Developing a Sense for your Limits

Most of my fellow doctoral students were a bit younger than I was. They figured out the path they were on a bit quicker than I did. I was back in school after several forays into and out of the real world. A few more years of work experience coupled with a certain orneriness toward authority came in handy as I got closer to finishing the process.

As you get closer to finishing the process, you have dealt with almost every possible gatekeeper. All the remains at the end is convincing your thesis committee that you are ready. The rite of passage here is that you can’t seek permission. You open the last gate for yourself by declaring yourself a peer, shedding the safety of being a consumer of knowledge to join the ranks of producers of new knowledge. The risk you run is that you will have the gate slammed in your face if you judge wrongly. But you have to make the first move.

This transition from consumer of knowledge to producer is no mean feat. A well-designed doctoral program can make this transition smoother. Knowing the existing literature, for example, is one way to ensure that you’re less likely to mistake your ignorance for new insight.

In a knowledge economy, we expect many more people to contribute by producing new ideas and new thinking. What we don’t have is the corresponding support environment and infrastructure to help apprentice knowledge workers navigate the transition from consuming to producing knowledge. We have no shortage of people with the self-confidence to assert that their claims represent new and fresh thinking. We do have a shortage of adult supervision; of people with the knowledge base to provide the guardrails while clever people develop a calibrated sense of their limits.

Chasing greater effectiveness

Grousing is a feature of all organizations. Generally it’s a healthy thing. It’s part of the lubrication that lets them function. There are times, however, when you need to keep an eye on it.

In the earliest days of Diamond it got out of hand as we were trying to to forge one organizational culture out of the band of renegades who had been persuaded to abandon (or were forced out of) their existing organizations. Consultants are not known for their shy, retiring natures. There came a point where one of my partners acquired and issued a set of lapel pins that read “No Whining.” Good for a laugh and it did lower the temperature a bit.

Lately, I’ve been thinking on what a tricky challenge it can be to distinguish between whining and productive critiques. This is particularly true in knowledge intensive kinds of work. If you are turning wrenches and cranking out standardized widgets, there’s generally one right way to do a task. And those with experience are the right ones to teach and enforce that one right way.

Unfortunately, that mindset spills over into settings where it doesn’t apply. We talk about the McKinsey Way or the way we do things at Amazon or Google. We learn to advocate for ideas and positions with more certainty and confidence than the facts warrant—ideas get packaged and sold without suitable qualifications, warnings, and caveats. Everyone becomes a salesman (man is the appropriate gendered term in this instance I think).

There are two lines of attack on this, depending on whether you find yourself on the delivery or receiving end of these conversations. Let’s start with the receiving side; how to be a better consumer of pitches about how to be a more effective knowledge worker.

The first order of business is to realize that you almost never hear a pitch about how to be more effective; you are pitched on how to be more productive. The unexamined assumption is that your goal is to turn out more or to turn it out faster. The problem is that treating knowledge work as simply another kind of production work will often get you enough payoff to fool you into thinking that your overall approach is sound.

When you inevitably reach a state of disappointment with the latest shiny tool/approach/practice, you need to recognize that your disappointment is not with the new tool/approach/practice. It is with the poor mental model hiding in the conventional pitch—that then invokes inadequate patterns you apply to the system you are trying to modify.

I don’t have this all worked out yet. I am convinced that you can’t treat knowledge work as simple production work. I think it is closer to making art. Somehow, you have to simultaneously consider the piece of work at hand, your techniques, and your evolving body of work. At least. There’s a continual process of taking stock, of asking what still works, of experimenting with new ideas, of filtering all well-intentioned advice through the selfish stance of how does this work for me.

The future grows out of the past

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. The cards my wife and I exchanged might have had twenty five words of text between them. After nearly forty years together that was plenty. It doesn’t take a lot to invoke history or trigger a memory of a favorite moment.

We take this for granted in relationships. It used to be that we took it for granted within organizations as well. History mattered. Now, it may simply be that I am turning into one of those old men ranting for the kids to get off of his lawn. But one cost of the relentless pursuit of innovation is historical ignorance. Michael Lewis captured it succinctly in the title of his 1999 book, The New New Thing.

Whatever the new idea, where it came from is ignored. No one is much interested in how we got to now. Pick your hot topic; machine learning, cryptocurrency, going to Mars. The focus is toward the future. When we are caught off guard as promises collide with reality, the chattering classes point to the dots we failed to connect. Their presumption is that the relevant picture exists in the now, readily apparent to anyone who simply looks.

Few want to invest the time in building a picture anchored in the interplay of trends and forces over time. To ask how what has come before shapes the landscape of what is possible next. This is the shift in mindset wrapped up in the phrase solving for pattern.

Grant Yourself Permission

There’s a calligraphed quote that adorns the wall above my desk in a lovely frame. It’s a gift from my wife on our first Christmas together. It reads;

It’s frequently easier to apologize later than it is to get permission beforehand
Grace Murray Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a legend in computer science circles. One of the inventors of COBOL, often credited with coining the term “bug”, once the highest ranking woman in the US Navy. Google her when you have some time.

The first order interpretation of her advice ties into Silicon Valley’s celebration of rapid innovation and invention. Move fast and break things. It’s an appealing strategy for a hyper-competitive environment. I’ve advocated it and followed it. I may simply be getting too old, but I think Hopper might demand a more insightful and deeper interpretation if she were still with us.

We tie permission to authority. What we overlook is that authority ought to correlate with knowledge. Someone gains authority because they are in a position to see a bigger picture, to take in more of the relevant pattern. Hopper is trying to remind us that authority depends on knowledge. But the knowledge comes before the authority.

If you are the one who is knowledgeable, then you already have the authority. Grant yourself permission.

The kicker, of course, is that you also have to accept responsibility. It’s not about apologizing so much as it is about educating. About sharing the knowledge that is the source of your claimed authority. It is no longer about issuing or following orders. It is about conversations that establish the shared knowledge environment. Peter Drucker, as is so often the case, sums it up nicely.

In a knowledge economy there no such thing as conscripts, there are only volunteers. The trouble is we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.

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.