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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.

Strategy and Tactics November 30, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Business strategy guides an organization toward common goals.  It is a vital organ throughout the life of the business, though no two are the same.  However, strategy says little about day to day activities – the tactics of running an operation in order to meet the strategic goals.

The reason for this is quite simple: long-term strategy will never be able to predict the real-time conditions in which decisions must be made.  Therefore, the organization’s management must be able to internalize the strategy such that a decision that goes against it will feel downright uncomfortable.

On the other hand, they cannot expect that every decision will have a firm basis in a strategy document.  There is a lot of gray area between vision and execution.

One of the best definitions of vision I’ve heard is this:

“A vision presents a clear goal, but not the path to get there.”

It’s like a mountain on the horizon.  You follow the general direction, even when the path is not straight and there are obstacles in the way.  When you pause to get your bearings, the goal is still there.  Adjustments and deviations from the shortest path are a part of the journey.

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

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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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

The Problem With Vision December 15, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Make no mistake – vision is necessary.  It is critical to developing a strategic approach to individual projects or overall business practices.  Unfortunately, many managers take the concept just far enough to feel powerless when visions do not turn into reality.  The frustration is understandable, and even palpable when a firm’s livelihood is on the line.

The problem with vision is that big picture goals do not in and of themselves comprise measurable or distinctly prioritized goals.  The problem with vision is that once you realize that the vision is not working out, it’s too late to change course.

In order to convert vision to execution, it is absolutely necessary to break the big picture into manageable, short-term goals.

Getting Through the Groupthink October 22, 2009

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“Groupthink”, or the vicious circle caused by a collection of like-minded individuals, has been around as long as there have been two sides to a story.  Apart from the fact that an organization can end up “breathing its own exhaust”, this phenomenon can affect even the simplest of decisions.

Many modern organizations manage by consensus, whereby the responsibility of the final decision rests with several people – which usually means that no one is responsible.  Such decision are often watered down and conservative – fine if your organization has the luxuries of time and money.  But when critical decisions must be made, there is precious little time for yes-men and conservatism.

While it may be difficult to break the group from its habit of “consensual sects”, it is possible to break the cycle of indecision that results.  Often, without a structured brainstorming session or some ground rules for developing ideas, such groups circle around and around (for hours) various pros and cons of a very limited range of alternatives – usually one or two.

Contrast this with a well-facilitated brainstorming in which ideas are gathered without regard for pros, cons, benefits, or value.  The goal is to develop alternatives, not rule them out – at least initially.  Simply having some concrete words written out can bring greater structure to the debate.  Sometimes, these decision-makers simply don’t know what they are looking for, but know it when the see it.

Next time your firm is struggling to find solutions to intractable problems, consider having someone facilitate a session, and see if some new ideas appear out of thin air.

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…)

Expect Success June 22, 2009

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses.
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Congratulations are certainly in order for any business still surviving—if not thriving—now that some industry sectors have begun to level off and become less volatile. The government’s largesse doesn’t hurt either. Apparent success notwithstanding, most of the firms that I have spoken with recently are still “seeing how the next few months work out.” Unfortunately, this is counter to good business practices. In fact, those firms that have managed to make it this far must be doing something right, even if some simply do not know what it is. The best firms, however, have actively implemented decisions that are most likely to foster positive outcomes. Contrary to those that struggled through the last year, who wish they would have been better prepared for the downturn, the best managers are now making preparations to recover. Are you in this group? (more…)

It is Us May 19, 2009

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Can you imagine a time in which your predictions about the future were spot on?  What about completely off?  What if every prediction you made in the last six months about the next six was totally wrong?  Is your firm prepared to deal with the consequences?  How closely are you watching the outside world while keeping the firm going day to day?

SWOT analysis (or any similarly structured evaluation) can yield some surprising insights, especially when performed with an actively brainstorming group.  Objectivity is important, but if your firm struggles with strategic planning, groupthink may be an acceptable initial price to pay to gain some first-step ideas.  As I mentioned before, however, the external “threats” can often be a hard item to objectively evaluate. (more…)

Corporate Strategy May 10, 2009

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There are numerous acronyms in the business world that represent various fads of productivity enhancement, corporate communication, and financial strategy. Many of us have probably learned about, implemented, or been affected by things such as ISO, TQM, QMS, or 6-Sigma. Most of these programs represent significant investments in time and human resources to maintain, which may be an impediment to many small engineering firms. However, one technique in particular can be a valuable addition to the corporate strategy: SWOT analysis. (more…)