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Repeating the Past March 27, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have all heard or read this important quote.  It is a critical reminder that we have exceedingly short memories, and we have also done unthinkable horrible acts throughout human history.

But what of the positive, progressive acts?  What of the connections we have lost and strive to regain?

Seth Godin again reminds us that our window to the past is often narrow, but always selective.  Some have a big picture view, but more likely we are limited to what we are able to immediately recall.  The wisdom of old age is often simply the ability to synthesize years of memory and experience into a cognitive prediction of the near future.  Nonetheless, certain aspects of our lives have been constant for so long, we forget there was ever another way.

Seth’s description of the industrial age and our concept of unemployment illustrates that our world view is wide open for debate.  Our modern, western perception of work – from the hierarchical organization to workdays versus weekends – is but one manifestation of our semi-capitalist system.  Not only are there many different perspectives, but they are alive and well around the world today.

I found evidence of this firsthand as I interviewed several local businesspeople in the antique and pawn trade for an upcoming article.  One in particular stood out, and related the increase of younger people visiting her shop.  At least here in Montana, there is a visible need to reconnect with simpler, more human-centric products and tools.  I wonder if it is as prevalent elsewhere in the country, but I suspect it may not be as significant elsewhere in the world where the generational gap is not so wide.

If nothing else, Seth’s article points to the fact that our industrial age may well turn out to be less than a blip on the human timeline.  If the Iron Age lasted 1,500 years and warrants little more than a chapter in a high school history book, imagine the possibility that the industrial age – so far barely 300 years old – will only be worthy of mention to serious history scholars in the year 3013.  For now, however, we often work because it’s as much a part of our culture as education or religion.  Perhaps the industrial and information ages will simply be lumped together into the next 1,000 year cycle, called the “Working Age”.

Is your experience getting in the way of your knowledge? February 18, 2013

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All too often in the consulting world, we find individuals in client organizations who have been beating their heads against a wall for years.  They are smart people with good ideas who, for various bureaucratic or political reasons, have been unable to effect real, lasting change in their organizations.  We probably all know people like this – happy with their work in theory, but frustrated that valuable improvements remain ignored or impeded.

However, there is another category, not lacking good intentions, who inadvertently contribute to the first group’s angst.  I had the chance to observe this firsthand – in my own home workshop.

Perhaps something of a dying art, I build plastic models (especially during cold Montana winters).  Here is my latest project, a Ford Trimotor that I picked up two years ago, but which sat in storage during my time in Australia:

Trimotor Model

As a project manager, such a “project” seems a good fit with my day job, but it occurred to me that I approach my models differently than a real project.  Definitely, there is a budget and I maintain my own personal standards of quality.  I establish the deliverable, determining whether I build the kit “out of the box” or include any modifications or new techniques.

But when it comes to the other fundamental leg of any true project – time – I let the art-like nature of the model go with the flow.  Like other hobbies, a kit like this might wallow half-done in a box somewhere for months or years.  There is no pressure to complete it “on time” – if ever.

A true challenge lay in developing a project schedule around a new kit, predicting the time involved for each stage of production.

Model Project

And this is where such a simple plan revealed just how little my 30 years of model building experience actually “knew”.  Like many of my clients, I thought I knew the job.  But if anyone asked how long it took to build a typical model, I would have only the most rudimentary estimate.  Too often, my recollection is clouded by time and the various delays that go along with any hobby – a kit that takes just hours of working time may actually have taken weeks to complete.  It is, of course, a supposedly relaxing diversion, so I wasn’t exactly keeping meticulous records.

In many organizations, these same conditions can – inadvertently or otherwise – stymie a change initiative.  People that have done the job for 10, 20, or 30 years may indeed know their jobs better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean they know as much as they could – especially if they require improvement.  Without a solid baseline and a clear understanding of the work involved, there is no way to effectively manage the job itself, let alone any changes.

Hence the challenge, and one of the benefits of having an outsider’s point of view.  The consultant is in a position to objectively measure and quantify critical aspects of the job (the easy part) and communicate them with sensitivity and understanding to the client team members (quite difficult – this is where consultants make their money).  The overall goals are the same – the team wants to do the job better and the consultant wants to help them achieve the target.  The team provides the experience and the knowledge, while the consultant provides the tools to separate what they know from what they think they know.  And if there’s anything that recent psychological research has shown, it’s that we think we know significantly more than we really do.

It can be quite uncomfortable to face the cognitive dissonance that comes from raw data highlighting your mistakes (my next model is already off target, and I’ve barely scratched the surface).  But if you are truly dedicated to constant learning and becoming an expert in your field, the hard lesson comes with a big payoff – more efficient operations, better control over variances, and improved morale as problems are anticipated and handled at the source rather than after the fact.

Just how accurate are your eyes? February 6, 2013

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Our local news station’s weather department came up with an interesting little slogan for their mid-day ads.  As probably every local weather reporter does, ours wants you to know that when the storm of the century hits, he’ll be there to keep you informed.

Forecast

So, it’s all the more interesting that they selected the slogan, “Nothing more accurate than seeing it yourself.”  As in, if you look out the window, you’ll know more than we can tell you from the TV station.  Strange as it is for our weatherman to promote, does this phrase even hold true?

On one level, it does.  We trust our eyes to absorb the visual spectrum and our brains to interpret those signals, presenting “factual” information and predictions.  We believe that which we “see”.  Speaking of weather, we could all be professional meteorologists if the extent of the job were to look outside and report rain, snow, or sleet.

Of course, it is much more than that.  First, what you see is not always what it seems.  Science has shown that in addition to cognitive biases, we also suffer visual limitations when concentrating on particular tasks.  We can literally be blind to something right in front of us, as this great video summary of Daniel Kahneman’s work shows.

On another level, we can ask what “accuracy” even means.  It’s probably fair to say that most people don’t need a meteorologist to decide whether to carry an umbrella RIGHT NOW.  On the other hand, most of us would be at a loss to guess whether it will be raining in three hours, or three days.  Our “accurate” visual understanding of the environment becomes almost useless very quickly.

We need meteorologists (and doctors, and engineers) to help interpret observations and then literally PREDICT THE FUTURE – at least with a reasonable degree of certainty.  I would trust the professional estimate any day over what my eyes may be telling me at that moment.

Have you considered a visual resume? January 24, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Inspired by several examples of visual resumes and CV’s, I decided to package my seventeen years of engineering and consulting experience into one concise picture.  Personal branding is more than optimizing a resume for text searches and databases, it’s a demonstration of your ability to communicate a complex, abstract message to a variety of audiences.  Visual communication is often your best bet.

Visual CV Thumbnail

Check out VisualCV, Re.Vu, or ResumUP for great ideas and quick tools for creating your own visual resume.

What would you do with an immortal mouse? January 8, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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This fascinating infographic highlights many possibilities – not just in discrete areas of science, society, and politics, but in your own life and business.

Tomorrow's World

I’ll place my own dubious odds that most people don’t think five years in the future, let alone ten or twenty.  It’s no mystery why: with too many unknowns, our brains freeze up and we regress to the much easier task of simply making it through the present.

But predictions like these – even if they have only a tenuous connection to reality – provide a unique chance to focus our thinking.  Using our future-mouse as an example, it’s an excellent chance to brainstorm a bit about how life and business will be different if that were to happen.  Not that it necessarily will, but by undertaking the exercise, you are training your brain to recognize these little opportunities when they do finally arrive.

What are the implications of an immortal mouse (and, by extension, a human)?  What would such an event mean for health, aging, retirement, education, or tourism?  Would people postpone “bucket-list” activities, anticipating human immortality by 2040?  Perhaps not, but if you’re in the tourism business, this could become an interesting aspect of your future strategic plans.

More down to earth (or above it), consider all the advances we have made that are dependent on the aging GPS satellites – such as agriculture noted in the figure.  This technology pervades virtually every aspect of the modern world, and there is no shortage of concern about its long-term viability.  Despite that new satellites are slowly coming on line, one must certainly wonder if there will be a change in ownership somewhere in the future.  Just as we are beginning to see private space flight take to the skies, will there someday be a subscription GPS service?  Will SiriusXM begin looking at a private GPS network in 2030?  Will your business be ready if it does?

Focused predictions like these provide a great seed for your company’s strategy sessions.  Surely they don’t indicate immediate action, but if you’re already thinking about them years ahead of time, you may just have that much more advantage when things really do change.

Would you like to supersize your data? January 7, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Is your organization “data-driven”?  Do you scrutinize your company’s analytics to understand sales, customer behavior, product improvements, or innovation opportunities?  Do you stand firmly behind Peter Drucker’s counsel that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”?

Or are you confused by the term “big data” and wonder just how another database or piece of analytical software could possibly substitute for years of experience?

Either way, you may be right.

Naturally, business is governed by data.  At the simplest, we measure cash, inventory, sales volume, and numbers of customers.  Human intuition and assumptions (and especially memory) are often trumped by basic observations of hard numbers.  You can’t run a business based on feelings.

But on the other end of the spectrum, we have global organizations collecting unimaginable volumes of information, using it to understand the past and predict the future.  We live in a world of immense data gathering and storage capacity.  Whether we are, in fact, any smarter for it is open for debate.

IBM - Big Data Infographic

This HBR article highlights some of the specific ways data is used, and summarizes a few case studies of successful analysis, modeling, and application that led to increased efficiency.  However, the last two pages highlight what I believe are the most important aspects: the leadership challenges associated with using big data.  Another article paints a clearer picture of these challenges and quotes Thomas H. Davenport’s big questions when faced with a decision based on a data set beyond the bounds of human comprehension:

What data do you need?

Where does it come from?

What are the assumptions behind the model?

How is the model different from reality?

We’ve all heard the phrase Garbage In-Garbage Out.  This doesn’t apply just to the data, however.  It also includes the assumptions and structure of the model – the human construct is, by definition, only an approximation.  If we feed good data into a bad model, the results can be just as disastrous.

It’s tempting to buy into a system designed to boost your business, operations, or product development.  In fact, as the above figure shows, at least in the UK, big data focuses on customer-centric outcomes – in other words, things to improve the customer experience, attract buyers, or otherwise interact with the client base.  And for large companies that can improve on the margin over a large pool of customers, the law of averages says that big data may very well be a good enough approximation.

If, on the other hand, you run a small business with personal service to individuals, you may very well find yourself on the wrong side of the database.  As we know, humans are much more irrational than we give ourselves credit for.  While a large sample size can indeed yield beneficial predictions, individuals may behave quite differently than the model founded on untested assumptions.

In my consulting practice, we find quite often that companies have much more data gathering capability than they actually use.  Our challenge is to make the best use of the admittedly imperfect data, challenge preconceived assumptions, and then change a culture while at the same time reducing the dependency on inflexible methods.  Data is, then, merely a tool to achieve a needed change, but can in fact be as much a hindrance in the future once the change has taken hold.

This goes to show that the need for big data will be driven as much by the particular needs of your organization at a particular time as by the size of the business and its customer base.  Invest in big data carefully and in line with your corporate strategy rather than promises of improvements that may only be appropriate for a larger firm.

Are you giving away your intellectual property? January 2, 2013

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The recent Instagram debacle has more people talking about Intellectual Property rights.  For many corporations, IP is a very real concern, and a great source of corporate value.  Examples are various workshops, training materials, or design elements (whether patented, trademarked, copyrighted, or simply kept secret).

But what about personal branding?  Is there an advantage to an individual to share his or her intellectual property with a past, present, or future employer or client?  I think so.

One of the greatest threats to IP is that a competitor will use it to take some of the firm’s market share.  Another is that a client will perform work internally that it previously paid your firm to do.  While valid concerns for an organization, the individual is less exposed to these kinds of risks.  Unless you are an empire builder, you have little to lose by sharing knowledge, skills, and techniques with those around you – even clients.

Here is an example from my own work as a writer:

My value to a client does not come from my ability to strike plastic keys with my fingers.  That’s an easily outsourced task that with low intrinsic value.  Rather, I follow some process (which varies based on topic and audience) to synthesize various parts of the client’s business into a cohesive message and deliverable product.  I’m quite happy to explain in great detail how I organize the raw information and mold it into a finished piece.  Indeed, these are skills that virtually anyone can learn, and if the client was so inclined, could do for himself.

But that’s what distinguishes our separate business interests, goals, and differentiating value.  My engineering client wants to do engineering, not writing.  Surely he will benefit by understanding what it takes to write a good press release or technical article, and I’m all for teaching him (it makes the writer’s job that much easier).  But to keep the process ‘behind the curtain’ is to overthink the risk and ignore the additional value that comes from forming a partnership.  Instead of maintaining a black art, take some time to educate your clients and coworkers.

Knowledge is not a zero-sum game.

Review of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur December 11, 2012

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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Though Guy Kawasaki is a tech celebrity in his own right, he freely admits that there is always something to learn.  Even so, I was surprised that his previous book, What the Plus!, was his first self-published work.  Based on his experience, especially compared to those of his past conventionally-published books, he has written with co-author Shawn Welch APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book.

APE is structured as a how-to guide and reference book, and packed with a great deal of information.  You can read the Author section any time for inspiration, and the Publisher and Entrepreneur sections for a dose of realism if you decide to really get serious about going out on your own.  If you do, you’ll have it bookmarked at your right hand as you navigate the maze of editing, distribution, and ISBNs.

If you are already an aspiring author, you will have picked up much of the Author content in other places.  It’s always nice to have everything assembled together however, and APE does a good job of keeping your head out of the clouds.  Author covers the basics, including word processing tools, background of ebooks, and a great piece on the writing process.  It’s also some of the more timeless advice, as the act of sitting down to write hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.  What author hasn’t wondered why he’s continuing to abuse himself to produce his work of art?

Similarly, the third section, Entrepreneur, focuses on marketing your new book.  Normally, a publicist handles the promotion for the author, who must then attend the book signings and conferences.  When you’re on your own, marketing is one of the hardest parts of any business, unless you are in fact a marketer.  Social media is Guy Kawasaki’s milieu, so it’s no surprise that he spends most of this section emphasizing the where, how, and why of establishing your online presence using Google+, Facebook, and several lesser-known sites.  Again, much of the material can be scavenged from countless online sources, but Guy puts it all together and adds his personal insights about what works and what doesn’t.

This being a book about self-publishing, Publisher is the thickest of the three sections and digs in where many other sources go home.  Though this will come at the cost of somewhat out-of-date material if you pick up the book in a couple of years, the concepts will be valid and there is some great guidance for anyone not already a part of the publishing community.

Guy Kawasaki

Publisher has great tips on editing, formatting, and converting your book for the various distributors like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Google.  They all have different formatting and DRM options, and you will need to consider the differences between ebooks and printed versions.  Alternatively, you can sell ebooks directly to your customers, or use author-services companies, which provide copyediting, design, and distribution assistance.  There are also print-on-demand services that allow for small volumes of books that you can use for promotions, personalized copies, or just family and friends (to show that you really are a successful author).

Shawn Welch

If you’re considering writing a book – even if you go the conventional route – APE is a valuable reference.  It provides you with good insights into the publishing world and has some important cautions for any author.  Most of all, it’s inspiring to know that you can take on a challenge like this.  Despite the term “self-publishing”, it’s not a one-person endeavor.  APE shows you how to find the help that you’ll need to get your book out into the light of day.

You can find the book (ISBN 978-0-9885231-1-1) as a $9.99 ebook at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AGFU5VS or visit the website, http://apethebook.com/

Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes.

Are you driving your meetings into a ditch? December 2, 2012

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As a consultant, I help managers and front-line supervisors to achieve their myriad, sometimes conflicting, corporate goals.  Usually, in the mining environment, this relates to daily production rates – how many trucks, how much rock, how many tons processed and sold.  Despite mining’s many inherent challenges of geology, mechanical breakdowns, and logistics, seasoned professionals have seen most of them before.  One of the largest barriers to improvement isn’t any of these, rather, it is the staff itself – sometimes an individual, but often a corporate culture that has become bogged down in habit – a habit of bad meetings.

One of the first things we do on a site is examine meeting effectiveness.  We use the 5-P model, modified to fit our particular clients’ needs.  Our model requires that each meeting have:

  1. Purpose
  2. Payoff
  3. Participants
  4. Process
  5. Preparation

In short, we want clear outcomes (for the meeting itself and the longer term strategy), the right people, a clear agenda, and enough preparation that no one is receiving important information “cold turkey”.

But there is another, sneakier way that meetings can be hijacked.  This article illustrates another “P” – one that you DON’T want to have if you want to get things done.  PLOT stands for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.  It states that more time is spent discussing low-impact issues simply because they are more familiar and controllable.  Bigger, more important issues are given mere minutes due to complexity and a tendency to trust the ‘experts’, while low value ‘bike sheds’ consume hours.

Though intended as a spoof, indeed there is likely some behavioral science behind this (Dan Ariely, are you reading this?).  We know that people can act quite irrationally when emotionally involved with an issue.  And if there’s anything that meetings seem to be especially good at, it is the nurturing of irrationality.

Employee Ethics November 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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Taking a step back from our day-to-day work, it is always interesting to examine reasons and motivations for our actions. Any given industry comprises every background imaginable and represents cultures from around the globe. However, despite our differences, most professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, even project managers) are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Further, each individual is bound by their own personal morals as well as their employer’s particular culture. But what happens when an individual’s personal moral code conflicts with the firm’s?

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