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Bureaucracy as a Crutch March 14, 2014

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Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it. – Seth Godin

Seth’s post about bureaucracy strikes a chord with anyone who works in or around large organizations.  Especially as consultants, roles in which we are often presented with the worst parts of an organization, several months can be spent simply cutting through the red tape to make things happen.

Large organizations quite often have individuals who have a vision for where the group could be.  But as Seth points out, these people are often tempered by risk-averse policies and procedures put in place to avoid bad press, potential unhappy customers, or internal HR issues.  Nevertheless, large organizations manage to fall over themselves (I’m talking to you, airlines) when policies restrict customer-facing employees from helping the very people for whom they are there in the first place.

It takes a great deal of time, money, and human energy to change the course of large bureaucracies.  Indeed, while corporations seem to at least make feeble attempts now and gain, governments appear to be beyond help in many ways.  Those with the power to tax and spend a nation’s wealth seem more and more inclined to do so, with few within the government seeming to have any will at all to strive for greatness.  And if our collective vision for greatness must come from those who lead – at every level – we seem to be sorely lacking the will to do any better.

Corporations, especially those large enough to regularly find themselves in national or world news, at least seem to be cautiously interested in trying new things, projects for which outside consultants often provide a valuable objective viewpoint.  If you work for one of these organizations, it often is as “simple” as demonstrating some economic value of the innovation in question.  Of course, it then is necessary to present such a case to the right people – which presents its own challenges.  Unfortunately, the more policies and people your organization has, the more likely it will be to have some of those people gaming the system and bending the bureaucracy back on itself.  Loopholes and technicalities can be blessings or curses depending on which side of the issue one finds oneself.

Sun, Sand, and Glass September 18, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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What will be the next technological revolution?

It’s hard to identify particular divisions of human technology until well after the fact – the Bronze Age, the Industrial Revolution, the Information Age.  Until we can see what comes “next” we don’t have a boundary across which we can observe distinct advances.

Nonetheless, we’re always interested in what the ‘next big thing’ will be.  I’ve told my kids that they will be seeing new energy sources and manufacturing techniques – the former driven by our need to shift away from carbon- and combustion-based energy, and the latter taking advantage of recent developments in what is commonly called ‘3-D printing’.

Of course, we can’t know what we’ll have in 30 or 50 years’ time, but here is a taste of a technology that blends the two potential revolutions into one: solar-powered manufacturing using desert sand.  Short of using the ocean as a future fresh water source, this technology just may be one of the ways that developing countries can compete with the rest of the world.  Take a look at this video and see for yourself.  Also visit the Markus Kayser’s website for more info.

P.S. – this video is in desperate need of a soundtrack.  Whether or not you understand German, I found this one goes quite nicely.

Pressure to Act August 25, 2012

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I just finished the book Skyward by Admiral Richard Byrd.  Byrd was the first person to fly over the North Pole and the South Pole, in 1926 and 1929, respectively.

The book has several themes around aviation, exploration, and the future of commercial travel.  But it also has a theme that the author couldn’t have envisioned: it maps the pace of life at that time, which is all the more significant given our modern technology for communication and planning.

In Byrd’s day, radio communication and telegrams were common, but long distance telephone calls were a special event.  By far, letters and newspapers were the primary means of communicating to the masses and between individuals.  How did major undertakings like polar expeditions get off the ground?

Byrd admits directly that the plans were laid years before in his own mind, mapped, studied, and validated with others familiar with the risks.  It was his own careful planning and even invention of special navigation instruments that allowed the trips to occur at the time they did.

Contrast this with the expectation of speed that comes with instant messages, texts, emails, and video chats.  Have we lost our awareness of the need for “deep thinking” and contemplation that builds memories and connections?  Have we forgotten that weighty decisions and risky undertakings should at least be contemplated over a good night’s sleep?

The pressure to act is strong.  We are often quick to take on a challenge or a task without contemplation of risks or workloads.  But it is this contemplation that allows for both creative solutions and daring explorations.

Don’t forget to sleep on it.

Commonality March 23, 2010

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One of the best ways to spark innovation or creativity is to look for parallels in other industries.  Doing so, it doesn’t take long to see that seemingly disparate fields share more than meets the eye.  Last month’s Insider’s View column touched on this topic as related to safety cultures in heavy industries like mining and construction.  But it goes much deeper than that.

Most organizations must deal with difficult changes.  “Change managers” are those who have effectively harnessed the business, psychological, and sociological aspects to bring about real, lasting behavioral adjustments.  In all cases, true effectiveness comes from finding personal motivation (or negative consequences) to gain support and buy-in.

What about when that change manager (who may simply be a line manager or other supervisor) moves on to other things?  Will the process remain in place?  If done properly, it is possible to implement systems that encourage innovation and ideas – and more importantly, provide an outlet for them within the organization.

This is the common thread among virtually all industries.  As groups of individuals, different organizations still must reflect the norms and behaviors present in the work force.  When it is necessary to change them, it doesn’t matter if you are a small, boutique firm or a multinational oil company.  Change isn’t easy, but it can be very powerful.  Making positive use of this power is the real goal.

Why Are You Innovating? February 19, 2010

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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So many names have been suggested for the last decade; the Digital Decade, Hysteria Decade, the Aughts, the Naughts, the Double-0’s. It could just as well be called the Innovation Decade — not because of any particular real innovations, but because that’s what we all thought (and continue to think) we should be doing, even if (more…)

Engineering Management Project Social Media Best Practices January 28, 2010

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How’s that for a title?

For some strange reason, the term “best practices” has been skulking around my little piece of the interweb lately.  Sure, they’ve been around for a while, but what do they really mean?

Generally, best practices refer to those tried-and-true processes and procedures that will most economically help you reach some end result.  It might be a particular way to build a component, reach a customer, or hire a new employee.  In any case, the point is that if you seek out and apply these best practices, at best you are merely implementing what your competitors have already proven (perhaps years ago).

Two posts in particular dealt with the topic today: here and here.  But the one that really caught my attention was this one from a month ago.

As an engineer, I depend on “best practices” on a regular basis.  Sometimes, there really is one best way to manage storm water or build a sewer system.  But from a strategic and innovation standpoint, best practices are all wet.  You can’t beat your competitors at their own game by showing up late and borrowing their competencies.  It’s necessary to move beyond and develop your own unique approach if you want to avoid being a commodity.

“The first time you do something, it’s science.  The second time, it’s engineering.  The third time, you’re a technician.” — Clifford Stoll

Golden Hour November 30, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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It has been, to say the least, an interesting year.  In retrospect, it should have come as little surprise that the last two columns dealing with motivation and stress struck such a chord with several readers. The recession has affected us all in various ways, from dropped projects to layoffs to outright business closures. As amazing as it may seem, there are still organizations that continue to grow and thrive in this environment — not because of luck, but because of careful, measured moves in the right directions over a long period of time. If yours is not one of them, I suspect you know of examples among your competitors, and it is difficult to avoid envy and admit that someone else has something that you don’t. (more…)

…But Not Too Boring November 18, 2009

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A while back, I wrote a short response to an article about leadership – one that went out on a limb to say that “boring” leaders may be more successful than the high-profile, charismatic types that we might otherwise envision as fitting that role.

More recently, however, Seth Godin wrote, “As an organization grows and succeeds, it sows the seeds of its own demise by getting boring.” So, what’s going on here?  How is it that “successful” leaders – those with “attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours” – appear to be heading down exactly the wrong path? (more…)

Your Own Cooking September 6, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Interesting times are afoot in the land development industry, providing several opportunities for exploring alternatives to the traditional client-consultant relationship. Firms may be facing big receivables as clients struggle to pay the more pressing bills, leaving engineers holding the bag. The situation may even reach a point at which the owner of an important project offers the firm an “opportunity” to accept a stake in the property and substitute equity for cash. This arrangement can clearly benefit the owner, since there may be much less cash paid out and the ownership risk is spread out just a bit more. But, what about for the engineer? Is this a losing proposition or a legitimate business arrangement? (more…)

Marketing Note April 21, 2009

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I’m always interested in creative advertising (or innovative, as the case may be). We often feel bombarded by marketing, and indeed it can rapidly reach annoying levels. That makes it all the more fun when an advertisement manages to make a connection through the noise. I saw one this morning that did just that. (more…)