Managing in a magical world

Application and software vendors are offering more customer support in places like Facebook in addition to their more formal channels. Done well, this enlists volunteer help from users, recreating some of the feel from the earlier days of the online world where there was often a strong sense of shared community.

In those earlier days, there was a threshold level of technical sophistication that you could rely on. As the internet began to open up, that level began to drop slowly. A community ethos and slow broadening of participation led to some excellent advice on how to take full advantage of the available expertise. For my own selfish benefit, I pulled together several of the best guidelines for seeking technical advice:

As I reread these guides, however, and sampled the recurring questions surfacing in some of these more recent support environments, I was struck by a disconnect between today’s questions and these guides. In tech support circles, there is an old, disparaging, term about certain kinds of user interactions—PEBKAC, which is an acronym for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.” In other words, the problem is user ignorance .

That feels a tad arrogant. It calls to mind the late Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

and what is perhaps a more pertinent variation offered by science fiction author Gregory Benford:

Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.

We operate in a world that is magical to many of it’s inhabitants. Most are content to accept that world as a place of routine magic. But too many are also content to choose to operate at Muggles; to leave understanding the magic to others. To make that choice is to reject the notion that deeper knowledge is a path to more effective leverage of the available tools.

If we accept the responsibility of learning how the magic works, we open up the possibility of acquiring greater power over our world.

Bring back working papers

Story board exampleBack in April I started to play with the idea of intermediate knowledge work products. I want to push that a bit farther and argue that we ought to bring back and expand on the idea of working papers.

The Limits of Deliverables

Deliverables are a powerful idea for managing knowledge work. What artifacts—report, specification. contract, presentation, analysis, application—mark the end point of a chain of work? What can you create to demonstrate to your client or manager that you’ve completed the work you promised to do?

The problem with deliverables is that they discourage the process of discovery and innovation. You deliver when you are done and the only response to receiving a deliverable is to accept it—either graciously or reluctantly, but accept it either way. This problem is aggravated by our ability to turn out work products that look like finished deliverables regardless of their actual state.

Reclaiming Working Papers

“Working papers” is a concept I first encountered in my early years as a consultant working within an audit firm. An audit is a odd process; your job is to check someone else’s work and render an opinion about whether they followed the rules. The deliverable that justifies the auditor’s bill is an opinion letter stating your conclusion. What you most desire as a client is a very short letter that boils down to “yes, you followed the rules.”

Working papers are all the analyses and evidence prepared to support that final deliverable. In a paper-centric world, this creates a problem of organizing and cataloging all of the intermediate pieces of paper so that you can trace and recreate the analysis later if circumstances warrant.

On the other hand, there was also an advantage in having everything on paper. Add a date and your signature in the top corner of a memo or analysis, stick it in the files, add a new line to the index page, and your working papers were up to date. The old joke was that the files weren’t complete until there was a least one paper placemat covered with lunch notes in them.

It’s the notion of “working” that is important here; the medium is not. Thinking and managing in terms of working papers highlights the importance of process and dialog. Working papers only exist in the context of how they support the process of interaction, whether it is the interaction between data and analyst or the interaction between stakeholders seeking to understand a problem.

Digital Limits of Working Papers

The shift to digital work makes just about every aspect of knowledge work better. Preparing a spreadsheet by hand on actual 28-column paper is not an experience I wish to revisit. But we also produce digital work products in ways that obscure and interfere with the evolutionary nature of effective thinking and analysis.

One limitation of digital work products is that you must deal with version elaboration and control intentionally. All interesting work products go through an evolutionary process. Preliminary hypotheses need elaboration. The structure of an outline morphs with feedback from potential readers. Drafts beget revised drafts. Analog products reveal this evolution in the proliferation of copies and marked up drafts.

Our digital tools obscure this evolution. The spreadsheet or report file contains only the most current version. Previous versions that were naturally preserved in an analog world disappear; it takes a conscious effort to preserve an intermediate digital version. Think of the crude control efforts revealed in file names with random dates, initials, and version numbers littering the drives of the average knowledge worker.

Software developers have built sophisticated tools to support their work of evolving a code base from idea to working application. I am hard pressed to identify other knowledge workers taking advantage of those tools or practices as they develop equally complex final deliverables.

The reason that version control matters is that final deliverables grow out of interaction and dialog. That dialog is rarely linear. Future iterations grow out of the process of building analyses and testing alternative hypotheses.

This iterative development process is an essential element of doing meaningful analysis and getting all of the participants to agree with the results. Treating analysis as a process is the first step. Deliverable centric thinking obscures this. A working paper approach puts process where it belongs.

One additional step with knowledge work artifacts adds significant value at minimal cost. Our digital tools produce outputs that resemble finished product regardless of their actual state. It can be difficult to distinguish a back of the envelope calculation from an SEC-ready filing when both are printed in 11-point Arial. Adding a “DRAFT – FOR DISCUSSION PURPOSES ONLY” watermark is a small step in the right direction. What I’ve had more success with is to use fonts in working papers that drive home their intermediate status. This is a time when a font such as Charette or Papyrus sends a useful reinforcing message about the state of a knowledge work artifact.

Using Tools to Reinforce Your Intentions

We’ve been creative and adept at creating multiple digital tools to make knowledge work easier and more effective. We’ve been less thoughtful about how to deploy and use those tools to support all the relevant dimensions of our knowledge work processes. If we want to be more effective at knowledge work, then we need to be more intentional about how we fit our tools and processes to the tasks we undertake.

Effective knowledge work is improv

Shirt PocketIt was essentially a casting call. I was interviewing retired and semi-retired executives to fill a role in a training simulation we were building. We needed someone to play the part of the client CEO and someone had introduced me to Scott. Scott was a central casting silver fox, tanned from a recent visit to Florida.

I don’t know why I noticed it, but Scott was wearing a custom made shirt and the shirt had no pockets. I remarked on the missing pocket and Scott’s response sticks with me two decades later. Here was his logic, ”My job is to delegate work to my direct reports. If I have a pocket someone will want to hand the work back to me in the form of a question or a task. Without a pocket, there’s no place to put a note and no way for that to happen.”

That was a 20th Century view of management and work. Just as well that Scott was about to retire. But the mindset persists; there is work and there is management.

Peter Drucker invented the term knowledge worker sometime around 1959—just another indicator of his prescience. We accept that we live in a knowledge economy but grapple with what it means to be knowledge workers. Organizations remain slow to accept all the implications of that line of thought. At the core, the distinction between worker and manager is disappearing. There may still be power dynamics, but you can’t readily discern who is working and who is managing by observing the tasks they carry out.

We are all struggling to make sense of the changing nature of work. There are grand policy level analyses on the implications for organizations, industries, and nation states. At the other extreme, there is an endless supply of tactical advice and tools for tackling very specific problems.

And, there is the middle where we spend our days trying to muddle through.

Maybe it was the time I spent in the wings at the boundary between what you see on stage and what goes on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. It gave me roots in that middle space. I chose to stay there, building connections between vision and execution. That began deeply immersed in designing and building technology and information systems to answer particular management questions about aluminum cans, soft drinks, industrial paints, or construction equipment.

Working in the technology space led to questions about business and organization that I couldn’t answer. That led me back to school several times and into multiple organizations in search of more insight. The schools gave me pieces of parchment attesting to my mastery of subjects they deemed worthy; chiefly strategy, information systems, and organizational design. The organizations I worked for and created put that knowledge to practical tests and frequently reminded me that parchment and mastery aren’t well correlated.

This has played out as we’ve all grown hardened, if not accustomed, to a world of accelerating change. The theatrical metaphor that helps me grasp what this change entails is a shift from scripts to improv. In a script world, we grow by adding to our repertoire of scripts we can call into play. In an improv world, we grow by learning to see patterns that we can play with and by collaborating with other players to create magic in the moment.

We always start in the middle

Glinda Wizard of Oz“It’s always best to start at the beginning.”
Glinda, The Good Witch of the South, The Wizard of Oz

Remember, Glinda isn’t real; nor is the opportunity to start at the beginning. We always start in the middle.

We’re better served thinking like MacGyver. Step 0 should always be to empty your pockets and look around. What do you have to work with?

Pretending to take out a clean sheet of paper is well-meaning but ultimately misleading. The goal of that clean sheet is to avoid ending up with little tweaks squeezed into “the way we do things around here.”  The only way to achieve that goal, however, is to build a comprehensive picture of the “the way we do things around here” together with an understanding of why.

That clean sheet of paper is one of those business cliches that sounds wise, yet conceals more than it reveals. The point of the clean sheet is to eliminate assumptions that no longer serve their purpose. But you can’t surface those assumptions without understanding the existing environment.

It isn’t the assumptions you see that cause problems, it’s the assumptions you miss. Better to have a fully marked up sheet of where you are actually starting and know what obstacles need to be addressed than to trip over something hiding behind the whiteness.

Note Taking–by hand or by keyboard?

handwritten notesI’ve been thinking a lot about notes lately.

That led me into a stream of research and editorializing about the tradeoffs between taking notes on paper vs. at a keyboard.

The academic research seems to have started with:

Which generated various editorializing in the general press:

Predictably, the consensus appears to be a definite “it depends.”  This debate presumes that there is a correct technology choice independent of any other consideration. As soon as you phrase it that way, the question reveals itself to be nonsensical. You have to have the “it depends” conversation.

The technology choice–pen in hand or fingers poised over keyboard–has to flow from an understanding of goals and objectives  and of  context.

The research speculates that the difference in performance between pen and keyboard is a function of speed. Handwriting is slower than typing and that forces those taking notes to summarize and distill what they are hearing. Those choosing to type are presumed to be striving to create a verbatim transcript. So, the researchers are confusing a technology choice with a strategy choice. What kind of notes you choose to take dominates the choice of recording method. Unless you control for the strategy choice, your research design tells you nothing.

The second driver of technology choice here is context. What environment are you collecting notes in and how does your technology choice influence the context?

When I was writing cases, I would often be working with a professor and we would both be taking notes. Similarly, in many consulting settings, there would be more than one person conducting an interview. In those situations, we would divide responsibilities with one person primarily managing the interaction and conversation and another primarily capturing notes.

As another contextual example, consider the increasing use of electronic medical records in health care. Doctors I’ve spoken with lament that keyboards reduce the quality of doctor/patient interaction. One response has been the use of medical scribes (Scribes Are Back, Helping Doctors Tackle Electronic Medical Records : Shots – Health News : NPR) to redistribute responsibilities.

All of this simply reinforces that “it depends” is always an appropriate response when considering technology options. Few choices are binary. Even for something as simple as capturing notes.

Showing your work– intermediate knowledge work artifacts

Audit working papers exampleDuring my first job out of college I was assigned to work as staff on several financial audits. Consulting work was slow and the firm did not believe in idle hands. I was assigned to help with the audit of a major brokerage firm.

As part of the audit process, we had sent out letters to the firm’s several hundred thousand account holders asking them to return a form acknowledging that their account statements were correct or noting discrepancies if there were any. My task that first day was to sit at a conference table and count those forms. Each time I reached 100 forms I raised my hand and waited for an audit senior to put two rubber bands around my stack and take it away. I then counted another stack and the day continued.

I was granted a promotion the next day for my diligence at counting to 100. The slips of paper I had counted the day before had only a customer signature. Other slips had comments on them from customers. Some of those comments noted a discrepancy to be investigated; they claimed they held 115 shares of IBM, not 100, for example. Other slips contained what were deemed “gratuitous” comments; observations about a broker’s parentage or legitimacy were potentially entertaining but not pertinent to the audit.

I was not asked to make such a rarified judgment call; that was a task for trained and experienced auditors. I was considered qualified, however, to deal these slips out onto the glass of a photocopier, copy the slips front and back, assemble the results, and bind them into files to be saved as part of the audit working papers.

As mind numbing as you might think this experience was, it did drive home an idea about knowledge work that still echoes four decades later.

For all the exhortations on math tests to “show your work” I believed in answers. Showing your work was what you had to do when you didn’t get it.

Outside the world of classes and tests, showing your work was also something you needed to do when someone else didn’t get it either. Clients and managers weren’t necessarily doing to accept an answer just because you offered it up. You needed to be able to walk them through how you got there.

Lawyers call it a “chain of evidence”, scientists keep lab notebooks, artists make sketches on the way to a finished work, programmers version control everything.

The path between germ of an idea and final product can be long and convoluted. We so want to reach the end of the path—the answer—that we often fail to manage the trip effectively. That management task can be eased if we are mindful about the ways we design and introduce intermediate work products that support and fold into a final deliverable.

Twyla Tharp on the Practice of Collaboration

Book cover for Twyla Tharp The Collaborative habitThe Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Twyla Tharp. 2009. T

Collaboration is fundamentally an artistic process. That is easy to lose sight of in the organizational exhortations to be more collaborative and the mass of marketing literature touting the collaborative goodness of some new piece of software.

If you agree that attacking today’s wicked problems depends on effective collaboration, then the arts are a good place to look for insight. Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp has done us a great service in reflecting on and sharing her decades of experience as creator and collaborator in The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. This is a book I’ve revisited many times since it was first published in 2009. I’m still learning from it.

Tharp concludes with the following advice:

In the end, all collaborations are love stories…Honesty and bluntness, but not to the point of pain. Mutual respect, but not to the point of formality and stiffness. Shared values, so the group’s mission can carry it over the inevitable bumps. And, of course, actual achievement, so the group is supported by an appreciative community.

This is not counsel that fits into a motivational poster in a conference room or into the menus of a new software application or service. Collaboration is a practice built over time out of snippets of behavior and interaction anchored in a supporting context.

Tharp shares the stories of her collaborations with fellow artists, institutions, and communities. As an aside, it is clear from her stories that Tharp has always been a reflective practitioner. Her earlier book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, contains insights into her processes and how she documents them; it is equally worthy of your time and attention. The richness and grounding of her observations reinforces her point that collaboration and creativity are work; rewarding work but work nonetheless.

When we observe the end products of creative and collaborative efforts, we admire the grace and beauty of the art and the artists. By taking us back into the process and behind the scenes, Tharp reminds us of the intense work and discipline it takes to make it look easy. She also reinforces the essential truth in an old cliche that “the work is its own reward.”

Seeing Better

When I was in the fourth grade, we figured out that I needed glasses. I was complaining about having trouble reading what was on the blackboard and after moving to the front row didn’t solve the problem, I was dispatched to an eye doctor. Sure enough, I was nearsighted. A few weeks later I got my first pair of glasses.

I particularly remember the sense of wonder at discovering that street signs were something you were supposed to be able to read from inside the car as you drove by. My eyes weren’t shaped to see the world in 20/20 on their own but I inhabited a world where a simple prosthetic compensated for that limitation.

I also lived in a world and a time when nuns were quite happy to provide the structure and discipline a daydreaming young boy might need to complete his lessons. External supports, innate curiosity, and a few extra IQ points took me a pretty long way.

I survived—actually thrived—for a long time because I operated in environments that offered supports matched to my deficits. I was well into my 40s before I suspected that I had ADD. As my responsibilities and environment changed, I kept trying to get closer to the blackboard until I ran out of rows. What I didn’t have was a way to figure out what constituted glasses or how to get the right prescription.

What I had instead was a story of the Peter principle in action. I had blown past my abilities. My credentials were accidental; past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Now, it also turns out that ADD and depression are often correlated, so add that to the equation.

Having a way to name what was going on was a necessary but not sufficient step. It made it possible to have productive conversations with the experts. We experimented with the various meds that worked for many, but not for me. The compensating strategies I had developed over time were matched to environments I no longer operated in. One choice would have been to return to a matching environment. Unfortunately, those environments have continued to shrink in our modern world.

So that leaves the choice of formulating a prescription that lets me see the board in front of me. The benefit of this particular metaphor is that I don’t have to be discouraged when a prescription that works for some doesn’t work for me.

The tricky part is that we talk more about what the prescription is than we do about why and how it works. When we talk about eyesight, we know how to assess and correct for myopia and astigmatism. And we know why the corrections work. When we’re trying to compensate for deficits in managing focus and attention doing complex knowledge work, we have to dig deeper and build provisional theories as we experiment.

This is clearly a work in progress. I am curious about how others might be tackling presumably similar challenges of matching their work practices to the unique demands of their environments? What metaphorical myopias and astigmatisms are you dealing with? How have you gone about designing and implementing corrections that work?

Review – Alan Alda on Communications and Improv

Book Cover imageIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alan Alda

I’ve been working through a line of thought about the growing importance of improv thinking to dealing with organizations and innovations in the current environment. In this book, Alda lays out  advice on how we might do a better job of communicating in our work and improv plays a central role.

Alan Alda’s rumination on communications grew out of his work as the host of the PBS series *Scientific American Frontiers*. As the host, Alda was faced with helping deeply technical experts explain what mattered about their work to mere mortals. Alda brings a perfect mix of a curious layperson’s perspective and a trained actor’s craft at communications. It’s also an entertaining and illuminating mix.

A naive view of acting and of communications is that the work involves learning and delivering a script. We learn our lines and recite them when the moment arrives. Alda dispenses with that illusion immediately; 80% of his advice involves listening and observation skills and techniques. The remaining advice talks about story telling, but that advice is rooted in how to tell stories that take advantage of how we expect stories to play out and not mislead the listener or reader. In other words, how do we put stories together that anticipate and raise the questions our readers will have.

Alda, of course, is a consummate story teller himself. There is no blinding flash of insight or advice that is startling or unexpected. What he provides instead is an artful example of how well his advice works in the hands of an experienced pro.

Stealing practice time from performance

Stage view Bright lights“Standby Cue 103.”

“Go Cue 103.”

We had about two minutes left in the finale. Twenty five dancers filled the stage, the music director was in the pit with another twelve musicians, I was stage right talking to the lighting crew via a headset and the stage crew via hand signals. In about thirty seconds, I would give a “Warn Cue 104” followed by a Standby and a Go.

It was the final night of our ten-city tour and we were performing in a lovely theater at New Trier West High School in Winnetka, Illinois. There’s a story about the space I’ll save for another day. Steve, the only performer not yet on stage tapped me on the shoulder. I looked away from my cue book. Steve was in his costume dressed as the Statue of Liberty—another story for another time.

Ok. He’s about to make his entrance upstage center. I’m not sure why he’s interrupted me.

Until he turns around.

Steve is not actually wearing his costume. He’s taped it on so that it looks normal from the front. From behind he’s naked from head to toe.

I miss giving the warning for Cue 104, but do manage to get out the Standby and Go in time. I then warn the crew to keep their eyes on the next 90 seconds. We set up and execute the next half dozen lighting cues, the band continues to play, and Steve makes his entrance, which starts from upstage center and proceeds downstage to the edge of the orchestra pit. As Steve passes each row of dancers, that row misses a step and recovers.

The finale ends, the curtain falls, and cast and crew breaks into hysterics.

Juvenile? Certainly. Unprofessional? Not really.

One of the payoffs of rehearsal and constant practice is the capacity to go with the flow. And to know when you can tweak the flow without interfering with the audience’s experience. It was the final number in our final performance. The steps were muscle memory at this point. Letting me know at the last moment was more of a gift to the crew than a needed warning.

One thing that puzzles me about ordinary organizations is how they develop capacity to respond to the unexpected, to go with the flow successfully. The magic we see on stage or on the athletic field demands time dedicated to practice and rehearsal. It is the practice and rehearsal that creates the capacity to adapt. That time is built into the process.

Ordinary organizations don’t build this into their process. Learning and rehearsal time is limited to occasional training experiences or stolen moments of on-the-job training. The rare major systems rollout may get planned training and support time.

Conventional wisdom says that people in organizations resist change. What they resist, sensibly, is demands for polished performance without rehearsal. By ignoring the role of rehearsal and practice, organizations end up with lower levels of performance. Rehearsal happens but only by disguising some performance time as a mediocre form of rehearsal. Neither practice or performance is effective.