply enjoy the magic. I find the magic more compelling when I understand how it is made. Making magic takes work; the more you understand of the work, the better the magic you can make.

We live in a world that appears magical. But it has been built by designers and engineers and carpenters and stagehands. If you leave the magic to the experts you are bound by their imaginations. If you are prepared to come backstage and invest in learning something about how the magic is done, then you can become another collaborator in imagining and creating new magic.

Perspective

“Point of view is worth 80 IQ points” – Alan Kay

If you’ve interacted with me for more than a few minutes, there’s a good chance you’ve heard me quote Alan Kay. If not, it’s a pretty safe bet that you have no idea who Alan is, even though you are probably reading this on a device that can trace its roots back to Alan’s work.

Alan is a computer scientist who was one of the original members of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Both the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows are built on work that Alan did first. If you Google Alan be prepared for a long list of articles to read and videos to watch. It would also be time well spent.

I first learned of Alan’s work by way of a consulting project I did for Andersen Consulting while I was in graduate school. They were interested in whether they should take deeper interest in the ideas of object-oriented programming. Since Alan is generally regarded as the father of object-oriented programming I learned of his existence. That work led to a working relationship between Accenture and Alan and I went on with my studies.

Jump forward about ten years. I’m moving to Chicago to join Diamond, a new consulting firm that I am founding along with former colleagues from Andersen. Diamond’s CEO, Mel Bergstein, was my client at Andersen and cut the deal with Alan based, in part, on my earlier work. Mel asked Alan to serve on Diamond’s Board.

I got to transform my arms length knowledge of Alan into a working relationship. Alan worked with us in client settings and internally. I invited Alan to talk to our consultants in various workshops and I got to watch Alan interact in multiple client settings. I went from professional admirer to full-on fanboy.

Alan is a polymath and has a collection of awards that constitute a resume in their own right. On paper, he is the definition of “scary smart.” In person, he is not immediately intimidating. Watching him think on his feet, however, is a master class in focused inquiry.  He’s also, first and foremost, an engineer more interested in how to make something work than anything else.

That pragmatic focus drives Alan to the middle space that bridges the gap between blue sky concept and picayune detail. Moreover, his engineering point of view values solving problems so that they stay solved. This is not always the perspective you encounter with managers and executives; they are often under pressures that favor things that look like rather than are solutions. Watching Alan think provides lessons in managing and manipulating points of view to gain extra IQ points and discover answers that are both practical and enduring.

Managing credit and rewards

Triangle LogoThere’s a letter in my files dated May 31, 1974. It’s on the letterhead of the Trustees of the Princeton University Triangle Club and signed by Peter Putnam. Class of 1942, then the Graduate Secretary of the Trustees. In it Peter says.

An axle or a stage manager is not a showy part of a vehicle, but without one, a car won’t go, and without the other, a company does not perform.

I was that stage manager.

That bit of praise from one professional to another sits at the heart of my career. I know I need to revisit it to discern what comes next.

There are two basic questions that interest me.

The first is about searching for the essential parts that make things go. I’ve sometimes talked about this as the messy middle. What are the critical connections between grand goals and effective execution?

The second question has to do with what it takes to make a living operating in those non-showy, essential, places. Particularly in a world that extols and rewards stars.

There’s an old adage that shows up in motivational posters and gets attributed to various sages. One version is “there is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.” A laudable sentiment but the reality is that getting things done requires gathering and distributing resources and credit.

What can you do with a stage manager temperament in a world that sees stars?

I don’t quite know what I mean by that yet but I’ve learned to trust the turns of phrase that pop into my head.

Expert learning

stacks of booksBack in the earliest days of my third cycle of higher education, my advisor commented that this was the last opportunity I would have to invest in building my store of intellectual capital. I think this was his way of justifying the two books a week he was assigning in his doctoral seminar, the 50-page reading list in our organizational theory seminar, and the comparable workloads in industrial economics and research methods.

I did ultimately earn the piece of paper certifying me as an expert. But my advisor was wrong about that store of intellectual capital. Neither of us correctly factored in the half life of knowledge in the technology, data, and information realms we inhabited. You can’t build an academic career mining the work you did in graduate school. In today’s world, you can’t build any kind of career mining what you used to know.

This creates a new kind of learning problem. How do you approach learning if you’re already an expert? How do you manage the process of acquiring new knowledge when you are creating it at the same time?

I want to figure out what it means to do expert learning. I suspect the answers will look more like exploratory research than like taking a class from the designated expert. Your task isn’t so much to follow a curriculum as it is to design one in real time.

Perhaps what I’m working out here is an expanded definition of being an expert. We talk about SMEs—subject matter experts. Being a SME implies that you possess a particular knowledge base—a body of knowledge—plus knowledge of deeper principles and themes that aren’t readily apparent to the less expert.

Experts also know who the other experts are and hang out with them. We call these communities of interest and practice when we’re trying to impress people.

Finally, there has to be another layer of skill/expertise. You need a collection of methods and practices for updating, extending, and refactoring your existing knowledge base. There also needs to be a level of mindfulness about this layer. Maintaining and extending expertise has to be an explicit and deliberate practice.

I used to think it would be cool to go to school permanently. Turns out that the modern world requires it. Everybody has become a lifelong student. The part that got left out was that we are also expected to be lifelong teachers as well.

Learning, bodies of knowledge, and half-lives

half life curveWe think of learning relative to a body of knowledge; we talk about learning a foreign language, data science, corporate finance, or carpentry. Academic degrees are built around demonstrating mastery of a body of knowledge.Professions are defined and certified in terms of mastering a specified body of knowledge.

I have two problems with this thinking from the perspective of learning. Who specifies what constitutes the relevant body of knowledge? And, how do you handle the problem of updating the body of knowledge? The way we conventionally think about those two questions seriously interferes with our ability to learn in the environment we face.

What is it about the environment that triggers my worries? The pace of change. We’re familiar with Moore’s Law, for example. There is the exponential growth in multiple measures of data and information. There is the exponential growth in scientific publications.

The simplest organizing idea here is the notion of the half-life of knowledge. We know that this half-life is shrinking in all sorts of fields.

What happens when that half-life is shorter than the time it takes to update a relevant body of knowledge and fold the new knowledge into certification processes and school curricula? Professional associations worry about this. Schools doing curriculum design worry as well. Organizations that find schools and professional associations moving too slowly worry and respond by creating corporate universities.

What does it all mean from the perspective of an individual trying to cope? What do you do if you understand that you can’t simply turn the problem over to the experts?

The standard responses of going back to school or trusting in the continuing education requirements of your chosen field are insufficient. All of those responses are rooted in the assumption that learning is simply about mastering a body of knowledge.

One of Alvin Toffler’s oft-quoted observations is that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” He had a handle on this problem. We need to master another layer of skills, to see the body of knowledge as something dynamic and evolving.

From that vantage point we take on responsibility for actively updating and maintaining the bodies of knowledge that concern us. Whatever our central interests, we have to also acquire basic competence in how learning works and in how knowledge is created. We need to become our own curriculum designers and our own research directors.

Temporary technology limits shouldn’t become design patterns

Things are the way they are because they got that way

– Ken Boulding

This is a quote attributed to Boulding by Jerry Weinberg in his excellent Secrets of Consulting. My students will tell you that I am fond of bringing it into many a class discussion. It’s somehow more useful to me than trotting out Santayana’s observation about learning history.

We’re all hot for the new, new thing and innovation is always better when it’s disruptive. For all that, when thinking about new technology we would do well to spend time and thought understanding how we got to the current situation. Predicaments today grew out of decisions yesterday that made sense when they were made. If we want to leave fewer predicaments for our successors, we need to understand how those earlier logic trains derailed.

For example, consider the Y2K issue of the late 1990s; the transition from 1999 to 2000 raised the threat that computer programs might fail because of the common practice of storing only the last two digits of the year in computer files and databases. That common practice grew out of technology limits with storage and data access. There was also an unexamined assumption about the likely longevity of the systems being built in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Why worry about a problem that was decades in the future; surely the programs would be replaced long before then.

There seems to be a deeper issue at work that is troubling me. Design is always driven by constraints and requirements; what limits exist on what you hope to do. We fail to appreciate how technology constraints evolve very differently from other constraints. We treat certain limits on our designs as if they were integral to solving the problem at hand when they are actually temporary speed bumps in the technology. We solve the immediate problem—the dates in our files fit the space available—at the expense of creating a bigger problem later.

We talk of “technical debt” but I don’t think the notion works with less technical decision makers. Debt suggests you trade future interest payments for a solution now. What we do instead is lock the organization’s future within boundaries that disappear and make us look stupid to those who designed smarter.

Organizational decision making is often hampered by shortchanging the future. We don’t seem to have good methods for avoiding these mistakes in technology. Temporary technology limits become design constraints which become design assumptions that get baked into design patterns and then outlive their usefulness.

Project management, rocket science, and donuts

time to make the donutsDunkin Donuts ran a legendary ad campaign in the 1980s—“Time to Make the Donuts.” You can still find the ads online. They celebrated commitment to doing the work. What they ignored was the need to manage the work. In fact, they reinforced the idea that work and management were two distinct things.

For making donuts or widgets or Toyotas this is possibly a useful distinction. For the work that most of us do today, it does more harm than good. In the donut world work is about following recipes and management is making sure that workers follow the recipes. There’s a lot that can go into following and managing recipes; how accurately do workers follow the recipes, how fast, how many per shift.

But where do the recipes come from?

If you’d prefer to remain in a worker/manager universe, they arrive by innovation magic. Some mysterious, creative process serves up new recipes and processes to be plugged into the existing system. Perhaps there will be some change management pain and disruption to be absorbed. Perhaps you will turn to some specialist or consultant to carry out this odd work. Then, everyone can get back to work.

I think this explains something I always struggled to understand when pitching consulting projects or proposing change efforts within organizations. Decision makers always seemed to object to the project management line item and tasks in proposals and plans. For that matter, project team members weren’t keen on the process of managing the work; they wanted to focus on what they saw as the fun part of the work.

It all makes sense if doing and managing are two separate activities. But you can’t do that when they are intertwined. When the doing shapes what needs to be managed and the managing calls for picking your way through the doing then you are much more tightly coupled than the mythology of workers marching forward as managers point to the goal in the distance.

I’ve been fascinated by NASA’s recent flyby of Ultima Thule by the New Horizons Mission. If you’re interested, I’d recommend a recent Nova broadcast, Pluto and Beyond. One thing that struck me was that project management isn’t rocket science but successful rocket science certainly depends on effective project management.

This all matters because the work we are all doing these days is a lot closer to rocket science than it is to making donuts. We’d better start acting as if we believed that.

Review – Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

brown-daretolead-cover Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Brene Brown

I’m a latecomer to Brene Brown’s work. “Dare to Lead” is her most recent book and the first I’ve had the chance to read. My loss and easily correctable.

If you go to Amazon, limit your search just to books, and enter “leadership,” you get over 70,000 results. An evergreen topic to be sure and, as a student of organizations, one I’ve been tuned into for decades. This entry is worth your attention.

Brown starts with a definition of a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Leadership is about how you act.

I found it particularly interesting that she deems curiosity to be an essential and central element of effective leadership. Leadership is a willingness to pick a direction and walk into the unknown. Brown draws on work by Ian Leslie who makes this observation:

Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.

This is a take on leadership that may not mesh with conventional cliches. But Brown builds a persuasive case.

She has practical advice as well. Leadership is a skill that develops with practice; learnable, probably coachable, likely not teachable. Among the many ideas Brown offers are two that I expect to add to my own practice immediately. The first is a call to “paint done,” which asks for more imagination than a more conventional “define what equals done.” I can see how I would tackle that.

The second is a conversational gambit Brown calls “the story I make up…” The premise is that we are always making up stories to account for the behavior we see in others. Those stories are generally wrong on multiple dimensions—Google “fundamental attribution error.” Brown’s insight is that if we share the assumptions we are making and defuse them by acknowledging that they are just stories, we can get to a new, shared, story that will let us make real progress.

This is a book I will be returning to. Brown brings a rare blend of research skills and direct leadership experience to her work. Leadership is always in shorter supply than what the world demands.

You can’t separate learning and doing

If I’m not careful when I introduce myself, “Jim McGee” gets heard as “Jimmy.” Curious as that was what I was called growing up. Outside of family and a few cousins, there were only two people who regularly called me “Jimmy” One was the director of the college theater group I was in. The other is a friend and colleague I worked with during my doctoral studies.

Although it’s a pretty common name, I take a certain perverse pride in laying claim to “jimmcgee” or “jmcgee” as a user name in places like gmail and twitter. It’s a marker of being an early adopter on multiple technology platforms.

You learn stuff by playing with it. But learning and play are suspect activities in most organizations. Outside of schools, the presumption is that you’ve learned what you need to know on someone else’s dime. Even in schools, you pay for the privilege of not knowing and being a learner.

This model works in a stable or slowly-evolving environment. There are places where you learn and places where you do. If you are in a doing place and the learning places are lagging, you might find it a good idea to create a private learning place to bridge the gap. But the idea of doing and learning remain separate.

I could argue that this is fundamentally wrong for all organizations and all times; that the separation of learning and doing is an artificial distinction that only works with the right confluence of factors and only for limited periods. We’re no longer in one of those periods.

We’ve been living through an extended period of accelerating change; it’s become an empty cliche. This is a cliche that you ignore at your peril. The half-life of what we know continues to shrink.

Half-life is a notion borrowed from nuclear physics. Radioactive elements and isotopes transform at a predictable rate; the transformation of Carbon-14 into Carbon-12, for example, is one of the facts that tell us that the world is more than 6,000 years old. The time it takes for half of the Carbon-14 in a sample to decay into Carbon-12 is the half-life and is a fixed and measurable rate.

Shifting back to knowledge and knowledge work, much of what we knew from our school days has decayed in similar fashion. By some estimates an engineering degree has a half-life of less than 10 years.

If you maintain the fiction that learning is something that occurs in learning places and is separate from doing, then you hire young computer scientists, move a handful into management, and replace the rest on a regular basis. A stupid management strategy, even it is appears to be a common one.

In work with a university research lab that was dealing with growing pains, I found the phrase “smart people doing smarter work” a helpful entry point toward a more effective response. There’s been a trend in knowledge intensive organizations toward hiring more people with Ph.D.s. At first glance, this can be viewed simply as seeking out people with more recent expert knowledge. The deeper truth is that a Ph.D. is someone who lives at the boundary of learning and doing; someone who understands that it is not, in fact, a boundary.

When I was a student, teachers were the people who had answers. If you had questions, you found the expert who had answers. When I was a consultant, I was an expert. When I reached the edge of what I knew, I looked for the next expert. Eventually, I reached a point where I ran out experts who knew. Since I was still operating from a learning and doing are separate things perspective, I went back to a learning place.

What I discovered was a community of fellow explorers who introduced me to a new practice, which was to say “I don’t know, let’s find out.” I was at the place with the half-life of knowledge problem was being created and attacked in parallel.

It’s certainly possible to treat this spot as just another place for experts. You can choose to be an expert at the edge, asking questions and passing answers back the chain to others who desire answers. What’s more interesting is to ask how to respond in a world where all of us operate closer to the edge of “I don’t know, let’s find out.” What if we looked to those already operating at the boundary between learning and doing as guides for traveling in this strange territory? What tools, practices, and habits of mind can we adopt to travel more effectively and safely in an environment where change is a feature not a bug?

What problem are we trying to solve?

Lever“Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the Earth” doesn’t work if you are standing in the wrong place.

It’s tempting to focus on the lever—to make it longer or stronger or out of some new  material. What you aren’t likely to do is take the lever you’ve got and look for a new place to stand. Nor are you likely to ask whether a lever is the relevant tool.

One of the courses I teach is on Requirements Analysis and Communications. The goal is to equip students with the tools to articulate a problem with  enough detail and precision that a effective solution can be designed and implemented. That phrasing is awkward because all too common practice is to define problems in terms of known solutions.

It’s the inverse of children with hammers pounding everything as if it were a nail. It’s claiming you have a nail to be pounded because someone with a hammer has come along.

None of this is any easier in a world rife with voices clamoring that they have the magic hammer for X.

Everybody has an answer. Everybody is selling a solution. Everybody has a hammer.

How do you learn

  • to take the time
  • to ask the questions
  • that will define the problem first?

The root question is always “what problem are we trying to solve?” The first several rounds of answers to that direct question are always statements of a solution, which is not a statement of a problem.

Asking effective questions is a learnable skill. I can give you a list of useful questions and I can lay out a process for asking them. But, what you really need is an opportunity to observe effective questioning in action, to practice in a safe environment, and to get feedback.

What I’m describing, of course, is the case method—either law school of business school flavor—or problem-based learning. What’s less emphasized is that these are inquiry processes; they are about questions, not answers. That makes them frustrating when you’re accustomed to being rewarded for answers, whether in school or in life.

The way out of that frustration is to understand the goal is building a skill not parroting an answer.